Love in the arms of … a swan?

The Constellation of Cygnus the Swan
This could have been a really lovely story in anticipation of St. Valentine’s Day, my second-favorite day of the year, except for the fact that it involves what is, essentially, rape.

So if you’re squeamish, it’s best to look away now. And if you’re concerned about bestiality, then I really hope you move on; the internets are vast, and there are better things you should be doing with your time, rather than lingering here in this grove of lust and pain.

However, for those who are inured to such things, and are open to the vagaries of Zeus‘s love life, dally here with me awhile, and we shall discuss one instance in particular, which gave rise to a constellation, a love child named Helen (yes, of Troy) and poetry from my favorite writer, W. B. Yeats, who was often inspired by the Ancient Greeks.

One fine day in the mists of time, Zeus fell in love with the nymph, Nemesis (not to be confused with the philosophical concept of retribution). Now, depending on when we pick up this story, in pre- or Hellenic Greece, Nemesis does the chasing, or is chased. Let’s say we’re in Hellenic Greece (not my favorite period, although this fact is neither here nor there).

In Hellenic Greece, Zeus does the chasing of this nymph, while both the abductor and abducted turn into various animals. One of the animals Zeus transforms into is a swan, in hot pursuit of Nemesis, who has become a goose, so at least in this story, they are both of the same animal family, if not the same species, when they mate. This isn’t the part about bestiality, yet. Just wait.

Zeus, holding a thunder bolt in one hand, a bird in the other

In one version of this story, in the guise of a goose, Nemesis gives way to Zeus’ lust and hatches a lovely hyacinth-colored egg. The child born of this feathery union is none other than Helen, who later became Helen of Troy.

In the most famous version of the story, however, and the most interesting, from a prurient perspective, Zeus transforms himself into a swan, and Leda is the same Leda who is actually Queen of Sparta. After what is essentially a rape—because, come on, Zeus’ intentions are pretty clear, and if you have to go so far as to transform yourself into another species to get the attention of your true love, you know the apple of your eye is not merely unwilling, she’s downright saying ‘hell no’—Leda gives birth to a bevy of important children you’d recognize the names of, including Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra.

To commemorate his conquest, Zeus placed the constellations Cygnus, the swan, and Aquila, the eagle, into the heavens.

The constellation of Cygnus, the Swan

In the 20th century, this tale of lust, rape, and aggression inspired W. B. Yeats, who wrote Leda and the Swan, a rather famous poem that I am very fond of. I shall leave you to ponder the Ancients for awhile, shall I, while you read this wonderful (but disturbing) poem…?

Leda and the Swan

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?