Europa – Greek Mythology

Affiliate Disclosures

In Greek mythology, Europa was the daughter of the Phoenician King Agenor and his wife Telephassa. While her role in the myths is not highly important, her story has inspired numerous artwork. Most notably, the European continent was named after her.

Europa’s story is interesting and ends well, surprisingly, in comparison to most other Greek myths with tragic endings.

Europa’s Family

The identity of Europa’s parents isn’t clear since different versions of the story mention different parentages. In Hesiod’s Theogony, she was the daughter of the primordial Titan god, Oceanus, and the Titan goddess, Tethys. Howver,  in some accounts her parents were said to be Agenor and Telephassa, or Phoenix and Perimede.

Europa had two brothers – Cadmus and Cilix, but some say she had three or four brothers. She had three sons fathered by Zeus. They were:

  • Minos – who later became the ruler of Crete and the father of the dreaded Minotaur.
  • Sarpedon – the ruler of Lycia.
  • Rhadamanthys – the ruler of the Cyclades Islands.

All three of Europa’s sons became judges of the Underworld after their deaths. In Crete, Europa married Asterius, the Cretan king, and became mother, or as some say, step-mother, to his daughter, Crete.

Europa and Zeus

Abduction of Europa

The most popular myth involving Europa is that of her affair with Zeus. According to the legend, Zeus saw Europa playing with her friends on the seashore of Phoenicia and he was stunned at her beauty. He fell in love with her immediately and developed a very strong desire to have her, so he disguised himself in the form of a white bull and approached the girl.

When Europa saw the bull, she was surprised at its beauty. Its body was snowy-white and it had horns that looked like they were made of gems. She was curious about the animal and dared to touch it. Because it seemed so calm, she was charmed by it and decorated it with wreaths made of flowers.

After a while, curiosity got the better of Europa and she wanted to ride the gentle beast so she climbed onto its back. At once, the bull ran into the sea and soared high up in the air, carrying Europa away from Phoenicia. The bull took her to the island of Crete and here, Zeus changed back to his original form and mated with Europa, after which she got pregnant and delivered three children.  

The Three Gifts

Although Zeus was well known for being promiscuous and didn’t stay long with any of his lovers, he did love Europa and bestowed three priceless gifts upon her.

  1. The first gift was Talos, a bronze man who served her as a guard. He was the giant who was later killed by the Argonauts when they came to Crete.
  2. The second gift was a dog named Laelaps which had the ability to hunt  whatever it was she wanted.
  3. The third gift was a javelin. It had great power and could hit any target regardless of how small or how far it was.

Europa accepted these gifts from her lover and they protected her from harm.

The Search for Europa

While Europa was missing, her father sent out her brothers to search every corner of the world, ordering them not to return until they had found her. They searched for a long time but they couldn’t find their sister.

Cadmus, one of her brothers, approached the Oracle of Delphi to ask what had became of their sister. The priests told him that his sister was safe and not to worry about her. Following the priests’ advice, the brothers abandoned their search for her, and went on to found new colonies in Boetia (later known as Cadmia and then as Thebes) and Cilicia.

Europa Marries Asterius

Europa’s story ends with her marrying Asterius, the Cretan king, who adopted her children and made her the first Cretan queen. When she died, Zeus turned her into a star complex and the bull he had been became the constellation known as Taurus.

The European Continent

The Greeks first used Europa’s name for a geographical area in central Greece and later on for the whole of Greece. In 500 BCE, the name Europa signified the whole of the European continent with Greece at its eastern end.

Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, mentions that although the continent was named Europe, there wasn’t much known about it, including its exact size and boundaries. Herodotus also states that why the name Europa was chosen in the first place was unclear.

However, Herodotus does mention a curious fact – the ancient Greeks used the names of three women for three of the greatest land masses that they knew – Europa, Libya and Asia.

Europa in Art

The rape of Europa
The Rape of Europa (1910) – by Valentin Serov. Public Domain.

Europa’s story has been a popular theme in visual and literary artwork. Artists such as Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, Titian and Francisco Goya have been inspired by the theme, typically portraying Europa being carried away by the bull.

There are several sculptures depicting the Zeus-Europa story, one of them standing in the Staatliche Museen of Berli, said to be a copy of a 5th century BCE original.

Europa’s story has been depicted on many ancient coins and pieces of ceramics. Today, the myth is still featured on the reverse of the Greek 2 Euro coin.

Europa’s name was given to one of Jupiter’s sixteen moons, considered special because scientists believe that it has water on its surface.

Europa Facts

1- Who are Europa’s parents?

There are different accounts about who Europa’s parents are. They are either Agenor and Telephassa, or Phoenix and Perimede.

2- Who are Europa’s siblings?

Europa has famous siblings, including Cadmus, Cilix and Phoenix.

3- Who is Europa’s consort?

Europa’s consorts include Zeus and Asterius.

4- Why did Zeus fall in love with Europa?

Zeus was impressed by her beauty, innocence and loveliness.

5- Why is Europe named after Europa?

The exact reasons for this is unknown, but it appears that Europa was initially used for Greece. 

In Brief

Europa was one of the most famous of Zeus’ many lovers and their relationship brought forth children who all became kings and played important roles during their time. She also established a royal line in Crete. While she isn’t highly popular or important in Greek mythology, an entire continent was named after her.