IN the land of Tyre and Sidon, Europa, daughter of King Agenor, was reared in the seclusion of her father’s palace. Once, at midnight, when mortals are visited by fanciful dreams which have a clear core of truth, Heaven sent her a curious vision. It seemed to her that two continents—Asia and that which lies opposite—in the guise of women, were fighting to possess her. One of the women had a foreign air. The other—and this was Asia—looked and acted like one of Europa’s own countrywomen, and claimed her warmly and vehemently, saying that it was she who had borne and nurtured this lovely child. But the strange woman clasped her in her strong arms like a stolen treasure and drew her away with her. The oddest part of the dream was that Europa did not resist her with any real force or purpose.
“Come with me, little love,” said the stranger. “I shall bring you to Zeus, the Aegis-Bearer, for Destiny has appointed you his beloved!”
Europa awoke. The blood pulsed madly in her temples, and she started up from her couch, for the vision of night had been as bright and distinct as the reality of day. For a long time she sat upright and motionless, staring into space with wide-open eyes, and still seeing the two women before her. At last her lips moved, and she asked herself in alarm: “What god has sent me this vision? What curious dream has beguiled me while I slept, safe in the house of my father? Who was the strange woman? What new yearning quickened my heart at sight of her? How lovingly she approached me, and even when she snatched me away she looked at me with a mother’s tender gaze! May the gods let my dream be for the best!”
Morning had come, and the fair light of day dispelled the darkness of her visions from Europa’s spirit. She rose to busy herself with her usual girlish tasks and pleasures. Friends and companions of her own age gathered about her, the daughters of noble houses, who attended her on her walks, at choral dances, and the rites of offering. They came to conduct their young mistress to a meadow strewn with many flowers, close by the sea where the girls of that region assembled to delight in the mass of blooms and the sound of the surf lapping the shore. All the girls carried baskets, and Europa herself had one of gold, carved with shining scenes from the lives of the gods. It was the work of Hephaestus, and Poseidon, the Earth-Shaker, had given it to Libya in those long-ago days when he was courting her. It had passed from hand to hand until Agenor received it as an heirloom. Swinging this basket, which was more like a bride’s finery than an article for everyday use, lovely Europa ran before her playmates, on to the shoreland meadows bright with color. The girls scattered with merry words and gay laughter, each to pluck those flowers that pleased her fancy. One broke the glistening narcissus, another the fragrant hyacinth; a third chose the fainter-scented violet. Some preferred the spicy thyme, others the yellow crocus. So they ran here and there over the meadow, but Europa soon found what she was seeking. Taller than they, like the foam-born goddess of love among the Graces, she stood among her friends, and held high in her hands a great bunch of glowing roses.
When they had gathered all they wanted, the girls flung themselves down in the soft grass and began to plait wreaths, which later they would hang on green boughs as thank-offerings to the nymphs of that place. But their pleasure in their dainty work was doomed to be short-lived, for—of a sudden—Fate broke in upon Europa’s carefree maidenhood, the fate the dream of the past night had shadowed forth.
Zeus, son of Cronus, struck by the arrow of Aphrodite, who alone among the immortals could overcome the unconquerable father of the gods, was stirred by the beauty of young Europa. But because he feared the anger of jealous Hera and could hardly hope to tempt the girl’s innocent spirit if he came in his own form, the god contrived a ruse. He assumed the shape of a bull. But no ordinary bull! Not like one that paces the common field, bends to the yoke, and draws the loaded wagon! He was great and splendid, with swelling neck and massive shoulders. His horns were slight and graceful as though a hand had wrought them, and more transparent than flawless jewels. Yellow-gold in color was his body, but in the very middle of his forehead shimmered a silvery mark shaped like the crescent moon. Rolling restlessly in their sockets, his blue-black eyes smoldered with desire. Before transforming himself, Zeus had summoned Hermes to Olympus and—without a word about his purpose—had directed him to do him a certain service. “Hasten, dear son, loyal executor of my commands,” he said. “Do you see that land below us, to the left? It is Phoenicia. Go there and drive the herds of King Agenor, which you will find grazing on the mountain slopes, down to the shore of the sea.” Instantly the winged god, obedient to his father’s words, flew to the Sidonian pastures and drove the king’s cattle, among which Zeus—unbeknown to Hermes—had mingled himself in his new shape, down to those very meadows in which Agenor’s daughter, surrounded by her Tyrian maidens, was lightheartedly toying with garlands. The herd dispersed and began cropping the grass at a distance from the girls. Only the beautiful bull that housed a god approached the green mound on which Europa and her playmates were seated. He moved with perfect grace. His forehead did not threaten, and his flashing eyes begot no fears. He seemed gentleness itself. Europa and her maidens admired the noble proportions of the animal and his peaceful manner. They wanted to see him more closely and stroke his shimmering back. The bull seemed to be aware of this, for he drew nearer and nearer and finally came to a stand right in front of Europa. At first she was startled and shrank back, but the bull did not move. He appeared to be quite tame, so she took courage, went up to him, and held the roses to his foam-flecked lips, which breathed out the scent of ambrosia. Caressingly he licked the proffered flowers and the delicate hand which wiped the foam from his mouth and began to stroke him with tenderness and love. More and ever more enchanting did the glorious creature seem to the girl. She even ventured to kiss his silken forehead. At that he bellowed joyfully, but it was not the bellow of a common bull, but like the sound of a Lydian flute echoing through a gorge between high mountains. Then he crouched at her feet, looked at her full of longing, and turned his head as if to point his broad back to her.
