Semele in Olympus, by way of an Introduction to The Love Project, a modular drama for indeterminate forces, taking “as long as possible”
Even to the height of mighty Olympus (or Όλυμπος), reports of the exceptional beauty of the child had reached. The king of all the gods, who has his throne upon that mountain, Zeus (or Ζεύς), heard them. He watched and waited.The child’s mother, Harmonia (or Αρμονία), was born of the unlikely union between love and war, Aphrodite (or Ἀφροδίτη) and Ares (or Ἄρης), making her uncles, on her mother’s side, fear and panic, Deimos (or Δεῖμος) and Phobos ( or Φόβος). Her father, the hero Cadmus (or Κάδμος), was founder of the city of Thebes; he’d brought his immortal bride, Harmonia, to the city, where she’d given him three daughters, Ino, Agave, Autonoë, and a son, Polydoros, before the fourth daughter, whom it pleased Zeus to look on from afar, who was called Semele (or Σεμέλη).
The child flourished in the well-appointed city of Thebes, a city happy to have as wise and just a sovereign as Semele’s father, Cadmus. Her mother bestowed on her an harmonious disposition, to add to the almost-divine radiance of her limbs and features, a beauty of mind or soul, and balance in all her inward and outward attributes and virtues. So she grew to womanhood; to an immortal eye, this happened in an instant.
When she was ready enough, Zeus one night alighted on the flat roof of the palace. He swung himself down into her bedchamber, silencing the young woman’s nurse, Beroe, who still slept in her room, with a whiff of sevoflurane, a drug the god had stolen from his wife, Hera; since Hera kept a veritable pharmacy of ethers and barbiturates, haloalkanes and opioids.
From the awesome majesty of his divine body, Zeus changed to mortal form, wherein he was yet a paragon of physical strength and male beauty. Approaching her bed and for the first time within arm’s reach of Semele, Zeus comprehended the distance by which her pulchritude outstripped her years and knew that it was this gift of the gods, even as an infant swaddled in the lap of her nurse, Beroe, had drawn his attention to her.
But Semele was born mortal and for her Zeus had prepared and brought with him a draft made from pieces of the heart of Zagreus, his son, whom he had off his daughter, Persephone, when he went to her and lay with her in the shape of a serpent. His son’s heart had been all that was left to Zeus after the Titans, acting on the orders of his wife, Hera, found Zagreus in the care of the dancing Curetes (or Κορύβαντες) and pulled him to bits and devoured him, half raw, half cooked.
Zeus had had a son to rule Olympus after him, had lost him to Hera’s jealousy, and had contrived a plan to bring him back. He would feed Semele the pieces of the heart, which, when incorporated into her body, although she was human and would be a mortal mother, would mingle with Zeus’s seed when he impregnated her, to give forth a god. Semele, the ruler of all the gods thus reasoned, would bear him his son, named Zagreus, anew.
Semele woke up to utter darkness and felt not seeing the presence of the god in her room, before she heard him. Artemis (or Ἄρτεμις), the eternal virgin, another of Zeus’s daughters, over whom he had exercised his influence, had in turn used hers, so that she need not bear witness to her father sleeping with the mortal, Semele, to steal the moon’s light away, while she hunted in other quarters.
Zeus then spoke to Semele and she immediately knew him, for his voice was deep and rolled like thunder, pressing her down onto the bed, making her whole body quake. He told her to drink the draft and standing beside her bed even brought it to her lips and held her shoulders so that the warmth of the heart of Zagreus going down her throat into her belly was nothing compared to that passing through his arm and from the nearness of his chest to her: she felt his breath on her face and smelt in it the charge in the air that precedes a summer storm.
Semele emptied the cup down to the final drop without a thought as to what it might have been, too distracted was she, excited by the bedside manner of the king of all the gods. But as soon as she was finished, Zeus lay down with her on the bed and saying not one word further, he had intercourse with her.
The next morning, Semele was ashamed: even if it was a god, even if it was that god, how could she prove it? and, what had she done? She prevailed on her nurse, Beroe, who had awoken none the wiser, to burn her sheets and to destroy any evidence she might find of a man having been there.
In this way, neither her father, Cadmus, nor mother, Harmonia, found out a thing. The very absence of the moon, on that occasion and on all subsequent visits by the god, they rationalised away and thought no more of than it were a season of cloudy nights and stormy presages, which never seemed to amount to the promised thunderstorm and did not achieve that relief, which is availed when the weather finally breaks.
For Semele, also, the nightly visits brought no relief: through the days she couldn’t wait for her lover’s touch and by night all she yearned for besides his touch was the light to see him by, to look into his eyes, and the sound of his voice, because he never again spoke to her as he did the first time, asking her to drink the heart-seeds of his son.
