Just a few months ago we all thought we had entered the bright new era of #MeToo: male executives started leaving their doors open when having a meeting with the opposite sex, Harvey W was convicted of confusing his dick with a magic wand that makes inept actresses into A-listers, and pink beanies were all the rage. The concept of a powerful man having a right to take the woman he fancies against her will (who is then supposed to grow fond of her taker) was thrashed, crashed, and thrown in the dustbin of history. Or so we thought.
It is interesting how the virus changed the agenda.
Search for MeToo, both as a search item and hashtag, has all but zeroed out in comparison to people’s concern about the virus, their life and economy. It happened everywhere, in the US, and all its major cities, in the UK, in mainland Europe, leaving Nigeria the champion in MeToo requests that are still a tiny share vs. COVID.
With all the media out there saying “the world won’t be the same” post-COVID, it is difficult to imagine a world that will be more progressive than the one we have now. We are heading into a regress not just economically, but socially as well.
Corporate executives may not come back to their old habits of shutting doors in the hope no one will take note, but we WILL have a reverse shift in the gender role balance, a resurgence of class warfare, recharged xenophobia, and many more unpleasantries.
I wonder how artists would respond to this. I also wonder if their response would be something that wealthy clients and galleries would approve of.
Perhaps, artists could revisit the old myth about Zeus abducting a well-guarded and self-isolating Europa, but with a twist?
It is a powerful myth celebrated in the arts for millennia. It is a sort of Jungian fuel that powers the harasser’s psyche, yes, but it has not always been like that. It used to mean very different things, often reflecting changes in civilizational values, so – who knows – it may be reinvented today.
In its original form, it is a story about grooming, abduction, seduction, rape, abandonment and limited child support at the end. First recorded by Homer 2800 years ago, it originates from Phoenicia, a country that had stretched from modern Syria to Israel and had spilt over as far as Sicily and Spain before it was conquered by the Assyrians in the 7th c. BC.
You may know the myth, or you may think you’ve just read a similar story in your local paper that featured a certain Donald the Bully or Harvey the Producer and the usual victim Nancy or an astounded Alissia, but stay with me for a brief historical introduction – we’ll get to the art of it soon.
Back in the town state of Tyre, Europa, an underage royal beauty famous for her looks throughout the land, was playing in a meadow with her brothers and ladies-in-waiting. Zeus, who had an eye for sexy women regardless of their age or status, turned into a bull and seduced Europa. First, she braved touching his wet nose; next, she took his horns in her hands (yeah, that must have been erotic), then she mounted the beast and – yahoo! – the Bull galloped across the meadow and away from her entourage, into the sea and over to Crete where he turned back into Zeus and raped Europa, who then bore Zeus three sons.
Now, those were the facts, however mythical. Everything else was variable. The first artist to embellish the truth was Ovid. He made the Bull showy-white, turned his horns into pearly-coloured sex toys, and further endowed the animal with formidable eyes, peaceful forehead, and hanging dewlaps (weird detail, I know).
Ovid pictured Europa as a naive and gullible virgin maturing into a frightened and helpless woman, who, despite coming from a nation of the most advanced sea-farers, couldn’t swim.
Later artists would strive to create their own tales, adding their interpretation of what was the environment, Europa’s emotional state before, during and after the abduction, what was the reaction of her brothers, friends, and servants, and, finally, what was the moral lesson their audience was meant to take home.
For painters, the primary artistic questions would be which part of the story to illustrate, which characters to include, which emotions to attach to them, and where to set the balance between click-bating eroticism and the current norms of decency.
Let’s start with the inventors.
Illustrations of this myth had been in circulation for at least eight centuries before Ovid (I just realised that if you add “C” to “Ovid”, the poet gets a whole new life, however morbid). Phonecian and Greek artists – honest and straightforward – saw the story as a canonical road movie. The Greeks were a young and expanding civilisation, constantly on the move to new territories, so the road element was essential. They also valued Season 2 of the saga, telling the story of Europa’s kids who became the kings of the new land. For the Greeks, it was a promise that their adventures had a prize.
