As the girls grew older, everyone remarked on their outstanding beauty. Life seemed perfect for these lovely princesses, until the day Semele fell in love with a tall, handsome stranger.
Caught up in her new romance, Semele ignored the fact that she did not know much about her lover. She kept him a secret from her family and friends, and although her sisters noticed a new radiance about Semele, none suspected her frequent absences.
Semele had no idea that her secret lover was actually Zeus, the king of the gods, who was visiting her in the form of a mortal man. Zeus was very much in love with the beautiful, quiet, and somewhat solitary princess, but he could not visit her in his true god-like state.
If he were to reveal his true self, Semele would die, since no human could look on an immortal in his or her true form without being consumed by the immortal’s power. Therefore, when a god wished to show himself to a mortal, he needed to cloak his glory. However, after Semele and Zeus had continued their love affair for some time, Zeus finally decided to reveal his true identity to Semele. Although she was shocked, the princess believed her lover.
Even though Zeus was in love with Semele, he was, in fact, already married to Hera, the queen of the gods. When she learned of her husband’s affair with Semele, Hera became enraged with jealousy.
In fact, Zeus often pursued other women, both mortal and immortal, and although she was used to her husband’s affairs, Hera still always reacted with the same intensity. She often took out her revenge on her husband’s various accomplices.
This time, Hera, disguised as a servant, paid a visit to Semele’s bedchamber. With mock sympathy, Hera told the girl that she knew all about the secret romance. Somehow she convinced the princess that it would be wise for her to behold her lover in his true form.
Semele had just discovered that she was pregnant, and although she trusted her lover, she now became persuaded to be certain about the identity of her unborn child’s father.
So Semele sent the servant out of the room and awaited the arrival of her lover. When Zeus entered the room through a door from the garden, Semele jumped up and threw her arms around his neck.
"My love," she said, "my servant knows all about us. We must be very careful or my father will discover our affair! But this is not my only news. Darling, I am going to have a child. Swear to me that you will grant me the favor I am about to ask you."
Zeus was surprised at the princess's ardent tone of voice, but because he was so much in love with her, he agreed and said, "I swear on the River Styx in Hades that I will do whatever you ask of me."
Semele took her lover's hand and led him into the room. Sitting down, she begged to see him in his true form. Zeus was caught off-guard and did not know what to do about this new dilemma. He knew that Semele would not be able to look at him without dying, and he did not want to hurt her.
But the god had also made an unbreakable promise, for any promise sworn on the River Styx must be fulfilled, and now he could not refuse her request. Though Zeus tried to explain the consequences to Semele, the princess insisted that, although she truly loved him, she still needed proof of his identity.
Therefore, reluctantly, Zeus kept his word. As he began to transform, the room filled with light, and flames shot out from his immortal body. Semele screamed as the sight of her lover burned into her eyes. Then, consumed by the fire of Zeus’s immortality, her own body was engulfed in flames.
Just before she died, Zeus snatched Semele's unborn baby from her womb. Quickly, he sewed the baby into his thigh to keep it safe from harm. Then Zeus wept for his love, and he left the Theban palace in the same secret manner by which he had come.
When nine months had fully passed, Semele's child was born out of Zeus's thigh. The king of the gods named his son Dionysus, and he asked some nymphs to raise the baby and keep him a safe distance away from Queen Hera who was still angry at Zeus for his affair with Semele.
Many years later, after Dionysus had grown up, he bade a tearful farewell to the nymphs who had mothered him and set off to travel the world, slowly making his way toward Thebes. He was a handsome young man with long flowing hair that fell in waves about his shoulders.
He wore clothes made out of the skins of animals, and often he looked like he would be more comfortable in the wilds of the forest than in the cities and towns that he visited. As the young god wandered, he showed the Greeks how to grow grapes and how to use the grapes to make wine.
He was often followed and worshipped by groups of wild-looking women called Bacchae or bacchantes. These women also wore clothes made from the skins of animals, and they usually had flowers or leaves scattered in their hair. Often the bacchantes would sing and dance like untamed animals in their rituals of worship, and they caused quite an uproar wherever they visited.
After many years of travel, Dionysus finally arrived in his mother's hometown, and he was shocked at the poor reception he received. The people of Thebes did not believe that Dionysus was a god, nor did they believe he was Semele's lost son. Dionysus also learned that his mother's memory had been dishonored by the people of Thebes.
The Thebans considered Semele to have been a disrespectful daughter, they disapproved of her secret affair and felt she had received a just punishment in her death! Dionysus was furious at the Theban people for both their disbelief of his immortality and their cruel treatment of his mother's memory.
