Monday, June 22, 2015

Was Dionysus born of a virgin?

I recently had a dialogue with a fellow on (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?

[UPDATE July 31, 2017]
I found another primary source for the conception and birth of Dionysus.  It comes from The Library 3.4.3 by Apollodorus and dates to the second century AD.  It agrees with the other sources that "Zeus loved Semele and bedded with her unknown to Hera."  She became pregnant, and the rest of the story unfolds as in the other accounts with Hera tricking Semele, and Zeus accidentally killing her with lightening, then sewing Dionysus into his thigh.  So again, Semele was not a virgin. This account gives a footnote that lists other primary sources for Semele and the birth of Dionysus, but I haven't looked at them all yet.


At 9/26/2015 3:44 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your research is unfortunately wrong. I would suggest avoiding the internet for these kinds of things. The whole story of Dionysus and Semele came from Euripides "THE BACCHAE", written around 400 BC.

Dionysus was indeed born of lightning, when Zeus appeared to Semele. Hera was jealous because Zeus had fallen in love with Semele, not because he had slept with her. Since Dionysus was born when Semele died, he came out prematurely, and so Zeus sewed him into his thigh until he properly matured.

You can pick up a copy of the play at your local library.

At 9/26/2015 3:48 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is one translation of the verse. In all translations, however, it's clear that it was due to lightning:

"Behold, God's Son is come unto this land
Of Thebes, even I, Dionysus, whom the brand
Of heaven's hot splendour lit to life, when she
Who bore me, Cadmus' daughter Semelê,
Died here."

The Bacchae, circa 400 BC.

At 9/29/2015 4:26 PM , Blogger Sam Harper said...


I appreciate you chiming in. I'm open to being corrected if I'm wrong. I know there are other sources about Dionysus, and maybe the account of his conception is different in one of them. But I've looked at a lot of stuff--mostly secondary--and they all give the same basic account. The one primary source I was able to find that actually narrated the account agreed with what everybody else said about how Dionysus was conceived, born, and sewn into the thigh of Zeus. There are other accounts of his being "twice born," but none of them involve a virgin conception.

The translation you gave of the passage in "The Bacchae" seems ambiguous at best. Here is another translation I found on line of the same passage:

"I’ve arrived here in the land of Thebes,
I, Dionysus, son of Zeus, born to him
from Semele, Cadmus’ daughter, delivered
by a fiery midwife—Zeus’ lightning flash."

This translation seems to agree with all the other accounts I've read about. The lightening flash was, in a sense, a fiery midwife in the fact that it was the lightening that killed Semele, but left Dionysus alive. That's when Zeus took him up and sewed him into his thigh. So even this account by Euripides doesn't substantiate the claim that the lightening bolt somehow resulted in Semele's pregnancy.

Later on in the same speech, Dionysus said:

"They boasted aloud that I, Dionysus,
was no child of Zeus, claiming Semele,
once she was pregnant by some mortal man,
attributed her bad luck in bed to Zeus,
a story made up (they said) to trick Cadmus."

This accusation would make no sense at all if Semele had been impregnated by the same lightening bolt that killed her because in that case she's be dead on the same occasion as she got pregnant. Nobody would ever have known she was pregnant, so nobody would've had any reason to accuse her of becoming pregnant by a mortal man. So it's clear that she was already pregnant before the lightening bolt incident.

If you have anything else, let me know.

At 11/13/2015 6:05 AM , Blogger Joe Hinman said...

God did not have sex with Mary. Cut to the chase. That is how the two stories (Jesus vs pagan gods) differ. There are two sources you need to buy. They are secondary but they are authoritative they will give you a good general knowledge of Greek myth. First is Mythology by Edith Hamilton, the other is Mythology by Bullfinch. The former is paperback the latter is expensive hardback but worth it. Those sources will give primary sources. Another thing to do is look for sources by real scholars who are j interested in myth not Jesus mythers or Christian apologists. Mythers mainly quote other mythyers.

my pages where I've3 taken examined many of the dying/rising v]=saviors mythers use'

Jesus Christ copy cat savior?

part 2

At 11/13/2015 10:22 AM , Blogger Sam Harper said...

Thanks for the links and the references, Joe. I do have a copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology.


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