Zeus and Europa
When Zeus wanted to make the Phoenician princess Europa his lover, he used a typical shape-shifting trick to get close to her. Rather than fly her to a new home, however, he took the princess hundreds of miles across the sea to the island of Crete.
The image of Europa and Zeus in the form of a bull is an iconic one, and the first of many white bull stories that appear in relation to Crete.
Europa’s son with Zeus, Minos, became the king of the island nation. While he was so influential that a culture was named after him, his mother’s image was so enduring that she gave her name to the entire continent.
The famous kidnapping story, however, may hide secrets about the history of the Minoan culture. Europa may in fact be one of the earliest, and most historically accurate, figures in all of Greek mythology!
According to most myths, Europa was a beautiful Phoenician princess who lived somewhere near the Eastern Mediterranean coast.
Zeus fell in love with her and wanted to make her his mistress, but needed to find a way to get close to her.
Realizing that Europa spent much of her time around her father’s herd of cattle, the god disguised himself as a bull among them. He took the form of a particularly majestic but calm white bull.
As he had expected, Europa noticed the new animal and was intrigued by it. She gradually and cautiously moved closer.
Zeus made no move as she grew near or leaned in to pet him. When she was satisfied that the bull was an especially calm animal, Europa grew brave enough to climb onto its back.
As soon as she did, Zeus ran to the shore and leaped into the sea. He swam as a bull all the way to Crete with the young princess clinging onto his back.
Once they arrived on the island Zeus revealed himself to her and set her up as his new consort. He gave her many lavish gifts, including the automaton Talos to act as her guard.
Zeus kept Europa on Crete for many years. They eventually had three sons together, Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon.
As was common in his affairs, Zeus eventually lost interest in the Phoenician princess. After their sons were born he arranged for her to be married to the king of Crete, Asterion.
Europa was considered the first queen of Crete. Her son, Minos, became king after his stepfather’s death and was such an important figure in mythology that archaeologists named the islands pre-Greek culture the Minoan after him.
The story of Europa has possible explanations both in mythology and in history.
The civilization of Crete predated the arrival of Greek people to the region by nearly two thousand years. When Greek speakers arrived, the Minoans had already been practicing their religion for many centuries.
Unfortunately, the oldest Minoan texts have never been translated by archaeologists. While many inscriptions and tablets remain, the language has not yet been decoded.
What is known, however, is that the religion of Minoan Crete influenced the development of the Olympian mythology. While the Greek speakers brought a few recognizable gods with them, many more were adopted and adapted from the area’s native cultures.
The legends of Europa and Minos set on Crete are thought to be some of the oldest in Greek mythology. More than any other, they are often believed to be retellings of older Minoan tales.
There is artistic evidence that bulls played an important role in Minoan religion, and the Greek stories of Crete often feature white bulls prominently. The story of Europa is the first of these.
Such an abduction tale was a common trope in the marriages of the gods in many cultures, and the story of Europa may have come to Crete from an Eastern source. Just as Europa herself was Phoenician, her tale may have been brought to Bronze Age Crete by merchants from Phoenicia.
What is also known, however, is that Zeus was a god brought to the region with the Greek language. If the story of Europa is Minoan, it would have to have starred another god in his place.
The most obvious candidate is Poseidon, whose name and imagery suggest a pre-Greek origin. The sea god also features more prominently in other stories of Crete than Zeus, particularly in connection to the island’s bull myths.
The story of Europa may, therefore, have once been one of an Eastern princess who was abducted by Poseidon to become the mother of the nation’s kings. While the god was later recast as Zeus by the Greeks, the fundamentals of the story remained.
There is also a possible historical explanation to the story. Some scholars believe that the legend of Europa may have once referred to a historical figure.
A Phoenician princess may have once been captured by Minoan ships on the coast of her homeland. Taken back to their home island, this princess became a consort of a Minoan king and may have factually become the mother of a great ruler.
Whether Europa was a Phoenician legend or a historical princess may never be known, whether or not Minoan texts can ever be deciphered. What is clear, however, is that the story of Zeus and Europa is, in some form, one that predates Greece itself.
Europa was a Phoenician princess. Zeus took the form of a gentle white bull to get close to her, only to run into the sea when she grew brave enough to ride on his back.
In one of Greek mythology’s most iconic scenes, the white bull swam across the sea to the island of Crete with the young princess clinging to his back. Once there, he revealed himself as a god and made her his mistress.
Zeus and Europa had three sons before she married the local king. Minos, the eldest, became king after his stepfather and appears in nearly every Greek story set on the island.
While the texts left by the Minoan culture of Crete have not been translated, their pre-Greek religion is believed to have had a significant influence on the development of later Olympian mythology. Many Cretan stories are thought to be retelling of original Minoan tales.
The story of Zeus and Europa is one of these, although the Greek origin of Zeus means that the story was probably once of Poseidon instead.
The abduction scenario is common in Eastern mythology, indicating that the story may have originated in Phoenicia just as Europa was said to. An alternative theory is that Europa represented a real Phoenician woman who, kidnapped from her homeland by Minoan pirates, was taken to Crete as a consort to the island’s king.