There is a difference between the way deities appear to one another and the way that they appear to us. The way that they appear to us is shaped by our expectations, the way we speak to them, and also by decisions that they make about what we are and are not ready for. The way deities see one another is shaped by their chosen role with respect to the pantheon they exist in, which is often far more complex than what any one human will see when they call that deity.

There is potentially great spiritual benefit in starting with the most comfortable face of a deity and shaping what we see to be more congruent with the higher nature of the deity.

By way of explaining this idea, I turn to the myth of Semele, as written by Nonnus. To orient you: Semele is the mother of Dionysos and a wife of Zeus (one of several). These two deities are her divine allies, and her divine antagonist is Hera, with whom she shares some personal traits, and whose dark reflection — pride and jealousy — she struggles with.

Where as Alcides is given the name Herakles when he is ready to pursue deification, Semele’s mythic persona is called Thyone. Thyone could be seen as a goddess of ecstatic revelry, and perhaps ecstatic trance states as well.

The Face Zeus Chose

[319] Now he leaned over the bed, with a horned head on human limbs, lowing with the voice of a bull, the very likeness of bullhorned Dionysos. Again, he put on a shaggy lion’s form; or he was a panther, as one who begets a bold son, driver of panthers and charioteer of lions. Again, as a young bridegroom he bound his hair with coiling snakes and vine-leaves intertwined, and twisted purple ivy about his locks, the plaited ornament of Bacchos. A writhing serpent crawled over the trembling bride and licked her rosy neck with gentle lips, then slipping into her bosom girdled the circuit of her firm breasts, hissing a wedding tune, and sprinkled her with sweet honey of the swarming bees instead of the viper’s deadly poison. Zeus made long wooing, and shouted “Euoi!” as if the winepress were near, as he begat his son who would love the cry. He pressed love-mad mouth to mouth, and beaded up delicious nectar, an intoxicating bedfellow for Semele, that she might bring forth a son to hold the sceptre of nectareal vintage. As a presage of things to come, he lifted the careforgetting grapes resting his laden arm on the firebringing fennel; or again, he lifted a thyrsus twined about with purple ivy, wearing a deerskin on his back – the lovesick wearer shook the dappled fawnskin with his left arm.

[344] All the earth laughed: a viny growth with self-sprouting leaves ran round Semele’s bed; the walls budded with flowers like a dewy meadow, at the begetting of Bromios; Zeus lurking inside rattled his thunderclaps over the unclouded bed, foretelling the drums of Dionysos in the night. — Dionysaica, Book 7.

Zeus is fairly multifaceted, but in this particular scene, we see a side of him rarely seen elsewhere: a god of intoxication, a god of ecstasy, a god of raw nature: animal, plant and thunderbolt. He made himself, in some ways, a reflection of the nascent Thyone, choosing an aspect of himself which was congruent with her nature.

In other words, Zeus chose to present himself in a way that would best help Semele to develop into the goddess she was meant to be. It was not the whole of Zeus, not his truest face, nor even an accurate representation of what is actually at the transcendent heart of Zeus, as a deity.

Semele knew it, and as we shall soon see, it is this which contributed to her downfall.

The Face of Zeus Semele Invoked

[333] “A fine wedding-fit you have found me – the sneers of women! The attendants about me slander me, and far above the rest I fear the rough tongue of this garrulous nurse. Remember who wove the wilywitted fate for Typhon, and brought back to you the stolen spark of your thunder! Show it to my father, who got it back, for old Cadmos demands of me a proof of your bed. Never yet have I seen the countenance of the true Cronion, never beheld the flashing gleam from his eyelids, or the rays from his face, or the lustrous beard! Your Olympian shape I have never seen, but I expect a panther or lion – I have seen no god as a husband. I see you something mortal, and I am to bring forth a god! Yet I heave heard of another fiery wedding: did not Helios embrace his bride Clymene with fiery nuptials?”

[348] Thus Semele prayed for her own fate: the shortlived bride hoped to be equal to Hera, and to see at her nuptials the spark of the thunderbolt gentle and peaceful.” — Nonnus, Dionysiaca, Book 8

“You Olympian shape I have not seen,” says Semele.

She’s right. She isn’t seeing Zeus the way other deities see him. She is seeing him only as he has thus far presented himself, a near-reflection of Thyone, her mythic self. Being who she is, she wants all of the revelation right now. 

More than that, she isn’t contented to glimpse the raw power of Zeus, she wants to show it to other people. She wants the ceaseless mockery and skepticism that she faces to stop, and to make everyone shut up about how she “really” got pregnant. In all of this, I can’t help but think of the plight of god spouses in the modern day, and the throngs of people looking to somehow disprove or dismiss this phenomenon. Nothing has changed, apparently, but if you follow the Hellenic tradition, this story is ammo.

So Semele tries to speak what is a sort of invocation of the true, Olympian Zeus.

Indulge me as I talk about the power of words, and how much more important they are than intentions, when you are calling a deity into manifestation. Words shape the way you think. They shape your expectations.

