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In Greek mythology, Europa (Greek Ευρώπη) was a Phoenician woman of high lineage, from whom the name of the continent Europe has ultimately been taken. The story was a Cretan story, as Kerenyi points out; "most of the love-stories concerning Zeus originated from more ancient tales describing his marriages with goddesses. This can especially be said of the story of Europa."[1] The name Europa occurs in the list of daughters of primordial Oceanus and Tethys; the daughter of the earth-giant Tityas and mother of Euphemus by Poseidon, was also named Europa.

The etymology of her name (ευρυ- "wide" or "broad" + οπ– "eye(s)" or "face")[2] suggests that Europa represented a lunar cow, at least at some symbolic level. Metaphorically, at a later date it could be construed as the intelligent or open-minded, analogous to glaukopis (γλαυκώπις) attributed to Athena.

Europa is not mentioned by Homer. The earliest literary reference to her is in a fragment of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, discovered at Oxyrhyncus.[3]. The earliest vase-painting securely identifiable as Europa, dates mid-seventh century BC.[4]

Europa's family

Sources differ in details regarding Europa's family, but agree that she is Phoenician, and from a lineage that descended from Io, the mythical nymph beloved of Zeus, who was transformed into a heifer. She is said to be the daughter of Agenor, the Phoenician King of Tyre, and Queen Telephassa ("far-shining") or of Argiope ("white-faced")[5]. Other sources, such as the Iliad, claim that she is the daughter of Agenor's son, the "sun-red" 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, with Apollodorus including Phoenix as a third. After arriving in Crete, Europa had three sons: Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon, the three of whom became the three judges of the Underworld when they died. She married Asterion also rendered Asterius. According to mythology, her children were fathered by Zeus.

There were two competing myths[6] relating how Europa came into the Hellenic world, but they agreed that she came to Crete, where the sacred bull was paramount. In the more familiar telling she was seduced by the god Zeus in the form of a bull, who breathed from his mouth a saffron crocus[7] and carried away to Crete on his back— to be welcomed by Asterion [8], but according to a more literal, euhemerist version in Herodotus, she was kidnapped by Minoans, who likewise were said to have taken her to Crete. The mythical Europa cannot be separated from the mythology of the sacred bull, which had been worshipped in the Levant.

Europa does not seem to have been venerated directly in cult anywhere in Classical Greece, but at Lebadaea in Boeotia, Pausanias noted in the second century CE that Europa was the epithet of Demeter— "Demeter whom they surname Europa and say was the nurse of Trophonios"— among the Olympians who were addressed by seekers at the cave sanctuary of Trophonios of Orchomenos, to whom a chthonic cult and oracle were dedicated: "the grove of Trophonios by the river Herkyna. ...there is also a sanctuary of Demeter Europa... the nurse of Trophonios."[9]

"The Rape of Europa"

According to legend, Zeus was enamored of Europa and decided to seduce or ravage her, the two being near-equivalent in Greek myth. He transformed himself into a tame white bull and mixed in with her father's herds. While Europa and her female attendents were gathering flowers, she saw the bull, caressed his flanks, and eventually got onto his back. Zeus took that opportunity 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 a necklace made by Hephaestus[10] and three additional 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 readers interpret as manifestations of this same bull the Cretan beast that was encountered by Hercules, the Marathonian Bull slain by Theseus (and that fathered the Minotaur). Roman mythology adopted the tale (also known as "The Abduction of Europa" and "The Seduction of Europa"), substituting the god Jupiter for Zeus.

According to Herodotus' rationalizing approach, Europa was kidnapped by Minoans who were seeking to avenge the kidnapping of Io, a princess from Argos. His variant story may have been an attempt to rationalize the earlier myth; or the present myth may be a garbled version of facts — the rape of a Phoenician aristocrat — later enunciated without gloss by Herodotus. For those set in the Christian interpretive tradition of myth as misunderstood history inherited from Herodotus, it is tempting to see in this story the remnants of oral history about the settlement of the island. Cretans were of course great sailors, as all islanders must be, and must have come from some mainland area by raft or ship. They must also have brought their cattle and other livestock with them, since bulls figured prominently in their sports, arts and religious imagery. In the mythological transformation of history, however, roles are reversed, and the bull provides the transportation for the founding mother of the Minoan people.

Europa in classical literature

Europa provided the substance of a brief Hellenistic epic written in the mid-second century BC by Moschos, a bucolic poet and friend of the Alexandrian grammarian Aristarchus of Samothrace, born at Syracuse.[11]

In Metamorphoses, the poet Ovid wrote the following depiction of Jupiter's 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 'til 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 as 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.

Europa in the visual arts

"Europa seated on a bull" has been a frequent motif in European art since Greco-Roman times:

  • Greek vase paintings
  • Roman frescoes (see image above) and mosaics
  • François Boucher, The Rape of Europa
  • Gustave Moreau, Europa and the Bull
  • Titian, The Rape of Europa
  • Paolo Veronese, The Rape of Europa


  1. Kerenyi 1951, p 108
  2. Kerenyi 1951 p 109: "she of the wide eyes" or "she of the broad countenance".
  3. The papyrus fragment itself dates from the third century CE: see Hesiodic fragments 19 and 19A.
  4. W, Burkert, Greek Religion (1985)I.3.2, note 20, referring to Schefold, plate 11B. References in myth and art have been assembled by W. Bühler, Europa: eine Sammlung der Zeugnisse des Mythos in der antiken Litteratur und Kunst (1967).
  5. Kerenyi points out that these names are attributes of the moon, as is Europa's broad countenance.
  6. Bibliotheke 3.1.1.
  7. Hesiodic fragment 19, a scholium on Iliad XII.292 (which does not mention Europa)
  8. According to the scholium on Iliad XII.292, noted in Karl Kerenyi, Dionysus: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life p105. Pausanias rendered the name Asterion (2.31.1); in Bibliotheke (3.1.4) it is Asterion.
  9. Pausanias, Guide to Greece 9.39.2-5.
  10. Hesoidic fragment.
  11. The poem was published with voluminous notes and critical apparatus: Winfried Bühler, Die Europa des Moschos (Wiesbaden: Steiner) 1960.


  • Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheke, III, i, 1-2
  • Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics), translated by Robin Hard, Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-19-283924-1
  • Herodotus, The Histories, Book 1.2
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses, 862, translation by A.D. Melville (1986), p.50
  • Kerenyi, Karl, 1951. The Gods of the Greeks (Thames and Hudson)
  • Graves, Robert, (1955) 1960. The gGeek Myths

External links

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