Semele: earth goddess


Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele, c.1894-1895, Musée Gustave Moreau, US Public Domain
Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele, c.1894-1895, Musée Gustave Moreau, US Public Domain

Carl Jung Speaks of Semele as earth-goddess:

“The richly varied allegories of the Mother of God have nevertheless retained some connection with her pagan prefigurations in Isis and Semele. Not only are Isis and the Horus-child iconological exemplars, but the ascension of Semele, the originally mortal mother of Dionysus. likewise anticipates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Further, this son of Semele is a dying and resurgent god and the youngest of the Olympians. Semele herself seems to have been an earth-goddess, just as “Mary (mother of Jesus)” the Virgin Mary is the earth from which Christ was born.” (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para. 195)

In the image above, we see Jupiter and Semele by Musée Gustave Moreau. Jupiter is seated on his thrown. He offers an intense stare, showing his power. Semele swoons on his lap. Geoffrey Smith points out the details of the painting:

“The small winged figure beneath Semele may be the emerging Bacchus. At the foot of the throne, Jupiter’s eagle, symbol of his power, can be seen, wings readied for flight. Flanking the eagle are two female figures, Death, clad in blue, holding a bloodied sword, and Pain, crowned with thorns. Pan, the Arcadian shepherd god, sprawls on a ledge in front of the eagle – half man and half goat, he is wreathed in flowers and vegetal tendrils like a medieval Green Man. Beneath the ledge a shadowy underworld can be glimpsed full of barely defined forms, flanked by two sphinxes, perhaps representing past and future. To the left, clearly outlined against the gloom, a glowing many-layered halo behind her head and a crescent moon hovering above an elaborate crown, the goddess Hecate confronts us with a stare which is every bit as intimidating as Jupiter’s. She is associated with magic, witchcraft, the moon and sinister nocturnal creatures but is also the guardian of crossroads and offers protection to warriors, hunters and herdsmen” [1].

Myth has it that Semele was a priestess of Jupiter. Jupiter fell in love with Semele and they had an affair in which Semele gets pregnant (with Bacchus). Hera, Jupiter’s wife, finds out. Hera uses her trickery to convince Semele that she should know the true nature of Jupiter. Upon seeking the power of Jupiter, Semele is burnt up by the power of his light (as lightening). The fetus Bacchus lives.  In one story, Jupiter rescues the Bacchus, sewing him into his thigh. In another version of the story, Jove takes the baby Bacchus and gives him to the nymphs. Bulfinch tells the story:

“BACCHUS was the son of Jupiter and Semele. Juno, to gratify her resentment against Semele, contrived a plan for her destruction. Assuming the form of Beroe, her aged nurse, she insinuated doubts whether it was indeed Jove himself who came as a lover. Heaving a sigh, she said, “I hope it will turn out so, but I can’t help being afraid. People are not always what they pretend to be. If he is indeed Jove, make him give some proof of it. Ask him to come arrayed in all his splendours, such as he wears in heaven. That will put the matter beyond a doubt.” Semele was persuaded to try the experiment. She asks a favour, without naming what it is. Jove gives his promise, and confirms it with the irrevocable oath, attesting the river Styx, terrible to the gods themselves. Then she made known her request. The god would have stopped her as she spake, but she was too quick for him. The words escaped, and he could neither unsay his promise nor her request. In deep distress he left her and returned to the upper regions. There he clothed himself in his splendours, not putting on all his terrors, as when he overthrew the giants, but what is known among the gods as his lesser panoply. Arrayed in this, he entered the chamber of Semele. Her mortal frame could not endure the splendours of the immortal radiance. She was consumed to ashes.

Jove took the infant Bacchus and gave him in charge to the Nysaean nymphs, who nourished his infancy and childhood, and for their care were rewarded by Jupiter by being placed, as the Hyades, among the stars. When Bacchus grew up he discovered the culture of the vine and the mode of extracting its precious juice; but Juno struck him with madness, and drove him forth a wanderer through various parts of the earth. In Phrygia the goddess Rhea cured him and taught him her religious rites, and he set out on progress through Asia, teaching the people the cultivation of the vine. The most famous part of his wanderings is his expedition to India, which is said to have lasted several years. Returning in triumph, he undertook to introduce his worship into Greece, but was opposed by some princes, who dreaded its introduction on account of the disorder and madness it brought with it.”


  1. The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1)
  2. Geoffrey Smith
  3. Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable: Thomas Bulfinch



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