Among all the mortal maidens honored by the love of Jupiter, king of
the gods, none was more attractive than Semele, daughter of Cadmus and
"For Semele was molded in the form
Of elegance; the beauty of her race
Shone in her forehead."
Nonnus (Elton's tr.).
[Sidenote: Story of Semele.]
Although conscious of these superior attractions, Semele was
excessively coy, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that
Jupiter, disguised as a mortal, could urge his love suit. When he had
at last obtained a hearing, he told her who he was, calculating upon
the effect which such a revelation must necessarily produce.
He was not mistaken in his previsions, for Semele, proud of having
attracted the greatest among the gods, no longer offered any
resistance, and consented to their union. Their love grew and
prospered, and Jupiter came down from Olympus as often as possible to
enjoy the society of his beloved. His frequent absences finally
aroused Juno's suspicions, and, as usual, she spared no pains to
discover what powerful charm could draw him from her side. After a few
days she knew all, and straightway determined to have her revenge, and
punish her fickle spouse. To accomplish this successfully, she assumed
the face and form of Beroe, Semele's old nurse, and thus entered the
young princess's apartment quite unsuspected.
"Old Beroe's decrepit shape she wears,
Her wrinkled visage, and her hoary hairs;
Whilst in her trembling gait she totters on,
And learns to tattle in the nurse's tone."
Ovid (Addison's tr.).
There she immediately entered into conversation with her supposed
nursling, artfully extracted a complete confession, heard with
suppressed rage how long Jupiter had wooed ere he had finally won the
maiden's consent, and received a rapturous and minute catalogue of all
his personal charms and a synopsis of all they had both said.
The false nurse listened with apparent sympathy; but in reality she
was furious, and, to put an end to it all, asked Semele if she were
quite sure he was king of the gods, as he asserted, and whether he
visited her in all the pomp of his regal apparel. The maiden
shamefacedly replied that he was wont to visit her in the guise of a
mortal only; whereupon Beroe, with feigned indignation, told her
nursling he must either be a vile impostor, or else that he did not
love her as dearly as he loved Juno, in whose presence he seldom
appeared except in godlike array.
With artful words she so worked upon the guileless nature of her
rival, that, when Jupiter next came, the maiden used all her
blandishments to extort from him a solemn oath to grant any request
she chose to make. A lover is not very likely to weigh his words under
such circumstances, and Jupiter took the most solemn of all the oaths
to gratify her whim.
"'Bear me witness, Earth, and ye, broad Heavens
Above us, and ye, waters of the Styx,
That flow beneath us, mightiest oath of all,
And most revered by the blessed gods!'"
Homer (Bryant's tr.).
The promise won, the delighted Semele bade her lover speedily return
to Olympus, don his own majestic form and apparel, and hasten back to
her side, surrounded by all his heavenly pomp, and armed with his
dreaded thunderbolts. Jupiter, horrified at this imprudent request,
implored her to ask something else, and release him from a promise
fraught with such danger to her; but all in vain. Semele, like many
another fair lady, enjoyed having her own way, and fairly forced him
Jupiter returned to Olympus, modified his costume as much as possible,
dimmed his glory wherever he could, and chose the feeblest of all his
bolts, for well he knew no mere mortal could endure the shock of his
full glory. Then, mounted on a pale flash of lightning, he darted back
"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 lightnings play.
And yet, the dazzling luster to abate,
He set not out in all his pomp and state,
Clad in the mildest lightning of the skies,
And arm'd with thunder of the smallest size:
Not those huge bolts, by which the giants slain,
Lay overthrown on the Phlegrean plain.
'Twas of a lesser mold, and lighter weight;
They call it thunder of a second-rate.
For the rough Cyclops, who by Jove's command
Temper'd the bolt and turn'd it to his hand,
Work'd up less flame and fury in its make,
And quench'd it sooner in the standing lake.
Thus dreadfully adorn'd, with horror bright,
Th' illustrious god, descending from his height,
Came rushing on her in a storm of light."
Ovid (Addison's tr.).
