How Europe Got Its Name — The Myth of Europa in Art

Europa was a Phoenician woman who had two brothers, Cilix (who gave his name to Cilicia in Asia Minor) and Cadmus who brought the alphabet to mainland Greece. Zeus became infatuated with Europa and according to the oldest Cretan stories recounting god’s numerous love affairs with women, Zeus approached the girl as a tame white bull who joined her herd. Europa, enchanted by the creature, climbed on his back to decorate his horns with flowers, but the mischievous god seized the opportunity and sprang into the ocean.

Zeus swam across the water to reach the island of Crete, where he revealed his identity to scare Europa. She accepted him and his gifts (e.g. a necklace made by Hephaestus, a javelin that never missed, and even the constellation in the shape of a bull called Taurus). From their union their son Minos was born and became the first king of Crete. Historically, from this man, the first European civilization of Minoans took the beginning.

Ancient Greeks often identified lands or rivers with female figures. No surprise then, that in one of the Homeric hymns the name Europa is used to describe the western shore of the Aegean Sea. Moreover, Europa was believed to be the daughter of the earth goddess Gaia and was associated with the concept of fertility, prosperity, and abundance.

As a personification of the land, Europa represented the idea that the earth was a living and breathing entity, capable of nurturing and sustaining life. Her association with fertility and prosperity was rooted in the belief that the land was capable of providing for the people who lived on it, as long as they treated it with respect and care.

Europa’s story of abduction by Zeus also symbolized the idea that the land could be conquered and taken over by powerful forces. This aspect of her story reflected the reality of ancient societies, where wars were fought over fertile land and resources.

In art, Europa was often depicted in a pastoral setting, surrounded by animals and nature. In paintings, she is often a beautiful woman, adorned with various symbols of nature such as flowers, fruits, and grains. This emphasized her close connection to the land and her role in ensuring the abundance of crops and livestock.

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