Semele gradually lost confidence that the god loved her, because he gave her none that he did; and without his reassurance, she began to suppose that he might, in fact, despise her: to all her requests to look on him, to hear him speak a single word, whether of love or despite, he remained dumb. He made love to her silently and, as she had from the first taken care that their love-making stayed secret, secretly.
The darkness, the silence and the secrecy took their toll on Semele. That she had fallen pregnant and that her efforts at secrecy could no longer claim to be rewarded, the secret being out, did not at all lessen or mitigate but rather increased the weight and strain under which the god’s love placed her. Hera, meanwhile, on high Olympus, heard and soon saw for herself, in Semele’s burgeoning belly, the extent of her husband’s betrayal.
One morning, disguised as Beroe, her nurse, Hera appeared to Semele and while the latter wept with frustration at being so used by the god, Zeus, she told her exactly what she wanted to hear. She consoled her by encouraging her indignation at her lover’s offhand treatment and persuading her she ought by rights to demand Zeus come to her, not like a thief, silently stealing in under cover of darkness, but in all the splendour and majesty with which he visited his wife.
“Ask Zeus to come to you as he comes to Hera, so you may know what pleasure it is to sleep with a god.”
To which end, Hera, as Beroe, gave Semele to know an oath even a god would not dare break, that by the river Styx (or Στυξ) Zeus should swear to grant whatever she asked of him.
The same night, rather than, as she was wont to do, asking for a light to see his eyes, a word to know his heart, Semele put aside all caution and presented her case: since Zeus had not answered her constant badgering or met any of her demands, she from henceforth promised never again to question his silence or the need for darkness, if he would, instead of granting all, fulfil but a single one of her desires.
Semele refused to let him near her till he spoke. Unwilling to force the issue with a mortal woman bearing his divine progeny, Zeus gave his assent. When they’d made love, Semele had him swear the oath by the river Styx and after he’d sworn it, she told him her one and only desire, which he was now bound to serve: that Zeus come to her in all his power and glory that she may know what pleasure it is to sleep with a god.
Regardful of the consequences, since for a god to lose his immortality is of greater consequence that for a mortal to lose her life, Zeus could not break his oath, could not resist Semele’s demand and did not prevaricate longer than the intervening day. Although he was reluctant, the following night he came to her as a god.
She lay bathed in moonlight waiting for him on her bed, until the refulgence of his awesome and immortal form cast that pale fire in the shade, and Semele felt the divine heat of Zeus, king of the gods.
The heat burnt Semele and the storm presaged in a season of cloudy nights broke with lightning and thunderbolts on her bed.
The splendour and majesty of Zeus consumed Semele and in love, by love was she immolated; and not silently, neither secretly, nor in darkness, as Semele burst out screaming and from her body came the immortal infant she’d carried for six long months.
Zeus wrested the baby from the flames, from the mother and from the thunder, and, slicing open his thigh in a long and deep wound, he placed it there, sewing the skin shut and enclosing it in this makeshift womb.
Three months later, the motherless child was born a second time; he was called Dionysus (or Διόνυσος), the twice-born, and the only god of the pantheon who, like Christ, dies.
This is not, however, the end of Semele’s story. Dionysus was given to Semele’s sister Ino and her husband, Althamus, to raise; and then, when Hera wreaked her terrible vengeance on these two foster parents as well, to the nymphs of Nysa.
Eventually, the child born by Semele and Zeus returned to Thebes; and, where “the chamber of Semele, still breathing sparks, was shaded by self-growing bunches of green leaves, which intoxicated the place with sweet odours,” Dionysus, the god, founded his rights.
As an adult, the divine Dionysus went looking for his mortal mother, Semele. He descended to Hades (or Ἅιδης) and retrieved her, and redeemed her, and himself, in the eyes of both Hera and of Zeus. Thus, in apotheosis, was Semele elevated to Olympus where she was made a goddess, Thyone; to whom Zeus addressed himself, saying,
“You have conceived a son who will make mortals forget their troubles.”
For in the mysteries of Dionysus are found the two linked and unequal intoxications, of duplicity, disguise and theatre, in which mortals, like the god himself, are born and die twice, and, of wine, in which they are said to forget, but, by this lesser truth, are led to remember a greater, which is freedom (or ελευθερία). The drunkenness of the latter leads inevitably to the former’s stage of all souls, of gods and men and fools; so mortals forgetting of their troubles may as well forget their mortality, and act out of, as much as in, character.
Thyone, then, the goddess, forever presides over the freedom of Dionysus (or Eleuthyrios), over the bacchanalia and mysteries, and over the Dionysian frenzies, which ensue as the rights of her son, the god.