Bulls, Borders, and Banknotes: Europa and the Shaping of a Modern European Identity

Statue of Europa Outside the Council Building in Brussels, courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Bulls, Borders, and Banknotes: Europa and the Shaping of a Modern European Identity

By Jason Huang

Recent scholarship on the geography and geopolitics of the European Union (EU) has found the entity to be much more territorially complicated than its name suggests. A quick glance at a map of the EU today reveals that, quite paradoxically, not all European regions are a part of the EU and that not all EU territories are within continental Europe.1Much of this analysis centers on recent historical events, tracing the history of the EU from the formation of the European Communities (EC) in the postwar period to the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. In her book The Seventh Member State, historian Megan Brown wrangles with the murky definition of Europe in the twentieth century by discussing the contentious history of Algeria. During the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1952, Algeria was an integral part of France’s colonial empire. Five years later, Algeria was also included in early versions of the Treaty of Rome even as it fought a war against its French colonizers.2 In actuality, the question of Europe’s geographical and cultural identity extends as far back as the ancient legend of Europa and the bull, and perhaps the inconsistency and contradictions within the modern-day pan-European identity are reflected in the various contending narratives found in the ancient sources.

Figure 1. Inauguration of the Goddess Europa, Tile Fresco by Artist Aligi Sassu on the 12th Floor of the PHS Building in Brussels.European Parliament Multimedia Centre, accessed October 13, 2023.

            Although the myth of Europa and the bull has been increasingly used in a semi-official capacity by EU officials and supporters in the twenty-first century, its symbolic significance was not lost on the founders of the EU three decades prior. A mosaic depicting the myth was installed in 1993 on the twelfth floor of the Paul-Henri Spaak (PHS) Building, the home of the European Parliament in Brussels (See Fig. 1). It might be surprising to learn that this personification of Europe does not actually hail from continental Europe but is instead a Phoenician princess from Tyre, a port city located in what is now modern-day Lebanon. Furthermore, tracing her mythological lineage reveals that she is the daughter of Agenor, who, in turn, is the son of Libya. Europa’s family tree is a captivating tapestry of interconnectedness, as her cousin Aegyptus and uncle Belus both ruled Egypt, while another cousin, Danaus, was the king of Libya. To top this all off, Europa is descended from Io, an Argive princess who fled to Egypt due to her rape by Zeus and Hera’s subsequent jealousy. Thus, through Europa’s mythical genealogy, one can discern the intimate geographical connections between Europe, represented by Europa and Io, and both Asia and Africa.

            In the myth, Zeus, smitten by Europa as she gathers flowers near the seashore, transforms into a white bull to abduct her. He takes her to Crete and rapes her, leading to the birth of Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon. Though Minos becomes a legendary king of Crete and both he and Rhadamanthys are later deified as wise judges of the Underworld, Sarpedon is instead expelled over a dispute for the throne. During the Trojan War, Crete supplied troops under the leadership of Idomeneus on the side of the Achaeans, while Sarpedon, or in some sources the grandson of Sarpedon, died leading a contingent of warriors from Lycia, a region in southern Anatolia allied with Troy.3 Thus, the myth of Europa is one of both the connection and the blurred borders between Europe, Africa, and Asia, and encapsulates the rupture between the continents during the Trojan War. Europa and her ancestors descend from an act of violence perpetrated upon Io, and the return of Io’s bloodline to continental Europe derives from another act of violence. This cycle of violence culminates in the tragic story of Europa’s descendants, the clash between the Asian Trojans (and their African allies under Memnon of Ethiopia) and the European Achaeans. In the case of Sarpedon and the Cretans, this violence quite literally turns brother against brother, family against family. Thus, what occurs in Crete is a sort of microcosm for the birth of a distinct, and perhaps violent, European geographic identity. Indeed, as Ian Manner, a political scientist at Roskilde University, writes, the myth of Europa “conveys a sense of trauma and transition in European history.”4 In his work, he summarizes attempts by other political scientists to situate the tale in the context of postwar Europe, with the bull either representing Nazism and extremist ideologies or liberation by the United States. Regardless of the modern-day interpretation, from a mythological perspective, Europa before Crete is ensconced in an intercontinental network consisting of Egyptian, Libyan, and Levantine rulers. Europa post-Crete is now not only separated from Asia and Africa by sea, but her descendants wage war against each other, each allied with different continents. Europa’s unwilling transition from her native land to the foreign island of Crete within Europe is perhaps reflective of the continent’s own difficult decolonization process and its struggle to find a new, purely European identity in a post-colonial world. Just as Europa’s descendants grappled violently with the consequences of Zeus’ actions, so too do the successors of the old empires grapple with their imperialist legacy in a new, compartmentalized Europe, divorced from their former colonial holdings all across the globe.