This is why, most often, Europa was shown as happy as a teenager in a rented Ferrari on a prom night. Sometimes, the maiden was presented as a sombre bride in full realisation she would be having a very long night as soon as the Bull hits the shore with the consolation of a hovering cupid – a promise that at the end she might even enjoy the experience. She is always shown journeying: either at the start of her voyage, mounting the beast, or peacefully sailing on his back.
The moral lesson here was as guileless as a Blues ballad: if you happen to “hit the road, Jack,” just hit it, don’t look back and hope for the best.
I know of a single Greek image that differs from the rest. It shows the moment Europa realises that her carelessness is, in fact, negligence and that she is going to screw up big time.
The Bull arches his back as he prepares to catapult into the sea, and Europa, suddenly scared, leans back, grasping one horn to prevent herself from falling off, much like we grab roof handles in a car with a reckless driver. The Bull lifts his head in response to Europa’s tugging at his horn.
It is a fleeting moment of uncertainty, and the artist still manages to capture it!
The Romans added nothing innovative to the story. They rebranded Zeus into Jupiter and undressed Europa. In their last few centuries of existence, they were a tired civilisation of aimless excess which, according to Kenneth Clark, would become the cause of their demise. Who needs encouragement to hit roads, when there are plenty of slaves to hit around? So the Romans were mostly satisfied with mosaics of nude maidens sensually riding bulls on the floors of their bathhouses and brothels. French artists in the 18th century made a similar artistic choice – and look where it took the French monarchy.
The Middle Ages represent a gap. The story didn’t quite fit with the harsh Christianity of the very Dark and even Moderately Lit Ages. The first image of Europa re-appeared in 1395 in an illustrated book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with a hilarious Christian tag line. But what a marvel it was!
This small image was revolutionary. The unknown artist changed the narrative by introducing Europa’s abandoned friends. By doing it, he added several emotional dimensions to the scene. Two of the three girls on the shore behave as normal people should. One of them is shouting after the abducted maiden, and the other is pressing her hand to her breast, in a sign of obvious distress. Look at the upward diagonal line created by the hills (it creates dynamic movement of the sailing couple) and the rhythm, created by the trees! This artist was a genius.
These three girls on the shore are quite contemporary, as the photograph (taken in 1953) showing three friends coming out of an amusement park’s horror cave proves beyond doubt.
The quietness and rigidity of Europa wouldn’t look out of place when you learn of the interpretation that the book’s authors offered to their readers: God had taken an animal form to deliver a human soul to its redemption. Inventive, isn’t it? I struggle to imagine how the actual rape at the end of this sea voyage doubles for salvation, but I am sure priests convicted of child molestation could provide a convincing answer.
So, before we move over to the Renaissance, let’s stop and think. Today, would the Bull be allowed to sail at all? Would Greek coast guards interfere? Would the Bull be obliged to self-quarantine for two weeks upon landing? And how he would learn of Europa’s beauty with her mask always on? And would she keep Instagramming while riding Zeus?
Stand by, for the story continues.
P.S. Do not, under any circumstance, google “dewlaps”. You risk getting exposed to Trump’s neck vagina (a possible side-effect from cosmetic surgery) – and trust me, you can’t unsee it.
interesting post with so much to wrap our minds around. good work on this.
This post was an absolute 360 degree delight! And the little aside about the French monarchy was the cherry on the top of the cake! Still giggling…
Thank you) more is coming)
I wonder if the old myth of about Zeus abducting Europa has anything to do with the tradition of young, Cretan maidens jumping the bull in Crete?
I think it has everything to do with it! Their first king was a son of the Bull ) Not sure, though, how the religious ritual of bull-leaping helps believers live safer or better lives )
Perhaps it is a form of control. To face the challenge and surmount it, is somewhat of a victory for the woman.