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!
It’s August, the month of “Pride” in many cities around the world and in Amsterdam today! What started as Gay Pride is now a celebration of LGBTQ+. I take this as an opportunity to speak about the beautiful boy Ganymedes, a hero from Greek mythology and a major symbol of homosexual love in the visual and literal arts.
Homer, who wrote in the 8th Century BC the legendary “Odyssey”, already describes Ganymedes as the most beautiful of mortals. Ganymedes was abducted from earth to become Zeus’s lover on Mount Olympus, serving wine to the Gods and blessed with eternal youth and immortality.
Ganymedes (Γανυμήδης) was a young man from Troy and the most stunning guy walking around. Even Zeus, the King of the Gods, couldn’t resist his beauty. Zeus first tried to seduce him in a traditional way as shown on the Greek vase hereunder (from around 480 BC). Zeus pursues Ganymede on one side while the youth runs away on the other side, rolling along a hoop and holding aloft a crowing cock. A cock (the bird, that is!) was a common gift presented by an older man to a younger to indicate romantic interest. This custom took place in ancient Athens where such relationships were widely accepted and depicted many times on the visuals from those days, which was painted pottery as paintings did not exist yet. Considering the connotation of “cock” with penis, the bird nowadays mostly called “rooster”!
This “krater” is an ancient Greek vessel used for diluting wine with water. It’s made in Athens, most likely for the export market as this krater was found in Italy like so many other Greek vases. “Berlin Painter” is the name given to a Greek vase-painter who is widely regarded as one of the most talented vase painters of the early 5th century BC and he got his name after a large vase in the Antikensammlung Berlin.
Ganymedes was a beautiful and young shepherd boy from the city of Troy. His beauty was so great and “godlike” that Zeus decided that Ganymede was too perfect to walk the earth. One day, when Ganymedes was tending the family flock of sheep, Zeus transformed himself into an eagle and abducted the unsuspected Ganymede, who was then taken to Mount Olympus. There, Zeus made him his cupbearer; it was Ganymedes’ duty to serve cups of wine and the divine drink nectar to Zeus and the other Gods.
On Correggio’s painting above, Ganymedes looks rather younger and less flagrantly showing the sensual male body. The boy seems happy to be abducted by an eagle, as if he knows that it’s Zeus who takes him into heaven. Rembrandt hereunder makes it more realistic. No toddler would like to be picked up by such ferocious bird, so Rembrandt has his Ganymedes bawling and urinating in fright.
Nicolaes Maes, famous for his children portraits, is portraying a child from the Bredehoff de Vicq family as Ganymedes. Guess the boy’s parents thought their son was the most beautiful one ever!
Not everyone was pleased with Ganymedes presence at Mount Olympus. Hera, Zeus’ wife and Queen of the Gods, was pretty jealous, certainly when it turned out that Zeus did not only abduct Ganymedes to serve the Gods wine, water and nectar, but also to become his lover. For the sake of family peace, Zeus promoted Ganymedes to an outside post and made him the stars in the sky that are the constellation Aquarius, the Water Bearer. And in post-Medieval times, Ganymedes’ name was given to the largest moon of the planet Jupiter.
Ganymede’s myth was popular amongst the Greeks and the Romans, the Greek version is with Zeus and the Roman version with Jupiter, both being the same King of the Gods. The first recorded mention of Ganymede is found in Homer’s Iliad dating back to the 8th century BC. The Greek vases shown are from around 500 BC and the Thorvaldsen sculpture is from around 1823. Ganymedes intrigues and inspires art and artists already more than 2500 years!
Ganymede’s myth is yet another piece in the history of sexuality, with particular importance for queer history. If the King of the Gods was allowed to have a male lover, then this certainly adds to the joy of all LGBTQ+ people attending Pride festivals this August.
This is a 101 crash course in Greek and Roman gods. In ancient Greek mythology, twelve Olympian gods and goddesses ruled over the affairs of mankind from their palace on Mount Olympus. Besides this canon of major deities, many other gods, half-gods, human offspring and heroes visited the Olympus, and these twelve Olympians descended frequently to earth to have their wars, love affairs, parties and weddings, with other gods and humans. With 2,917 meters, Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece, about 80 km southwest from Thessaloniki.
Roman mythology draws directly on Greek mythology and the Romans identified their own gods with those of the ancient Greeks. Greek and Roman mythologies are therefore often classified together as Classical mythology. The interpretations of Greek myths by the Romans often had a greater influence on narrative and pictorial representations of “classical mythology” and therefore the twelve Olympians are often known under their Roman or Latin names.
There is a certain hierarchy, with Zeus being the King of the Gods and Hera their Queen. Almost all of these twelve have family relationships, Zeus often is the father although his kids have different mothers. The Olympian Gods and Goddesses have their own field of reign, covering all aspects of antique mankind. They can be recognised by their posture and physics, and by their attributes. Hereunder the Twelve Olympians, also with their Roman names and of course with their attributes. After some practising it becomes an easy and fun task to recognise them. Here is the 101 crash course!
