A girl and a bull. The girl beautiful, a princess, the fairest of all her girl companions. The bull too a beauty, his hide snow white, his manner gentle. A rare beast. His gentleness though is deceptive, his intentions lustful. A wolf in pretty bull’s clothing. Having stolen the girl’s affections, he steals her. Carries her away across the sea to exile in a foreign land, there to be raped and the children he engenders to be the offspring of rape.
The girl is Europa, and her story seems a sad and salutary one to serve us Europeans for our founding myth. Our mother of origin, our Eve, depicted as a victim of rapacity, and we, as her children, fated to inherit the brutality of our father. The bones of the myth a narrative that runs through every literature of Europe, even through all the literatures of the world. A victim-girl whose only consolation might be that she gives birth to sons, who will be ravishers in their turn, ever moving on to new conquests of territories and girls alike. Its tropes persist in more recent myths of religion and divinity. In our time traces of it surface in those blood-spattered crime scenes from Netflix and Disney that we are so drawn to. Grim stories of violence and wrong-doing and betrayal that seem to satisfy something hidden in us. Our appetite for these spectacles like a proof, as if proof were needed, that we are indeed children of violence.
The Europa myth is a stark and skeletal story. But in its several re-tellings across the sunlit centuries of ancient Greece details are added. Descriptive details, soft and pleasing to the imagination and immanent with the possibility of a more complex interpretation.
Europa walks by the seashore at Tyre with her companions. They laugh, play, tease each other – I myself am adding this detail, because after all it’s what girls do when they’re let out. It is evening. It has to be evening, the time of day for walking by the sea when the sun’s fierceness is waning and little waves lap languidly on the sand. The promising time of day whose part is to usher dreams in to our heads and put the earthbound out.
Watching Europa, Zeus, the great god, is in love. He enlists help from Hermes, the god whose responsibilities include animal husbandry and thievery. Hermes drives Europa’s father’s herd of cattle down to the shore, and in the guise of our white bull Zeus is able to mingle among them. This docile and beautiful bull – Robert Graves, in his Greek Myths, gives him ‘great dewlaps and small gem-like horns, between which ran a single black streak’ – attracts Europa’s attention. He allows her to stroke him, he munches the flowers she feeds him. She hangs garlands of flowers on his horns. Bravely, she climbs on to his shoulders. He ambles down to the water’s edge. And then he is in the sea, bearing Europa away from Tyre and her companions as she clings to one of his horns… Is it with terror or with exhilaration that she clings on, her flower basket still clutched in her free hand? These emotions have been displayed in ancient and modern depictions in stone and ceramic and paint, though Europa’s exhilaration or triumph astride the bull is the more common.
Coming ashore on the island of Crete, the bull-Zeus becomes an eagle, the sacred bird of the gods, and ravishes his prize in a willow-thicket beside a spring. Or the act took place under an evergreen plane-tree? The narratives differ on this detail as well as others. To be ‘ravished’ has more than one meaning. It can mean to be raped, and it can mean to experience joy. Zeus gives Europa three sons and some gifts for her protection: a super-hound and a super-javelin and a tall bronze guardsman. Then he goes off to conquests new while she settles down with the King of Crete – an old enemy of Tyre – and has more children.
These embellishments – the flowers, the suggestion of a joyous Europa, the sacred eagle, the verdant bed – are not only emollient. They also open the way to a more pleasing and promising reading than the grimly sketchy tale of abduction and rape. For one thing, to be ravished by an eagle is outside the bounds of the imagination. The rape is presented as a mysterious, an essentially mystical event.
This raises questions. Painful questions we are asking ourselves now – or asking again because they have always been there only not outed in public – about power and delusion and exploitation around desire, in particular male desire.
And another happier question. Does Europa recognise in the white bull a means of seizing her destiny? To leave her childhood behind in the quest to find her purpose, the task of every youth in every time, her unlikely journey on the back of the bull a rite of passage? Does she confidently hold on because of what he’s carrying her towards? Europa’s destiny was to be the mother of demi-gods, not a Prime Minister or the President of a great corporation. But that’s ancient Greece for you.
