The Rape of Europa
A Phoenician maiden forced, as it were, to become a Jovian victim if only then to accede to the lofty position of continental queen, Europa trod a quite difficult path through the course of her mythological life. Hers was, doubtless, a most unexpected journey, combining both trauma and triumph in what would come to us moderns as a tale remarkable in every way. Certainly, as any student of hers or of the now tenuous landmass by whose name she’s remembered knows well, it wasn’t a journey upon which she embarked voluntarily. Indeed, she hadn’t a say in the matter being, as she was, forcibly thrust toward her fate. Such is the insuperability of the cosmos, a lesson well-learned and better mythologized by the Greeks. Innocent at its start though puissant at its end, it was a journey at whose middle Europa was damaged inalterably and unforgettably. Perhaps more crudely, put it another way, she was ravished somewhere in between.
Slightly tongue-in-cheek—which is, in my perverse opinion, the only way in which one ought ever to carry his face—I mean this in both a literary and anatomic sense. Almighty Zeus—most prurient among a Pantheon of sex-addicted deities—transmuted himself from a heavenly to a taurine form. In a flash, he became an impressive-looking bull, one moment godly and the next grazing in a field over which Europa and her family presided. Obviously enamored of her, she reciprocated Zeus’s interest with an exploration of this strange, new, divine-bovine addition to her father’s herd. Seeing it only fit to test the fitness of this magical beast, Europa—unencumbered by caution and youthfully curious—hopped upon its back.
Zeus, in that moment, sensed not only Europa’s nubile limbs astride his back (undoubtedly enough to render unstable with excitement even his lordly knees), but his chance to get away as well. His celerity was accelerated by his providential lust, and he quickly availed himself of the opportunity to escape. Alacritous, amorous, and now shockingly amphibious to boot, the bull that was Zeus leapt into the Mediterranean Sea and decided, amongst all available options of locomotion, to swim away. From the coast of present-day Lebanon to the still-ancient island of Crete, this ambitious cousin of the cow endured over six-hundred miles in an inhospitable sea. Exactly how he propelled himself, we mustn’t tempt an answer. In the name of lust, much more so than in that of love, men and gods have accomplished the most unlikely and extraordinary of feats.
That said, landing upon the beaches of that insular progenitor of the Greeks, Zeus was finally, literally able to consummate his plan. Tired from the long and arduous swim across the deep but indefatigably tumescent as always is his wont, he brought to bed that lovely Europa. Under the ephemeral cover of night and of love, he planted in her womb his Titan-slaying seed. The former proved unsurprisingly virile, the latter welcomingly fertile. This amorous job of his now finished and his sex-drive at least momentarily appeased, Zeus thought it best now to go back home. Hera, already notorious in this dawn of mythology for the capaciousness of her wrath, awaited with vexation his quiet return. The epitome of jealously, she despised his assignations, frequent as they were. Anticipating the English playwright William Congreve, Zeus knew full well that Hades hath no fury like a Hera scorned. As such, he hastened back to his peremptory queen and the Olympus whence he descended to indulge himself with this European fling—one of his many seminal dalliances that would form around him his macho-myth.
Europa, having played the part of mortal mistress par excellence, now found herself living in a completely unfamiliar land. Little did she know, her transition (a euphemism, if you will, for what seems to me an abduction) from Phoenicia to Crete was one-way. There would be no return flight, be it on the wings of an eagle (an animal by which Zeus often was identified) or the back of a bull. She was stranded. An involuntary voyager, a wayward Gilligan turned accidental founder of the young nation of Greece, Europa’s life started anew. A colonist by necessity (or, as we might more accurately put it, by Zeus’s rather shameless lechery), she became the island’s de facto queen. It was now her responsibility to govern the very civilization from whose genius all modern forms of government would emerge.
A question here lingers: over whom was she to govern? History, in response to this seemingly humble inquiry, remains frustratingly silent. Yet, so far as the old chronicles of the world are concerned and as far as genealogy cares to look into the matter, Europa is important for having been the woman by whom the great King Minos was born. After her unwitting assignation with the lord Zeus, she’s relevant because of her quasi-divine yet fully Cretan son, Minos. He, rather than she, is the Cretan leader of whom we moderns take note. King of Knossos and precedent of imperial Greece (and, by distant extension, of Rome as well), it was Minos who made the bull—the very creature by whom he was sired—a national emblem by which we recognize the origins of Western civilization to this day.
Perhaps, if we’re to examine him critically and accept as possible his rather dubious historicity, he was slightly biased toward the beast by whom he was begotten. And who among us would blame him for being so kindly disposed toward his own kin? So skewed an assessment in favor of one’s father surely isn’t a bias particular to him. And so, with leniency, we chastise him not. This, we might remember, is a fault of which all men are guilty; we esteem far too reverently and judge far too generously the men upon whom our own lives depend. This sort of daddy deification begins the moment we begin to think. Our fathers become our exemplars, regardless of their merits or sins. Indeed, a high threshold need be breached if we’re to be disabused of this notion. That being said, and that being a mistake common to us all, we forgive Minos this. Surely, we can chalk up his totemic celebration of his father-bull to an exuberant and overly-reverent sense of paternal piety—a sentiment to which we’re all bound. We do so, as he certainly did, if only to preserve his and beloved mythology.
