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Leda and the Swan: Rape, ravishment, or romance?

Leda and the Swan (1882) by Paul Cézanne
Leda and the Swan (1882) by Paul Cézanne

The story of Leda and the Swan is, depending on where you hear it, one of rape, seduction, or something in the icky gray area that lingers in our socio-sexual mindset – like an ex’s cologne that was once attractive but is now unsettling. The bare bones of the myth are that Zeus falls in love with a mortal woman and takes the form of a swan to "commingle" with her on the banks of the River Eurotas. That is about all that is agreed upon. Otherwise, neither the terms of the sex nor its outcome are even remotely consistent.

Most versions concur that after sex with Zeus, Leda – wife of Tyndareus, King of Sparta – also lies with her husband, leading her to conceive two sets of twins: Helen and Polydeuces (children of Zeus) as well as Castor and Clytemnestra (children of Tyndareus). So, we know that sex definitely took place. What we don’t know is under what circumstances, or why this myth has been a turn-on for millennia. The second element can’t really be addressed without the first.

Leda and the Swan copy (1600) by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni| | Rape, ravishment, or romance?
Leda and the Swan, a 16th-century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo

Whether the story is about sexual assault (or what used to be referred to as ravishment or consensual sex, utterly transforms its sexual message. And, we have to admit that throughout history a percentage of people can’t seem to let go of the lingering idea that surrender – the fantasy of being overpowered, to distinguish from actual sexual violence – is kind of hot. So, it’s not surprising that since the myth’s origin different renderings of Leda and the Swan have popped up throughout the ancient world.

According to the World History Encyclopedia:

“A celebrated marble statue of Leda holding a swan is now on display in the Capitoline Museums of Rome. Dating to the Roman period, it is thought to be a copy of a Greek original sculpted c. 400 BCE and the earliest known representation of the swan myth with Leda. Leda being pursued by a swan is depicted in the central panel (emblemata) of a Roman period mosaic from the sanctuary of Aphrodite at Palaipafos on Cyprus and is typical of the more erotic depictions of the swan myth from the Late Classical period onwards.”

Leda and the Swan (1532) by Antonio Allegri da Correggio | Rape, ravishment, or romance?
Leda and the Swan (1532) by Antonio Allegri da Correggio

The fascination with the myth continued throughout the Renaissance, as some of the art world’s most esteemed masters created their own stunning tributes to it. But, why would they pay homage to a story that’s very likely about a forced sexual encounter? The concept of rape is tricky in this particular instance. Sexual violence as an inherent wrong seems to have been a bit hazy in Ancient Greece. (A slave couldn’t be raped because slaves were property.) In fact, Greeks didn’t even have a word to stand for sex without consent, an idea some academics debate existed at all. The Renaissance masters, meanwhile, focused on the lighter version of the myth.

This brings us back to ravishment. In his poem Leda and the Swan (1928) William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) asks, “How can those terrified vague fingers push/ The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?” At first Leda resists, but ultimately capitulates and gives herself over to the mastery of the swan. This narrative is actually very present in other famous works of art as well. In Gone With The Wind (1939), Scarlett O’Hara famously surrenders to Rhett Butler’s rough advances. In 1995, The New York Times even featured a debate about whether or not it could be classified as rape.

Margaret Mitchell (1900 – 1949), who wrote the 1936 book on which the film is based, described the incident as follows: “Up the stairs, he went in the utter darkness, up, up, and she was wild with fear… He stopped suddenly on the landing and, turning her swiftly in his arms, bent over her and kissed her with a savagery and a completeness that wiped out everything from her mind but the dark into which she was sinking and the lips on hers.”

Then there are the staggering sales numbers for E.L. James’ Fifty Shades series to consider, a whole set of stories based on the premise of a woman overcome and undone by the man who cannot control his desire for her. Which brings us back to Leda. The context of Leda and the Swan is unclear, but something in it continues to hit us where we lust. Any doubt here can be obliterated by a visit to the World Museum of Erotic Art, which includes an entire room centrally focused on this story: sculptures, paintings, drawings, figurines – a staggering quantity of artistic interpretation across centuries.

Leda and the Swan, copy by Cesare da Sesto after a lost original by Leonardo, 1515–1520,
Leda and the Swan, copy by Cesare da Sesto after a lost original by Leonardo, 1515–1520

Now, however, it seems people are more ready than ever rethink and reinterpret the myth’s legacy. The Royal Ballet’s 2014 version of the story pulls back from the question of responsibility entirely: this Zeus and Leda have tension, each is the seducer at different points; Leda literally supports Zeus entirely on her legs at the conclusion, holding him aloft. Perhaps this is the version for the new millennia, a vision of not only shared passion but also shared power.

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