This, the intrepid self-achieving Europa, is the interpretation I’m going with. It seems to me the best expression of what Europe would become. And what it is still, though growing faint and in great danger of being lost. I say it unashamedly though it is not fashionable in this accusatory time to say it : I love Europe. I think of the horrors it has been subject to and the horrors it has perpetrated. But nonetheless my default position is that I love it. Not to love it would be to not love life itself despite all its terrors.
I love its landscapes, its swish and grimy cities, the towns that wind their way along all the shorelines from Iberia to the Aegean, various yet essentially the same. Its weathers, some of them anyway, I love. I love its historical progression, often faltering, often all but choked at birth, but always somewhere, somehow, directed towards the great ideas of equality and justice and freedom and satisfied necessity Ideas that offer the conditions at least for individual happiness and by and large made actual. Above all I love its devotion to thinking and to the imagination expressed in the long evolution of its art, its literatures. And through these I love its peoples.
I am Irish, I look at Europe from afar. From across the sea, from a small island on its western edge, as through a telescope, its vistas selective but clear. I can see it as a unity in a way that an inhabitant of one of its various countries might not.
There will be many Europeans living on the Continent itself, on the ground so to speak and who see it close up, who will dismiss this perspective. People who will invoke the wars and conquests they have endured, whether long ago or more lately, from one or other or several of their European neighbours. Inclined to the darker reading of the myth of Europa and the Bull, they may find the sunnier one unrealistic, its optimism unearned. There are many peoples in the wider world which have good cause to feel the same. Yes, Ireland only has the neighbouring island for an old enemy – an island sadly for them and for us all no longer in the EU – and can look across at Europe with a less brooding less sceptical gaze. An unexpected effect of Brexit is that is has cleared the way to letting the Irish feel, many of us, more keenly European.
We live in a problem-centric age; in a crisis of problems that look so overwhelming we feel defeated. This sense of defeat may be our greatest problem. The old European problems, wars and conquests and poverty, are always at the gate but they have receded. That they have, that our peaceful co-existence has lasted for so long is largely thanks to the thinking and the imagination of the early architects of contemporary Europe, to their faith in the collective thought and imagination. ‘No more of the old absurdities’ Spinelli and Rossi, when they were still prisoners-of-war, said with apparent naivety but a confidence that turned out to be not misplaced.
For such a long time the next generation has been better off than the one that went before. Yet, indeed because this luxury of progress has led us to our present ills, we live in an age of dejection and shame. Shame for past wrongs, shame for what we have done to our world – while we wring our hands and and go on doing it. Shame for being the kind of species that we are. We are in a threatening age. The very weathers are under threat and now they threaten us. The peaceful co-existence with animals and nature, essential to our survival and well-being, is all but lost.
It could be okay, we could turn things around. Couldn’t we? Humanity has always come through, to arrive at the place of ever swelling population and privilege we now occupy. Yes, we could – if our greatest problem, our greatest failure were not the threat of losing our greatest capacity which is the capacity to think and to re-imagine ourselves into a state of grace.
Europe’s evolution was driven by three ideas of human possibility. Money, for material needs and wants. Church, for the soul. And Art, for the imagination. Each working in tension with the other, each of them as important as they were ruthless. Only money, in its guise of capitalism, remains and thrives, the great devourer. We give ourselves to it, to its mindless technologies and its banal culture. Hannah Arendt described the banality of evil. We are falling into the evil of banality. Banality as absurd as it is evil.
We are being reduced to littler versions of ourselves. Facing the ambitions of an authoritarian and high-tech power like China with its conviction and self-belief, it’s difficult to imagine us capable of opposing the shadowed only semi-human existence, culturally and politically, we are moving into. A prospect as desolate as the prospect of the physical world collapsing around us.
Regarding the world an urge to action is gaining strength. The actions will have to be radical, more radical than we may be willing to imagine. To effect them, and to re-make ourselves, our best, our only hope is to find again that energy of thought and imagination and belief in what Europe was and is. We need to summon the courage of Europa. And let us have no more absurdities.
You can find the German translation here.