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Praxiteles: "Hermes with the Young Dionysus". Marble sculpture (c. 340 BC.). Archaeological Museum, Olympia. The statue represents the god Hermes standing in a relaxed pose, holding the infant Dionysus on his arm, and playing with him.
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Hermes and the Birth of Dionysus

Hermes was the prankster of the gods. And yet, in spite of his pranks, he won the affection of all the gods because of his playfulness, innocence, and helpfulness. He was particularly helpful to Zeus, his father, and became his official messenger and trusted aide. It was Hermes who drove the herd of Agenor, with Zeus disguised as a bull mingled in with them, towards the Princess Europa on the Phoenician shores of the Mediterranean. It was Hermes and the Birth of Dionysus who lulled Argos to sleep, then slew him and freed Io. Hermes and the Birth of Dionysus came again to the aide of his father on the occasion of the birth of Dionysus, god of wine. Now Semele was the daughter of Cadmus, brother of Europa, and Harmonia, daughter of Ares and Aphrodite.

Zeus caught sight of Semele one spring day, and as was his habit, fell in love with her. Zeus came to her in simple attire, wooed her, and won her. Zeus' jealous wife, Hera, plotted revenge against this new rival for her husband's affections. She assumed the guise of Semele's aged nurse, and, as the trusted servant, suggested that perhaps her lover was not who he claimed to be. Semele had to know, so she extracted an oath from Zeus, the next time she saw him, that he would come to her in all his glory, to prove that he was really who he claimed to be. "Kill me if you can with one fierce Divine embrace!" she cried out. By this time Semele was already pregnant by Zeus with the child Bacchus. Zeus, having sworn on the sacred River Styx to grant Semele any wish she desired, had no recourse but to come to Semele as she had desired. Clothed in all his splendor, including lightning and thunder, Zeus entered the bedchamber of Semele, embraced her with searing and divine radiance, and in an instant she was consumed to ashes. As Semele was engulfed in brilliant rapture, Zeus plucked the unborn infant Dionysus from her womb, and sewed him into his thigh. In due time Zeus drew forth Dionysus from his thigh-womb, with the help of Ilithyia, and Dionysus was born again. To protect Dionysus from the hostility of his jealous wife Hera, Zeus entrusted the infant to his loyal son and servant Hermes, who took him to Orchomenus and placed him in the care of Semele's sister Io.


Last modified August 28, 2001 by Jennifer Bergman.

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