Europe: The Continent Named After the Mythological Rape of a Princess

Trigger Warning – This post contains examples of rape and sexual assault.

Women throughout history have had a tough time to put it mildly. Living under the constraints of a patriarchal society in the ancient world has meant that the history we tend to read about is that of the men. Although some women are still prominent in the ancient world – I’m thinking about the likes of Helen of Troy, Cleopatra and Sappho – it is the stories of male dominance in all walks of life that reign champion in our world. There are still elements of our societies today where inequalities are forever apparent – take the gender pay gap as an example and the recent #metoo movement sweeping across all industries both on and offline. In ancient societies, as is shockingly still present today, sexual assault of women by men was prominent. Unlike our modern era, the rape of women featured in mythology was at the heart of origin stories for some gods, heroes and continents. This post will serve, as the title suggests, as an insight into how Europe came to be named but it will also discuss the more serious issues of rape and sexual assault in ancient literature, and the problems we have with translations turning a blind eye.

Have you ever wondered exactly how places were given the names we use today? It can be incredibly interesting to explore the etymology of place names unless, for example, you look to Alexander the Great who couldn’t think of anything other than Alexandria – inventive. But what about continents? When and by whom were they named? The naming of Europe can be explained by discussing the myth of Zeus and Europa through the story from ancient Greece and also from Roman authors, Ovid and Horace.

Statue of Zeus found at Smyrna in 1680.
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The Rape of Europa

Zeus is known for thunderbolts, bursts of anger and is often glorified in his position as the leader of the divine realm on top of Mount Olympus. He is probably lesser-known for his inability to keep his toga on. Rape was common when Zeus was involved in a myth and it appears that he built a sort of divine rape culture that is discussed within the classical texts, translated – not always appropriately – for us to read today. This story reveals Zeus’ lust and his deceitful nature due to his tendency to shape shift and appear in the form of another being or animal when carrying out his abhorrent act. So without further delay, let’s discover the naming of Europe and the issues with some modern translations.

Europa, said to be the daughter of Io and a Phoenician princess, can be seen in Roman author Ovid’s Metamorphoses picking flowers by the Mediterranean Sea, largely minding her own business and enjoying her time in the fields. Zeus, after laying eyes on Europa, felt a burning lust for her and, because of this, he turns himself into a Bull – I mean, obviously, this is how you try to attract a girl. Despite this strange way of attempting to court the opposite sex, Europa is captivated by the Bull and approaches him tentatively. She places some flowers on his horn and is enticed to sit upon the back of the Bull. Europa finds him to be sweet and calm and therefore she hops on. At this moment, the Bull darts across the field and into the Ocean, leaving Europa stunned and frightened as she grasps tighter to try and hold on. Once the Bull emerges from the sea and settles on the island of Crete, he shape shifts back into Zeus, revealing at last his true identity to Europa. He then forces himself upon her in one of the most roundabout rapes in Greek mythology.

The moment Europa is abducted by Zeus (the Bull) and swept into the sea – Rembrandt (1632), photo by the J. Paul Getty Museum.

So that is the story of the abduction and rape of Europa but it is not always how it is translated. My gripe, which is something outlined incredibly well by Stephanie McCarter in her article on the rape of Leucothoe, is how the rape is very much described as a consensual encounter. Preference is given to the male in the story – Zeus.

The translation, of Ovid’s retelling, which appears as one of the top suggested search results from search engines, was published by poet David Hine (1936-2012) and can be read here. In Hine’s translation we see a particular biased towards Zeus which attempts to express his masculinity and his attractiveness as factors for the legitimisation of the rape:

“His muscular neck bulged,   
Dewlaps hung down from his chin; his curved horns you might think had been hand carved,   
Perfect, more purely translucent than pearl. His unthreatening brow and   
Far from formidable eyes made his face appear tranquil”

Translated by David Hine

“Perfect”, “unthreatening” and “tranquil” are not words I would associate with a rapist or with a scene describing rape. Some of you may be reading this and wondering how can I possibly be questioning a translation of a text – surely the translated words are what they are, right? Well, yes and no. Mythological stories are not set in stone, they never have been. The original story of Europa’s rape will have been different to the one we see today. Remember that myths were never written down at first, they were always told orally! Why then should we keep the myths the same? Can we not alter the story to reflect the thoughts and feelings of a modern audience? Or instead, shall we shift the gaze?

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I had never analysed an ancient text through feminist eyes before I undertook an MA in the subject, but now I can see the value. If we tell the story from the point of view of Europa, we read a totally different scenario. We would read her confusion of seeing the Bull in the field, her fear of being abducted and her pain and embarrassment at being sexually violated. Is it important that, despite the translations and the intended meaning in the original language, we do not have the mindset that any of these acts were consensual and they definitely should not be studied or taught as if they are. Sexual assault in Greece and Rome was very real for women as it still is in our age and should not be downplayed in any way. By all means teach the subjects described in the ancient texts, but do not lose sight of the true events.

Europa’s ‘Reward’

Perhaps my thoughts here are futile, especially when we consider the views of the authors. Horace, a Roman poet contemporary to Ovid, also wrote a short poem about Europa. In his version he discusses how Europa is ‘rewarded’ for being raped by having a continent named after her:

“Stop your sobbing, and learn to carry your good fortune well: a continent of Earth will be named for you.”

Horace 3.27 trans by A.S Kline

There is little empathy or compassion shown towards Europa by all male counterparts in the poem and the voice of the poem suggests that Europa’s rape was a stroke of good luck. You get the sense that Horace, the poet, cares little for the welfare of the victim and Zeus, the rapist, clearly does not care how he has made her feel. More tragically, Europa’s father is ashamed to have had his virgin daughter violated, and wishes she had killed herself:

“My absent father urges me on: “Why wait to die, worthless Europa? Happily you can hang by the neck from this ash tree: use the sash that’s with you.”

Horace 3.27 Trans by A.S. Kline

Like many victims of rape, Europa is left to deal with her ordeal alone. She was powerless to defend herself against Zeus due to the fact he is, of course, the omnipotent deity of the Greek world but still her story fades to the background. It is Zeus, Ovid and Horace who have the final say in the matter with Europa’s side of the story seemingly non-existent. I think we can learn a lot from this myth aside from the fanticised origin of Europe’s name. We get a sense of the dominance of men in antiquity and also in translation as the female emotions are lost in their censorship. We also recognise that women still go through sexual assault today and they are also oppressed in ways that does not allow them to speak out or confide in anyone, just like Europa.

Here are some support links for rape and sexual assault (UK) – https://rapecrisis.org.uk, https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/help-after-rape-and-sexual-assault/ .

I am planning on writing more about some influential women from antiquity as a sort of mini series seeing as they are very underrepresented in articles so, if there are any particular requests, do let me know.

Classics Lew.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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Published by ClassicsLew

I'm currently completing an MA in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter. This space is an area where I will post little articles that spring into my mind about the Classical world which I think are interesting and engaging. My research areas are focused on Classical Reception and therefore my articles will feature my thoughts within that field for the most part.

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