It’s often said the Greek gods were no angels, and the myth of Zeus and Europa is perfect proof of the fact. The Greek myths are filled with stories of the gods’ trickery and treachery against mortals and each other. And all the gods and goddesses were unscrupulous in using their supernatural powers to seduce any comely lads or lasses they fancied.
Worst offender was the man at the top, Zeus himself. Zeus is generally thought of as married to Hera, but Hera wasn’t his first wife – that honour went to Themis, goddess of Custom and Tradition. His second wife was Metis, Titan goddess of Good Counsel, whom he swallowed whole when he heard a prophecy that she would give birth to a son greater than his father.
Even after he married Hera, Zeus’s extra-marital lovers were many. Most famous of his paramours was Aphrodite, with whom he had a son, Priapus; poor Priapus was cursed by jealous Hera and born deformed, with a huge and permanently erect member, as you may remember from The Lady of Sorrows.
As an aside, let me recount a story of Priapus. Unfortunately for him, when it came to the ladies, his spectacular endowment was no compensation for his ugliness, and when he fell in love with the nymph Lotis, she wouldn’t even give him a second glance. When Lotis drank too much wine at a feast and fell into a drunken slumber, Priapus saw his chance to have his way with her; but as he reached out his hand to touch her, a donkey raised the alarm by braying. Lotis awoke and tried to push Priapus off, but the only way she could escape him was to turn into a lotus tree. Furious at the donkey for robbing him of his opportunity, Priapus took his revenge by beating the animal to death with his gargantuan phallus.
Another of Zeus’s post-marital loves was Europa, a beautiful princess of Phoenicia. Europa caught Zeus’s attention one day whilst she was out gathering flowers with her friends. Lusting after her, Zeus hatched a plan. He turned himself into a docile white bull, and wandered in amongst the girls, who began to pet him and garland him with flowers. Before long, Europa decided to climb on the bull’s back. A fatal mistake! The bull carried Europa into the sea, and swam with her to Crete, accompanied by a crowd of Zeus’s cronies – Nereids riding dolphins, Triton, messenger of the sea, and Triton’s father, Poseidon.
Zeus stayed with Europa long enough to give her three sons – King Rhadamanthus of the Cyclades, King Sarpedon of Lycia, and Minos, who became king of Crete and fathered the Minotaur. And Zeus commemorated the white bull in the constellation of Taurus.
What about Europa’s friends, left standing on the shore? They reported her abduction to her family, and her father ordered her three brothers to go in search of her and not come home until she was found. None of them ever made it as far as Crete, but all three made names for themselves founding cities which they then ruled.
As for Europa herself, when Zeus left her, she married the king of Crete. Almost a fairytale ending to a very bullish courtship.
Author of the Mysteries of the Greek Detective, books with a touch of mythology set in almost-contemporary Greece, and featuring lots of fabulous Greek food.
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