At this time, the king of Thebes was Dionysus's cousin Pentheus, the son of Semele's sister, Agave. Like the other Thebans, Pentheus did not believe that Dionysus was a god, nor would he recognize him as his cousin.
Pentheus thought that this stranger was merely a troublemaker whose wild and unruly followers were disturbing the peace of his orderly city. Angrily, Pentheus commanded his guards to arrest Dionysus and his disciples.
Although Dionysus was, in fact, enraged by Pentheus's behavior, the god went to prison peacefully. However, extraordinary things began to happen at the palace prison. The guards were amazed when they realized that it was impossible to lock up their peculiar prisoner. No matter how many times they worked the locks attached to them, the chains on Dionysus’s wrists always fell to the ground, and the doors of his jail cell refused to stay closed.
Then, suddenly, a huge earthquake rocked the city of Thebes, flattening both the palace and the prison to the ground. Many Thebans came to realize that this devastation must have been the work of an angry god. Despite these strange events, Pentheus refused to believe that Dionysus possessed any supernatural powers, even after the prisoner had walked out of the rubble of the prison without a scratch on his body.
Many Theban women, however, became convinced of Dionysus’s powers, and after the earthquake, they joined Dionysus’s followers. After dressing in animal skins, the women went to the hills outside Thebes where they cavorted like animals, jumping and dancing in praise of Dionysus, whom they now recognized as a god.
Soon, a messenger came to Pentheus to tell him that his mother, Agave, and his aunts were among the Bacchae dancing in the hills. The messenger also told Pentheus that guards had tried to talk to Agave and the other women, but when they had approached, the women chased the men away. The guard added that the women had torn the woods apart with their bare hands and ruined all the villages in their path with their wild revelry.
Pentheus was furious at this news! He paced in front of his crumbling palace, fuming. "My own mother!" he cried. "Acting like one of those crazy Bacchae! Whatever will happen next?"
As Pentheus grew visibly more and more upset, Dionysus approached, already planning his revenge. Pentheus still did not believe that Dionysus was a god, but soon he fell into a trance and agreed with everything Dionysus said to him, no matter how strange.
First, Dionysus convinced Pentheus that he needed to climb the hill and see for himself how the women were behaving. Only then would Pentheus be able to figure out a way to make them stop their outrageous behavior.
Still in a trance, Pentheus begged Dionysus to help him find a disguise so that the women on the hill would not recognize him. Then Dionysus dressed King Pentheus in a long, flowing wig and a wild, multicolored dress. Under Dionysus's spell, Pentheus thought he looked quite dashing when, in fact, he looked very silly.
Finally, Dionysus led the king to the hill where the Bacchae were celebrating. Once they reached the top of the hill, Dionysus convinced the king to climb a tree to get a better look at the scene.
Then, when Pentheus had settled himself in the tree, Dionysus disappeared. The king was surprised that Dionysus would leave him so suddenly, but he was confident that the women could not see him hiding in the tree.
Unfortunately for Pentheus, Dionysus had put the women in a trance as well. Thus, when they looked up at the tree, they did not see Pentheus hiding there but a mountain lion readying for attack. Terrified at the sight of what she thought was a vicious, man-eating creature, Agave shouted, "Kill the lion!"
Like animals stalking their prey, the women attacked Pentheus and pulled him from the tree. Though he begged for mercy, the women could not understand him since his words sounded like the growls of a wild lion, not like cries for help from their own king.
Dionysus had endowed the women with superhuman strength, and now, with their bare hands, the women tore Pentheus to shreds. Then, still in a trance, the women marched back to Thebes. In tribute to their proud victory, Agave led the march, parading the head of the victim above her like a trophy. When the women entered the city carrying Pentheus’s head before them, the people of Thebes were so horrified that they stood in silence as the shocking parade passed by.
When the marchers reached the grounds of the palace ruins, Agave called out to her father, Cadmus, to show off their prize. When Cadmus saw what Agave held in her hands, his face paled, and he began to weep. Holding the head of her victim high above her, Agave said, "Father, why do you weep? Look how I have killed a mountain lion! Look how strong and brave your daughter is! Why are you not proud?"
Weeping for his dead grandson, and for his daughter who loved her son Pentheus more than anyone in the world, Cadmus said, "Dear Agave, look again at what prize you have been blessed with, and then you will understand why I am weeping."
Cadmus's sad words broke Agave's trance, and when she looked again at the head in her hands, her proud laughter quickly turned to terror. She saw that she had killed her own son! Falling to the ground, Agave wept, finally coming to understand the powers of the god Dionysus, whom her family had so vilely offended by their disbelief.
Label: Greek mythology