From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
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 of her abduction by Zeus in the form of a bull was a Cretan story, as Károly 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.
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.
The story may also have evolved from 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.
- Isidore, Etymologiae xiv.4.1
- Herodotus, The Histories, Book 1.2
- Eusebius, Chronicon, 47.7-10, 25, 53.16-17, 55.4-5
- Ovid, Metamorphoses, 862, translation by A.D. Melville (1986), p.50
- Metamorphoses, ii.833-iii.2, vi.103-107