She calls Zeus: His Spark, His Flashing Gleam, His Rays of Light, His Luster, Fiery Zeus. She is then, in short order, burned to ashes.

Curiously, what she calls isn’t really any closer to being who Zeus really is than what she was getting previously. It was simply what her jealousy and desire for being exalted prompted her to imagine: the most powerful, intense, ‘real’ and tangible thing possible.

We do, in a very similar way, get people who need their experiences of the gods to be painful, overwhelming or oppressive in order to feel that those experiences are legitimate. They may not articulate it in this way, but the degree of attention given to unpleasant experiences as opposed to gentler and fulfilling ones that further our spiritual development is well documented. The latter too often gets an eye-roll. We don’t want that. Like Semele, we want people to believe that these experiences we are having are real. Being spiritually invalidated hurts.

[351] Father Zeus heard, and blamed the jealous Portioners, and pities Semele so soon to die; but he understood the scheming resentment of implacable Hera against Bacchos. Then he ordered Hermes to catch up his newborn son out of the thunderfire when it should strike Thyone. He spoke thus in answer to the highheaded girl: “Wife, the jealous mind of Hera has deceived you by a trick. Do you really think, wife, that my thunders are gentle? Be patient until another time, for now you carry a child. Be patient until next time, and first bring forth my son. Do not demand from me the murderous fire before that birth. I had no lightning in my hand when I took Danaë’s maidenhood; no booming thunder, no thunderbolts celebrated my union with your Europa, the Tyrian bride; the Inachian heifer saw no flames: you alone, a mortal, demand from me what a goddess Leto did not ask.” — Nonnus, Dionysiaca, Book 8

Semele’s death was partly caused by Hera’s goading, but truly, Hera’s words to Semele would have had no sting if Semele had not been sneered at by everyone, including her own father who, himself, married a deity. She, in turn, began to doubt her own relationship with Zeus, and wanted to see who her husband really was.

Importantly, this is a feature found in the other godspouse apotheosis narrative: the tale of Psyche.

This was carried out at once, and those splendid sisters then made their way home. They were now gnawed with the bile of growing envy, and repeatedly exchanged loud-voiced complaints.

One of them began: ‘Fortuna [Tykhe, Fortune], how blind and harsh and unjust you are! Was it your pleasure that we, daughters of the same parents, should endure so different a fate? Here we are, her elder sisters, nothing better than maidservants to foreign husbands, banished form home and even from our native land, living like exiles far from our parents, while Psyche, the youngest and last offspring of our mother’s weary womb, has obtained all this wealth, and a god for a husband! She has not even a notion of how to enjoy such abundant blessings. Did you notice, sister, the quantity and quality of the precious stones lying in the house, the gleaming garments, the sparkling jewels, the gold lying beneath our feet and all over the house? If she has as handsome a husband as she claims, no woman living in the whole world is more blessed. Perhaps as their intimacy continues and their love grows stronger, her god-husband will make her divine as well. That’s how things are, mark my words; she was putting on such airs and graces! She’s now so high and mighty, behaving like a goddess, with those voices serving her needs, and Winds obeying her commands! Whereas my life’s a hell; to begin with, I have a husband older than my father. He’s balder than an onion as well, and he hasn’t the virility of an infant. And he keeps our house barricaded with bards and chains.’
The other took up the grumbling. ‘I have to put up with a husband crippled and bent with rheumatism, so that he can succumb to my charms only once in a blue moon. I spent almost all my day rubbing his fingers, which are twisted and hard as flint, and burning these soft hands of mine on reeking poultices, filthy bandages, and smelly plasters. I’m a slaving nursing attendant, not a dutiful wife. You must decide for yourself, sister, how patiently or–let me express myself frankly–how menially you intent to bear the situation; I can’t brook any longer the thought of this undeserving girl falling on her feet like this. Just recall how disdainfully and haughtily she treated us, how swollen-headed she’d become with her boasting and her immodest vulgar display, how she reluctantly threw at us a few trinkets from that mass of riches, and then at once ordered us to be thrown out, whisked away, sent off with the Wind because she found our presence tedious! As sure as I’m a woman, as sure as I’m standing here, I’m going to propel her headlong off that heap of riches! If the insulting way she’s treated us has needled you as well, as it certainly should have, we must work out an effective plan together. We must not show the gifts in our possession to our parents or anyone else. We must not even betray the slightest awareness that she’s alive. It’s bad enough that we’ve witnessed the sorry situation ourselves, without our having to spread the glad news to our parents and the whole world at large. People aren’t really fortunate if no one knows of their riches. She’ll realize that she’s got elder sisters, not maid-servants. So let us now go back to our husbands and homes, which may be poor but are honest. Then, when we have given the matter deeper thought, we must go back more determined to punish her arrogance.’ — Apuleius, The Golden Ass

This jealousy, and the sisters’ subsequent evil counsel, is what ultimately causes Psyche to doubt Eros, and ultimately betray him.

