Europe owes its name to a mythological Phoenician princess deceived by Zeus in the form of a bull, abducted from her homeland, taken to Crete where he rapes or seduces her, hands her to the king of Crete as a wife, after which she gives birth to Minos, Sarpedon, and Rhadamanthys.
Other than an oblique reference in the Iliad to the, “daughter of far famed Phoenix” (Il. Xii. 292) the earliest reference to Europa appears in fragments 19 and 19A of the lost work by Hesiod (c. 750-650 BC), The Catalogues of Women. The account given in the fragments outlines the basic details of the story; Zeus’s deception of Europa, his abduction and subsequent abandonment of her, and the birth of her heroic sons. In a surviving fragment of his lost play, Kares e Europa, Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BC) gives us Europa speaking in the first person but adds nothing to the story as it is told in The Catalogues.
It is not until the 2nd Century BC that a fuller account appears, written by Moschus of Syracuse in his poem, Europa. In his version of the tale Europa dreams of two ‘lands’ that struggle for possession of her, one representing Asia, the other a foreign woman, presumably Europe, who takes her away. On the following day Europa goes to pick flowers with her companions where she is espied by Zeus who, seized with passion, appears to her in the form of a bull. Enchanted by his appearance Europa climbs upon his back and is borne into the sea and thence to Crete where Zeus, now in his own form, “unloosed her maiden girdle. And so it was that she that before was a virgin became straightway the bride of Zeus, and thereafter straightway too a mother of children unto the Son of Cronus.”
Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD), in his Metamorphoses (Bk. 2, 846), briefly relates the tale in typical romantic fashion and purple prose. Several later writers including Appollodorus, Dictys Cretensis, Nonnus, Fulgensius, and Lucian make reference to Europa, but again add nothing to the legend, though Clement of Alexandria’s list of Zeus’ rapes, adulteries, and incest’s is somewhat of an eye opener (Recognitions 10.20-22).
Herodotus (c.484-425 BC) in The Histories offers a more prosaic view. Europa, Herodotus states, was carried off by a band of Cretans in retaliation for the abduction of Io, the daughter of Inachus, King of Argos, by a band of Phoenicians (Histories 1.2). For the father of history, Europa’s abduction was just one of many perpetrated by the Greeks and their Mediterranean neighbours in an age where women stealing, if not an accepted practice, was a real and constant threat.
The legend has many connotations and can be interpreted in many ways. At its crux lies an echo of the conflict between the Greek world and the Phoenician, but it also represents the transfer of the fruits of an older civilization to the new colonies of the Aegean. Europa’s brother, Cadmus, sent by her father to search for her, is credited with bringing writing to the Greeks in the form of the Phoinikeia grammata. An interesting detail of the myth as given by Moschus is the mention of Europa’s purple robe. Tyrian purple was a highly prized commodity in the Ancient World and is thought to have originated from Phoenician Tyre. The recent archaeological discovery of murex shells on Crete suggests that the Minoans, named after Minos the son of Europa, knew the secret of making the dye. It is extremely speculative but could this seemingly inconsequential detail be a late tradition recording the transfer of the dye making process to the Greeks?
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