Why did the great Hellenistic civilization create the myth of Europa? What is the true meaning of this story?
One of the earliest texts of the Rape of Europe is attributed to the Greek poet Moschus (near 150 BC):
Cypris, when all but shone the dawn’s glad beam,
To fair Europa sent a pleasant dream;
When sleep, upon the close-shut eyelids sitting,
Sweeter than honey, is eye-fetters knitting,
The limb-dissolving sleep! When to and fro
True dreams, like sheep at pasture, come and go.
Europa, sleeping in her upper room,
The child of Phoenix, in her virgin bloom,
Thought that she saw a contest fierce arise
Betwix two continents, herself the prize;
They to the dreamer seemed like women quite,
Asia, and Asia’s unknown opposite.
This was a stranger, that a native seemed,
And closer hugged her–so Europa dreamed;
And called herself Europa’s nurse and mother,
Said that she bore and reared her; but that other
Spared not her hands, and still the sleeper drew,
With her good will, and claimed her as her due,
And said that Zeus Ægiochus gave her,
By Fate’s appointment, that sweet prisoner.
So, Cypris sends Europa a dream, in which Europa is disputed by two continents. The two continents are Asia and Asia’s opposite. While Asia claims to be Europa’s mother, the other continent wins in this struggle and claims Europa as her own in the end.
Now let’s put the same in astronomical terms.
“Cypris” is the one who sends Europa the prophetic dream. This is the first and the most important clue. The entire story is going to be about Venus, the morning and the evening star, since Cypris is synonymous with Aphrodite/Venus in Greek mythology.
“The child of Phoenix” means the child of the East. For ancient Greeks, everything to the East was Phoenicia, the land of the rising sun. The Greek word Φοῖνιξ (phoenix in Latin) means “purple”, “pink”, “reddish”. Phoenix is the firebird that is born out of darkness each morning, it is the rising sun.
That’s when the morning star, Venus, appears in the sky for the first time. Born by her Oriental mother, but already disputed by its opposite – the West. To the Greeks, everything towards the West is, well… Europe.
The origin of the word “Europe” is the composition of two Greek words “wide/broad” and “face/countenance”. So, Europe is broad-faced. This said, Venus is the second-brightest object in the night sky after the Moon.
Every 584 days planet Venus returns to the same point in the horizon (as observed from Earth). Half of this time, Venus appears as the morning star, and roughly half of the time it’s the evening star and it appears at sunset in the West.
The discovery that the morning Venus and the evening Venus was one and the same star was so striking and important to the Greeks that they put together a nice story about it. Which involves a maiden, her girlfriends, the bull, the crossing of the sea… So, the myth continues:
Up-started from her couch the maiden waking,
And felt her heart within her bosom quaking;
She thought it true, and sat in hushed surprise–
Still saw those women with her open eyes;
Then to her timid voice at last gave vent;–
‘Which of the gods to me this vision sent?
What kind of dream is this that startled me,
And sudden made my pleasant slumber flee?
Who was the stranger that I saw in sleep?
What love for her did to my bosom creep!
And how she hailed me, as her daughter even!
But only turn to good my vision, Heaven!’
So said, and bounded up, and sought her train
Of dear companions, all of noble strain,
Of equal years and stature; gentle, kind,
Sweet to the sight, and pleasant to the mind;
With whom she sported, when she led the choir,
Or in the river’s urn-like reservoir
She bathed her limbs, or in the meadow stopt,
And from its bosom odorous lilies cropt.
Her flower-basket in each maiden’s hand;
And to the meadows near the pleasant shore
They sped, where they had often sped before,
Pleased with the roses growing in their reach,
And with the waves that murmured on the beach.
A basket by Hephæstus wrought of gold,
Europa bore–a marvel to behold;
He gave it Libya, when a blooming bride
She went to grace the great Earth-shaker’s side;
She gave it Telephassa fair and mild,
Who now had given it to her virgin child.
Therein were many sparkling wonders wrought–
The hapless Iö to the sight was brought;
A heifer’s for a virgin’s form she wore;
The briny paths she frantic wandered o’er,
And was a swimming heifer to the view,
While the sea round her darkened into blue.
Europa wakes up from the dream, and goes to bathe with her girlfriends. There, they pick flowers and Europa receives a golden basket from Hephaestus. The basket had been previously given to Libya before it had been given to Telephassa.
