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The story of Zeus and Europa in Greek mythology

Updated on August 28, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Religion in Ancient Greece was based around a large pantheon of deities, and in the later period of worship the main gods were based on Mount Olympus. At this point Zeus was the supreme deity.

Stories of Greek mythology from this period tell partially of the rule of Zeus and partially of the acts of heroes and demi-gods. Many of the stories of Ancient Greece though tell of the love affairs of the gods, and there were dozens of stories based on the love life of Zeus.

One of the most famous stories of Zeus’ relationships with female goddesses and mortals is that of Zeus and Europa. The tale of Europa and Zeus became the starting point for three other relative important individuals in Greek mythology, with Europa giving birth to three of Zeus’ sons.

The Lineage of Europa

Europa, in most of the historic sources, is considered to be the beautiful daughter of Agenor, King of Tyre; with her mother normally named as Telephassa or Argiope. Through her father, Europa is a granddaughter of Poseidon, and also a descendent of the nymph Io.

The parentage of Europa also means that, in most cases, she is the sister to three brothers, Cadmus, Cilix and Phoenix.

The Abduction of Europa

Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder (1722–1789) PD-art-100
Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder (1722–1789) PD-art-100 | Source

Europa and the Bull

After Guido Reni (1575–1642) PD-art-100
After Guido Reni (1575–1642) PD-art-100 | Source

The Abduction of Europa

The beauty of any mortal would quickly become known to one or more deities in the Greek pantheon, and from his throne of Mount Olympus it was Zeus who first spied the beautiful Europa.

Despite being married at that time to the goddess Hera, Zeus was overwhelmed with desire for the princess of Tyre. Acting on his desire, Zeus transformed himself into a magnificent white bull, and transported himself to Tyre.

Europa and her attendants were down by the shore gathering flowers, when the white bull wandered up to them. Zeus made sure that the bull appeared totally tame, and he laid down at the feet of Europa. Initially a little bit scared, Europa would eventually start to place flowers upon the white bull, before eventually deciding that the bull was tame enough for her to sit upon.

That was of course just what Zeus wanted, and with Europa on his back he entered the water and swan off into the sea. Europa was too frightened to jump off, and eventually, Zeus and Europa arrive on the shores of Crete.

Zeus then reveals himself to Europa, and transforms into human form. Europa then readily agrees to be his lover beneath a cypress tree; and from the coupling three sons were born, Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon.

Zeus then left Europa on Crete, rather than returning her to tyre. Europa though, prospered on Crete and married the Cretan king, Asterion; Europa becoming the first Queen of Crete.

The Abduction of Europa

Jean François de Troy (1679–1752) PD-art-100
Jean François de Troy (1679–1752) PD-art-100 | Source

Gifts for Europa

Whilst Zeus left Europa on Crete, he did not simply abandon her, as he provided her with several gifts.

The first of these gifts was a beautifully decorative necklace that had been crafted by Hephaestus. This necklace is often said to be the “necklace of Harmonia”, the cursed necklace of the rulers of Thebes, with Europa giving the necklace as a wedding gift to her future sister-in-law. In other stories, the “necklace of Harmonia” is a different necklace created by, and cursed by, Hephaestus.

The other gifts provided by Zeus to Europa would be more useful.

Talos – Generally considered to be another creation of the metal-working god Hephaestus, Talos was a gigantic man made of bronze. Each day he would circle Crete three times to offer the island and Europa protection. It would remain a protector of Crete until the Argo anchored off of the island’s coast.

In alternate versions of the myth, Talos is a creation of Daedalus, or is a remnant of the bronze age of man.

Laelaps – The second gift left with Europa was a dog named Laelaps. Laelaps was a dog that was destined to always catch what it was chasing.

In a subsequent generation Laelaps was sent to chase the Teumessian Fox; the fox which could not be caught. Faced with the quandary of the uncatchable and the inescapable, Zeus turned both into stone, before placing both of their likenesses in the heavens.

Javelin – The final gift was a magical javelin, which when thrown at a target would always hit.

Cadmus

Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617) PD-art-100
Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617) PD-art-100 | Source

Interconnecting Stories

The abduction of Europa by Zeus as the bull was a starting point for other stories.

Zeus was said to have placed a depiction of the bull in the stars, as the constellation Taurus, in remembrance of his love affair. In Greek mythology, the bull would also become closely linked with Crete, as Pasiphae would fall in love with the Cretan Bull, and subsequently give birth to the Minotaur.

The abduction of Europa also ultimately caused the founding of other city states in the ancient world.

King Agenor dispatched his three sons to recover his daughter, but there was no clue as to who had abducted her or where she had been taken. Each brother set out on their hopeless task, and went their separate ways, never to return to Tyre.

Phoenix was said to have departed for Africa; Cadmus went to mainland Greece and founded Thebes; and Cilix went to Asia Minor and founded Cilicia. The son of Cilix, Thasus, accompanied his father, and founded Thasos.

The stories of the sons of Europa also begin with Minos becoming king of Crete, Sarpedon became king of Lycia, and Rhadamanthys went to Ocaleia in Boeotia, and became ruler there. In the afterlife, Minos and Rhadamanthys would become two of the three judges of the underworld.

The End of Europa

There is no real end to the story of Europa, as she simply stops being mentioned, and the stories of her sons, and in particular Minos, take over. Of course, presumably Europa, as a mortal dies, but her name certainly lives on, with the continent of Europe named after the lover of Zeus.

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