Friday, January 14, 2011

Affairs of the Gods: Zeus and Leda

Leda mosaic
Google Image Search Leda and the Swan at your own risk.
To say that Zeus has a reputation for raping and seducing women would be an incredible understatement. You really can't turn around without hearing about some woman Zeus* made off with/made love to/brutally raped in the guise of some animal or other in Greek mythology, and Leda is really no exception.

The story is that Leda (perhaps laying by a stream) was hanging out when Zeus came to her in the guise of a swan (possibly fleeing from an eagle who may or may not have been Aphrodite, or else perhaps chasing after a goose-who-was-Nemesis), and when Leda took him into her arms, he ah-- took advantage of her. From there, Zeus took off, as is his usual MO, and she went home to her husband Tyndareus, King of Sparta**, and, uhm, engaged with him, too.

Apollodorus (3.10.7) tells us:
But Zeus in the form of a swan consorted with Leda, and on the same night Tyndareus cohabited with her; and she bore Pollux and Helen to Zeus, and Castor and Clytaemnestra to Tyndareus.***

Really, it's hard to say what kind of relationship Leda had with Zeus-the-swan. Obviously to catch the eye of Zeus, Leda must have been some kind of beautiful. But I don't know that being beautiful does anyone any favors when it comes to the gods.

Isocrates offers this opinion on Zeus's relations with Leda (and other women):
[...] and in the guise of a swan he took refuge in the bosom of Nemesis, and again in this form he espoused Leda; ever with artifice manifestly, and not with violence, does he pursue beauty in women.
It just sounds a little bit idealized to me, is all. Zeus never struck me as a very considerate lover. He is after all a god, and I'm sure felt he was well within his rights to take whatever he wanted from whoever he wanted, and if that meant making a--ah--deposit in someone else's wife or daughter, I'm not really convinced he was interested in doing said woman any favors in the process. And he wouldn't really have had the time, anyway, with Hera sniffing around, ready to punish him, the poor woman, or both.

Tony Robert-Fleury - Léda
Ovid gives us a few lines, capturing a very romantic view of Leda's experience as well:
Arachne drew the fam'd intrigues of Jove, 
And shew'd how Leda lay supinely press'd, 
Whilst the soft snowy swan sate hov'ring o'er her breast, 

What's really fascinating about the mythology of Leda and the Swan, is how obsessed with it artists seemed to become in much, much later history! We have a TON of imagery reflecting the myth. Why is it so interesting? What makes it so captivating a subject? I'm not sure I have any kind of answer to those questions, still. Certainly I don't find Leda anywhere near as interesting a character as Helen or Pollux or even Tyndareus. But I do wonder if being a reputed beauty herself--beautiful enough to catch the attention of Zeus!-- Leda bore a certain amount of jealousy toward Helen.

So why do you think Leda and the Swan captured the imagination of artists?

(I've talked a little bit about the mythology of Leda and Zeus in the past, concerning the births of Pollux and Helen in my novel.)

*To be fair, the same could really be said of Apollo. Holy Buckets.
**and interestingly enough, though Sparta was afterwards inherited through it's women, it seems like Leda married into the Queenship of Sparta, going off of Apollodorus (3.10.5).
***The Greeks were all about giving people two fathers.


  1. Nice mix of primary sources there. The story of Leda and Zeus has been popular for quite some time- just wait until you read my current WIP one day and you'll see another example of its allure. :)

  2. Hahaha! Are you kidding? It's a freaking swan. How could you be seduced by a swan? Of course an artist is going to latch on to that, try and interpret it in their own way. It's just...weird.

  3. Stephanie: Finding primary source references was surprisingly difficult, actually. I realized when I started writing I had no idea who had written what! Definitely can't wait to read your WIP!

    Tina: hahaha I suppose that's true. It's just strange enough, I guess!

  4. I think if anything the swan is a slightly more approachable image that some of the others. Swans are generally considered beautiful creatures, so to juxtapose that with a beautiful naked woman seems natural. And it's probably a very identifiable image in a way that a golden shower might not be.

    Better than showing rape by eagle or satyr, right?

  5. Valerie: Ha! I don't know, I kind of think an Eagle is more beautiful than a swan, myself! But yes-- and definitely better than showing rape by a bull.