King of the Gods and ruler of Mount Olympus, god of the sky, lightning, thunder, law, order and justice. The Roman equivalent is Jupiter. He is associated with a bundle of thunderbolts and the eagle. Zeus is married to Hera.
Zeus (Greek Ζεύς, Roman Jupiter) is the senior god, ruling over the other deities who are living on their divine Mount Olympus. He held dominion over the earth and sky and was the ultimate arbitrator of law and justice. He controls the weather, specifically with thunder and lightning. He married Hera, but he had a wandering eye and a penchant for flings with any and all women and occasionally a man or boy. His romantic interests gave birth to numerous other gods, demi-gods, and mortal heroes on the earth. Many of the myths about Zeus concern his seemingly endless adulterous rapes of mortals and demi-gods. His wife Hera doesn’t like this at all of course. Zeus’ amorous adventures and Hera’s counterattacks and revenge provide an endless source of fun and many of these stories are inspiration for generations of artists. On the painting Zeus (Jupiter) enthroned, with the eagle at his feet and in his hand a bundle of thunderbolts.
Queen of the Gods, Goddess of marriage and family. The Roman equivalent is Juno. Her attribute is the peacock. Hera is the wife of Zeus.
Hera (Greek Ἥρᾱ, Latin Juno) rules as the queen of the gods. As the goddess of marriage and fidelity, she was one of the only Olympians to remain steadfastly faithful to her spouse, Zeus. Though faithful, she was also vengeful, and tormented many of Zeus’s extramarital partners. This has been depicted multiple times throughout history of art and is an endless source of stories and inspiration for painters. Acting as a matronly Queen of the deities of Olympus, she is normally associated with women, marriage and childbirth. Hera’s most usual attribute is her favourite bird, the peacock, as can be seen in-extremis on Glotzius’ drawing from the Rijksmuseum.
The God of the Sea. The Roman equivalent is Neptune. He can be recognised by his trident, horses and dolphins. Poseidon (God of the Sea) is a brother of Zeus (God of the Sky) and Demeter (God of the Land).
When Zeus became king, he divided the universe amongst himself and his two brothers of which Poseidon (Greek Ποσειδῶν, Latin Neptune) received dominion over the seas and waters of the world, its storm and earthquakes. He was the protector of seamen and the god of horses. Poseidon lived with his wife in a magnificent palace under the sea, though he was a frequent visitor on Mount Olympus. On the painting, as usual, Neptune is depicted as an old man with long flowing white hair and beard, riding over the waves of the sea in a coach made of a shell and drawn by his horses. His head crowned as king of the seas, trident in one hand and a big pearl in his other hand.
Goddess of the Harvest and Agriculture. The Roman equivalent is Ceres. Her attributes are wheat and the cornucopia, which is the horn of plenty. Demeter is the sister of Zeus and Poseidon.
Known as the “good goddess” to the people of the earth, Demeter (Greek Δημήτηρ, Latin Ceres) is the goddess of the harvest, who oversaw farming, agriculture, and the fertility of the earth. Not surprisingly, as she controlled the production of food, she was very highly worshipped in the ancient world. On the paining by Watteau she represents summer. Ceres wields a sickle and sits on clouds among sheaves of wheat. The figures surrounding Ceres — the crayfish, the lion, and the nude blond woman — represent the zodiacal symbols of summer (Cancer, Leo, and Virgo). The name of Ceres comes back in the word “cereal”.
Goddess of War and Wisdom. The Roman equivalent is Minerva. Her symbols are the owl and the body armour including a helmet. Athena is born out of Zeus’ head.
Athena (Greek Ἀθηνᾶ, Latin Minerva), was the daughter of Zeus, born out of his head and already at birth dressed in full armour. Athena’s strength rivaled that of any of the other gods. She refused to take any lovers, remaining determinedly a virgin. She took her place on Mount Olympus as the goddess of justice, strategic warfare, wisdom, rational thought, and arts and crafts. In the Rembrandt painting, Minerva can be seen in her study, looking up from her large folio. Her regal appearance is enhanced by the laurel wreath crowning her head. In the background are more books and parts of her body armour, a golden helmet, a spear and a large shield.
Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt. The Roman equivalent is Diana. Symbols are the moon, bow and arrow. She is a daughter of Zeus and Apollo is her twin brother.
Artemis (Greek Ἄρτεμις, Latin Diana) and her twin brother Apollo were children of Zeus. The twins became important Olympians, though they were as different as night and day. Artemis was quiet, dark and solemn, the goddess of the moon, forests, archery, and the hunt. Like Athena, Artemis had no desire to marry. She was the patron goddess of feminine fertility, chastity, and childbirth, and was also heavily associated with wild animals. On the painting she is easily recognised by the crescent moon worn as a tiara, the bow and arrow on her back and a hunting dog at her feet.
