It seems in at least three very influential myths, the turning point happens to be because of a bull. Why a bull? I have no idea. It does make for an interesting story though.
Upon wandering around inside the the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I was stopped by a stunning depiction of one of those three myths. I actually almost cried. The time period for this painting would put it within the Rococo period, and I’d say it’s quite clear. Rococo artists often painted from fantasy or myth, and the paintings themselves usually looked very ethereal. This painting even has the the little cupids flying around, a common addition to many Rococo paintings. This beautiful piece is very idealized, but how can you make something so magical realistic? The fabrics are flowing elegantly, the colors are pastel with that beautiful blue Coypel used to create those stunning, almost sparkling waves. The white bull looks calm, and so beautiful you can tell it is not a natural bull. The waves sweep you up too, as if you’re right there fighting to collect Europa from the back of that bull. But who is Europa? Why is she on the back of a bull that’s too beautiful to be a real bull? I can answer that.
Trigger Warning: Kidnapping, Sexual Assault
Many, if not most Greek and Roman myth have the addition of sexual assault. Unfortunately in ancient Greece, there was no term for rape, nor was it even a concept. Occasionally the storyteller would refer to it as an abduction, like the abduction of Persephone. Sorry Hades fans, I’m looking at you Lore Olympus fans, he actually wasn’t that great either. He was the best of the three, but the bar was incredibly low. There are many different translations for myths, but over time what was attempted to be glossed over, came out. Many new translations are no longer holding back and trying to make the myths clean, but instead accurate. This is a huge win for academics, as now we will have the actual stories even if most of the Gods and Goddesses were really awful.
The woman on the back of the bull in the painting is a princess, Princess Europa of Phoenicia. Zeus had witnessed her with her other maiden friends on the beach, picking flowers. He decided immediately that he needed to be with her, so he went straight down to Earth to view her more. He decided to turn into a bull, a pure white bull with short sparkling horns and a muscled neck. Europa was very apprehensive of this bull that has walked onto the beach, and stepped back. After watching the bull for a moment, she decided he seemed very docile and calm, so she sat beside him and pet him. At some point she decided he was docile enough to hop on top of, but when she did he began walking into the shore. He walked her all across the sea to the island of Crete. He took her by force, and left her there.
The painting itself is depicting Zeus walking off with Europa still on his back. The cupids are likely the representation of the lust that Zeus was experiencing. The surrounding people are supposedly Zeus’s aids, but it seems too chaotic to be just his aids. When I view this painting, I see her other maiden friends fighting to get Europa back while Zeus’s aids hold them back. The movement is all over. The cupids are flying, the garments are fluttering, the waves are crashing, and the two groups are fighting. Among all of the chaos, is Europa, scared stiff holding onto Zeus since she really has no idea what it going on. It is a truly gorgeous depiction of the biggest moment within the myth. My aim is to go back to Philadelphia so I can stare at it a bit longer, as pictures just do not do it justice.
Oh, those two other myths I mentioned? Both are related to Europa. Europa gave birth to Minos, the future King of Crete. He marries Pasiphae, an immortal daughter of the sun god Helios and skilled sorceress, who later was cursed to be attracted to a what? A bull. This particular coupling is what creates the infamous Minotaur. Europa also had brothers as well, who were sent out to find her when she went missing, and not to come back without her. After years of not finding her, they gave up hope. Her brother Cadmus went to visit the famed Oracle of Delphi and was instructed to follow, this time a cow (still counts), and when she lays down, that is where he should found a new city. This became the city of Thebes. After marrying his wife Harmonia, daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, things go south. Essentially all of his children die, then when they retire elsewhere, that city starts to disrespect the Gods. To save him and his wife from their fate, they were turned to snakes to live on together peacefully, as far into the Elysium Fields. In other words, they were changed to snakes and then died, going to the Greek’s version of paradise.
Overall what is so wonderful with these art pieces created about myth is that it helps carry the myth through the centuries. These stories were once so important to a great number of people, only for them to transcend time and continue to be studied in the 21st Century. This goes for art from both Rome and Greece as well, whatever they may find in Greece that isn’t totally destroyed of course. So much art was lost that these modern takes almost feel like a very, very beautiful Band-aid. Nonetheless, these works are important too, and I look forward to seeing them and crying in public.
Noël-Nicolas Coypel, Abduction of Europa, 1727
Let’s talk about Myths, Baby! Hosted by Liv Albert, Sponsored by Acast & iheartpodcasts
Ovid, and Stephanie McCarter. “Jove Rapes Europa.” Metamorphoses, Penguin Classics, London, 2023, pp. 67–68.