But, although so much milder than usual, this apparition was more than
poor Semele's human nerves could bear, and she dropped to the floor in
a swoon at the first glimpse of her lover. Oblivious of all but her
alarming condition, Jupiter sprang to her side; but the lightning
which played about his head set fire to the whole palace, which was
reduced to ashes.
[Sidenote: Birth of Bacchus.]
Semele herself perished, burned to death; and the only person in all
the building who escaped uninjured was Bacchus (Liber, Dionysus), the
infant son of Jupiter and Semele, who was saved by his father's
powerful hand. Jupiter was at first inconsolable at the death of
Semele; and, to testify to all mortals how fondly he had loved her, he
brought her spirit up to heaven, where he raised her to the rank of a
"Semele of the flowing hair,
Who died in Thunder's crashing flame,
To deified existence came."
The infant Bacchus was first intrusted to the care of his aunt Ino,
the second wife of Athamas, King of Thebes, who nursed him as tenderly
as if he had been her own child. But all her love could not avail to
screen him from the effects of Juno's persistent hatred: so Jupiter,
fearing lest some harm might befall his precious son, bade Mercury
convey him to the distant home of the Nysiades,--nymphs who guarded
him most faithfully.
Juno, not daring to continue her persecutions, wreaked all her anger
upon poor Ino and her unhappy household by sending the Fury Tisiphone
to goad Athamas to madness. In a fit of deluded frenzy, he pursued his
wife and children as if they were wild beasts. One of his sons,
Learchus, fell beneath his arrows; and, to escape his murderous fury,
Ino plunged headlong into the sea with her second child in her arms.
The gods, in pity for her sufferings, changed her into the goddess
Leucothea, and her son into a sea deity by the name of Palæmon.
[Sidenote: Bacchus' attendants.]
When still but a youth, Bacchus was appointed god of wine and revelry,
and intrusted to the guidance of Silenus, a satyr, half man and half
goat, who educated him, and accompanied him on all his travels; for he
delighted in roaming all over the world, borne by his followers, or
riding in his chariot drawn by wild beasts, while his tutor followed
him, mounted on an ass, supported on either side by an attendant.
[Illustration: BACCHUS. (Vatican, Rome.)]
"And near him rode Silenus on his ass,
Pelted with flowers as he on did pass."
Bacchus' train was very large indeed, and composed of men and women,
nymphs, fauns, and satyrs, all crowned with ivy leaves, who drank
wine,--a drink compounded for their express use out of water and
sunshine,--ate grapes, danced and sang, and loudly proclaimed him
their chosen leader.
"'We follow Bacchus! Bacchus on the wing,
Bacchus, young Bacchus! good or ill betide,
We dance before him thorough kingdoms wide.'"
The most unruly among his female followers were the Bacchantes, who
delighted in revelry, and were in a perpetual state of intoxication as
they went with him from land to land, where he taught the people the
cultivation of the vine and the art of making wine. He traveled thus,
it is said, throughout Greece and Asia Minor, and even ventured as far
as India and Ethiopia.
[Sidenote: Bacchus and the pirates.]
During these long journeys, Bacchus, as was inevitable, met with many
adventures, which have been fertile themes for poetry and art. On one
occasion, having strayed away from his followers and lost his way,
Bacchus laid himself down upon the sand on the seashore to rest. Some
pirates, sailing by, saw the handsome young sleeper, and noiselessly
bore him off to their vessel, intending to sell him as a slave in
They were already quite far out at sea when the god awoke, and gazed
around him in mute wonder at his surroundings. When fully roused, he
bade the seamen take him back to land, but they merely replied by
laughter and mockery. Their amusement was cut short, however, for the
ship came to a sudden standstill; and, when they leaned over the sides
to ascertain why their oars could no longer propel it onward, they saw
a vine grow out of the sea, and twine its branches and tendrils with
lightning-like velocity around oars, mast, and rigging, thus
transforming the vessel into a floating arbor. Then a sound of music
and revelry greeted their astonished ears, and Bacchus' followers came
thronging over the ship's sides, riding on wild beasts, and chanting
the praises of their god and of his favorite beverage.
