Europa was famously abducted by a white bull, but did you know that her son by Zeus played an even bigger role in mythology?
Zeus was as well-known for his many affairs with both mortal women and goddesses as he was for his role as king of the Olympians. Often, he used tricks and disguises to win over his mistresses.
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One of the most famous examples of this is the abduction of Europa. Zeus disguised himself as a gentle white bull and swam across the sea with the Phoenician princess when she climbed onto his back.
He took her to the island of Crete, where she gave birth to three of his sons. Sarpedon and Rhadamanthus were minor figures in Greek mythology, but her eldest son appears often in the ancient legends.
King Minos is considered to be the founder of Crete and features in virtually every myth set on the island. Often painted as a tyrant by the Greeks, there is evidence that this is due to old historic grudges.
Minos gave his name to the Minoan culture, which predated the Mycenaean and the rise of the Greek states. In the pre-Greek period, archaeology tells us the Minoans held power over many of their neighbors.
Was Minos a historical king, and if so did he really demand human sacrifices from the people of Athens? We may never know the details of such ancient history, but the stories of Europa and Zeus’s son can help shed light on a mysterious culture.
The Sons of Zeus and Europa
Europa was one of the many human lovers of the king of the gods, Zeus. The image of her abduction by the god is one of the most famous of the ancient world.
In order to get close to the Phoenician princess, Zeus disguised himself as a white bull and blended into her father’s herds. Europa was intrigued by the beautiful and gentle bull and eventually climbed up on his back.
When she did so, Zeus took off. As Europa clung to his horns he swam across the sea and to the island of Crete.
Once they arrived in Crete, Zeus presented his new mistress with wondrous gifts and set her up for a comfortable life.
Together, they had three sons: Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon.
Europa eventually married a local king, Asterion, who raised her sons as if they were his own. When he died, he left his throne to the eldest son, Minos.
Minos and Sarpedon quarrelled over power, and when Minos won the fight he banished his brother from Crete. Sarpedon fled to Lycia, in what is now Turkey, and became king there.
Minos and Rhadamantus shared power for a time, but the older brother soon grew jealous of his sibling’s popularity among the people. Rhadamanthus either left Crete or was driven into exile, and settled in the Greek region of Boeotia.
There, he married a widowed Mycenaean princess named Alcmene. Rhadamanthus became the stepfather of his half-brother, Heracles.
The most famous of the three, however, was Minos. The legendary founding king of Crete was so closely associated with the island that the pre-Greek culture that existed there is still called Minoan by archaeologists after him.
Minos built a great palace at Knossos and built Crete into a powerful kingdom. The island nation conquered much of mainland Greece, including Attica and the city of Athens.
Minos proved to be an arrogant king, however. When gifted with a white bull by Poseidon he chose to keep the animal instead of sacrificing it to the sea god and set off a disastrous series of events.
Poseidon caused the Cretan Bull to go mad and terrorize the people of the island. Even worse, he made Minos’s wife fall in love with the wild beast.
As a result she gave birth to the Minotaur, the bull-headed cannibal. Minos had the Labyrinth built to contain his wife’s monstrous son and demanded young men and women to be sent from Athens to sacrifice to its terrible appetite.
Theseus killed the Minotaur and the Cretan Bull was eventually captured by Heracles, restoring peace to Crete. But Minos would appear in many more stories.
He tried to force the seer Polyidus to teach his son, Glaucus, the art of divination. He conquered many more lands in Greece despite the monsters that terrorized his homeland.
Minos eventually died when trying to track down the inventor Daedalus. The architect of the Labyrinth and his son had been imprisoned on Crete but had escaped by constructing wings of feathers and wax.
Minos tracked Daedalus to Camicus, Sicily. The king there had Minos boiled alive in a bath rather than hand over the famous inventor.
The story of Zeus and Europa’s sons did not end there, however. The three legendary kings retained positions of prominence in the afterlife.
Seeking to make the way souls were judged after death more fair, Zeus decided to assign three human judges to determine their worth. Minos and Rhadamanthus were given the task, along with King Aeacus of Aegina.
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Rhadamanthus judged the souls of people from Asia while Aeacus judged those from Europe. In case of an uncertain judgement, Minos cast the deciding vote.