Semele (Greek Σεμέλη), in Greek mythology, daughter of the Boeotian hero Cadmus and Harmonia, was the mortal mother of Dionysus by Zeus in one of his many origin myths. (In another version of his mythic origin, he is the son of Persephone).
It seems that certain elements of the cult of Dionysos and Semele were adopted by the Thracians from the local populations when they moved to Asia Minor, where they were named Phrygians. These were transmitted later to the Greek colonists. Herodotus, who gives the account of Cadmus, estimates that Semele lived sixteen hundred years before his time, or around 2000 B.C.
Seduction by Zeus and birth of Dionysus
In one version of the myth, Semele was a priestess of Zeus, and on one occasion was observed by him as she slaughtered a bull at his altar and afterwards swam in the river Asopus to cleanse herself of the blood. Flying over the scene in the guise of an eagle, Zeus fell in love with Semele and afterwards repeatedly visited her secretly.
Zeus' wife, Hera, a goddess jealous of usurpers, discovered his affair with Semele when she later became pregnant. Appearing as an old crone, Hera befriended Semele, who confided in her that her lover was actually Zeus. Hera pretended not to believe her, and planted seeds of doubt in Semele's mind. Curious, Semele asked Zeus to grant her a boon. Zeus, eager to please his beloved, promised on the River Styx to grant her anything she wanted. She then demanded that Zeus reveal himself in all his glory as proof of his godhood. Though Zeus begged her not to ask this, she persisted and he was forced by his oath to comply. Zeus tried to spare her by showing her the smallest of his bolts and the sparsest thunderstorm clouds he could find. Mortals, however, cannot look upon Zeus without incinerating, and she perished, consumed in lightning-ignited flame.
Zeus rescued the fetal Dionysus, however, by sewing him into his thigh (whence the epithet Eiraphiotes, "insewn", of the Homeric Hymn). A few months later, Dionysus was born. This leads to his being called "the twice-born".
Impregnation by Zeus
There is a story in the Fabulae 167 of Gaius Julius Hyginus, or a later author whose work has been attributed to Hyginus. In this, Dionysus (called Liber) is the son of Jupiter and Proserpine, and was killed by the Titans. Jupiter gave his torn up heart in a drink to Semele, who became pregnant this way. But in another account, Zeus swallows the heart himself, in order to beget his seed on Semele. Hera then induces Semele to ask Zeus to come to her as a god, she dies, and Zeus seals the unborn baby up in his thigh. There is no suggestion in the text that Semele is a virgin, however. As a result of this Dionysus "was also called Dimetor [of two mothers] ... because the two Dionysoi were born of one father, but of two mothers" 
Still another variant of the narrative is found in Callimachus and the 5th century AD Greek writer Nonnus. In this version, the first Dionysus is called Zagreus. Nonnus does not present the conception as virginal; rather, the editor's notes say that Zeus swallowed Zagreus' heart, and visited the mortal woman Semele, whom he seduced and made pregnant. In Dionysiaca 7.110 he classifies Zeus's affair with Semele as one in a set of twelve, the other eleven women on whom he begot children being Io, Europa, the nymph Pluto, Danae, Aigina, Antiope, Leda, Dia, Alcmene, Laodameia, mother of Sarpedon, and Olympias.
The most usual setting for the story of Semele is the palace that occupied the acropolis of Thebes, called the Cadmeia. When Pausanias visited Thebes in the 2nd century AD, he was shown the very bridal chamber where Zeus visited her and begat Dionysus. Since an Oriental inscribed cylindrical seal found at the palace can be dated 14th-13th centuries BC, the myth of Semele must be Mycenaean or earlier in origin. At the Alcyonian Lake near the prehistoric site of Lerna, Dionysus, guided by Prosymnus or Polymnus, descended to Tartarus to free his once-mortal mother. Annual rites took place there in classical times; Pausanias refuses to describe them.
