Conventionally, the story of Europa is Greek myth at its most patriarchal. Larousse (1974:105) is a convenient source: Daughter of Agenor and Telephassa, king and queen of Phoenicia, she is playing and gathering flowers one day at the water's edge when she sees a gentle and majestic bull: she trustingly approached the animal which bent its knee(s) to her, so she climbed on to its back and began to wreathe flowers round its horns. Suddenly, says the narrator the bull which was of course Zeus in disguise, "reared, to his feet and at a bound sprang into the waves and carried the weeping virgin across the vast sea". They landed in Crete where Zeus raped her ("made the girl his mistress"). Larousse remarks of the tree under which this "adventure"(p. 87) happened:" because it had witnessed and sheltered this divine union (the tree) received the privilege of retaining its foliage in all seasons."(p.105) At Gortyna on Crete's southern coast, a particular tree is still currently being pointed out to tourists as the site of this 'blessed event'.
To complete the tale: Europa gave birth to three children among whom Minos was to become king of Crete and founder of the Minoan dynasty. The children were adopted by Asterius, king of Crete who became Europa's husband.
If we look further, we find quite a different story. It is summed up by a hymn to Europa by a modern Greek woman 1
I am Europa full moon, the broadfaced one. I am the cosmic cow, the Mother of all. See me as I journey from dusk to dawn on the back of my consort, the bull. My splendour is so great we outshine the light of a million stars
Holding his horn in my left hand of wisdom I control the fertile magic of our hieros gamos.
For he is my lover, he is my son.
He is my chosen one.
The 'broadfaced one' is the meaning of the word Europa, which can also mean 'she of the flourishing willow withies', according to Robert Graves (1961;: 173). He sees Europa as a moon goddess, which makes her Queen of the Tides and giver of dew and moisture. Patricia Monaghan (1981:102) agrees with the Moon Goddess title, but says her name means the "wide-eyed one", and credits her with being the mother goddess of Crete. Her servant was the lunar bull. Monaghan suggests that many scholars believe the Greek myth provides a Near Eastern origin for Cretan and thus European) culture.
Barbara Walker, (1983:287) quoting Campbell, Graves and Guthrie sees Europa as the Full Moon and mother of the entire continent of Europe. She is embodied as a white Moon Cow. Garlanded white bulls were sacrificed to her. The name Europa, Walker suggests, was a surname of the ancient Greek goddess, Demeter.
Europa, it will be remembered married King Asterius of Crete. His name means starry one, and it looks as if Europa is in fact queen of heaven. But this is not all. We need to consider the bull's part in the story. Campbell (1973:37) sees the bull as a symbol of creativity and power. He writes of an earth goddess who is fertilised by a moon bull who dies and is resurrected, and suggests the Europa story is a version of this.
If we look at the bull in its Phoenician and general ancient Near East setting, we see El, the father of all the gods presented as a bull in the Ras Shamra Hittite documents (Driver 1956-71). There are echoes of this in the Hebrew bible stories of the golden calf which may be representations of Yahweh (Numbers23: 22, 24:6).
Crete itself was the home of the ritual bull dance and of bull worship, while it must also be remembered that Europa's son Minos married Pasiphae who fell in love with a bull, was impregnated by him and gave birth to the half-man, half bull Minotaur.
There are many mysteries here which can be researched and discussed. It has been widely suggested that this myth could represent the carrying of eastern civilisation (Phoenicia) to Crete, which then became the civilising fulcrum of Europe.
It can also be understood as a patriarchal makeover of earlier Goddess beliefs, particularly in its apologia for rape and men's appropriation of female power.
Campbell Joseph. Oriental Mythology. 1973 London
Driver Godfrey. Canaanite Myths and Legends. 1956-71; T&T Clark Edinburgh
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. 1961. Faber & Faber London
Monaghan Patricia. Women in Myth and Legend. 1981 Junction Books London
New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology. 1973. Book Club Associates, London
Walker Barbara .The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. 1981. Harper & Row. San Francisco
© Asphodel P. Long (unpublished, 1999)