The God of Wine had the distinction in the Greek Pantheon as the only deity, ever, to be half mortal. Ironically, it was the story of his mortal mother though, Semele, that became the most enduring tale of Dionysus throughout the ages…
Semele was the daughter of the famed king of Thebes, Cadmus. She became renowned throughout the realm as the loveliest of the princesses in Greece, and her beauty became legendary from depths of Hades to the peaks of Olympus. One night, the princess was walking alone in a protected area outside of the castle walls, and she sensed a powerful presence. For whatever reason, she did not feel afraid. Instead, she intuitively understood the nature of this visit, and the young maiden was honored to be desired by a God. This deity, although she could only see his outline, spoke charmingly and courted Semele, and over the course of many months, their romance blossomed. After a short while, the princess realized that she was pregnant, and she was elated to tell her family that she was carrying a demigod.
The next day, she went to tell her parents with a happy bounce in her step. On the way there, beaming with pride, she locked eyes an elderly, dignified-looking lady. She stood slightly hunched at the side of the hallway but possessed a quiet dignity. With a tone of warmth, she said:
“Oh my, look at that posture and stride. That is the look of a happy, young lady… For whatever reason does the beautiful princess have to feel this way?”
Semele could barely contain her excitement, and despite not knowing this woman, she thought there would be no harm in sharing her secret with one person before everyone else learned in a few minutes…
After a small, involuntary giggle, “I am with-child ma’am.”
“Oh, how lovely,” the lady said with a stern but warm smile.
“I am on my way to tell my family”
“Where is the father? Is he already there?”
“No, he is not.” There was a vacuous silence that was short but profound.
The lady softly interjected, “Are you not concerned about their desire to see the father?”
“No… It is difficult to explain, but they won’t.”
“Oh, no, no, no princess. With respect, they will be very upset. You are a princess after all. The father needs to be there to share this news…”
“But the father… is …” Semele looked down briefly
“Go ahead child…”
“The father is a powerful God of Olympus.”
“Oh my! What makes you say something like that? Again, with respect, but which one?
“I am… not sure. He will not reveal himself. Based on what I can tell though, he has strong, athletic build… His skin has the texture of ivory, and he is very charming.”
“That means nothing child. Many of the Gods can take many forms. And they are all charming… After all, they are the Gods. More importantly though, how do you know it is not some farm boy, telling you what you want to get what he wants?”
“…Because… I just know. There is no way it is not a high Olympian. I am certain…”
“You don’t sound certain princess. I hear it in your voice…Taken by desire, your mind can believe anything it wants.”
Semele stood there, suddenly overwhelmed with doubt and fear. Her face was now pale with intense uncertainty. She felt dizzy… and angry…for some inexplicable reason. There was a pit in her stomach of shame. Shame of not knowing. How could she not have asked? It had been months. Her parents may not even believe her…
“There, there, child. It is ok. Simply ask him the next time he visits to show his ‘true’ form. At least do THAT before you tell your parents. Make him promise first though. The Gods can be very devious, but if you make him swear on the River Styx, he will show you. Good luck Princess… I will keep your secret until then.”
Semele shook her head and gave her genuine thanks. She felt naïve and silly for what she was about to do, and at this moment, felt gratitude towards this mysterious, elderly woman. She needed to resolve this first!
She did not have to wait long. It was that evening that the godly presence entered her room in the cover of night. He was, as always, charming and seemingly enraptured by her but, before they could embrace, she took a serious tone.
“My love, may I ask you for a small favor?”
“Of course, anything. Name it, and it is yours.” The voice sounded supremely confident.
“Ok, but first you have to promise.”
“No, no, promise me on the River Styx.”
“What do you know of that?”
“Please…Just this once.”
“Sure… I swear… on the River Styx.” His tone had a hint of graveness to it now. He was suspicious, but he felt that the request couldn’t possibly be too serious…
“Can you show me your true form?”
There was an enormous heaviness and silence that immediately settled in the air. He, Zeus, was completely wrong. This was an enormous request that was backed up with his promise on the sacred river. Even Zeus was slightly dazed with confusion. He had so many questions, but the grief he felt in his heart for what he had to do next, made him silent. Speaking would only make it worse… harder to do. So, he just began to unveil his true form. It began with a slight glow which revealed him as the King of Olympus… She was amazed, but the look only lasted long enough to recognize vaguely before his shining magnitude intensified. The godly form was too much for human eyes, and she couldn’t even muster a scream before she was burnt to ash. Zeus sighed and took a fleeting glance at the pile of ash that remained. Before he looked away though, there was a tiny movement in the ashen pile. Zeus followed it with intrigue, and he understood very soon that this child had survived. It had survived the divine luminescence, it had to be his. He thought quickly. The child was too small to survive, so he took it and implanted the baby into his leg. Here, under the divine skin, it would grow until it could survive on its own.
In the next few months, the small demigod gained his name — although it was not meant to be a name at first… It was a description. When the small child was getting larger, Zeus began to limp with the weight in his leg. All of those on Olympus called the child, “Dio” or God, “Nysos,” limping. Thus, the source of Zeus’ limp became known as “Dionysus.”
After an unconventional and chaotic start to his life, the “elderly lady” had more to say of this situation though. On the peak of Mount Olympus, she too was in her “true form” as Hera, the beautiful Queen of Olympus. Although she had initially failed to remove “the proof” of Zeus’ cheating by tricking Semele, she could finish the job now. She tried many ways to remove Dionysus, but this young, crafty God always foiled her plans. He eventually had to leave Olympus to live, hidden, in the forests throughout Greece. Here, he learned to love the fruits of nature and began to make wine to enjoy them more. He eventually learned that even the strongest warriors could not overcome by their OWN temptation for his new, skill-and-strength-numbing drink. Eventually, he converted it into a powerful weapon.