- "For some say, at Dracanum; and some, on windy Icarus; and some, in Naxos, O Heaven-born, Insewn; and others by the deep-eddying river Alpheus that pregnant Semele bare you to Zeus the thunder-lover. And others yet, lord, say you were born in Thebes; but all these lie. The Father of men and gods gave you birth remote from men and secretly from white-armed Hera. There is a certain Nysa, a mountain most high and richly grown with woods, far off in Phoenice, near the streams of Aegyptus..."
Semele was worshipped in Athens at the Lenaia, when a yearling bull, emblematic of Dionysus, was sacrificed to her. One-ninth was burnt on the altar in the Hellenic way; the rest was torn and eaten raw by the votaries.
Semele in Etruscan culture
Semele is attested with the Etruscan name form Semla, depicted on a bronze mirror back from the fourth century BC.
Semele in Roman culture
When the initiatory cult of Dionysus was imported to Rome, shortly before 186 BC, to great public scandal, Semele's name was rendered Stimula. The groves in which the initiation rites took place were deemed sacred to Semele/Stimula. Ovid's Fasti shifts the origin of the Bacchanalian rites in Rome to a mythic rather than a historic past:
- Martin Nillson (1967).Die Geschichte der Griechischen Religion, Vol I. C. H . Beck Verlag. Munchen p. 378
- Herodotus, Histories, II, 2.145
- Nonnus, Dionysiaca 7.110-8.177
- Or in the guise of Semele's nurse, Beroë, in Ovid's Metamorphoses III.256ff and Hyginus, Fabulae167.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses III.308–312; Hyginus, Fabulae 179; Nonnus, Dionysiaca 8.178-406
- Apollodorus, Library 3.4.3; Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4.1137; Lucian, Dialogues of the Gods 9; compare the birth of Asclepius, taken from Coronis on her funeral pyre (noted by L. Preller, Theogonie und Goetter, vol I of Griechische Mythologie 1894:661).
- Hyginus, Astronomy 2.5; Arnobius, Against the Gentiles 5.28
- Nonnus, Dionysiaca 8.407-418
- Fabulae 167.1
- (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 4. 5, quoted in the Theoi.com collection of Zagreus sources])
- Callimachus, Fragments, in the etymol. ζαγρεὺς, Zagreos; see Karl Otfried Müller, John Leitch, Introduction to a Scientific System of Mythology (1844), p.319, n.5
- Nonnus, Dionysiaca 24. 43 ff — translation in Zagreus
- Semele was "made into a woman by the Thebans and called the daughter of Kadmos, thoughh her original character as an earth-goddess is transparently evident" according to William Keith Chambers Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, rev. ed. 1953:56. Robert Graves is characteristically speculative: the story "seems to record the summary action taken by Hellenes of Boeotia in ending the tradition of royal sacrifice: Olympian Zeus asserts his power, takes the doomed king under his own protection, and destroys the goddess with her own thunderbolt." (Graves 1960:§14.5). The connection Semele=Selene is often noted, nevertheless.
- Kerenyi 1976 p 193 and note 13
- Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.37; Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 35
- Graves 1960, 14.c.5
- Timothy Gantz, "Divine Guilt in Aischylos" The Classical Quarterly New Series, 31.1 (1981:18-32) p 25f.
- The scandal was reported in Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 39.12, where the consul advised the prostitute Hispala Faecenia "that she ought to tell him what was accustomed to be done at the Bacchanalia, in the nocturnal orgies in the grove of Stimula."
- Ovid, Fasti , 6.503
- Burkert, Walter, 1985. Greek Religion Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press ISBN=0-674-36280-2
- Dalby, Andrew, 2005 The Story of Bacchus London British Museum Press. ISBN=0714122556 (US ISBN 0-89236-742-3)
- Graves, Robert, 1960. The Greek Myths
- Kerenyi, Carl, 1976. Dionysus: Archetypal Image of the Indestructible Life, (Bollingen, Princeton)
- Kerenyi, Carl, 1951. The Gods of the Greeks pp. 256ff.
- Seltman, Charles, 1956. The Twelve Olympians and their Guests. Shenval Press Ltd.