Semele and Persephone

With Anthesteria amd the celebration of the returning spring as flowers bloom and kid goats are born, there is a general awe towards Dionysos who, as he ever returns from the underworld, represents a spirit of resurrection and the immortality of the soul. He is the slain bull who goes as a seed into the earth to travel the next world and be reborn. He doesn’t die for our sins, and yet his myth is a mystic program for the soul. And it all begins with Semele and Persephone.

We know that the first Dionysos, Zagreus, was born of Persephone and Zeus who came to her in his chthonic form of a serpent and impregnated the goddess without her mother’s knowledge. The serpent form of Zeus is one that is very particular, especially within domestic worship since we call the god who protects the stores of grain and other foods by the name Zeus Ktesios and place an emblem in representation of him in the form of a serpent in on his jar. Therefore we see a form of Zeus which regulates production, which preserves the grains and fruits of the earth, and is associated with the idea of harvest in general which stocks the warehouses. Thus Zeus Ktesios is honored in the household as a god who preserves the bounty of the harvest for the future. The agathos daimon (also depicted as a serpent) has often been connected with Zeus imagery for similar reasons as a god who is bring goodness to the family. So you have a serpetine Zeus, associated with abundance, who fertilized the Kore. She is associated with the flowers of the growing season, but flowers that must be fertilized and drop their lovely petals in order to bear fruits. It is for the purpose of production that we see this allegory as we honor her with spring flowers but also when grains to ripen. Therefore we can see Zagreus as a manifestation of the divine fruit born of the earth…a fruit which is cut up and consumed and then dispersed by ash as the Titans who murdered and ate Zagreus were reduced to ash themselves with the thunderbolt of Zeus.

Clement of Alexandria, in his anti-hellenismos rhetoric such as it is, speaks briefly of the mystic symbolism of those items which the titans used to lure Zagreus to his death. Items which are important (though he mocked them) for a very specific reason. Consider that humanity arose from the mud mixed with those ashes of the titans, and therefore from those ashes the divine spark was given to humanity, would you not rever the item which caused the harvest? It is only be the harvest, the sacrifice of Zagreus, that we attribute the divine spark within humanity, the immortality of the human soul. Therefore these symbols could aptly be a way to rever the divine within us from Zagreus, but also be a symbol to the way to progress foreward…as all these seperate symbols combined together could equate to the divine state. Clement of Alexandria speaks of the looking glass for instance…wouldn’t the looking glass be representative of reflection? I recently did a drawing of Mnemosyne and in constructing it I came up with the idea to use a mirror…because memory is part of the art of reflection. Pythagoras too recommended for his students to reflect every night before bed so as to encourage the memory of the soul. Even Aphrodite, the mother of harmony who obsolves conflict, is pictured with a looking glass. Certainly not from any case of vanity but a greater meaning that can be associated with the mirror of Zagreus….”I see myself as I am, I see all that I am and all the spiritual beauty I possess, I see all that I have been in the past and will be in the future, I see myself and know I am divine.” All of these peices make a whole even as Zagreus was divided into many. Therefore the mystery of Zagreus is the one which is the birth and transformation of the soul.

But this cannot be completed with Zagreus alone, Zagreus is divided, but we need the unification of the parts. So born was Dionysos to Semele, born of a mortal mother, the princess of Thebes, daughter of the hero Cadmus and Aphrodite’s daughter Harmonia/Harmony. Semele, in her love affair with Zeus, was given the heart of Dionysos, the one part of Zagreus was kept by the gods. And so the princess took Dionysos into herself. This seems to me to have some meaning in light of the practice in Athens for the Anthesteria in which the queen was wedded to Dionysos, and so is joining with the god and taking him into her, perhaps to symbolically by fertilized by the spirit of the god and birth bounty and the divine blessings of the god for the city-state I could guess. In this fashion she would be aligning herself with Semele. I know this sounds a bit strange, and even stranger in some of the mystic mirrors of the Etruscans in which Dionysos (Fulfuns) appears to be embracing his mother intimately with Apollon (Apulu) looking on with a flute player…possibly representative of Pan…just behind him.

Of course the story follows that Hera tricked Semele into asking Zeus for a boon, and so that when he agreed to give her anything that she desired, her wish to see Zeus in his true form caused her to combust leaving behind the premature Dionysos which Hermes rescued from the ashes of his mother and brought to Zeus so that Zeus could sew the infant into his thigh (a very strong procreative symbolism there associating Dionysos with the sexual center of Zeus!). Dionysos was thus born a third time, directly from Zeus this time and set about his youth and adventures being raised in the mortal world and his desire to join the gods (via the instruction of Apollon who was, with his company of Muses, the first to recognize the god. Eventually Dionysos departs to the next world to gather his mother that she may be among the company of the gods. This departure is represented by the tearing apart of the bull and the ivy by the Thyiades who consume it. Essentially Dionysos is sacrificed by the women of his retinue and becomes a part of them, from their consumption of him. In such way he is coming into contact symbolically again with the substance within humanity even as he moves to the next world. Aristophanes’ in his play Frogs puts an amusing spin on the whole adventure which leaves out the death of the god and engages in amusing conversations with the souls of the deceased that commulate in a test of knowledge between those much lauded in the next world…giving a nodd to the idea that the knowledge of the soul that it has accumulated places it in a higher level in the next world. This makes Frogs an entertaining and also relevant comedy for this season, a seaon which is celebrated coincidentally with comedies….as comedies address a different venue of the mortal existance than the tradgedies do as the former are arranged in a celebration of life. In any case Dionysos and Semele do not emerge together. No something else happens. First Dionysos returns, he is the infant in the Liknen basket who is born in a cave on Parnassus.

