Ovid's Metamorphoses: Semele

This story is also about the infidelity of Zeus: this time Juno is outraged that Jupiter (also called Jove by the Romans) has had an affair with the woman Semele, daughter of Cadmus, who is now pregnant with Jupiter's child. The child who will be born, although not in the usual way, is the god Dionysus, called Bacchus by the Romans.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).

Juno angry about Semele

Juno was grieved by the fact that Semele was pregnant, with the seed of mighty Jove. Swallowing words of reproach, she said ‘What, in truth, have I gained from frequent reproaches? I must attack her. If I am rightly to be called most powerful Juno, if it is right for me to hold the jewelled sceptre in my hand, if I am queen, and sister and wife of Jove, sister at least, then it is her I must destroy. Yet I think she is content with her secret, and the injury to my marriage will be brief. But she has conceived – and that damages me – and makes her crime visible in her swollen belly, and wants, what I have barely achieved, to be confirmed as the mother of Jupiter’s child, so great is her faith in her beauty. I will render that faith hollow. I am not Saturnia if she does not plunge into the Stygian waters, overwhelmed by Jove himself.’

Semele is consumed by Jupiter’s fire.

At this she rose from her seat and cloaked in a dark cloud she came to Semele’s threshold. But before she removed the cloud she disguised herself as an old woman, ageing her hair, ploughing her skin with wrinkles, and walking with bowed legs and tottering steps. She made her voice sound old and was herself BeroĆ«, Semele’s Epidaurian nurse.

So, when they came to Jupiter’s name, in the midst of their lengthy gossiping, she sighed, and said, ‘I hope, for your sake, that it really is Jupiter, but I am suspicious of all that sort of thing. Many men have entered the bedrooms of chaste women in the name of the gods. It’s not good enough for him merely to be Jove: he must give a proof of his love if it truly is him. Beg him to assume all his powers before he embraces you, and be just as glorious as when Juno welcomes him on high.’

With such words Juno gulled the unsuspecting daughter of Cadmus. Semele asked Jupiter for an unspecified gift.

‘Choose!’ said the god. ‘Nothing will be refused, and, so that you may believe it more firmly, I swear it by the Stygian torrent, that is the divine conscience, the fear, and god, of all the gods.’

Pleased by her misfortune, too successful, and doomed to be undone by her lover’s indulgence, Semele said, ‘As Saturnia is used to your embrace, when you enter into the pact of Venus, give yourself to me!’

The god would have stopped her lips as she spoke: but her voice had already rushed into the air. He groans, since she cannot un-wish it or he un-swear it.

So, most sorrowfully, he climbs the heights of heaven, and, with a look, gathered the trailing clouds, then added their vapours to lightning mixed with storm-winds, and thunder and fateful lightning bolts. Still, he tries to reduce his power in whatever way he can, and does not arm himself with that lightning with which he deposed hundred-handed Typhoeus: it is too savage in his grasp. There is a lighter dart to which the Cyclops’s hands gave a less violent fire, a lesser anger. The gods call these his secondary weapons. Taking these he enters Agenor’s house.

But still Semele’s mortal body could not endure the storm, and she was consumed by the fire of her nuptial gift.

The infant Bacchus, still unfinished, is torn from the mother’s womb, and (if it can be believed) is sewn into his father’s thigh to complete his full term. Ino, his mother’s sister reared him secretly, in infancy, and then he was given to the nymphs of Mount Nysa who hid him in their cave and fed him on milk.

Next: Echo

(600 words)

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