Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art

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The false nurse listened with apparent sympathy; but in reality she was furious, and, to put an end to it all, asked Semele if she were quite sure he was king of the gods, as he asserted, and whether he visited her in all the pomp of his regal apparel. The maiden shamefacedly replied that he was wont to visit her in the guise of a mortal only; whereupon Beroe, with feigned indignation, told her nursling he must either be a vile impostor, or else that he did not love her as dearly as he loved Juno, in whose presence he seldom appeared except in godlike array.

With artful words she so worked upon the guileless nature of her rival, that, when Jupiter next came, the maiden used all her blandishments to extort from him a solemn oath to grant any request she chose to make. A lover is not very likely to weigh his words under such circumstances, and Jupiter took the most solemn of all the oaths to gratify her whim.

“‘Bear me witness, Earth, and ye, broad Heavens
Above us, and ye, waters of the Styx,
That flow beneath us, mightiest oath of all,
And most revered by the blessed gods!’”
Homer (Bryant’s tr.).

The promise won, the delighted Semele bade her lover speedily return to Olympus, don his own majestic form and apparel, and hasten back to her side, surrounded by all his heavenly [173] pomp, and armed with his dreaded thunderbolts. Jupiter, horrified at this imprudent request, implored her to ask something else, and release him from a promise fraught with such danger to her; but all in vain. Semele, like many another fair lady, enjoyed having her own way, and fairly forced him to obey.

Jupiter returned to Olympus, modified his costume as much as possible, dimmed his glory wherever he could, and chose the feeblest of all his bolts, for well he knew no mere mortal could endure the shock of his full glory. Then, mounted on a pale flash of lightning, he darted back to Semele.

“To keep his promise he ascends, and shrouds
His awful brow in whirlwinds and in clouds;
Whilst all around, in terrible array,
His thunders rattle, and his lightnings play.
And yet, the dazzling luster to abate,
He set not out in all his pomp and state,
Clad in the mildest lightning of the skies,
And arm’d with thunder of the smallest size:
Not those huge bolts, by which the giants slain,
Lay overthrown on the Phlegrean plain.
’Twas of a lesser mold, and lighter weight;
They call it thunder of a second-rate.
For the rough Cyclops, who by Jove’s command
Temper’d the bolt and turn’d it to his hand,
Work’d up less flame and fury in its make,
And quench’d it sooner in the standing lake.
Thus dreadfully adorn’d, with horror bright,
Th’ illustrious god, descending from his height,
Came rushing on her in a storm of light.”
Ovid (Addison’s tr.).