Semele incinerated after wanting it all from Jupiter

Why can’t women have it all? This question attracts enormous public concern, much more so than why men can’t have it all. Difficulties with women having it all have been addressed in literary history going back to Greek and Latin classics. According to this relevant, extensive record of human culture, the reason women can’t have it all isn’t simply that no one can have it all in relation to all of human desires. The issue is gendered. Men hesitate to give it all to women because they are afraid that women will be hurt.

Vitally important classics, both Greek and Latin, provide enduring insight into the universal human gender condition. In classics, the relevant situation is represented by a man, transformed into a donkey, enticed into having sex with a woman:

She took off her clothes and standing stark naked in front of the light, poured out some perfume from an alabaster vase and rubbed it on herself. She rubbed ointment from the vase over me as well, smearing it particularly thickly over my nose. Then she kissed me, and spoke to me as if I were her beloved and a human being. She took me by the halter and dragged me onto the bed. I needed no urging. I was already tipsy from much good wine, and the perfume on our skins had me wild with desire. I saw that she was a beautiful young woman in every way. I lay down, but I had no idea about how to mount her. I hadn’t had sex once since I had become an ass. I had no experience doing it donkey style, nor had I ever mounted a female ass. Moreover, I was terribly afraid that she would be too small for me and that I would split her in half and have a severe penalty to pay as her murderer.

{ ἀποδυσαμένη παρέστη τῷ λύχνῳ γυμνὴ ὅλη καὶ μύρον ἔκ τινος ἀλαβάστρου προχεαμένη τούτῳ ἀλείφεται, κἀμὲ δὲ μυρίζει ἔνθεν, μάλιστα τὴν ῥῖνά μου μύρων ἐνέπλησεν, εἶτά με καὶ ἐφίλησε καὶ οἷα πρὸς αὐτῆς ἐρώμενον καὶ ἄνθρωπον διελέγετο καί με ἐκ τῆς φορβειᾶς λαβομένη ἐπὶ τὸ χαμεύνιον εἷλκεν· κἀγὼ οὐδέν τι του παρακαλέσαντος εἰς τοῦτο δεόμενος καὶ οἴνῳ δὲ παλαιῷ πολλῷ ὑποβεβρεγμένος καὶ τῷ χρίσματι τοῦ μύρου οἰστρημένος καὶ τὴν παιδίσκην δὲ ὁρῶν πάντα καλὴν κλίνομαι, καὶ σφόδρα ἠπόρουν ὅπως ἀναβήσομαι τὴν ἄνθρωπον· καὶ γὰρ ἐξ ὅτου ἐγεγόνειν ὄνος, συνουσίας ἀλλ᾿ οὐδὲ τῆς ὄνοις συνήθους ἔτυχον ἁψάμενος οὐδὲ γυναικὶ ἐχρησάμην ὄνῳ· καὶ μὴν καὶ τοῦτό μ᾿ εἰς δέος οὐχὶ μέτριον ἦγε, μὴ οὐ χωρήσασα ἡ γυνὴ διασπασθείη, κἀγὼ ὥσπερ ἀνδροφόνος καλὴν δώσω δίκην. }[1]

The woman insistently wanted it all. The donkey actually didn’t have to fear:

I hadn’t realized that all my fears were groundless. She encouraged me with many kisses — passionate ones in fact. When she saw that I couldn’t hold myself back, she lay down beside me just as if I were a man. She embraced me, lifted me in, and received the full extent of my penis. I, poor coward, was still afraid. I was gently pulling myself away, but she clung to my penis, so that it could not withdraw and her hips followed it as it retreated. Once I was absolutely convinced that I needed to do something more to ensure her pleasure and enjoyment, I served her for the rest of the time without fear.

