The Greek Myth Behind How Europe Got Its Name

Republic of Greece, 2 Euro 2002 (obverse). The coin features an image of Zeus abducting Europa. This particular image was made famous by a Spartan mosaic that dates back to the third century AD. – Photo:

If you’ve ever looked at the Greek 2-euro coin, you’ve seen the image of Europa.

You might be familiar with the picture of this famous character in Greek mythology. However, do you know her story?

Read on to learn more about the myth of Europa.

Europa’s Story

Europa’s story is a cornerstone of Greek mythology. Europa was a child of Agenor, the king of Phoenicia (known today as Lebanon). Zeus, the ruler of the gods, fell in love with Europa and decided to kidnap her.

To take Europa away from her home, Zeus turned himself into a white bull and planted himself in a herd of the king’s cattle. One day, Europa was wandering among the cattle and immediately noticed the white bull. She climbed on its back, and it quickly jumped into the sea, taking her to Zeus’s homeland (the island of Crete).

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 – 1669)
The Abduction of Europa, 1632
Oil on single oak panel, 64.6 × 78.7 cm (25 7/16 × 31 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 95.PB.7

It didn’t take long for King Agenor to notice Europa was gone. Heartbroken, he sent her brother Cadmus to find her and return her to safety.

Cadmus consulted the Oracle of Delphi, who told him not to worry about his sister because she was safe and cared for. He never located his sister, but he did eventually land in Greece. When he arrived, he shared the Phoenician alphabet with the Greek people.

What Happened to Europa?

The Oracle of Delphi was correct when she said Europa was safe.

When she arrived in Crete, she mated with Zeus under an evergreen tree and later gave birth to three sons: Minos (ruler of Crete), Rhadamanthys (ruler of the Cyclades Islands), and Sarpedon (ruler of Lycia). The three sons were known for their fairness and, when they died, became judges of the underworld.

Zeus also presented Europa with three precious gifts:

● A bronze man named Talos, who guarded her

● A dog, Laelaps, who hunted for her

● A javelin that could hit any target

Despite Zeus’s love, Europa eventually married King Asterion. Asterion adopted her three sons and made her the queen of Crete.

Europa also became the namesake for the continent of Europe. Her name is known worldwide, even among those unfamiliar with her story. 

Europa’s Long-Lasting Image 

Europa’s name is famous, and her image (along with images of Zeus in the form of a bull) is also. It can be found across the globe in paintings, ceramics, and mosaics.

Artwork featuring her and the bull’s likenesses resides in museums all over the world, including the following:

  • Agora Museum in Athens
  • Archaeological Museum Nimes
  • The British Museum
  • The Hermitage Museum
  • The Louvre Museum
  • The Museum of Arles and Provence Antique
  • The National Museum of Beirut
  • The Pompeii Museum
  • The Vatican Museum
  • Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Museum of Palermo

Those eager to see more renderings of Europa and Zeus should plan a trip to these museums — they’ll also see plenty of other fascinating works during their visit.