Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History

By Euan Cameron | Go to book overview
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Prologue: Europe and the World Around


Europe: The Myths of Europe

It begins with a story, the story of an abduction. And a metamorphosis. Europa was the daughter of Agenor, king of the city of Tyre on the coast of Sidon. One fine day she was carried off by Zeus, who was transformed for the occasion into a white bull, to bear their offspring on the continent which would also bear her name. This is the myth. There is, however, as with all myths, another more mundane version, which was suggested by the Greek writer Herodotus and seized upon by the early Christian theologian, Lactantius, eager to debunk and demystify such unsettling erotic fantasies from the ancient world. In this version it is Cretan merchants who abduct Europa in a ship shaped like a bull as a bride for their king Asterius. Since the Cretans are Europeans, and Europa herself an Asian woman, her abduction was taken by all Asians to be an affront. Later the Trojans, also a people of what we now call Asia Minor, seize a (not wholly unwilling) Helen, wife of Menelaus, in revenge. In turn, Menelaus' brother Agamemnon raises an army, crosses the sea and begins the most celebrated war in European history. The Persians, Herodotus tells us--and 'Persians' is his shorthand for all the peoples of Asia--found this tale of abduction puzzling. 'We in Asia', they say, 'regarded the rape of our women not at all' (thus establishing an enduring Asian cultural stereotype) 'but the Greeks all for the sake of a Lacedaemonian woman mustered a great host, came to Asia and destroyed the power of Priam. Ever since then we have regarded the Greeks as our enemies.' What in myth had been a divine appropriation, becomes in mythopoeic history a story of the hatred between two continents, a hatred


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Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History


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