{ ἠγνόουν δὲ οὐκ εἰς δέον δεδιώς. ἡ γὰρ γυνὴ πολλοῖς τοῖς φιλήμασι, καὶ τούτοις ἐρωτικοῖς, προσκαλουμένη ὡς εἶδεν οὐ κατέχοντα, ὥσπερ ἀνδρὶ παρακειμένη περιβάλλεταί με καὶ ἄρασα εἴσω ὅλον παρεδέξατο. κἀγὼ μὲν ὁ δειλὸς ἐδεδοίκειν ἔτι καὶ ὀπίσω ἀπῆγον ἐμαυτὸν ἀτρέμα, ἡ δὲ τῆς τε ὀσφύος τῆς ἐμῆς εἴχετο, ὥστε μὴ ὑποχωρεῖν, καὶ αὐτὴ εἵπετο τὸ φεῦγον. ἐπεὶ δὲ ἀκριβῶς ἐπείσθην ἔτι μοι καὶ προσδεῖν πρὸς τὴν τῆς γυναικὸς ἡδονήν τε καὶ τέρψιν, ἀδεῶς λοιπὸν ὑπηρέτουν }

Just like this man turned into a donkey, many men are afraid to do more for women. If women want it all, women must do more to encourage and support men.

The medieval trobairitz debate poem, “I have heard a lady who complained {Una dona ai auzit que s’es clamada}” depicts a wife failing to encourage her husband. She complained that he was giving her less than it all. He explained that he didn’t want to hurt her. She then disparaged him for idle boasting. She accused him of being sexually inadequate. After enduring that emotional abuse, the husband did as his wife instructed. Nonetheless, she still didn’t have it all. She didn’t have a happy husband feeling his wife’s loving gratitude for his hard work.

Women must recognize their limitations. Ovid, celebrated in medieval Europe as a preeminent teacher of love, taught women the importance of humility in love. Ovid recounted in his Metamorphoses the story of Semele and Jove, also known as Jupiter. Lacking sufficient pleasure under his domineering and hateful wife Juno, the nominal head god in charge of the cosmos Jove frequently had extramarital affairs with mortal women. One of his mistresses was the mortal woman Semele. Juno burned with animosity toward her husband’s strong, independent sexuality:

Behold, a new grievance was added
to her prior ones: Semele was pregnant with the seed
of the mighty Jove. Juno loosened her tongue to make complaints,
but then she said to herself, “What have I ever gained from so many complaints?
She herself I must attack, if Juno the most great
I’m to be solemnly called. I must destroy her if the jeweled scepter
properly I hold in my strong right hand, and if I am queen and Jove’s
sister and wife, or sister at least.”

{ Subit ecce priori
causa recens, gravidamque dolet de semine magni
esse Iovis Semelen. Dum linguam ad iurgia solvit,
“profeci quid enim totiens per iurgia?” dixit:
“ipsa petenda mihi est, ipsam, si maxima Iuno
rite vocor, perdam, si me gemmantia dextra
sceptra tenere decet, si sum regina Iovisque
et soror et coniunx, certe soror.” }[2]

Juno and Jove’s sexless marriage clearly didn’t come from him being sexual impotent. In addition to Juno potentially being deprived of about a third of Jove’s income through mandated “child support” payments to Semele, Semele’s pregnancy also publicly embarrassed Juno:

I think that with this stolen love she is
content, and the injury to our marriage bed is brief.
But what was lacking, now is — she has conceived! Her crime is displayed
with her full womb. It’s motherhood, which I have barely obtained.
She wants to be the mother of Jove’s child. Such is her trust in her beauty.
I’ll make that trust false. I’m not Saturn’s daughter if
she isn’t plunged by Jove himself into the Stygian waters.

{ puto, furto est
contenta, et thalami brevis est iniuria nostri:
concipit, id deerat! manifestaque crimina pleno
fert utero, et mater, quod vix mihi contigit uno
de Iove vult fieri: tanta est fiducia formae.
Fallat eam faxo; nec sum Saturnia, si non
ab Iove mersa suo Stygias penetrabit in undas. }[3]

Juno thus resolved to kill Semele through gender-distinctive proxy violence.

