The ardent acceptance of Leda – or maybe her rape

 [This is a posthumous post –like every other one published here by Arishej after August 13th, 2016–. Partially it was posted on G+ months ago, and this is an extended version by me, adding a paragraph to the introduction, the work by B. Cellini and the Roman bas-relief.]

The myth of Leda and the Swan, which was popularised by Ovid (43BC-17AD), exists in several different versions. The most divulgated has Leda as the daughter of King Thestius of Aetolia. Much coveted by Zeus, the naked Leda was drying in the sun after bathing in the river Eurotas, the main one in Sparta. Zeus took the form of a swan pretending to flee an eagle, and Leda compassionately let him take refuge in her lap. The resulting copulation is voluntary in some versions of the story and rape in others. It is also said that Leda copulated with her husband as well that same night; the result of all this being two eggs and four children: the twins Castor and Pollux and Helen of Sparta (later to be Helen of Troy) and Clytemnestra. The myth has led to unaccountable representations and to some of the most explicit erotic art of the classical period, and again from the Renaissance until the present.

There are hundreds upon hundreds of paintings, drawings and engravings, by the greatest artists, kept in museums and collections around the world; statues, bas-relieves, coins, tapestries, pottery, jewels… representing this peculiar intercourse of Leda and the fake swan. A minimally comprehensive gallery would fill a very long post, and in fact there are some good ones readily available online. However, few of them show anything besides paintings and drawings; so I show here different examples from very distant epochs: a contemporary bronze statue, a golden, enamelled medallion from the Renaissance and an ancient Roman terracotta oil lamp.

Also I wish to illustrate a little the diversity of interpretations of the myth, with regard to Leda’s response; ranging from full acceptance to (vain) rejection.

In the first case, the bronze by Russian artist Igor Zeinalov takes the original route of having Leda taken “doggie style” and feeling manifest pleasure. (Most other versions of the myth have her being taken from the front, as she is sat or laid down, and a majority are quite shy –or even sceptical– about Leda’s implication and enjoyment. Anyway, very few depict a clear unwillingness.)

Here, the swan shows great panache, and the girl’s posture and attitude are convincing, erotic and realistic (except for the earring, which should hang a little lower, given the posture).

Leda and the Swan – Bronze by Igor Zeinalov (b. 1959):
Right side view

The gold and silver, blue enamelled medallion below was made by Benvenuto Cellini in his early youth (1520s) for the Gonfaloniere Gabbriello Cesarino, and is now kept in the “Museo Nazionale del Bargello” in Florence.

It illustrates a sitting Leda, in frontal intercourse, kissing the swan meanwhile.

Leda and the Swan – Gold and silver medallion by Benvenuto Cellini:
Gold and silver Medallion – Benvenuto Cellini (1520s)

Our last piece here is a Roman terracotta oil lamp from 1st century AD. It is kept in the “Staatliche Antikensammlungen” of Munich.

In this expressive bas-relief, Zeus, supported by Eros, takes a standing Leda, who seems to be receding and trying to defend, gripping the swan’s neck with some energy. Anyway, in the centre, an altar sanctifies the happening… Below Leda, we see one of the eggs that she, in due time, laid.

Leda and the Swan – Roman terracotta (1st century AD):
1st century AD Roman terracotta (fragment)


1st century Roman terracotta (full picture)

[My sister became rather interested in this Greek myth and collected many pictures of art works about it. It also coincided to a point with some dreams she had had long ago, in her first teens. She opined that the elaborate approach by Zeus had its merit, and that Leda probably seized the opportunity to experience something truly new (if weird); thus she tended to prefer the accepting Ledas and empathize with them. Mainly for this I’ve chosen the blue and purple, variant colours (which were Ari’s usual first choice when editing personal photos) to illustrate her preferred Leda –and mine– among all.]



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6 thoughts on “The ardent acceptance of Leda – or maybe her rape

    1. 🙂 Yep. And not a coincidence, since the seed of my story is the chat I had with Ari when she published this statue in G+, past January. It awakened memories of old chats in both of us. As for her, she became very interested in this Greek Myth (and in many others) from the moment she knew of it when coursing Classical literature at UB. I had already seen several paintings before, but not this particular statue until she found it online. It provided me with some inspiration for my tale, later on (I’m still considering to include a link to it here, but the tale of Leda and that of the Romani girl are too far apart in their essence, despite some similarities and common circumstantial facts.


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