An ancient myth
One of the most disturbing and bizarre tales from Greek mythology is the tale of Leda and the Swan. The king of the Gods, Zeus, transforms into a swan. In this avine form he seduces and rapes Leda, the Queen of Sparta. According to Ovid, Leda was famed for her beautiful black hair and snowy white skin.
The result of Leda and Zeus’ romance was two children, Polydeuces and Helen (who later became Helen of Troy). Leda also bore two children from her husband, King Tyndareus: the twins Castor and Pollux.
Details of the story vary. Sometimes, Zeus is said to have seduced Leda on the very same night she slept with her husband King Tyndareus. As a result, the new babes were hatched from two eggs: from one came Helen and Clytemnestra, and the other came Castor and Pollux. Helen is also sometimes excluded from the story, and described as the daughter of Nemesis, the goddess who personified the disaster that awaited those suffering from the pride of Hubris.
For artists and writers, this myth has been a fruitful source of inspiration. It was a common form for Italian Renaissance artists (such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Tintoretto) upon which to display their talent.
After seeing Michelangelo’s version of Leda and the Swan in Rome, the Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens, painted two versions of the subject in 1601 and 1602. Rubens’s 1601 Leda was clearly modelled on that of Michelangelo’s. Everything from the placement of Leda’s twisting body entangled with the swan, to the detail of her fingers mirrors the work of his Italian forebear.
However, Rubens did make alterations to Michelangelo’s design. Ruben’s depiction of the female form is much softer: her body is extremely curvaceous, her skin is alabaster, her limbs are in proportion and her golden hair is flowing.
Ruben’s second attempt also saw further developments. In his first work, the brushstrokes are loose, the colours are muted and the drapes are green. In the second painting, the detailing is sharper, the colours are vibrant, the lighting is more dramatic and Leda’s hairstyle is highly ornamental. Her skin is alabaster, tinted with pink and peachy tones which contrast with the stark white of the swan’s feathers. She is intimately entwined with the swan – its beak almost touching her lips and its head leaning gently against her naked breast.
This second version is more typical of the Baroque style and the ‘Rubenesque’ figure which would become the artist’s trademark. A sense of movement (another common Baroque theme) is conveyed by the swan’s wings flung open, as if he has just flown into Leda’s arms.
Painters and poets
This peculiar story was not unusual in Greek mythology. Zeus was said to have seduced many women in various guises: for Europa he transformed into a bull, for Antiope a satyr, for Danae a shower of gold. All of which were popular subjects in Renaissance and Baroque artworks, and many of which were heavily erotic. For example, in Rubens’ Leda, she is shown fully nude, with the swan caressing her most intimate areas.
The story was also the inspiration for one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, William Butler Yeats. His sonnet was composed in 1923, beginning:
“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?”
The second half of Yeats’ poem explores the wider implications of this event. The child born from Leda and Zeus was Helen. She Helen of Troy, the woman whose beauty sparked the outbreak of the Trojan War. Here Yeats explores hot the tales of mythology merge with historical truth:
“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?”
Leda and the Swan remains one of the most popular myths from the Greek world. Although it is a disturbing tale, its sinister surrealism provides an endless source of intrigue and inspiration for some of the most talented artists and creatives in history.