Dionysus, often regarded as simply the god of wine and drunkenness, was in fact an extremely complex deity, and the multitude of legends regarding his birth reflect this aspect. In fact, since there are so many answers to the question “How was Dionysus born?”, both ancient and modern scholars suspect there were several deities which, at some point in time, merged under the name and image of Dionysus, the youngest among the major Olympian gods.

The widest spread of the traditions regarding the birth of Dionysus present him as the son of Zeus and Semele, a mortal woman, daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes. As the story goes, when Hera, the legitimate wife of Zeus, found out that her husband was having yet another affair with a mortal woman, she decided to put an end to it in the way Greek gods generally solved their conflicts: by having the other woman killed. When Semele was already pregnant with Dionysus, Hera disguised herself as an old and wise woman, and convinced Semele that she had the right to see her divine lover in all his godly majesty. So Semele cried and begged Zeus to show her his true face, and eventually managed to convince him, though it was well known that mortals could not gaze upon the glorious face of a god (which is why the gods took the weirdest forms and disguises when they revealed themselves to common men).

Well, Zeus revealed himself in his godly form, and Semele could not bear the sight and burst into flames. Zeus could not save her anymore, but decided to rescue the unborn child, so he took Dionysus and sew him in his thigh, and from that odd location the child was born when the pregnancy reached the due age. Apart from the weird symbolism of being born out of a thigh instead of a womb (whose meaning is unclear and widely discussed by specialists), this legend regarding the way Dionysus was born includes one of the key elements in his mythology: that he was born twice (once from his mother and once from Zeus).

The same motif is found in a different account. According to this version, Dionysus is the son of Zeus with Persephone or with her mother, Demeter. (I have no scientific backup for this, but I just want to point out that I hate the version in which Persephone is the mother. After all, Hades and Persephone are one of the most stable and faithful couple in the Greek mythology, they really don’t deserve this.) So, in this account on how Dionysus was born, Hera finds out about the affair a bit later, after the child’s birth, and she employs the Titans to kill Dionysus. The Titans lure him with toys (a bunch of toys will remain sacred and very common items in the cult of Dionysus, as a reflection of this story) and rip him to pieces. Zeus manages to save only the heart of the child, which he feeds to Semele, who is impregnated in this way and gives birth, for the second time, to Dionysus.

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