So, what’s the deal with this transferring of the golden-precious-basket?
Europa’s “dear companions, all of noble strain, of equal years and stature” are other stars that surround Venus as it appears in the morning sky. But no offence, they’re not as bright as the Virgin star.
Venus appears to have received a “golden basket from Hephaestus”. Now, Hephaestus in Greek mythology is the fire god, the son of Zeus. He was born defective and, since he was a child, he toiled in this father-god’s underwater workshops, making amazing things of pure gold. He is the most skilled smith the world has known.
Hephaestus had already made a golden basket for other members of Europa’s family (in order of appearance):
“Libya” is the first to receive the basket when she is still a bride of the “Earth-Shaker”. According to mythology, Libya is first the bride and then the wife of Poseidon. Together these two have twins, Agenore and Belus, the former later becoming the ruler of Phonecia and, consequently, the father or Europa.
Most likely, the lands and countries are referred to here. Libya is associated with the country by the same name. Agenore rules Phonecia – the East. His twin brother Belus (Busiris?) is the ruler of Egypt.
“Telephassa” who inherits the golden basket from Libya is, in fact, Libya’s daughter-in-law, the mother of Europa. In Greek, her name Τηλέφασσα means “far-shining”. I guess it runs in the family.
Eventually, Europa is the lucky owner of the basket. Which makes her shinier-than-the-shiniest, because she bears the basket with many “sparkling wonders”.
Meanwhile, the myth has not yet been told:
Two men upon a promontory stood,
And watched the heifer traversing the flood.
Again where seven-mouthed Nile divides his strand,
Zeus stood and gently stroked her with his hand,
And from her horned figure and imbruted
To her original form again transmuted.
In brass the heifer–Zeus was wrought in gold;
Nile softly in a silver current rolled.
And to the life was watchful Hermes shown
Under the rounded basket’s golden crown;
And Argus near him with unsleeping eyes
Lay stretched at length; then from his blood did rise
The bird, exulting in the brilliant pride
Of his rich plumes and hues diversified,
And like a swift ship with her out-spread sail,
Expanding proudly his resplendant tail,
The basket’s galden rim he shadowed o’er.
Such was the basket fair Europa bore.
They reached the mead with vernal blossoms full,
And each begun her favourite flowers to pull.
Narcissus one; another thyme did get;
This hyacinth, and that the violet;
And of the spring-sweets in the meadow found
Much scented bloom was scattered on the ground.
Some of the troop in rivalry chose rather
The sweet and yellow crocuses to gather;
Shining, as mid the graces Cypris glows,
The Princess in the midst preferred the rose;
Nor long with flowers her gentle fancy charmed,
Nor long she kept her virgin flower unharmed.
With love for her was Saturn’s son inflamed,
By unexpected darts of Cypris tamed,
Who only tames e’en Zeus. To shun the rage
Of Heré, and the virgin’s mind engage,
To draw her eyes and her attention claim,
He hid his godhead and a bull became;
Not such as feeds at stall, or then or now,
The furrow cuts and draws the crooked plough;
Not such as feeds the lowing kine among,
Or trails in yoke the heavy wain along;
His body all a yellow hue did own,
But a white circle in his forehead shone;
His sparkling eyes with love’s soft lustre gleamed;
His arched horns like Dian’s crescent seemed.
In this part, we see Zeus, “wrought in gold”, transform into a bull and approach Europa. Because his son fell in love with the maiden and her alter ego, Cypris (who is Venus, as we remember), got enraged.
The flowers mentioned in this passage point to the time of year when the transit of Venus takes place, which is Spring.
When Zeus transforms into the bull, he is described as having a “white circle” in his forehead and “arched horns”.
Astronomers know of such a thing as the horns of Venus barely visible to the naked eye. The planet looks different as it passes from one side of the sky to the other. Hence, its comparison with a maiden riding, holding a bull by his horns, is easy to explain.
He came into the meadow, nor the sight
Fluttered the virgins into sudden flight.
But they desired to touch and see him near;
His breath surpassed the meadow sweetness there.