And now Europa called to her maidens. “Come closer,” she cried. “Let us climb on the back of this beautiful bull and ride him. I think there is room for four of us at a time. See how tame he is, how gentle! Not in the least like other bulls! I do believe he has the power of reason, just like human beings, and all that he lacks is speech!” While she was speaking, she took the wreaths from the hands of her playmates and hung them one after another on the lowered horns of the bull. Then she sprang lightly to his back, while the other girls hung back, hesitating and afraid.
When the bull had thus got what he wanted, he bounded up from the ground. First he walked slowly, yet so that Europa’s companions could not quite keep pace with him. But when the meadow lay behind and the empty strand stretched ahead, he doubled his speed and seemed a flying steed rather than a trotting bull. Before the girl knew what was happening, he had leaped into the sea and was swimming away with his quarry. With her right hand she clung to one of his horns, with her left she steadied herself on his back. The wind billowed out her gown as though it were a sail. In terror she looked back at the receding shore and called to her comrades—but in vain. The waters lapped against the sides of the bull, and shying from the wet she drew up her little heels. The bull floated on like a ship. Soon the land vanished from sight, the sun set, and in the vague shimmer of night, the girl saw nothing but waves and stars. All the next day the bull swam through vast reaches of sea, but he parted the water so adroitly that not a drop touched his rider. At last, toward evening, they reached a far-off land. The bull swung himself ashore and let the girl slip from his back under the arching boughs of a tree. Then he vanished, and in his place stood a man, beautiful as the gods, who told her he was the ruler of the island to which she had come, the island of Crete, and that he would protect her if she consented to be his. In her sadness and desolation, Europa gave him her hand in token of agreement. Zeus had accomplished his desire.
Europa woke from the numbness of long sleep when the sun stood high in the heavens. She was alone and looked about her, helpless and bewildered, as though she expected to find herself at home. “Father, father!” she cried in distress. Then she remembered and said: “How dare I even utter the word ‘father,’ I who have had no care for my maidenhood! What madness made me forget a child’s love and devotion?” Again she looked around, and slowly everything came back to her. “From where, and to what place have I come?” she said. “Death would be a penalty too light for my failing. But am I really awake? Am I mourning an actual disgrace? Perhaps only a misty dream, which will dissolve when I close my lids again, is troubling my spirit. It is impossible to think that I chose to climb on a monster’s back, that I swam the seas, rather than pluck fresh blooms in sweet security!”
Even as she spoke, she passed her palm across her eyes as if to banish a nightmare. But when she opened them, she saw the same alien scene: unfamiliar trees and rocks, and the white churn of the tide, dashing against looming cliffs and rushing on to a shore she had never seen. “Oh, if someone would only deliver that bull up to me now!” she cried in anger. “I should rend his flesh and break his horns. Idle wish! I have left my home thoughtlessly and without shame, so what is there for me but to die! If all the gods have forsaken me, let them at least send a lion or a tiger. Perhaps my beauty will tempt their appetites, and I need not wait for hunger to fade the bloom on my cheeks.”
But no savage beast appeared. Smiling and tranquil the unfamiliar landscape spread before her, and the sun shone from a cloudless sky. As though pursued by the Furies, the girl sprang to her feet. “Miserable Europa,” she cried, “do you not hear your father’s voice? He is far away, but still he will curse you unless you put an end to your shameful life. Do you not see him pointing to that ash tree, on which you can hang yourself by your girdle, or that steep cliff, from which you can plunge to an unquiet grave in the stormy sea? Or do you prefer to be the concubine of a barbarian lord and slave for him day after day, spinning your wool, you, the daughter of a great and powerful king?”
In this way she tormented herself with the thought of death without finding the courage to die. Suddenly, she heard a low mocking whisper, and fearing an eavesdropper, looked over her shoulder in alarm. There, bright with unearthly radiance, stood Aphrodite and beside her Eros, her son, with lowered bow. A smile lingered on the lips of the goddess. “Calm your anger and rebel no longer,” she said. “The bull you loathe will come and hold out his horns so that you may break them. It is I who sent you the dream you had in your father’s house. Be comforted, Europa! You were carried off by a god. You are destined to be the mortal wife of Zeus, the Unconquerable. And your name shall be immortal, for from this time on the continent which received you shall be called Europe!”