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The Rape of Europa

L. Caruana 2006
50 x 80 cm, oil in 5 part medium


In 2005 I had to paint a canvas on the theme of ‘Europe’ for an exhibition near Munich called Dalis Erben Malen Europe. At the same time, I became naturalized in France (and hence, a European citizen). Strangely, the more I read about Europe’s foundation myth – the Abduction of Europa – the more I became intrigued by its darker, hidden aspects.
According to the traditional Hellenistic myth, Zeus transformed himself into a beautiful white bull to seduce the Tyrean maiden Europa. The moment she climbed onto his back, he carried her across the sea to the isle of Crete. Beneath a willow tree, Zeus dispensed with his bull aspect and ravished the nymph. Thus, Europa gave birth to Minos, who eventually became king of Crete.
Traditionally, artists such as Titian, Rembrandt and Moreau have portrayed The abduction of Europa, where the maiden sits atop the bull as it wades across the water. Abduction? I decided I would depict The Rape of Europa.

Researching ancient imagery from Crete, I gradually realized that the Hellenistic myth re-arranges, transforms and hides a much older Minoan myth. Unfortunately, no written version of this myth has survived, although Minoan statuary is rich with images of goddesses, bulls, serpents, priestesses, opium-poppies and labyrinths.

The Hellenistic myth does recount a rather interesting ‘curse’ that fell upon the House of Minos. Because king Minos refused to sacrifice a beautiful white bull to Poseidon, the king’s wife Pasiphae was cursed to fall in love with the animal. With the help of Daedalus, she constructed a hollow cow, entered it, and seduced the bull. Thus Pasiphae gave birth to the Minotaur – half man, half bull – a being so horrendous that king Minos (again with help from Daedalus) concealed it in a large labyrinth.

Why, in this tale of minotaurs and labyrinths, does the bull assume a horrifying aspect? Didn’t Zeus assume the form of a bull to seduce Europa? The key to uncovering the forgotten Minoan myth lies in this duplicity.

When we look into the Matriarchal culture of Minoan Crete, we find that the bull was a sacred animal which symbolized the Goddess’s consort. Her ‘son-lover’ can be found on ancient amulets, standing in a characteristic pose with his back arched and a sceptre in his grasp. He also stands on an altar with stylized bull horns on the corners. The son-lover, in the form of a bull, was sacrificed each year but returned to life as a sign of the Goddess’s life-giving power and plenitude. Thus, he became an ever-dying and rising god of fertility.

Meanwhile, a Cretan coin from Gortyna reveals an event otherwise unmentioned by the Hellenistic myth: on one side is the image of a bull; on the other is the image of a nymph being ravaged by an eagle. Zeus was a sky god, a thunder god, indeed a warrior god of the Patriarchal Hellenist culture. And, as is appropriate, his symbolic animal was – not the bull – but the eagle.

Behind the traditional Hellenistic myth is the untold story of how the warrior culture from the Patriarchal mainland descended upon the agrarian culture of Matriarchal Crete. The clashing of their bronze weapons sounded like Zeus’ thunder in the heavens. The unwalled cities were pillaged, the women and priestesses were raped, and all forms of Goddess worship were abolished.

In my painting, I’ve tried to show the priestess’s two-fold response to the bull’s appearance – at once fearful and full of awe. For, she recognizes the bull as symbolic of the Goddess’s consort. But, she also recognizes it as the warrior god in disguise. To unite with the consort of the Goddess is to promote fertility and Nature’s renewal. But that same union, with Zeus thunder-hurler, takes the form of rape, pillage and destruction.

Thus, in the centre, the priestess Europa is uniting with Zeus in the form of an eagle. This transpires in a radiant burst of light, for it is a moment of epiphany: the conception of a divine son, King Minos, and the founding of a new dynasty. It is also thepivotal moment in Europe’s foundation myth. But is it a rape or consummation? I leave it ambiguous as to whether this union is indeed ‘the Rape of Europa’ or Europa’s more willing sacrifice to promote fertility.

To the right, Zeus stands in all his power and glory. He upholds his thunder-sceptre and is surrounded by shining weaponry. His pose, however, is strangely reminiscent of the figure from Minoan amulets: like the son-lover of the Goddess, his back is arched and he holds a sceptre in his hand. Thus, in the eyes of the Goddess, he is no more than her consort, the ever-dying and rising god of fertility.

Below are a series of stone ruins with the source imagery for the painting. To the left, the image from the Gortynan coin of a nymph being raped by an eagle. To the right, the image from a Minoan seal of the Goddess’s consort: he holds a sceptre and stands with his back arched.

Finally, at the centre, is the image of a nymph riding on the back of a bull, taken from an ancient Minoan bas relief. My own belief is that this stele does not depict Zeus and his ‘abduction of Europa’. Rather, that Hellenistic myth was construed around this stone. Meanwhile, the stele depicts a scene from a more ancient myth. But, we will never know for sure, since the Minoan myth is forgotten and the stone remains forever silent.

At the top is a statue of the Minoan Goddess (or her priestess). Her breasts are bare, serpents wrap themselves round her arms, and she upholds the sacred double-headed axe called the labrys. To approach her, we must pass through the horns of the bull, and she herself stands before the entrance of the mysterious labyrinth. (To leap through the horns of the bull and pass through the labyrinth were, according to Mircea Eliade, two ancient Minoan rites of initiation).

On the crown of the Goddess are three opium-poppies (a motif taken from an existing Minoan sculpture). Below, the priestess Europa also holds three opium-poppies in her hand (in contrast to Zeus’ weaponry). The psychedelic patterns on many Minoan vases bears testimony to the sacramental role of entheogens in that culture. (See Geerto A. S. Snijder’s 1936 book Cretan Art for ‘Entheogenic Influences in Minoan Art’).

It is indeed tragic that an ancient culture which praised the fertility Goddess and her psychotropic plants was eventually overrun and destroyed by a Bronze age culture which praised the Thunder God and his metallic clash of weaponry.

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