Friday, March 04, 2011

Affairs of the Gods: Zeus and Europa

The Flight of Europa
Europa on the back of her Bull
Europa was the daughter of King Agenor* of Tyre, in Phoenicia who happened to catch Zeus's eye one day while frolicking around on the shore with her father's herd of cattle and some friends. Zeus, determined to have her for his own, turned himself into a beautiful and gentle white bull among the herd in order to get close to her. Europa, evidently finding nothing strange about a bull so tame she could weave flowers around its horns, was taken in by the ruse.

Really, Europa? Nothing odd at all about an alarmingly beautiful and perfect bull wanting to be petted and fondled? I mean. Normally I am not all about blaming the woman but... c'mon, now! I'm not sure I can buy the fact that she really had no idea what she was doing, no matter what Ovid says--it sounds kind of like, well, bull-honky.

Apollodorus tells us:
Zeus loved her, and turning himself into a tame bull, he mounted her on his back and conveyed her through the sea to Crete. There Zeus bedded with her, and she bore Minos, Sarpedon, and Rhadamanthys;

And Ovid goes into greater detail in The Metamorphoses (book 2):

And, now perceiving all her fears decay'd,
Comes tossing forward to the royal maid;
Gives her his breast to stroke, and downward turns
His grizly brow, and gently stoops his horns.
In flow'ry wreaths the royal virgin drest
His bending horns, and kindly clapt his breast.
'Till now grown wanton and devoid of fear,
Not knowing that she prest the Thunderer,
She plac'd her self upon his back, and rode
O'er fields and meadows, seated on the God. 
He gently march'd along, and by degrees
Left the dry meadow, and approach'd the seas;
Where now he dips his hoofs and wets his thighs,
Now plunges in, and carries off the prize. 
Now, Europa did get on the bull's back of her own accord, but she clearly hadn't anticipated being whisked away to parts unknown. Fortunately for her, Hera didn't seem to notice any of this mess, and after Zeus, ahem, revealed himself and left her on Crete, she ended up marrying one of the Cretan princes who didn't care that she'd been knocked up by Zeus first, and her son Minos became King of Crete afterward.

Minos, son of Zeus, really isn't much of a demigod. Certainly he was no hero, and he had some pretty bad luck when he came to power, all stemming from the moment he broke his promise and didn't give Poseidon his bull back in sacrifice, after the god helped him to claim the kingship of Crete. Minos' wife was cursed to fall in love with that bull, which resulted in the birth of the Minotaur (the Minotaur was actually named Asterion, if you were wondering). Then, on top of that, Minos' son was killed in Athens over some silly jealousy issue, and of course we all know what happened after Athens started sending youths to Minos in payment for that crime. Theseus. Minotaur. Fall of Crete. Etc.

So what if Europa and her friends had seen the signs and realized that the bull was Zeus before she climbed on its back? Well. Somehow I don't think it would have stopped Zeus from having his way. Honestly, Europa really lucked out. If you have to get kidnapped and raped by a god, ending up royalty in another kingdom is definitely not the worst that could happen as a result.

The Moral of this Story: Don't accept rides from bulls you don't know! Especially when they're acting all weird. It is no doubt a god in disguise, and you can't count on Hera not noticing that trick a SECOND time. (She's got a nose for cheating husbands.)

*Sometimes Europa is the daughter of someone else-- Apollodorus says Phoenix. It doesn't really matter that much, one way or another, for the outcome.


  1. Awesome post! Yeah, I think it's all right to fault Europa just a little! ;-)

  2. Thanks, Chris! Yeah-- I just can't get over that. It makes zero sense to me.

  3. I don't know, Amalia--I'm not convinced that Europa should have culpability here. It's all about the power--who has it, who doesn't. A mere mortal, likely quite young (remember, in most of these stories, the girls are probably anywhere from 14-16--we too often think of them as young women with agency, rather than the girls they most likely were...) versus the God of Olympus. Yeah, not feeling it.

    In all of these stories, I get the sense that there is an unconscious need to make the girl somehow responsible for being attacked to alleviate the guilt with which some men might have felt about the way girls were treated.

    Because really, what they are saying is--You dared to be out by yourself (or among other girls) WITHOUT male protection? Well, then heck, you're mine! And you deserved it!