After the rape (a word, mind you, synonymous with what might be called an “abduction”; hence the rape of the Sabine women by the founder of Rome was more a matter of thievery than of venery) of Europa by the Jovian bull, the animal responsible for her deflowering became an absolute idol in the nascent Mediterranean world. Indeed, speaking of synonyms, the beast became a byword for the Cretan civilization as a whole. Famously and quite daringly, children of that unassuming island became internationally known for their ability to leap over and dance around charging bulls. Theirs was, in retrospect, an encouragingly clement alternative to the bloodthirsty matadors of today—whose gratuitous craft is in a long-awaited decline. No culture of antiquity of which I’m aware quite equals in splendor the acrobatic suppleness or the intrepid devotion of this breathtaking act. What’s more, the images of so athletic a maneuver upon Cretan walls and vases are astonishingly well-preserved, having been first memorialized literally thousands of years ago. At Knossos, that forgotten capital of the Western world, they still can be seen. Pliant and radiant, lithe and illustrative, these images give us unmatched access to a civilization hushed into quietude and yet, by any measure, boisterously resonant.
The bull, now sexual-deviant now societal-hero, would be manifested once more—this time, in his most unforgettable iteration. He’d become the insatiable, gnarled, brutish, and nasty Minotaur—bane of Athens and all tribute states alike. Something of a pagan portmanteau, the great beast’s name leaves little to the imagination: he was part Minoan and thus human, and part bull (Taurus, or course—by which we know the constellation—is Greek for “bull”). The story of his conception and his nativity is much more shocking than that even of King Minos—begotten, as you’ll recall, of the strange encounter between the abstinent Europa and the deviant Zeus.
Fantastically and—as soon will be made clear—punitively, the Minotaur was conceived by King Minos’ own neglect. In order to solidify his unelected position atop Crete, the new king supplicated the god of earthquakes and the ocean—Poseidon. This chief maritime god understandably mattered most to an island enclosed on all sides by the wide-ranging sea. Omnipotent in this medium as was Zeus up above, Poseidon was called and, ever prompt in his dealings or wrath, responded with haste. The god sent the king an albino bull, doubtless a marvel to behold. The implicit agreement, however, was for Minos to sacrifice the bull in homage to Poseidon.
Smitten with its unique, colorless beauty, Minos decided against slaughtering it and instead chose to keep it for himself. Perhaps hoping to make an addition to his burgeoning Minoan menagerie, the king hid the alabaster bull by which he was so wondrously taken. Feebly, he offered to Poseidon an ordinary bull plucked from his herd and brought it to the alter in the other one’s place. Poseidon, often capricious yet seldom humorous, wasn’t the least bit amused. Mind you, this was a god whose injured pride would later cause the noble Odysseus to spend a toilsome decade at sea—ten years appended to those already spent at Troy.
In response to this insolent offence, Poseidon forced Pasiphae, Minos’s human wife, to become enamored of the great white bull. He had loved it (and, having loved it, brazenly sequestered it from the god) and now, so would she. The now cuckolded king could do nothing to prevent his wife from satisfying her desire. Another instance of Cretan coition between human and beast was on the horizon and Minos was helpless to intervene.
This consummation a bit more difficult to achieve, Pasiphae was made to outsource her amours. She turned to the ingenious Daedalus—chief craftsman of the land and father of the fallen Icarus. In loyal service to his queen, in short-order Daedalus created for her a vestibule in which she could entice the great beast, a hollowed-out heifer to which the grand white bull couldn’t help but be attracted. Having manufactured his design to every bestial, royal specification provided, he built this odd contraption of conception and showed his queen the way. Beaming, the infatuated Pasiphae climbed on in, as later the bull did on her. The result, presumably nine months hence, was the Minotaur—half man, half bull, and a fully terrible sight to behold. Unlike King Minos—himself similarly born of a woman and a bull, albeit one in the shape of a god—the Minotaur was grotesque. He had no natural home and his diet was rather ungenial to the better part of his human race. Thus, he was immured within the walls of the labyrinth, a circuitous maze for whose construction the reliable Daedalus was recalled.
More need not be said of the ghastly Minotaur’s tale, as his story already has reached a near universal level of literacy. In brief, though, valiant Theseus, founder and champion of Athens, eventually navigated his way through the labyrinth at whose center the monster awaited his annual feast. There, he slew him and hurried back home, doubtless too quickly, as his sails were improperly raised. That was in itself a tragedy, but our new hero was solaced by having ended the devotional sacrifice of his fellow Grecian youth. Forevermore, mainland Greece from Cretan hegemony would be free. And the bull, for all time to come, a distant memory.