bears upon

Europa (mythology)

Europa (Greek Εὐρώπη) was a Phoenician woman of high lineage in Greek mythology, from whom the name of the continent Europe has ultimately been taken. The story of her abduction by Zeus in the form of a bull was a Cretan story, as Kerényi 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. 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.

Europa's earliest literary reference is in the Iliad, which is commonly dated to the late 9th or to the 8th century BC. Another early reference to her is in a fragment of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, discovered at Oxyrhyncus. The earliest vase-painting securely identifiable as Europa, dates mid-seventh century BC.


The etymology of her Greek name (ευρυ- "wide" or "broad" + οπ– "eye(s)" or "face") suggests that Europa as a goddess represented the lunar cow, at least on some symbolic level. Metaphorically, at a later date her name could be construed as the intelligent or open-minded, analogous to glaukopis (γλαυκώπις) attributed to Athena. However, Ernest Klein suggests a possible Semitic origin in Akkadian erebu'' "to go down, set" (in reference to the sun) which would parallel orient.

In the territory of Phoenician Sidon, Lucian of Samosata (second century CE) was informed that the temple of Astarte, whom Lucian equated with the moon goddess, was sacred to Europa:

"There is likewise in Phœnicia a temple of great size owned by the Sidonians. They call it the temple of Astarte. I hold this Astarte to be no other than the moon-goddess. But according to the story of one of the priests this temple is sacred to Europa, the sister of Cadmus. She was the daughter of Agenor, and on her disappearance from Earth the Phœnicians honoured her with a temple and told a sacred legend about her; how that Zeus was enamoured of her for her beauty, and changing his form into that of a bull carried her off into Crete. This legend I heard from other Phœnicians as well; and the coinage current among the Sidonians bears upon it the effigy of Europa sitting upon a bull, none other than Zeus. Thus they do not agree that the temple in question is sacred to Europa.

The paradox, as it seemed to Lucian, would be solved if Europa is Astarte in her guise as the full, "broad-faced" moon.


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"). 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 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 and carried her away to Crete on his back— to be welcomed by Asterion, 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 Orchomenus, 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.


The mythographers tell that Zeus was enamored of Europa and decided to seduce or ravish 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 attendants 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 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 of the Raptus, 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 abduction 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.

In classical literature

Europa abducted by Zeus, color etching by Tavik František Šimon, 1910

Europa in a fresco at Pompeii, contemporary with Ovid
Europa provided the substance of a brief Hellenistic epic written in the mid-second century BCE by Moschos, a bucolic poet and friend of the Alexandrian grammarian Aristarchus of Samothrace, born at Syracuse.

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.

Adoptions of the name

The continent

The name of Europe as a geographical term came in use by Ancient Greek geographers such as Strabo. It is derived from the Greek word Eurōpē (Ευρώπη) in all Romance languages, Germanic languages, Slavic languages, Baltic Languages, in Finno-Ugric languages (Hungarian Európa, Finnish Eurooppa, Estonian Euroopa), as well as in Latin.

Her name appeared on postage stamps commemorating the "United Europe", which were first issued in 1956. Jürgen Fischer, in Oriens-Occidens-Europa summarized how the name came into use, supplanting the oriens - occidens dichotomy of the later Roman Empire, which was expressive of a divided empire, Latin in the West, Greek in the East.

In the eighth century, ecclesiastical uses of "Europa" for the imperium of Charlemagne provide the source for the modern geographical term. The first use of the term Europenses, to describe peoples of the Christian, western portion of the continent, appeared in the Hispanic Latin Chronicle of 754, sometimes attributed to an author called Isidore Pacensis in reference to the Battle of Tours fought against Muslim forces.

The European Union has also used Europa as a symbol of pan-europeanism, notably by naming its web portal after her, and depicting her on the Greek €2 coin and on several gold and silver commemorative coins (e.g. the Belgian €10 European Expansion coin).

The moon of Jupiter

The invention of the telescope revealed that the planet Jupiter, clearly visible to the naked eye and known to humanity since prehistoric times, has an attendant family of moons. These were named for male and female lovers of the god and other mythological persons associated with him. The smallest of Jupiter's Galilean moons was named after Europa.



Primary sources

Metamorphoses, ii.833-iii.2, vi.103-107

Secondary sources

  • 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
  • Kerenyi, Karl, 1951. The Gods of the Greeks (Thames and Hudson)
  • Graves, Robert, (1955) 1960. The Greek Myths
  • D'Europe à l'Europe, I. Le mythe d'Europe dans l'art et la culture de l'antiquité au XVIIIe s. (colloque de Paris, ENS – Ulm, 24-26.04.1997), éd. R. Poignault et O. Wattel - de Croizant, coll. Caesarodunum, n° XXXI bis, 1998.
  • D'Europe à l'Europe, II. Mythe et identité du XIXe s. à nos jours (colloque de Caen, 30.09-02.10.1999), éd. R. Poignault, F. Lecocq et O. Wattel – de Croizant, coll. Caesarodunum, n° XXXIII bis, 2000.
  • D’Europe à l’Europe, III. La dimension politique et religieuse du mythe d’Europe de l‘Antiquité à nos jours (colloque de Paris, ENS-Ulm, 29-30.11.2001), éd. O. Wattel - De Croizant, coll. Caesarodunum, n° hors-série, 2002.
  • D’Europe à l’Europe, IV. Entre Orient et Occident, du mythe à la géopolitique (colloque de Paris, ENS-Ulm, 18-20.05.2006), dir. O. Wattel - de Croizant & G. de Montifroy, Editions de l’Age d’Homme, Lausanne – Paris, 2007.

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