A moral to this story is: when mortals take it upon themselves to judge the arrogance of other mortals, rather than leaving this solemn duty in the hands of the deities themselves, they cause much purposeless misery for the deities involved. Such accusations are more frequently rooted in the accuser’s jealousy or insecurity than they are in any actual wrong-doing. 

So, yeah. Being a dick to godspouses is essentially the same as being a dick to the deity they are married to. So don’t do that.

The Apotheosis of Semele, and the Faces of Zeus

Many people talk about Semele’s Hubris in connection with this story. I want to point out, though, that being immolated is a common feature in apotheosis narratives, and that Semele is ultimately brought up to Olympos and honored as a deity in her own right. If you want to choose a story to show why you should be less arrogant with mysticism, Semele is sort of a bad choice.

Unlike the ordinary hearth fire which Demophon was placed in, or the funeral pyre which Herakles lit for himself, Semele is burned up directly by Zeus’ divine power. Semele very literally went out in a blaze of glory. 

Here, once Zeus has given up hope, he calls Hermes to snatch up his brother.

[351] Father Zeus heard, and blamed the jealous Portioners, and pities Semele so soon to die; but he understood the scheming resentment of implacable Hera against Bacchos. Then he ordered Hermes to catch up his newborn son out of the thunderfire when it should strike Thyone. — Nonnus, Dionysiaca, Book 8

This is the first time, other than in the traditional plea to the Muses for inspiration, that Semele is called Thyone in this text. This makes sense to me. Obviously, she has had a very intimate relationship with a deity, has imbibed a great deal of that energy, and through intense and intimate communion with a deity, her Mythic Persona has been very well developed.

More than that, I interpret that the lightning did not strike Semele’s physical body. Rather, only because she was already attuned to Zeus’s energy, only because she had such a well-developed mythic persona, could she receive the killing fires. She had to exist in Zeus’s world in order to be influenced by him. When Thyone received that divine fire, Semele, or the mortal persona, was reduced to smoldering ash.

[389] So she spoke in her pride, and would have grasped the deadly lightning in her own hands – she touched the destroying thunderbolts with daring palm, careless of Fate. Then Semele’s wedding was her death, and in its celebration the Avenging Spirit made her bower serve for pyre and tomb. Zeus had no mercy; the breath of the bridal thunder with its fires of delivery burnt her all to ashes.

[396] Lightning was the midwife, thunder our Lady of childbed; the heavenly flames had mercy, and delivered Bacchos struggling from the mother’s burning lap when the married life was withered by the mothermurdering flash; the thunders tempered their breath to bathe the babe, untimely born but unhurt. Semele saw her fiery end, and perished rejoicing in a childbearing death. — Ibid.

So, a couple of things, here.

Zeus had a choice about how to present himself. He was not the unrestrained volcano who was just so powerful that he lava’ed all over his beloved, just by virtue of proximity. Greek deities are powerful, yes, but we need to remember that they are not ignorant or clumsy. Zeus had carefully constructed something safe for her, something actually beneficial for her spiritual development. He had every expectation that he could marry this woman, have an ongoing relationship with her,  and conceive a child without any ill effects.

He did not want to present himself in a way that hurt Semele, but he promised, and then he had no choice. Because of the nature of their relationship, he was compelled to appear exactly as she asked.

Metaphysical Notions

An unbridled experience of the divine can destroy us, but it can also deify us. The pure essence of divinity can kill us, if we take in more than we are ready for, but little dribs and drabs over time prepare us for immortality without incinerating everything all at once.

A deity has many faces. Not all are congruent with their highest nature. The upper face of divinity has to do with the role that a deity plays with respect to their pantheon or the cosmos, generally. The lower face of divinity is what myth describes: a thing comprised of energies and symbols.  The divine influx comes from the upper face of divinity, and flows through the lower face to us, allowing us to receive that influx and draw ourself up, or out, or toward their reality.

Because of the way we work with our deities, we sometimes drag the way that they manifest for us off-course. We see Semele doing this when she asks specifically for all of the incendiary aspects of Zeus to manifest for her, which he warns her extensively is a terrible idea.

I conjecture that the ideal way to go about developing a relationship with a deity is to begin with the aspect that feels most comfortable, to identify the higher nature of the deity, or their role in the universe/pantheon, and lastly to work toward building a better connection between our personal face of the deity (indeed, it seems that the face of Zeus Semele received was designed specifically for her), and the higher nature of that deity. It is this which will allow us to gradually acquire the divine influx, rather than being reduced to ashes by it.

This idea of an upper and lower mythic reality seems to resonate to things I discovered in my study of the Mithras Liturgy.

The aspects of deities are often called by their qualities, or their titles and epithets. It seems like a good path forward from here would be to craft a ritual that describes the anatomy of the situation, and the direction we intend to drag it in. That would, in turn, be another tool for developing more beneficial and accurate gnostic experiences with deities.