Zeus Goes A-Wooing

Leda and the Swan

Whenever the Greek God Zeus was felt attracted toward mortal women, he disguised himself as someone or something else and just raped them. That happened in the case of Europa (either as a bull according to Ovid or as an eagle according to Robert Graves); Danae (as a golden shower—hey, I don’t make this stuff up); Callisto (as the Goddess Artemis); and Alcmene (as her husband who was away at war at the time).

Probably the most famous coupling was with Leda, for which Zeus became a swan. The result was Helen of Troy and Polydeuces. Leda’s legitimate children by King Tyndareus of Sparta were Castor and Clytemnestra. You may recall that Clytemnestra married Agamemnon and later murdered him in his bath when he returned from the Trojan War.

The above photo was taken earlier today by me at the Getty Villa in Malibu, one of the best collections of ancient Greek and Roman antiquities in the New World.

All this comes out in this magnificent poem by William Butler Yeats:

Leda and the Swan by W. B. Yeats

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                    Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?