The Droll Docent

The Transformation of an Olympian

Stories about a certain person’s major transformation have dominated the news lately. I am sure we were all taken aback when she decided to show people a different side of her; debuting it in such a public manner could not have been easy. But enough about Amy Poehler’s red hair at Cannes; we are here to talk about paintings. I am going to be brave and talk to you about a certain patriarch of a very famous family who was completely copacetic with changing his appearance.

You may know Zeus from his appearance on How I Met Your Mother and Your Mother and Your Mother and Your Mother. Zeus was the head of the Greek pantheon of gods and married to Hera, his sister that he conned into marriage. Hera had spurned Zeus’ advances until he came to her as a small, distressed bird. She cared for this animal until Zeus became himself again and, admitting he out-smarted her, she agreed to the marriage. That should have been a foreshadowing for the goddess- a sign that her husband will happily shape shift to get his way when he wants something. Here are three of the most represented Zeus transformation myths found in art.

Leda and the Swan by Leonardo da Vinci
Leda and the Swan by Leonardo da Vinci
Leda and the Swan by Francois Boucher
Leda and the Swan by Francois Boucher
Leda and the Swan by Bartolomeo Ammanati
Leda and the Swan by Bartolomeo Ammanati

One of the most depicted “Zeus transforming” stories is of Leda and the swan. Zeus came to Leda as the beautiful bird and either “seduced” or raped her. To her credit (if this was consensual) maybe she thought, “Swans mate for life so I doubt this bird is going anywhere.” In some versions of the myth, this union created Helen of Troy, who most men probably wouldn’t have fought over had they known that she was the product of such a strange union.

(Side note: some scholars believe this myth was popular in art starting in the Renaissance through the 18th Century because it allowed the implication of sex without showing sex. Think of it sort of like the “Playbird” of the time.)

Io by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione
PieterPietersz Lastman
Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io
Jupiter and Io by Antonio Allegri da Correggio

Not able to keep his lightning bolt in his pants, in another myth Zeus ends up turning someone else into an animal. Zeus tried to hide his tryst with Io from Hera by creating a thick cloud cover. When Hera was able to get past that bit of disguise genius, Zeus turned Io into a heifer. (How he was going to explain to Hera what he was doing in a field with a cow, I don’t know. How was that going to be better than the other situation?) Hera then forced the poor thing to wander the earth but first Hera created a stinging gadfly to bug her for eternity.

(For science buffs: Yes the planet Jupiter-the Roman name equivalent to Zeus- has a moon called Io. It also has a small moon called Leda and one called Ganymede. Wait- who’s Ganymede?)

GANYMEDE by José Álvarez Cubero
GANYMEDE by José Álvarez Cubero
The Abduction of Ganymede by Eustache Le Sueur
The Abduction of Ganymede by Eustache Le Sueur
The Rape of Ganymede by Peter Paul Rubens
The Rape of Ganymede by Peter Paul Rubens

So imagine you are a little shepherd boy who was thought to be the best looking among the mortals. And one day you are out tending to your flock when a huge eagle comes down to fly you to Mount Olympus. (Zeus-again! Some stories state that Zeus sent his eagle but why use a bird when you could be a bird, I always say.) That is how Ganymede became the cup-bearer to the Greek gods. I would like to imagine the conversation with Ganymede would go like this: “So we finish flying to Mount Olympus and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, ‘Hey, Zeus, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know. And he says, ‘Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but you will be immortal.’ So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.”

Whether he appears as a long, phallic-necked bird or as a man with a cow in an overcast field or as a flying kidnapper, these myths are identifiable in art and they all have a similar theme: Zeus was horny.  No matter how a person (or god) wants to identify themselves, I think we can all agree on one thing: Amy Poehler is delightful no matter her hair color.

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