The Twice-Born God
Different myths tell different stories of Dionysus's birth. Both versions name Zeus as his father and emphasize Hera's jealousy, but the child's mother and the circumstances of his birth differ.
As Chapter 6 describes, Zeus seduced Semele disguised as a human male, although he told her that he was actually the ruler of the gods. Hera learned of their affair and was consumed with jealousy. She disguised herself as an old woman and sought out the pregnant Semele, eventually gaining the woman's trust. When Semele confided that Zeus was the father of her child, Hera made her doubt whether her lover had told the truth.
To discover her lover's actual identity, Semele asked him to grant her a wish. Still smitten with the young woman, Zeus promised her anything she wanted, and Semele requested that he reveal his true form to her. Zeus knew that any mortal who looked upon him as he really was would die and begged her to change her mind. She persisted, and he had no choice but to comply. When he presented himself to her in all his glory, Semele burst into flames.
Zeus called on Hermes to rescue his unborn child. Hermes extracted the baby from the mother while Zeus cut a gash in his own thigh. Hermes placed the child inside Zeus's wound and stitched it back up. Three months later, Dionysus was born.
In this version, Zeus was again Dionysus's father, but Persephone was his mother. Zeus, desiring Persephone, turned himself into a snake and mated with her. From this union, Zagreus was born. The infant boy had horns and came into the world wearing a crown of snakes.
Hera hated Zeus's illegitimate son and wanted to destroy him. She stole the child and handed him over to the Titans, telling them to kill him. In some stories, Zagreus runs from the Titans, changing into different animals as he flees. In the end, though, the Titans tore Zagreus to pieces. They cooked and devoured him — everything except the heart.
Athena intervened, stealing the heart and turning it over to Zeus. Zeus gave Semele the heart and ordered her to eat it. She did as she was told and became pregnant with the child whose heart she'd consumed. When the child was born the second time, he was named Dionysus.