Paranassus is quite a fascinating place. It is not only the mountain which overhangs Delphi, the navel of the world, but it is also the place where the remains of Zagreus were buried by Apollon. And it is from this mountain in which the bones of the earth (the stones…perhaps also symbolically merging with the bones of Zagreus who is buried there) were thrown to create new people after the Flood. Therefore Parnassus has a strong association with death and resurrection just by these means. It is no wonder then that in the cave of Pan, high in the mountains, that the Thyiades, in midwinter, would greet the return of the infant Dionysos.

Semele, alternatively, comes with the spring. In such respect she is aligned directly with the Kore. There is an image of the return of Semele which is quite profound. A vase painting which showns a mound. To one side is Apollon (with Pan beside him), and to the other side of the mound is Dionysos. All three gods are gazing down into the ground. There Semele is rising with flowers and all the emblems of spring with her. She is likened to the Kore who is ascending to the divine company. And thus Semele is the as a goddess of spring flowers herself. I had seen, yesterday, a lovely statue of Dionysos with a small figure of a woman that I had assumed was Semele as it appeared she has a small fire in her hand, but later found out has been called by academics Spes (the representation of Hope) carrying a lily. I am not entirely sure what they base the labeling of the figure as Spes off of, but the lily does not distract me from an identification with Semele as a goddess who returns in the spring. And her return is characterized by her divine name Thyone who is described as the fiery mother of Dionysos and is recognized as representative of the unification between Dionysos and the celebrant in which they partake frenzy as they are filled with the divine essence of the god. Which again connects back to the spirit of Anthesteria as we see Dionysos joining with the queen during this ritual, the very act of which is governed by Thyone. I would hazzard to suggest that it is in this fashion, this interaction of Dionysos, the thrice born god that helps the human soul slowly gather up the peices, the symbols of Zagreus by which the god was distracted by the titans, and bring them unity. Dionysos in this fashion is the liberator of men because he rejoins men to the gods, that which is represented by the communion with his wine.

So hail Dionysos on this Anthesteria!

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8 thoughts on “Semele and Persephone

  1. Curiously, Harmonia was the daughter of Ares and very much an armed warrior goddess. Offended, Ares transformed Harmonia and Kadmos into dragons, and, perhaps later spared them to permit them to dwell forever in the Elysian fields. Semele had an ill-omened birth, the child of a mortal and a goddess, and she and her parents had a hard time of it. She’s not a particularly pacific person in her origins and ends violently.

    I don’t see the sexual symbolism involved in Zeus’ painfully stitching the Dionysios embryo into his thigh. That is the longest, strongest bone in the body and wrapped in the most massive musculature. I think that’s symbolic of something else than fertility. Similarly, Athena is born, quite painfully, from his skull. Zeus in both cases is giving birth in real pain. Zagreus-Dionysios-his mother, lovers and children suffer, too. Ariadne, she of very confused tales, has a horrid end in some of them, transformed into stone.

    The gods mostly have an abundance of sexual-fertile imagery, but the myths dwell very heavily on suffering and the sources of it. Wine, as often as not, is the source or the instrument of violence, suffering, lunacy and deceit. It’s not communion in the usual sense.

    • Thanks William for providing some additional information I had not known in regards to Harmonia and Semele. I do recall reading that Cadmus and Harmonia were turned into serpents/dragons but in the context I had read it (I believe it was either Apollodorus’ Library or Diodoros Siculus) inferred that after their banishment and raising another kingdom they were afterwards transformed into dragons and in this form went to the Elysian feilds.

      As for Zeus’s thigh..I am not think literally of the thigh bones but rather the position of the interior part of the thigh to the genitals and reproductive center. However I can see the perspective you are offering here too. Likewise I think that there is something more in regards to Athena being born from his mind…especially if the mind embodies the center of reason.
      There is something to be said though for the suffering angle, and suffering is very much a part of life and death imagery often associated too with procreation..so it doesn’t seem to exist seperate from each other. Suffering and life exist hand in hand, and is necessary for our mortal lives.

      And such associations with violence and suffering with wine seems to spring from its immoderate use in the idea that humans are not usually equipped to take it in in its raw form without painful consequence…therefore calling for a mixing of wine to dilute it, whereas madness was an understood part of divine contact so I don’t find this unusual for an association at all.

      thanks for your input William!

  2. A very erudite post 😀 So if I understand correctly, when Semele returns from the Underworld she is “transformed” so to speak in the Goddess Thyone, who is the Goddess of the frenzied possession and ecstatic union between Dionysos and his worshippers?

    • Yep that is it in a nutshell. Well we know she is going to return divine, since Dionysos went to the underworld to retrieve her and bring her to the company of the gods…so it is a matter of fact she is going to be deified. And then we see sources addresses her, as the deified mother of Dionysos, as Thyone.

      I am very glad you liked the post Apollodorosh, and thank you so very much for reblogging it! That is a first for me 🙂

      • Well, it did learn me lot, so I thought I’d reblog so your post reaches more people, and more people can learn from it ^_^ You’re welcome ;D

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