How Europe got its name…
The European and Asian continent are both named after female characters from Greek mythology. Let’s have a closer look at “Europa” and her representation in art. It’s all about a beautiful princess who is abducted by a divine bull and gives her name to a whole continent.
The story about Europa (Εὐρώπη in Greek) is simple. She was a beautiful princess from the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre, located on the southern coast of Lebanon. One day, Europa and her friends were picking flowers and playing on the beach. Zeus – or Jupiter, the Roman version – sees her and immediately falls in love. As King of the Gods and having a reputation for endless affairs, Zeus decides to take what he wants. He transforms himself into a marvelous bull with a snow-white body and walks towards the girls. Charmed by the bull’s docile behavior, the girls start petting him and decorate him with garlands of flowers. The bull Zeus lays down at Europa’s feet and pretends to be the most kind and gentle animal ever. Encouraged by her friends, Europa thinks she might ride such gentle beast and climbs on the animal’s back. Of course, this is exactly what Zeus had planned. Now he can abduct Europa!
Zeus gets up and slowly starts walking around. Soon however, the bull Zeus accelerates his pace and eventually breaks into a gallop, with Europa clinging on for her life. The King of the Gods and the frightened princess reach the seaside and dive into the sea, leaving Europa’s bewildered friends behind. Europa could do nothing but hold on in fear.
The bull swam with her on his back, all the way from the coast of Lebanon to the isle of Crete. Here the Greek god regained his human form and, under a cypress tree, made love with Europa. She became pregnant and gave birth to three sons of Zeus, all becoming kings and famous heroes. Europa married the King of Crete, became Queen and she lived happily ever after. The story about Europa is a classic Greek tragedy, but this time with a happy ending.
Europa riding the bull of Zeus was a popular subject in art. The earliest Greek reference is in Homer’s Iliad from the 8thcentury BC. The Roman poet Ovid (born 43 BC) describes the story in his Metamorphoses. Hereunder a fresco from the Casa di Giasone in Pompeii, dated before 79 AD as that’s the year when Pompeii was buried under 5m of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
The abduction of Europa has long been a great source of inspiration for artists. Many of those produced superb works of art, but only a few have made serious attempts to tell this story faithfully to the myth. With two actors: Europa, a fair maiden, and a white bull, which the viewer must recognise as Zeus (or Jupiter) in disguise, and a setting full of suspense and male dominance. Most artists skipped the suspense part and turned the story into a fairytale image of beauty and romance.
The story of Europa and Zeus is indeed an excellent subject for a light, pastoral and joyful scene with semi-nudeness, garlands of flowers, and stress-free pastime, like the Meissen figurine above or the painting by Jean-Baptiste Pierre hereunder. It’s in strong contrast to the paintings by Titian and Rembrandt which follow the myth more precisely. They depict a bewildered Europa raising the alarm to her companions on the shore, who watch helplessly and stare at the departing princess in horror. Europa holds on to the bull, not because she wants to, but because she would otherwise fall and drown. She was tricked by a friendly bull, one who coaxed her into taking a ride, one she even crowned with flowers before she realized who he was: a bullyish God!
Jean-Baptiste Pierre was First Painter to King Louis XV of France. His painting is a typical rococo confection, here is no serious drama anymore; it’s a lighthearted, elegant and frivolous composition. Few painters felt it necessary to include the eagle in their paintings of Europa. The eagle is the symbol of Zeus and Jean-Baptiste Pierre does this favour to the viewer, to be sure we will not miss the plot. Although he seems to have ignored the fact that the bull was white.
The ancient Greeks first applied the word Europa to the geographical area of central Greece and then the whole of Greece. By 500 BC, Europa signified the entire continent of Europe (although the Greeks were only really familiar with the areas around the Mediterranean) with Greece at its eastern extremity. The story of Princess Europa starts with her abduction from the shores of Lebanon, becoming Queen of Crete, giving her name to – and thus being godmother of – the European continent, and indirectly being the name-giver for the Euro! And on top of that, the story of the abduction of Europa is depicted on the modern Greek two Euro coin!