This painting, by the famous Dutch artist, Rembrandt (aka Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1606–1669), was inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Europa. According to the ancient tales, she was a daughter of a mythical Phoenician king named Agenor. Yet, her royal standing did not spare her from awkward and dramatic twists of fate in her life. In fact, it is Europa, herself, who is seen being dragged off to sea by the white bull. The strange creature to which she clings, unsurprisingly, is a pivotal character of the odd myth. As the story goes, the mysterious white bull had only recently wandered into King Aginor’s royal herds. Behaving in a friendly and unthreatening way, the bull befriended Europa, allowing her to groom him and to dress up his horns with garlands. This charming friendship between beast and woman, however, was not all that it seemed. The mysterious bull was actually Zeus (or the Roman Jupiter) in disguise. As Zeus was a notoriously lusty god, the conclusion to Europa’s unfortunate tale should be no mystery. Taking advantage of Europa’s misplaced trust, Zeus soon lured the unsuspecting princess onto his back, and once she fell for his trap, the magical god raced out over the depths of the sea, so that she could do nothing else but continue to cling to her kidnapper. This scene was described by the Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE):
“The princess even ventured to sit with her legs astride
on the back of the bull, unaware whose sides she was resting her thighs on;
when Jupiter, gradually edging away from the land and away
from the dry shore, placed his imposter’s hooves in the shallowest waves,
then advanced out further, and soon he was veering the spoils of his victory
out in mid-ocean. His frightened prize looked back at the shore
she was leaving behind, with her right hand clutching one horn and her left
on his back for support, while her fluttering dress swelled out in the sea breeze”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2.868-875).
Such is the gist of the action that is playing out in the painting featured above, albeit with clothing and architecture that harkens more to Rembrandt’s own time instead of the age of the ancients. Nevertheless, the scene shows Europa being dragged out to sea by her godly captor, leaving behind her startled friends and attendants, who can only helplessly stare in shock, dismay and disbelief from the shoreline. After the abduction, Zeus was said to have carried Europa to the island of Crete. There, the god got what he wanted, one way or the other. According to myth, Europa had several children with Zeus, including Rhadamanthys, Sarpedon and King Minos.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.