"In chorus we sing of wine, sweet wine,
Its power benign, and its flavor divine."
Martinez de la Rosa.
These extraordinary sights and sounds so bewildered the poor sailors,
that they lost all presence of mind, and jumped overboard into the
sea, where they were drowned and changed into dolphins.
On another occasion, Silenus, after a great carousal, lost his way in
the forest, and helplessly wandered from place to place in search of
his companions, until he finally came to the court of Midas, King of
Lydia, of ass's ears fame (p. 75).
[Sidenote: The curse of gold.]
Midas no sooner beheld the red nose and bloated appearance of the
wanderer, than he recognized him as Bacchus' tutor, and volunteered to
lead him back to his divine pupil. Delighted to see Silenus again,
Bacchus promised Midas any reward he wished; whereupon Midas, who was
an avaricious old king, fell upon his knees, and humbly besought the
god to grant that all he touched might be changed into gold.
"'Give me,' says he (nor thought he ask'd too much),
'That with my body whatsoe'er I touch,
Changed from the nature which it held of old,
May be converted into yellow gold.'"
Ovid (Croxall's tr.).
Bacchus immediately signified that his prayer was granted; and Midas,
overjoyed at the success of his bold venture, wandered back to his
palace, testing his new-won power, which changed all to gold at a mere
touch of one of his fingers.
"Down from a lowly branch a twig he drew,
The twig straight glitter'd with a golden hue.
He takes a stone, the stone was turn'd to gold:
A clod he touches, and the crumbling mold
Acknowledged soon the great transforming power,
In weight and substance like a mass of ore.
He pluck'd the corn, and straight his grasp appears
Fill'd with a bending tuft of golden ears.
An apple next he takes, and seems to hold
The bright Hesperian vegetable gold:
His hand he careless on a pillar lays,
With shining gold the fluted pillars blaze."
Ovid (Croxall's tr.).
The sight of these and many other wonders, wrought by a mere touch,
filled his heart with joy; and in his elation he bade his servants
prepare a sumptuous feast, and invite all his courtiers to share his
merriment. His commands were obeyed with the utmost celerity, and
Midas beamed with satisfaction as he took his place at the head of the
board, and viewed the choice dishes and wines prepared for his
Here, too, however, a new revelation awaited him; for cloth, plate,
and cup turned to gold, as did the food and drink as soon as they met
his eager lips.
"Whose powerful hands the bread no sooner hold,
But all its substance is transform'd to gold:
Up to his mouth he lifts the savory meat,
Which turns to gold as he attempts to eat:
His patron's noble juice of purple hue,
Touch'd by his lips, a gilded cordial grew,
Unfit for drink; and, wondrous to behold,
It trickles from his jaws a fluid gold.
The rich poor fool, confounded with surprise,
Starving in all his various plenty lies."
Ovid (Croxall's tr.).
In the midst of plenty, the gnawing pangs of hunger now made
themselves felt; and the precious gift, which prevented his allaying
them, soon lost all its attractions. With weary feet, Midas now
retraced the road he had traveled in his pride a few hours before,
again cast himself at Bacchus' feet, and this time implored him to
take back the inconvenient gift, which prevented him from satisfying
his natural appetites.
His distress seemed so real, that Bacchus bade him go and wash in the
Pactolus River, if he would be rid of the power which had so soon
turned into a curse. Midas hastened off to the river and plunged in
its tide, noting that even its sands all turned to gold beneath his
tread; since when,
"Pactolus singeth over golden sands."
Bacchus' favorite place of resort was the Island of Naxos, which he
visited after every journey. During one of his sojourns there, he
discovered a fair maiden lying alone on the sandy shore. Ariadne, for
such was the girl's name, had been forsaken there by her lover,
Theseus, who had sailed away while she slept (p. 257). As soon as she
awoke, she called her faithless lover; but no answering sound fell
upon her ear except the mocking tones of Echo. Her tears flowed freely
as she beat her breast in despair; but suddenly her lamentations
ceased, as she caught the faint sound of music floating toward her on
the summer breeze. Eagerly turning toward the pleasant music, she
caught sight of a merry procession, headed by the God of Wine.
