The ancient story of Europa forms part of a broader mythological amalgam involving fertility, moon worship and eastern Mediterranean migrations. In classical mythology, Europa is the daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre. Zeus, falling in love with her, disguises himself as a bull among her father’s cattle grazing by the sea and swims off with her to Crete, where, for reasons not altogether clear, he assumes the shape of an eagle before ravishing her in a willow thicket. According to Robert Graves, the tale re-enacts either an early Hellenic occupation of Crete or a Greek raid on Phoenicia. Europa apparently means ‘broad face’, a synonym for the moon, and the willow rules the fertile opening weeks of May in antiquity’s sacred calendars.
By the time Ovid took up the story in the Metamorphoses, most of these deeper resonances had vanished. The result is an engaging fable in which the king of the gods enjoys yet another of his serial infidelities, captivating Europa as a cuddly little farmyard pet. As Joseph Addison’s 1717 translation puts it:
His eye-balls rowl’d, not formidably bright,
But gaz’d and languish’d with a gentle light.
His every look was peaceful, and exprest
The softness of the lover in the beast.