Some of the gods felt that Diana’s punishment of Actaeon was too extreme, while others felt that it was appropriate. Queen Juno applauds the punishment because she is still furious that Jupiter slept with Europa and is happy to see Europa’s lineage harmed. Now, Juno is furious and jealous because Jupiter has slept with Semele, Cadmus’s daughter, and impregnated her. She decides Semele must be killed and wants to contrive for Jupiter to kill her himself.
Diana’s punishment of Actaeon alongside Juno’s punishments of Jupiter’s mistresses shows how the gods’ personal insults and sensitivities account for much of the action that takes place in the human realm. The gods punish all those who offend them—even those who are blameless—and usually by transforming them, therefore disrupting human reality.
Queen Juno disguises herself as Semele’s elderly nurse and goes to talk to Semele. She urges Semele to ask Jupiter for proof that he is really a god. She suggests that Semele ask Jupiter to have sex with her in his godly form, as he would with his wife Juno. Persuaded, Semele makes Jupiter promise to give her what she asks. Jupiter gives her his oath.
Juno’s idea that Semele should demand proof of Jupiter’s divinity is reminiscent of when Phaëthon demanded proof that Phoebus was his father. Semele and Phaëthon’s stories demonstrate that the human need for proof from the gods is dangerous, and often results in death.
Jupiter returns to the heavens, distressed because he can’t deny Semele’s request, although it will prove fatal. He tries to equip himself with his gentlest lightning bolts, but when he returns to Semele and has sex with her in godly form, she catches on fire. He takes the baby from her womb and stitches it into his thigh. When it is born, the baby is raised by Semele’s sister, then given to nymphs who raise him in a cave.
Similar to the story of Phoebus and Phaëthon, Jupiter is bound by his oath to Semele and cannot refuse her deadly wish. Jupiter’s proof to Semele that he is a god—having sex with her in his true form—kills Semele, once again proving that humans cannot withstand firsthand contact with the divine world.