Amorous Zeus lay with numerous nymphs descended from the Titans or the gods and, after the creation of man, with mortal women too; no less than four great Olympian deities were born to him out of wedlock. First, he begat Hermes on Maia, daughter of Atlas, who bore him in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. Next, he begat Apollo and Artemis on Leto, daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe, transforming himself and her into quails when they coupled; but jealous Hera sent the serpent Python to pursue Leto all over the world, and decreed that she should not be delivered in any place where the sun shone. Carried on the wings of the South Wind, Leto at last came to Ortygia, close to Delos, where she bore Artemis, who was no sooner born than she helped her mother across the narrow straits, and there, between an olive—tree and a date—palm growing on the north side of Delian Mount Cynthus, delivered her of Apollo on the ninth day of labour. Delos, hitherto a floating island, became immovably fixed in the sea and, by decree, no one is now allowed either to be born or to die there: sick folk and pregnant women are ferried over to Ortygia instead.

The mother of Zeus’s son Dionysus is variously named: some say ‘that she was Demeter, or Io; some name her Dione; some, Persephone, with whom Zeus coupled in the likeness of a serpent; and some, Lethe.

But the common story runs as follows. Zeus, disguised as a mortal, had a secret love affair with Semele (‘moon’), daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, and jealous Hera, disguising herself as an old neighbour, advised Semele, then already six months with child, to make her mysterious lover a request: that he would no longer deceive her, but reveal himself in his true nature and form. How, otherwise, could she know that he was not a monster. Semele followed this advice and, when Zeus refused her plea, denied him further access to her bed. Then, in anger, he appeared as thunder and lightning, and she was consumed. But Hermes saved her six—months son; sewed him up inside Zeus’s thigh, to mature there for three months longer; and, in due course of time, delivered him. Thus Dionysus is called ‘twice—born’, or ‘the child of the double door’.

Zeus’s rapes apparently refer to Hellenic conquests of the goddess’s ancient shrines, such as that on Mount Cyllene; his marriages, to an ancient custom of giving the title ‘Zeus’ to the sacred king of the oak cult. Hermes, his son by the rape of Maia — a title of the Earth— goddess as Crone — was originally not a god, but the totemistic virtue of a phallic pillar, or cairn. Such pillars were the centre of an orgiastic dance in the goddess’s honour.

One component in Apollo’s godhead seems to have been an oracular mouse — Apollo Smintheus (‘Mouse—Apollo’) is among his earliest titles — consulted in a shrine of the Great Goddess, which perhaps explains why he was born where the sun never shone, namely underground. Mice were associated with disease and its cure, and the Hellenes therefore worshipped Apollo as a god of medicine and prophecy; afterwards saying that he was born under an olive—tree and a date—palm on the north side of a mountain. They called him a twin—brother of Artemis Goddess of Childbirth, and made his mother Leto — the daughter of the Titans Phoebe (‘moon’) and Coeus (‘intelligence’) — who was known in Egypt and Palestine as Lat, fertility—goddess of the date—palm and olive: hence her conveyance to Greece by a South Wind. In Italy she became Latona (‘Queen Lat’). Her quarrel with Hera suggests a conflict between early immigrants from Palestine and native tribes who worshipped a different Earth—goddess; the mouse cult, which she seems to have brought with her, was well established in Palestine. Python’s pursuit of Apollo recalls the use of snakes in Greek and Roman houses to keep down mice. But Apollo was also the ghost of the sacred king who had eaten the apple — the word Apollo may be derived from the root abol, ‘apple’, rather than from apollunai, ‘destroy’, which is the usual view.

Artemis, originally an orgiastic goddess, had the lascivious quail as her sacred bird. Flocks of quail will have made Ortygia a resting—place on their way north during the spring migration. The story that Delos, Apollo’s birthplace, had hitherto been a floating island may be a misunderstanding of a record that his birthplace was now officially fixed: since in Homer (Iliad) he is called Lycegenes, ‘born in Lycia’; and the Ephesians boasted that he was born at Ortygia near Ephesus (Tacitus: Annals). Both the Boeotian Tegyrans and the Attic Zosterans also claimed him as a native son (Stephanus of Byzantium sub Tegyra).

Dionysus began, probably, as a type of sacred king whom the goddess ritually killed with a thunderbolt in the seventh month from the winter solstice, and whom her priestesses devoured. This explains his mothers: Dione, the Oak—goddess; Io and Demeter, Corn— goddesses; and Persephone, Death—goddess. Plutarch, when calling him ‘Dionysus, a son of Lethe (‘forgetfulness’)’, refers to his later aspect as God of the Vine.

The story of Semele, daughter of Cadmus, seems to record the summary action taken by Hellenes of Boeotia in ending the tradition of royal sacrifice: Olympian Zeus asserts his power, takes the doomed king under his own protection, and destroys the goddess with her own thunderbolt. Dionysus thus becomes an immortal, after rebirth from his immortal father. Semele was worshipped at Athens during the Lenaea, the Festival of the Wild Women, when a yearling bull, representing Dionysus, was cut into nine pieces and sacrificed to her: one piece being burned, the remainder eaten raw by the worshippers. Semele is usually explained as form of Selene (‘moon’), and nine was the traditional number of orgiastic moon— priestesses who took part in such feasts — nine such are shown dancing around the sacred king in a cave painting at Cogul, and nine more killed and devoured St. Samson of Dol’s acolyte in mediaeval times.

(Robert Graves, The Greek Myths)

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