    To me it's a reflection of the power dynamics--one doesn't dare get in the face of the gods (or the king, or the patron, or the property owner, etc.) and say, "What the hell? You can't just TAKE this girl! She's a human being!" It's easier to blame the girl, saying things like, "Well, she shouldn't have petted that tame bull."

    As if any animal lover wouldn't be entranced by a beautiful animal that one senses was sweet and gentle. As if petting a tame animal somehow means she "deserves" being whisked away and used.

    Sorry to go on. Perhaps my rant is due to the fact that I have a 13 yr old daughter. I chafe against some of the holdover-attitudes about the safety and culpability of young girls who are merely trying to enjoy their world; girls who don't "deserve" to be attacked merely for being trusting. Okay, stepping off my soapbox now...

  4. No, no, Vicky-- you're right, and I'm GLAD That you posted this! There definitely is a LOT of blame loaded down on these girls, and you're right, also to point out that they were most often YOUNG and probably quite sheltered, and the gods are DEFINITELY in the wrong across the board with the making-off-with-them and having-their-way. Zeus definitely could have beguiled her with some Olympian hand-waving, and he had no right to kidnap her to begin with, whether she climbed onto his back or not.

    That said, as a (roughly 15 year old) girl, I ran into a pretty magnificent and gentle white bull myself (I am not even lying-- I can't make this stuff up) and while I petted his nose and chatted with him (with a fence between us that I was all TOO aware could be turned into toothpicks if I made the wrong move) I definitely never would have climbed in on his back, enjoying the moment or not. Of course, after he sneezed on me with a mass of mucus and goo, the spell was a little bit broken-- but I still find it hard to believe that anyone can get that close to an animal of that size and stature and FORGET the danger involved no matter how beautiful or tame it APPEARS to be (and we had a dog with us that wanted nothing more than to goad that bull into a charge--which I promise you made us both nervous to the extreme that we were pressing our luck). And I guess that's where Europa's innocence loses me. I would think that a girl in that time period would have a much stronger appreciation for the danger of a bull, having seen people of her father's household gored, than I would, where the bull is something of a novelty on the side of the road (Though our county growing up had more cows than people).

  5. You make a good point, Amalia, about the climbing on the back of the bull. But I "read" that as the male poet's need to make her seem a bit stupid to take the edge off the ugliness of what is really happening.

    And you're right--any girl growing up in the country (that is, mostly ALL ancient girls) would've known better.

    The wording too is interesting--"SHE placed herself upon his back (subtext--SHE mounted him)."

    An excellently subtle choice of words to make her seem culpable. Whereas some might see that as "how stupid could she be?"; I read it as, "how transparently obvious is the attempt by the male poet to make her culpable..."

    Because, after all, if she "mounts him" then it's not his fault right?

    Anyway, thanks for a fascinating discussion! I've never taken the time to articulate what bothered me about these stories and your post helped me do so!

  6. You're right-- the poet/authors are definitely guiding us toward faulting Europa with the language they've used. And this isn't the first myth in which we get the "well, she asked for it" subtext. Tyro is throwing herself at the River god when she attracts Poseidon's attention, begging to be taken. And even the women who aren't made out to be overtly sexual are too beautiful-- their beauty becoming the excuse for the fact that the god won't be bothered to employ a little self-discipline.

    And I'm glad that you've brought these points up! Thank you so much for the discussion-- it's exactly what I HOPE for when I make these kinds of posts!

  7. I love this post, and the long twitter discussion it inspired! So here are the theories:

    a) Zeus used some kind of godly hypnotism to dull her common sense.

    b) Europa figured the weirdly docile bull was a god, and decided to play along... either because she knew gods get whatever they want anyway so she may as well go with it, or because she was attracted to the idea of being with a god (Helen notwithstanding).

    c) Europa really was that dumb. "La la la I'll get on this bull's back and see where it takes me, wheeeee!!!"

    I love YOUR bull story!! And see? You had the sense not to go jumping over the fence and onto its back. So something must have been going on with Europa. My answer is.... B. :)

  8. I'm sorry, but I am imagining the magnificent white bull sneezing on you. How gross! Poor Malia!

  9. Di: I know! I love when the blog inspires discussion!

    I'm definitely thinking it must be somewhere between A and B. But now I want to rewrite my bull-leaping story, which you will adore because it is #AdamLove

    haha! It was not THAT bad. I mean, it was really snotty, but he was already licking me so it was kind of just more of the same by that point.


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