Disguised as Semele’s old woman nurse Beroë, Juno visited Semele. They chatted and gossipped. Semele mentioned her affair with Jove, called Jupiter with reference to his seminal potency in being a father. Juno as Beroë sighed and wondered about the father of Semele’s pregancy:

“I hope
he really is Jupiter,” she said. “I mistrust all such things. Many men,
pretending to the name of gods, have entered chaste women’s beds.
And it’s not enough for him to be Jove. Make him prove his love
if it’s really him. In the form and size that on high
Juno receives him, request that in just the same way
he give you his embrace after taking up his distinguishing powers.”

{ “opto,
Iuppiter ut sit” ait: “metuo tamen omnia: multi
nomine divorum thalamos iniere pudicos.
Nec tamen esse Iovem satis est: det pignus amoris,
si modo verus is est, quantusque et qualis ab alta
Iunone excipitur, tantus talisque, rogato,
det tibi complexus suaque ante insignia sumat.” }

Jove was the highest ranking man-god. He was well-known for his sexual vigor with both women and boys. When Jove’s distinguishing powers were on high in form and size for sexual relations, he probably had a more impressive masculine love organ than does a donkey. The potential danger to a woman would thus be even greater than with a donkey.

Like King Herod, Jove foolish promised a lovely woman that he would do whatever she requested. Jove’s unlimited promise of performance to Semele allowed her to destroy herself:

Happy with too much evil and able to be doomed by her lover’s
obsequiousness, Semele said, “Such as Juno
is accustomed to you embracing her in having sexual intercourse,
give yourself to me in the same way.”

{ Laeta malo nimiumque potens perituraque amantis
obsequio Semele “qualem Saturnia” dixit
“te solet amplecti, Veneris cum foedus initis,
da mihi te talem.” }

Jove knew himself. He didn’t want Semele to have it all because he feared that would be too much for her. But Semele wanted it all. Jove couldn’t renege upon his promise to fulfill her request.[4]

Jupiter goes to have sex with Semele

Before having sex again with Semele, Jove sought to reduce his potency. He drew to himself mists and clouds and stirred up a storm. He apparently hoped that immersing himself in a cold shower would help to protect Semele. He strove to lessen the flame of his passion and reduce the force of his earth-moving thunder. Jove’s efforts at self-diminishment were in vain:

Her mortal body could not endure
the celestial banging and was incinerated with his sexual gifts.

{ corpus mortale tumultus
non tulit aetherios donisque iugalibus arsit. }

Semele shouldn’t have yearned to have it all. Even women not having sex with a god should learn from Semele’s disastrous desire.

Study of classics must continue because that contributes to women’s safety. Yet men suffer about four times as much lethal violence as do women. Men endure rape libel while men being raped is largely ignored. Men’s sexuality has long been oppressively criminalized. Criminal justice systems, which worldwide confine behind bars fifteen times more men than women, essentially function as penal punishment systems applied with harsh discrimination to persons with penises. Men with good reason have fear in relation to women. Men have no just responsibility to ensure that women have it all. Most importantly, no one can have it all, nor can social justice be achieved, unless classics are appreciated in a way barely conceivable today.

Ah, take heed what you press,
for, beyond all redress,
should I grant your request, I shall harm you.

No, no, I’ll take no less,
than all in full excess!
Your oath it may alarm you,
yet haste and prepare,
for I’ll know what you are,
with all your powers arm you.[5]

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Lucius or the Ass {Λουκιοσ η Ονοσ}, also known as The Ass {Ονοσ / Onos / Asinus}, 51 (excerpt), ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from MacLeod (1967). For a Greek reader for this text, Hayes & Nimis (2012). Casson (1962) provides an alternate English translation. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Onos 51.

This story, which apparently is from the second century GC, has traditional been attributed to Lucian of Samosata, but that attribution is disputed. Lucius or the Ass is closely related to the Metamorphoses of Apuleius. Both seemed to be based on an early Greek work in which the first-person narrator was named Lukios of Patrae. On the various versions of the story, Mason (1994).

[2] Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.257-64, Latin text of Magnus (1892) via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from those of Lombardo (2010), Kline (2000), and Miller (1916). Subsequent quotes are sourced similarly and serially from the story of Semele and Jupiter in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 3.253-315. Knight’s Fabulae provides some Latin reading notes for this passage. Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 167 and 179 also recount a similar story. For a compilation of ancient sources, see Theoi’s Semele Thyone entry.

