Leda and the Swan
Greek Mythology

Leda and the Swan, Peter Prosper Tillier

O One day, Zeus observed Leto, the daughter of a Titan, walking by a lake. Zeus disguised himself as a swan, and then seduced her. Hera was not amused, and disguised herself as a snake and went in search of the pregnant Leto. But Zeus thwarted her plan and two children were born to Leto. They were Apollo and Artemis, and Zeus gave them, as birthrights, the moon and the sun. Apollo gained fame by killing the giant python at Delphi.

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?

— William Butler Yeats

Leda in Myth Leda is a familiar name in Greek mythology. Indeed, many of us instantly associate this heroine with one of her most famous myths -- the tale of Leda and the Swan. But there is much more to this legendary figure, so read on to learn more about the story of Leda. Like so many women in ancient Greece (both real and mythological), Leda was important as a wife and mother. In legend, she was the wife of Tyndareus (a king of Sparta). Leda was the mother to many noble children, including the famous beauty Helen, the heroine Clytemnestra, and the twins Castor and Polydeuces (the pair, incidentally, were also known as the Dioscuri). However, this is where the story of Leda becomes complicated. For while Leda was the mother to all of the characters listed above, her husband Tyndareus was not the father of every child. Let us explore this subject in a bit more detail. According to myth, Leda was approached by the god Zeus while he was masquerading as a swan. Indeed, Zeus made love to Leda in this form. And the memorable union between Leda and the Swan (who, remember, was actually Zeus) has long been immortalized by painters and poets. In addition to influencing artists, however, this coupling also influenced mythology. Here is another poetic plot twist -- the legend is that Helen was born from an egg because her father Zeus appeared as a swan when he impregnated Leda (it should be mentioned that some versions of the tale instead claim that it was the goddess Nemesis who laid the egg from which Helen hatched). Additionally, some ancient sources state that Polydeuces was also the son of Zeus, while his twin brother Castor was Tyndareus's child. Complications aside, it is clear that Leda's legend is quite meaningful in mythology. Her role as the mother to some illustrious offspring, as well as her notorious affair with Zeus, makes Leda a mythological heroine worth remembering. Leda was the mother of Helen of Troy, the daughter of Thestius and the wife of Tyndareus. She has been known as the Queen of Sparta. Leda was seduced by Zeus when he came to her in the form of a swan. Leda gave birth to an egg. From it hatched the Dioscuri , the twins Castor and Pollux. With Zeus she also had Helen of Troy, who was the most beautiful woman in Greece and the major cause of the Trojan War, and with Tyndareus she had Clytemnestra, who later became the wife of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. "Leda and the Swan" "Leda and the Swan" is a sonnet, a traditional fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter. The structure of this sonnet is Petrarchan with a clear separation between the first eight lines (the "octave") and the final six (the "sestet"), the dividing line being the moment of ejaculation--the "shudder in the loins." The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is ABAB CDCD EFGEFG. "Leda and the Swan" represents something like its beginning; as Yeats understands it, the "history" of Leda is that, raped by the god Zeus in the form of a swan, she laid eggs, which hatched into Clytemnestra and Helen and the war-gods Castor and Polydeuces -- and thereby brought about the Trojan War ("The broken wall, the burning roof and tower,/And Agamemnon dead"). The details of the story of the Trojan War are quite elaborate: briefly, the Greek Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, was kidnapped by the Trojans, so the Greeks besieged the city of Troy; after the war, Clytemnestra, the wife of the Greek leader Agamemnon, had her husband murdered. Here, however, it is important to know only the war's lasting impact: it brought about the end of the ancient mythological era and the birth of modern history. Greek mythology tells the story of Leda, a mortal woman and queen of Sparta who caught the eye of Zeus, king of the gods. Zeus had frequent affairs with mortals and often disguised himself as an animal in order to avoid angry husbands and fathers. He appeared to Leda in the form of a swan, who here is drawn by Leda into her lap while she holds up a sheltering cloak. In Greek mythology Zeus assumes the form of a Swan and rapes a mortal girl named Leda. In the poem by William Butler Yeats, the events of this myth are told with a better understanding of what transpired. This poem is a struggle between Woman vs. God, and an outlook towards the future.  ŗA shudder in the Loins engenders thereŠ˛ refers to when Zeus impregnates Leda; Leda then sees future flashes of the destruction of Troy, and the death of Agamemnon, all of these caused by this altercation between her and Zeus. Zeus knew what the aftermath of the incident with Leda and the impact that his offspring would have on the world. Leda gives birth to four off spring, which are born from eggs. Two of the off springs become War Gods, Castor and Polydeuces, and the other two become mortal women, Helen and Clytemnestra. Helen is later kidnapped by the Trojans, which caused the war between the Trojans and the Greeks. This in turn causes the destruction of Troy by Agamemnon, King of Argos, who was later killed by Ledašs other daughter, Clytemnestra, Agamemnonšs wife. Cygnus, the swan, is one of the two birds (Aquila, the eagle, is the second),  hunted by the great Hercules. These birds (together with a third one, the Vulture -- nowadays the constellation Lyra) represent the Stymphalian Birds -- one of the tasks of Hercules. Swans occur throughout the Greek myths; often one of the principal gods has occasion to transform himself into a swan, usually to seduce some attractive nymph or even a queen. Zeus chose this elegant shape to approach Leda, the King of Sparta's wife on her wedding night. The result was Pollux, half-brother of Castor and one of the two brothers in the Gemini constellation. The swan commemorated in the night skies, at least as far as the Greeks are concerned, isn't precisely known. It may be Cycnus, son of Poseidon.
Mute Swans… [Previous] [Enlarge] [Next]

Created: April 11, 2002
Last modified: April 11, 2002

Copyright: © WALNET 2002
All Rights Reserved.
Stanley Woods Stanley Woods @ WALNET
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710