God of the Sun, Light and Music. His attributes are the lyre, sun and laurel wreath. Apollo is a son of Zeus and Artemis is his twin sister.
Artemis’s twin brother Apollo (Greek Ἀπόλλων and the same name in Latin) was the god of the sun, light, music, prophecy, medicine, and knowledge, and thus the exact opposite of Demeter. Zeus may have been the senior of the deities, but among the most important and popular with the Greeks and Romans, and later with artists, is Apollo. He is a beardless young man, and the epitome of male beauty. His most common attribute is the lyre, his constant companion for both music and poetry. Apollo was considered the most handsome of the gods. He was cheerful and bright, enjoyed singing, dancing, and drinking, and was immensely popular among both gods and mortals. He also took after his father in the chasing of mortal women and from time to time a boy. On the painting Apollo is depicted as a male beauty, with his lyre and a laurel wreath on his head.
God of Violent War. The Roman equivalent is Mars. Spear, shield and armour are his symbols. Zeus is Ares’ father.
The attributes of Ares (Greek Ἄρης, Latin Mars) are any part of arms and armour of a warrior, like a helmet and shield. Where Athena oversaw strategy, tactics, and defensive warfare, Ares revealed in the violence and bloodshed that war produced. Often depicted asleep, as on our painting here, which makes him more sympathetic. The God of War asleep becomes the Good of Peace. His name is still used in “martial arts”.
God of Fire and Blacksmith of the Gods. The Roman equivalent is Vulcan. To be recognised by fire and the hammer. He married Aphrodite.
Hephaestus (Greek Ἥφαιστος, Latin Vulcan) learned the blacksmith’s trade, built himself a workshop, and became the god of fire and metallurgy. His forges produce the fire of volcanoes. Hephaestus was horribly ugly – at least by the standards of gods and goddesses – but he managed to marry the beautiful Aphrodite, goddess of love. His attributes derive from his role, and include the hammer and anvil as used in the working of metals. These tools can be seen on this painting, with fire in the background. The word “volcano” refers to the Roman name of Hephaestus, Vulcan.
Goddess of Love, Beaty and Sexuality. The Roman equivalent is Venus. She can be recognised a dove and beauty aspects like jeweller and flowers. Aphrodite married Hephaestos.
Aphrodite (Greek Ἀφροδίτη, Latin Venus) as the most beautiful woman, was married to the most ugly of the gods, Hephaestus. She enjoyed a number of flings with mortal humans, including an affair with the beautiful young guy Adonis. Aphrodite (mostly as Venus) has proved hugely popular in Western art, all too often as an excuse for painting a classical female nude and in the case of her affair with Adonis, also with a beautiful man. This tradition of depicting Aphrodite largely or completely unclothed dates from classical times, already on some of the wall paintings found in the ruins of Pompeii. The Boucher painting, formally called “The Toilette of Venus” was executed for the bathroom of Madame de Pompadour, the powerful mistress of Louis XV. Boucher devised a summary of the key features: Venus as female beauty, and an unfurling of luxurious furniture, fabric, flowers, and pearls. The name of the goddess still lives on in the words “aphrodisiac” and “venereal”.
God of travel, commerce and communication, Messenger of the Gods. The Roman equivalent is Mercury. Attributes are winged sandals, hat with wings, and the caduceus, a rod with two entwined serpents. His father is Zeus.
Hermes (Greek Ἑρμῆς, Latin Mercury) is the god who spends as much time among mortals as he does on Olympus: he’s the divine messenger and emissary. Attributes associated with that role include winged sandals, a distinctive staff with a pair of serpents around it, known as a caduceus, and a hat or helmet which bears wings too. The pair of entwined serpents along the caduceus indicates his swiftness as a messenger. This is where the word “mercurial” comes from. There’s also a touch of mischief about Hermes, which has resulted in him being referred to as the divine trickster. He’s thus seen as the protector of all messengers, travellers, thieves, merchants and orators. On the Prado painting we can see the wings around his feet and on his head, and the two snakes around the rod; and of course the male beauty of Hermes himself.
God of Wine. The Roman equivalent is Bacchus. As God of Wine he can of course be recognised by the grapevine and a cup. Dionysus is the youngest son of Zeus.
As the god of grape harvest, wine and its making and consumption, Dionysus (Greek Διόνυσος, Latin Bacchus) was an easy favourite among Olympians and mortals alike. Dionysus was the only Olympian to be born of a mortal mother, and perhaps that was part of the reason why he spent so much time among mortal men, traveling widely and gifting them with wine. Like on the Caravaggio painting here, he is almost always associated with wine and drunkenness. His most distinctive attributes are grapes, wine leaves and of course a glass of wine. His name lives on in the word “bacchanal”.