Before Europa’s feet he halted meek,
Licked her fair neck and eke her rosy cheek;
Threw round his neck her arms the Beautiful,
Wiped from his lips the foam and kissed the bull;
Softly he lowed; no lowing of a brute
It seemed, but murmur of Mygdonian flute;
Down on his knees he slunk; and first her eyed,
And then his back, as asking her to ride.
The long-haired maidens she began to call;–
‘Come let us ride, his back will hold us all,
E’en as a ship; a bull unlike the rest,
As if a human heart were in his breast,
He gentle is and tractable and meek,
And wants but voice his gentleness to speak.’
She said and mounted smiling, but before
Another did, he bounded for the shore.
The royal virgin struck with instant fear,
Stretched out her hands and called her playmates dear;
But how could they the ravished Princess reach?
He, like a dolphin, pushed out from the beach.
From their sea-hollows swift the Nereids rose,
Seated on seals, and did his train compose;
Poseidon went before, and smooth did make
The path of waters for his brother’s sake;
Around their king in close array did keep
The loud-voiced Tritons, minstrels of the deep,
And with their conchs proclaimed the nuptial song.
But on Jove’s bull-back as she rode along,
The maid with one hand grasped his branching horn,
The flowing robe, that did her form adorn,
Raised with the other hand, and tried to save
From the salt moisture of the saucy wave;
Her robe, inflated by the wanton breeze,
Seemed like a ship’s sail hovering o’er the seas.
But when, her father-land no longer nigh,
Nor sea-dashed shore was seen, nor mountain high,
But only sky above, and sea below–
She said, and round her anxious glance did throw;–
‘Whither with me, portentous bull? Discover
This and thyself; and how canst thou pass over
The path of waters, walking on the wave,
And dost not fear the dangerous path to brave?
Along this tract swift ships their courses keep,
But bulls are wont to fear the mighty deep.
What pasture here? What sweet drink in the brine?
Art thou a god? Thy doings seem divine.
Nor sea-born dolphins roam the flowery mead,
Nor earth-born bulls through Ocean’s realm proceed;
Fearless on land, and plunging from the shores
Thou roamest ocean, and thy hoofs are oars.
Perchance anon, up-borne into the sky,
Thou without wings like winged birds wilt fly!
Ah me unhappy! who my father’s home
Have left and with a bull o’er ocean roam,
A lonely voyager! My helper be,
Earth-shaking Regent of the hoary sea!
I hope to see this voyage’s cause and guide,
For not without a god these things betide.’
To her the horned bull with accent clear:–
‘Take courage, virgin! nor the billow fear;
The seeming bull is Zeus; for I with ease
Can take at will whatever form I please;
My fond desire for thy sweet beauty gave
To me this shape–my footstep to the wave.
Dear Crete, that nursed me, now shall welcome thee;
In Crete Europa’s nuptial rites shall be;
From our embrace illustrious sons shall spring,
And every one of them a sceptered king.’–
And instantly they were in Crete; his own
Form Zeus put on–and off her virgin zone.
Strowed the glad bed the Hours, of joy profuse;
The whilom virgin was the bride of Zeus.
This last part describes the sea voyage of Zeus and Europa with her “long-haired maidens”, that is, other stars in the sky. Eventually they arrive at Crete where Zeus becomes human (or rather god) again, and weds Europa.
Nereids, Tritons and Poseidon are sea creatures mentioned here to give flavor to the tale, since the sky is compared to the ocean. Zeus (aka Jupiter) takes Europa (Venus) and crosses the ocean-sky with her East to West.
Jupiter is a bright spot in the sky (the white bull, the regal planet) that appears to draw Venus North as Venus performs its transit.
Now, in the Hellenistic times, the Empire also included Memphis in Egypt in the South. So, in respect to the East, Crete was “up North”, virtually in the middle of the imaginary night sky.
Minos, a mythological figure and the ruler of Crete, was the son of Zeus and Europa. He is believed to have received from Zeus the laws of Venus-Jupiter synchronicity. This synchronicity formed the basis for the Old Greek exeligmos (literally, “the turning the wheel”) , a cycle made up of 54 years and 33 days.
Minos watched closely the changes of Golden Thrones of Venus (occurring every 8 years) and planetary alignments, the so-called Olympiads.
This article would have been impossible without the help and advice of my dearest friend and mentor, M.I. Mikhailov. His interpretation of the Europa Myth you may find here.