Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Birth of Bacchus

Of all the Olympian deities at the head of the Classical Pantheon, one was something of an enigma among the rest. Dionysus, or Bacchus as the Romans knew him, had a curious pedigree. His mother was no grand spirit of the forest nor thundering deity, but an otherwise ordinary mortal woman. His father, on the other hand, was none other than Zeus the Thunderer, King of the Gods and son of the Titan Kronos. From this peculiar union came a peculiar child, brought forth in a most peculiar birth...

Jupiter and Semele
Painting by Sebastiano Ricci
Daughter of Cadmus, founder of the great city of Thebes and sower of the Dragon's Teeth, and Harmonia his wife, Semele lived a relatively ordinary life in the Boeotian countryside as a priestess of Zeus. That was, although, until the day came when after a sacrifice, she swam in the river Asopus. Far overhead, an eagle soared. Regal though the imperial bird was, its feathered form within concealed the true Emperor of the Sky. For no eagle it was in truth, but Zeus himself, come to collect his offering. But the eyes of an eagle are keen indeed, and from on high the Thunderer spotted the one from whom this offering had come. Under the gentle, glassy surface of the Asopus his baleful gaze pierced, and there his priestess he saw. Not for the first time nor the last did the Son of Kronos become ensnared by a mortal woman. Down to the earthly plain the thunderous monarch descended, and so began the affair that would spell her doom. No mortal yet had resisted the charms of Zeus, and hapless Semele would not be the first. The deed done, back to Olympus he retreated, assured of secrecy. Or so he thought.

Hera alone, Queen of the gods, ever watchful of the infidelities of her husband, scoured the earthly plain. Her feud with Semele's kin ran deep, for she "joy'd to see the race of Cadmus bleed; for still she kept Europa in her mind". A nameless spy in her league brought word to her that Semele, daughter of Cadmus was rich with the seed of a god, and carried in her womb a future god. Her paranoia and suspicions flared, and to terrible fury was she roused. "Are my reproaches of so small a force? 'Tis time I then pursue another course: It is decreed the guilty wretch shall die, if I'm indeed the mistress of the Sky". In the Classical World, the dark powers had no fury like a Hera scorned, and she concocted a vile stratagem in her vengeful mind, and vowed that Semele would die, and her slayer would be none other than Zeus himself.

In a golden cloud she descended to the Earth, coming to the gates of Semele's lodge. But no divine form did she take, but the wrinkled visage of Beroe, Semele's nurse. "In her trembling gait she totters on, and learns to tattle in the nurse's tone". Greeting oblivious Semele as only the special bond between nurse and child can, she was welcomed warmly into the daughter's house. Veiling her rage, Hera beguiled Semele with softly spoken stories and fables of old. Semele confided in her nurse the affair, and that she indeed bore the seed of Jove. If her veins of ichor thundered with anger, the goddess buried it deep within. She sowed doubt in Semele's mind, and asked how she could know that this man was indeed the Lord of Olympus. To test the veracity of her suspicion, the nurse proposed a simple test:

                  " Bid him, when next he courts the rites of your affection,
                    Descend triumphant from th' ethereal sky,
                    In all the pomp of his divinity,
                    Encompass'd round by those celestial charms... "
                         - HERA'S RUSE

The Birth of Bacchus
Painting by Nicolas Poussin
The unwary girl, snared on Hera's trap, was racked with doubt at what she said. Who was in truth the father of her as yet unborn child? She had to know, and would not rest until she knew. So when Zeus the father of gods and men came once more to the maiden's fold, Semele confronted him, though hid her ruse. She asked the Son of Kronos if she could have but one thing. Zeus replied "Whate'er you ask, may Styx confirm my voice, choose what you will, and you shall have your choice". Powerful indeed are the winds of Fate, for though mighty indeed was the ruler of Olympus, even he to Fate must bow, and to renege on a promise would be to overturn the cosmos in fire. He dare not refuse her request now. "Then", said Semele, "when next you seek my arms, may you descend in those celestial charms...". Zeus immediately felt a pang of dread, for no mortal could bear to look upon a god in his full glory, too fiery to behold to mortal eyes. He longed to defeat her call, but he had given his word and dare not refuse.

Bacchus Enthroned
Painting by Rubens
So resigned to his beloved's fate, Zeus the Thunderer rose to Olympus. "To keep his promise he ascends, and shrouds his awful brow in whirlwinds and in clouds; whilst all around, in terrible array, his thunders rattle, and his light'nings play". The Son of Kronos to him summoned all ethereal powers of the Heavens, the very essence of a god, the powers which wove the Universe together, the power to rend it asunder, the power to level mountains and the power to induce love and hate, the power to shatter pride and citadel alike, the power to melt the Earth and freeze the Sea, the power to give rise to live and the power to obliterate it all. To him now he called these things, there to show the true power of no mere god, but the god of gods himself. Worked up to holy fire and divine conflagration, radiating with power, "the illustrious god, descending from his height, came rushing on her in a storm of light". As the mightiest tidal wave summoned from Poseidon's depths crashes upon the lowliest shell upon the beach, the power of Zeus fell upon mortal Semele now. To feeble her frame, to weak her sight, even with eyes closed, in face of ageless omnipotence and thunder's fury, amidst all the wonders she desired Semele was consumed, her mortal form blasted asunder as Hera knew it would be. So her vile schemes bore the accursed fruit, for her rival had been undone by the adulterer himself.

Torn with grief, a tear dropped from the eye of Zeus, until through saddened sight he saw one ray of hope. A child, where once Semele stood, lonely and alive amid the destruction screaming lay. Spared his poor mother's fate, for within his veins flowed the life force of the father, Bacchus drew his first breath. Yet the boy was not yet fully formed. Nine cycles of the moon had not yet come to pass since his conception:

                 " But, to preserve his offspring from the tomb,
                   Jove took him smoking from the blasted womb:
                   and, of on ancient tales we may rely,
                   Inclos'd th' abortive infant in his thigh... "
                         - ZEUS TAKES THE INFANT BACCHUS

So the Thunderer took his son under his alas omnipotent wing. Months passed and Zeus felt a pain in his leg. Knowing the time had come, to the land of the Niseans he came, and from the thigh of Zeus was Bacchus born again, complete at last. To the care of their people the Thunderer placed the babe, where in peace and serenity he would be raised nurtured on Nisean milk. But the adventures of Bacchus had all but begun, and the rage of Hera was far from quenched...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

United States

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)