The bars defending the palace of Thebes rose silently in the dark. Zeus stretched out on Semele’s bed in the form of a bull with human limbs. Then he was a panther. Then a young man with vine shoots in his curls Finally he settled into that most perfect of shapes: the serpent. Zeus prolonged their union like some story without end, a rehearsal, a rehearsal of the life of the god about to be generated. The snake slithered over Semele’s trembling body and gently licked her neck. Then, gripping her bust in one of his coils, wrapping her breasts in a scaly sash, he sprinkled her not with poison but with liquid honey. Now the snake was pressing his mouth against Semele’s mouth, a dribble of nectar trickling down onto her lips intoxicated here, and all the while vine leaves were sprouting up on the bed and there was a sound of drums beating in the darkness. The earth laughed. Dionysus was conceived just as Zeus shouted the name with which for centuries he was evoked: ‘Evoe!’
IN MANY religions the demiurge keeps a special treasure under his throne: not riches, powers or talents, but a box full of stories. A trickster may try to steal it, fail, and find himself turned into Anansi, the spider, protagonist of a web of stories that connects Africa with America, and North with South, in an ever-widening mesh.
Roberto Calasso’s book is a box of stories, too, filled, like that of a conjuror, with an unfailing chain of coloured scarves and naked boys and girls, of blooms and wounds and plots and magic, all knotted together and displayed to the soft, cajoling sound of charms and spells. More…
IMAGE: Jove (Zeus) and Semele (1695) by Sebastiano Ricci