    True Story Though: When I was 3, I was bitten by a swan.

  6. I think the imagery is just strange. Swans are often seen as feminine...soft feathers, soft lines, delicate and graceful. I don't get it.
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  7. Ahahaha. I love how you side stepped the part in the middle where I thought we'd accidentally hit a brick wall, sort of.

    Ummm. Hmmm. Yea. I guess swans are seen as majestic? Like, um, the Crown in the UK actually still retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water. They only really make large of it on the Thames though. So, yea, defs in Britain we see swans as royal and Zeus was royal, yes? So. I can see why the whole swan thing because a fair number of cultures hold them in high regard. As for the artists latching on I guess it's to do with the almost pre-raphaelite romanticism of it? He appeared as something so natural yet regal?

    I'm not saying I agree. Just, I don't know. I can see how they would think that.


  8. Raquel, yeah I find it kind of odd too-- like, Eagle totally makes more sense to me, in a manly way.

    Mia: I can see that-- the proudest bird maybe? I guess I am still anti-swan after I was SCARRED FOR LIFE at age 3.

  9. Great post, Amalia! You crack me up. Your analysis of Zeus' attitude of, er, "making deposits" (ha!) is brilliant.

  10. Thanks Vicky! :) Trying to keep it PG-rated around here! hahaha. Not an easy thing to do with Zeus running around!

  11. Funny post! You warned about doing a Google image search, but I loved the mosaic, so I of course dashed off to do an image search. All I can say is, have some decorum, people! I was familiar with Leonardo's painting, but the others were… um… uh… enlightening? I'd like to think the attraction to the subject matter was the juxtaposition of beauty and lines, woman and swan. This seems true in the Renaissance works, not so much in the contemporary efforts. I'm thinking, yep, Tina's right, it's the weirdness.

  12. Ahaha! I'm sorry, VR! I was pretty uhm, surprised? by what came up too. Some of it is really... well. Something else!

    The mosaic is beautiful though, I agree!

  13. I LOVE this:

    "But I don't know that being beautiful does anyone any favors when it comes to the gods."

    Never a truer statement in Greek mythology. You're likely to be turned into a tree or a pond; you'll incur the wrath of a jealous goddess and be raped by a god for sure.

  14. Diana: It is DEFINITELY one area where being beautiful is a serious hardship and I would not feel anything but sorry for a woman born in that world of myth who was stunning.

  15. Great post. I'm late to the party. Somehow you swept this in under my radar. But found it, I did.

    I agree with prior posters above that the juxtaposition of Zeus to Swan and then the mental imagery of Leda, er, getting it on, with said swan, was enough to draw out everyone's muse.

  16. I almost imagine people saying, "No! No way! A girl... and a swan? How does that work? Where's my paint brush?"

  17. Just FYI: The image of the mosaic of Leda and the Swan was erroneously attributed to the commercial web site That web site has stolen my image, falsely claimed copyright credit, and then attempted to profit from it. The original image of that mosaic (as photographed in 2005) is at You are free to use it, but please don't give copyright credit to the people who stole my image!

  18. i'v always been very fascinated with Greek mythology , mesmerized by its characters and stories. i considered the long neck of the swan to be metaphoric of the male member...trying desperately to understand. however all i come back to at the the end is that Homer was spending wayyyyyy too much time in the poppy fields , and stoned out of his mind when he came up with this particuler one

    1. You know, that's a good thought in regard to the neck of the swan as metaphor. I hadn't considered that! The thing that fascinates me isn't that this was a story belonging to the Greeks -- it seems not at all out of place within the context of their mythology -- but rather how it seemed to become so popular later!

  19. Although I also did a long search on Google to try to find the origin of the Leda and the Swan story. I was directed to Homer and I searched through both the Iliad and the Odyessy (but why?!) with no success in finding where Homer tells this story. Most references on the web are to Yeats - great poem but useless for my interest. Thank you so much for this post which I think is great and very informational. What I find most fascinating is that there is still debate over whether it was really a rape or a "seduction" in which Leda was a "willing" participant. As if!! However, that is how it is portrayed in many, if not most, of the paintings, if you notice - certainly no violence implied. Of course, the painters were all men, so no surprise, LOL.


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