Thursday, April 06, 2006

Raped by a Swan

drawing by leonardo da vinciIt seems likely that the UK’s first case of the H5N1 strain of bird flu in a wild bird will be confirmed today. The dead bird, a swan, was found eight days ago in Cellardyke, Scotland. A swan! That beautiful and most mythical of birds.

Other outbreaks in Europe (France and the Czech Republic) were also detected first in swans.

Hearing the news this morning, I was reminded of one of my favourite poems, ‘Leda and the Swan’, by W B Yeats:

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?

Yeats’ depiction of the rape of Leda by a swan is a powerful re-working of the Greek myth about Leda’s seduction by Zeus:

Leda was the Queen of Sparta. Noted for her great beauty, she liked to bathe in the river Eurotas, where Zeus, king of the gods, first saw her. To be close to her, Zeus metamorphosed into a white swan, and made a fierce eagle pretend to be pursuing him. Taking pity on the swan, Leda took him under her arms to protect him, not knowing that the great white bird was the mightiest of the gods. Zeus proceeded to seduce her and following their union, Leda brought forth two eggs. One of the eggs produced Helen (the future Helen of Troy) and Pollux. From the other, came Castor and Clytemnestra, the children of her husband Tyndareus.

I don’t know if Yeats was the first or, even, the only person to portray Leda's seduction as rape but he does it beautifully and disturbingly, turning a subversively pornographic image into art.

copy of leda by michaelangelo


Blogger Babsbitchin said...

That's pretty interesting and I feel the better for having read it. I can relate after all most being raped by rabid raccoons. Very interesting!xoxo

7:33 pm  
Blogger Babsbitchin said...

BTW Nomad, I'd never heard that story even when I studied Greek mythology so I find that and the art very intriging!

7:34 pm  
Anonymous xmichra said...

I love this particular myth. I was captivated by this painting quite a few years ago now, and have always had a replica framed in my bathroom.

What I found most interesting is that the two eggs held the 'twins' we so commonly know as Pices. Castor and Pollux still remain high up in the heavens to gaze upon.

Brilliant post Nomad.

7:40 pm  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

It really is a beautiful painting, I wonder if you know this about it:

Michelangelo's works were religiously preserved yet his only erotic painting of a woman (as opposed to his many male nudes) vanished after it was taken to France in the 16th-century. Copies of this painting have themselves been treated almost as contraband, not least by the National Gallery which kept a copy of Michelangelo's Leda for a long time in the director's office because it was believed unsuitable to be seen by the masses. It is entirely possible that the original was destroyed in the same spirit. We can however imagine the picture because Leda has the same pose, with raised leg and melancholy lowered face, as the figure of Night that Michelangelo carved for the Medici tombs, and because Titian quotes Leda's pose, in reverse, in his Danaë. Vanished paintings are often the ones that haunt the history of art.

That was taken from this interesting article on lost works of art:,,1034155,00.html

7:58 pm  
Blogger Babsbitchin said...

Nomard Darlink, Very interesting indeed!

8:47 pm  
Blogger Phidoux said...

I wonder if it's beak is cold - that might be unpleasant.


6:27 pm  

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