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In Greek mythology there are two primary legends regarding Europa the woman for whom the continent of Europe is named. In one, she is seduced by the god Zeus in the form of a bull who takes her to Crete; in the other, she is kidnapped by Minoans, who also take her to Crete. In every aspect, Europa can not be separated from the sacred bull, which had been worshipped in Europa's homeland, the Levant, nor from the island of Crete.
Sources differ in details regarding her family but agree that she is Phoenician, and from a lineage that descended from Io, the mythical princess who was transformed into a heifer. Most commonly, she is said to be the daughter of the Phoenician King Agenor and Queen Telephassa of Tyre. Other sources, such as the Iliad, claim that she is the daughter of Agenor's son, Phoenix. It is generally agreed that she had two brothers, Cadmus, who brought the alphabet to mainland Greece, and Cilix who gave his name to Cilicia in Asia Minor. After arriving in Crete, Europa had three children: Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon. She married Asterion; and then later, Asterius. According to mythology, her children were fathered by Zeus.
According to legend, Zeus was enamored of her and decided to seduce or rape her, the two being near-equivalent in Greek myth. He transformed himself into a white bull (or possessed one) and mixed in with her father's herds. While Europa and her female attendants were gathering flowers, she saw the bull and caressed his flanks and eventually got onto its back. Zeus took that chance and ran to the sea and swam, with her on his back, to the island of Crete. He then revealed his true identity and Europa became the first queen of Crete. Zeus gave her three gifts: Talos, Laelaps and a javelin that never missed. Zeus later re-created the shape of the white bull in the stars which is now known as the constellation Taurus. Some legends relate that this same bull was also encountered by Hercules, and that it eventually fathered the Minotaur.
The continent of Europe is called Europa in all Germanic languages (except English), and in all Slavic languages which use the Latin alphabet, as well as in Greek and Latin. Her name appeared on postage stamps commemorating the "United Europe", which were first issued in 1956.
The poet Ovid wrote the following depiction of Zeus' seduction:
- And gradually she lost her fear, and he
- Offered his breast for her virgin caresses,
- His horns for her to wind with chains of flowers
- Until the princess dared to mount his back
- Her pet bull's back, unwitting whom she rode.
- Then—slowly, slowly down the broad, dry beach—
- First in the shallow waves the great god set
- His spurious hooves, then sauntered further out
- Till in the open sea he bore his prize
- Fear filled her heart as, gazing back, she saw
- The fast receding sands. Her right hand grasped
- A horn, the other lent upon his back
- Her fluttering tunic floated in the breeze.
His picturesque details belong to anecdote and fable: in all the depictions, whether she straddles the bull, as in archaic vase-paintings or the ruined metope fragment from Sikyon, or sits gracefully sidesaddle in a mosaic from North Africa, there is no trace of fear. Often Europa steadies herself by touching one of the bull's horns, acquiescing.
- A metope from Sicily, carved with Europa, ca 550 - 540 BCE: the bull's face, turned head-on, clearly reveals his Near Eastern iconic antecedents
- Apollodorus, Bibliotheke, III, i, 1-2
- Herodotus, The Histories, Book 1.2
- Ovid, Metamorphoses, 862, translation by A.D. Melville (1986), p.50
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