"'And as I sat, over the light blue hills
There came a noise of revelers: the rills
Into the wide stream came of purple hue--
'Twas Bacchus and his crew!
The earnest trumpet spake, and silver thrills
From kissing cymbals made a merry din--
'Twas Bacchus and his kin!
Like to a moving vintage down they came,
Crown'd with green leaves, and faces all on flame;
All madly dancing through the pleasant valley.'"
[Sidenote: Bacchus and Ariadne.]
Bacchus, the first to perceive the fair mourner, hastened to her side,
and brought all his powers of persuasion into play to console her. His
devotion at last induced her to forget her recreant lover, and, after
a short courtship, Bacchus won her as a bride.
Their wedding was the gayest ever seen, and the feasting lasted for
several days. The bridegroom presented the bride with a crown adorned
with seven glittering stars,--an ornament which fitly enhanced her
peerless beauty. Shortly after her marriage, however, poor Ariadne
sickened and died, leaving a disconsolate widower, who took the crown
she had so often worn and flung it up into the air. It rose higher and
higher, until the gods fixed it in the sky, where it still forms a
brilliant constellation, known as Ariadne's Crown, or Corona.
"And still her sign is seen in heaven,
And, 'midst the glittering symbols of the sky,
The starry crown of Ariadne glides."
Bacchus' lightheartedness had all vanished, and he no longer took any
pleasure in music, dance, or revelry, until Jupiter, in pity for his
bereavement, restored Ariadne to his longing arms, and, to prevent her
being again claimed by Death, gave her immortal life.
[Sidenote: Story of Pentheus.]
When but a short distance from Thebes, Bacchus once sent a herald to
Pentheus, the king, to announce his approach, and bespeak a suitable
reception and sumptuous entertainment. Rumors of the noise and
disorder, which seemed to have been the invariable accompaniment of
the god's presence, had already reached Pentheus, who therefore
dismissed the herald with an insolent message, purporting that Bacchus
had better remain outside of the city gates.
To avenge this insult, Bacchus inspired the Theban women with a
species of dementia, which made them rush simultaneously out of the
city and join his followers. Then they all clamored for permission to
witness the religious rites in his honor, generally called Mysteries,
which permission was graciously granted.
The king's spies reported all that had occurred, and their accounts
made Pentheus long to view the ceremonies in secret. He therefore
disguised himself, and hid in a bush near the consecrated place,
hoping to see all without being seen; but an inadvertent movement
attracted the attention of the already excited Bacchantes, who, led by
Agave, the king's own mother, dragged him from his hiding place and
tore him limb from limb.
[Sidenote: Worship of Bacchus.]
Bacchus, god of wine, was worshiped throughout the ancient world, and
festivals without number were held in his honor. The most noted were
the Greater and Lesser Dionysia, the Liberalia, and the Bacchanalia,
where the wildest merrymaking and license were freely indulged in by
"Bacchus, on thee they call, in hymns divine,
And hang thy statues on the lofty pine:
Hence plenty every laughing vineyard fills,
Thro' the deep valleys and the sloping hills;
Where'er the god inclines his lovely face,
More luscious fruits the rich plantations grace.
Then let us Bacchus' praises duly sing,
And consecrated cakes, and chargers bring,
Dragg'd by their horns let victim goats expire,
And roast on hazel spits before the sacred fire."
"Come, sacred sire, with luscious clusters crown'd,
Here all the riches of thy reign abound;
Each field replete with blushing autumn glows,
And in deep tides for thee the foaming vintage flows."
Virgil (Warton's tr.).
Bacchus is generally represented as a handsome youth, crowned with ivy
or grape leaves and clusters, bearing the thyrsus, an ivy-circled
wand, as scepter, and riding in a chariot drawn by panthers or