Was Dionysus born of a virgin?
I recently had a dialogue with a fellow on debate.org (hereinafter DDO) about some supposed similarities between Dionysus and Jesus. I just responded to one of the parallels, but I decided to do some digging around about the supposed virgin birth of Dionysus. Usually when these things come up, nobody ever cites a primary source, and it's hard to get to the bottom of anything. So I thought I'd see if I could get to the bottom of this one and settle it once and for all.
Through googling around, I discovered that the fellow on DDO had cut and paste from an an article by D.M. Murdock/Acharya S. I read the section on the virgin birth to see if she would cite any primary sources that I could look at. Unfortunately, she cited nothing but secondary sources. But she said, "In the common myth about the birth of Dionysus/Bacchus, Semele is mysteriously impregnated by one of Zeus's bolts of lightning--an obvious miraculous/virgin conception." I decided to pursue this incident to see if I could get to the bottom of it.
To help me along, I posted a question about it in a closed group forum on facebook. One of the people there directed me to this article on pagan parallel saviors. The pagan parallel article cited an on line encyclopedia entry on the mother of Dionysus, Semele, that was written by James Hunter. It says:
Because Zeus slept with Semele secretly, Hera only found out about the affair after the girl was pregnant. Bent on revenge, Hera disguised herself and persuaded Semele to demand that Zeus come to her in all the splendor with which he visited Hera. As a result, Semele asked Zeus to grant an unspecified favor, and got him to swear by the river Styx that he would grant it. Unable to break his oath, Zeus came to her armed in his thunder and lightning, and Semele was destroyed. However, Zeus rescued the unborn child from the mother's ashes and sewed it in his thigh until it was ready to be born.
I still wanted to see it in the primary source, so I kept looking. The savior god article also cited Ovid's Metamorphoses, so I googled "ovid metamorphoses semele" and found a primary source for this story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book III. It appears under two subtitles: "Juno sets out to destroy Semele" and "Semele is consumed by Jupiter's fire." Apparently, this is a Roman version of an earlier Greek story, and I still haven't found the Greek version. Juno is the same person as Hera, and Jupiter is Zeus. Other than the change in names, everything James Hunter said in the encyclopedia entry is true.
Zeus had been having an affair with Semele. Hera/Juno "was grieved by the fact that Semele was pregnant, with the seed of mighty Jove," aka Zeus. Since Semele was pregnant, Hera decided to get revenge by destroying Semele. She disguised herself as an old woman and visited Semele. She manipulates Semele into getting Zeus to promise to "assume all his powers before he embraces you," just as he does with Hera. Zeus doesn't want to do it because he knows it will kill Semele, but he can't back out of his promise. Zeus tries to limit his powers as much as he can, but he gathers the storm clouds and the thunder and lightening, etc., and appears to Semele. Predictably, she gets burned up. Zeus then rescues Dionysus/Bacchus who was "still unfinished," and sews him into his thigh until he is ready to be born.
So basically, D.M. Murdock had the wrong idea. She thought Zeus somehow got Semele pregnant with the use of a lightening bolt when in reality, Semele was pregnant already from sleeping with Zeus while he was disguised as a mortal man. The lightening played no role in Semele getting pregnant. It seems pretty clear to me that Semele was no virgin.
It's nice to finally get to the bottom of something, huh?