Juno describes herself as “sister and wife, or sister at least {soror et coniunx, certe soror}” of Jove. That description playfully highlights her marital difficulties. It also shows Ovid having Juno qualify her claim in Aeneid 1.47: “I who march forward as queen of the gods, no less than sister and wife of Jove {ego, quae diuum incedo regina Iouisque / et soror et coniunx }.” Ovid thus underscores Juno’s deception in feigning reconciliation with Jove after withdrawing her support for Juturna in Aeneid 12. Prauscello (2008). See also Hardie (1990) pp. 231-5.

[3] Ovid’s elegiac predecessor Propertius also referred to Semele’s beauty. He told his beloved Cynthia when she was deathly ill:

Tell Semele what peril exits with her beauty.
She will believe you, that young woman taught through destruction.

{ Narrabis Semelae, quo sis formosa periclo,
credet et illa, suo docta puella malo }

Propertius, Elegies 2.28.27-28, Latin text from Goold (1990), my English translation. For a freely available text and translation of Propertius, Holcombe (2009).

[4] On King Herod’s similar folly, Mark 6:22-3. Jove made to the mortal woman Semele a promise without limit. She in turn desired it all.

[5] Airs from Act 4, Scene 4 of Handel’s Semele. This opera was first performed in London’s Covent Garden Theatre in 1744. The English playwright William Congreve wrote the libretto for this opera about 1705. Congreve wrote sexual comedy of manners such as Love for Love (1695) and The Way of the World (1700). For a review of Handel’s Semele, Uzzell (2011).

[images] (1) Jupiter and Semele, attributed to Jacopo Tintoretto. Painted c. 1545. Preserved as NG1476 in the National Gallery (London, UK). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Jupiter (John Mark Ainsley) attempts to protect Semele (Rosemary Joshua), but she wants is all and will have no less. Scene from the performance in 1997 of Handel’s Semele by the English National Opera, conducted by Harry Bicket. Via YouTube. Here’s a performance (2007) with Cecilia Bartoli as Semele. Kathleen Battle sang Handel’s “No, no, I’ll take no less!” at Carnegie Hall in 1985.


Casson, Lionel, trans. 1962. Selected satires of Lucian. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Goold, G. P., ed and trans. 1990. Propertius. Elegies. Loeb Classical Library 18. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hardie, Philip. 1990. “Ovid’s Theban History: The First ‘Anti-Aeneid’?” The Classical Quarterly. 40 (1): 224-235.

Hayes, Evan and Stephen Nimis, eds. 2012. Lucian’s The Ass: An Intermediate Greek Reader. Greek text with running vocabulary and commentary. Oxford, OH: Faenum Publishing.

Holcombe, Colin John, trans. 2009. Sextus Propertius Elegies. Latin text and English translation. Ocaso Press.

Kline, A. S., trans. 2000. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Poetry in Translation. Online.

Lombardo, Stanley, trans. 2010. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co.

MacLeod, M. D., ed. and trans. 1967. Soloecista. Lucius or The Ass. Amores. Halcyon. Demosthenes. Podagra. Ocypus. Cyniscus. Philopatris. Charidemus. Nero. Loeb Classical Library 432. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Magnus, Hugo. 1892. Die Metamorphosen des P. Ovidius Naso: für den Schulgebrauch erklärt. Gotha: F.A. Perthes.

Mason, Hugh J. 1994. “Greek and Latin Versions of the Ass-Story.” ANRW (Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römische Welt). II 34(2): 1665-1707.

Miller, Frank Justus, revised by G. P. Goold. 1916. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Vol 1: Books 1-8. Loeb Classical Library 42. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Prauscello, Lucia. 2008. “Juno’s Wrath Again: Some Virgilian Echoes in Ovid, Met. 3. 253-315.” Classical Quarterly. 58 (2): 565-570.

Uzzell, Rupert. 2011. “Ovid’s Semele – In Music and Art.” Higher Revelations. Online, Sept. 10, 2011.

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