“At Thebes Alone Do Mortal Women Bear Immortal Gods”
Dionysus has always been one of the most intricate and complex deities worshiped in the ancient world. Though he was best known for being the god of vineyards and wine making, he was also associated with ritualistic and religious furor, the theater and fertility rites.
Dionysus was the youngest of the Olympians and the last to be accepted into the Greek pantheon. He was always surrounded by an aura of unconventional sensuality which was aptly mirrored by the ceremonial acts of his vast number of followers.
The dual nature of the god was openly expressed by the ambiguous composition of his physical features. Though earlier accounts present him as a bearded gentleman of middle age, later depictions of Dionysus clearly represent him as being an androgynous being with highly feminine attributes.
Because of the odd circumstances surrounding his birth, Dionysus is often referred to as being “Twice Born.” Though the details of the stories vary, all are in agreement that he was the only one of the twelve Olympians who was conceived by a mortal woman.
According to one account, Zeus came to Persephone in the form of a snake. For reasons unknown, Persephone willingly gave in to the god’s inappropriate advances and before long found herself to be with child.
When Hera became privy to her husband’s affair, she flew into a jealous rage and petitioned the Titans to murder the newborn. The infant was to be first torn into little pieces, and then promptly devoured to erase all traces of the crime.
The Titans did their best to carry out Hera’s bidding, but just before the heinous act could be completed the goddess Athena appeared and salvaged the poor boy’s heart.
She then ground the organ into a fine dust and presented it to her father Zeus, who secretly placed the powder into the cup of Semele, daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes.
After drinking the magical elixir Semele became pregnant and at the end of nine months successfully delivered the baby Dionysus. It is because of this second birth in Thebes that the god was given the title of Twice Born
In an alternate version of the story we once again find ourselves in the land of Thebes. It seems that after being seduced by Zeus, the princess Semele discovered that she was expecting a child. Furious over her husband’s continuous infidelities, Hera disguised herself as the girl’s nurse and took up residence inside of the palace.
One morning as she was pretending to care for Semele, Hera slyly whispered into the ear of her rival “If Zeus really loved you, would he not grant you all that your heart desired?”
Seeing that she had the impressionable young girl’s full attention, the goddess artfully added “Why not ask him to appear to you in all of his glory, just as he does for his wife?”
Semele could not get the tempting idea out of her mind. For days she pondered over the odd proposition until finally the time came for Zeus to pay her another visit.
Without hesitation she eagerly asked the god if he would swear by the river Styx to fulfill her most coveted wish. Finding the request to be refreshingly childlike, Zeus laughed and cheerfully vowed to give his new love anything she desired.
He listened in disbelief as Semele emphatically stated her request. All feelings of mirth and joy vanished from the god’s heart, for he knew he could not break the sacred oath.
Having no other choice but to adhere to his promise, Zeus removed his protective veil and stood before the maiden covered in only the light of his divinity. In an instant Semele was consumed by a raging ball of flames.
Luckily, Zeus was able to save the infant as he fell from his mother’s womb. Carefully he stitched the baby into his own thigh, where he was able to safely grow to fruition. Once the boy was fully developed, Zeus removed the sutures and greeted his new son Dionysus.
Although the details regarding the birth of Dionysus vary slightly between the two accounts, both supply the reader with a clear explanation of how the mysterious god earned the title of Twice Born.
The texts also present contradicting storylines regarding the early life of Dionysus. One account states that Hermes took immediate possession of the newborn and placed him in the care of Semele’s sister Ino.