            This mythical divide between Europa and her family in Asia and Africa is crystallized into a historical, geopolitical one by Herodotus in his Histories. In his first line, Herodotus states that the purpose of his Histories is to remember the deeds of both Hellenes and barbarians, which, in the ancient Greek world, primarily refers to Achaemenid Persia and its Asian empire, and to explain the “cause of their waging war on each other.”5 Herodotus then proceeds to immediately provide an explanation for this conflict, rationalizing the myths of Io’s escape to Egypt, Europa’s abduction to Crete, the Argonauts’ expedition to Colchis, and finally, the abduction of Helen, as a series of Greco-Phoenician raids for the purpose of capturing women. These then led to the Trojan War and the start of Persian animosity with the Greeks, culminating in the Greco-Persian Wars. As Herodotus contextualizes, “… the Persians claim Asia for their own, and the foreign peoples that inhabit it; Europe and the Greek people they consider to be separate from them.”6 In this alternative historicized narrative provided by Herodotus, Europa and Io lose their familial connections with Europe, Africa, and Asia. Instead, the complex mythological identities of these women have been simply reduced to their place of birth. This reductionist statement firmly embeds Persia within Asia and the Greeks within Europe, completely ignoring the transcontinental nature of both civilizations (in ancient times, both Persians and Greeks occupied various territories in Europe and Asia, respectively).7 In this narrative, while the idea of a modern-day continental Europe as a distinct entity has not yet developed, it already reflects a political and cultural hardening over the ambiguous borders within the myth. This continental ambiguity is further complicated today by the attempt to impose clearly delineated borders between the EU and Asia. While the entry of the Russian Federation into the EU is a distant prospect, the Republic of Turkey is a transcontinental country that has become increasingly intertwined with the West and has demonstrated considerable interest in joining the EU. Turkey has small but significant European holdings in the region of Eastern Thrace, which notably contains half of Istanbul, Turkey’s most populous city. Thus, one can perhaps see echoes of this ancient debate on how one should define Europe and Asia in modern-day Europe’s grappling over potential Turkish admittance to the EU.

            Today, the story of Europa and the bull has now been adapted by the EU from a horrifying story about Zeus’ lust and violence to one of pan-European unity and peace. The most recent series of Euro banknotes is called the Europa series, with each denomination of the bill depicting a portrait of Europa as a security feature.8 Imagery of Europa and the bull is used in materials promoting European cultural preservation and heritage.9 On the website of the European Sculpture Path, the sculpture Europe and the Bull is described as a statue symbolizing a confident Europa looking down on the world, of “mutual trust and respect,” of the love between strong Zeus and delicate Europa.10 Perhaps most ironically, the description of the statue ends, “This vision of Europa is a courageous departure, entering in a dialogue, seeing eye to eye, full of respect for a peaceful and humane world.”11 Europa and the bull, a sexually and physically violent story within the ancient Greco-Roman myth system, has not only been commandeered by EU officials but is now championed as a symbol of pride for all citizens within the EU. The violence inherent to the story is conveniently left out, as are the geographical and cultural connections between Europa and the other continents. In their ransacking of classical antiquity for a prestigious, unifying symbol, the EU has domesticated a contentious history. In the process of this simplification, they have denied the complexity of Europe, both ancient and modern. Just as ancient writers, from Aristotle to Herodotus to Strabo, grappled with the question of how to define Europe, it is equally clear that modern-day EU officials and citizens are now confronted not just with the question of a pan-European identity but with how to interpret their violent history, with regards to colonialism, the world wars, and the story of Europa and the bull.


Jason Huang is a senior at Northwestern University studying Biology, Neuroscience, and History.



  1. For example, most of the constituent republics of the former Yugoslavia have not yet joined the EU, while distant territories such as French Guiana, French Polynesia, and the constituent island countries of the now-dissolved Netherlands Antilles are considered Overseas Countries and Territories of the EU (OCTs).
  2. Megan Brown, The Seventh Member State: Algeria, France, and the European Community (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022), 105.
  3. Homer, The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1924), Perseus Digital Library, accessed October 13, 2023, https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0134%3Abook%3D16%3Acard%3D659
  4. Ian Manners, “Global Europa: Mythology of the European Union in World Politics,” Journal of Common Market Studies 48, no. 1 (2009): 67–87, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5965.2009.02042.x, 68.
  5. Herodotus, The Histories, trans. A. D. Godley (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1920), Perseus Digital Library, accessed October 13, 2023, https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0126%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D1
  6. Ibid.
  7. It should be noted here that Africa during this time period is not yet associated with the modern-day notion of the continent of Africa and is usually associated with North Africa, in what is now modern-day Libya. Egypt is considered a separate entity from Africa.
  8. “Current Banknotes,” European Central Bank|Eurosystem, July 10, 2023, https://www.ecb.europa.eu/euro/banknotes/current/html/index.en.html.
  9. “European Cultural Heritage,” European Parliament, accessed October 13, 2023, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/cmsdata/155357/L012149%20POSTER%20A3-EN%20NatParl_FINAL.pdf.
  10. “Europe and the Bull,” European Sculpture Path, May 25, 2022, https://european-sculpturepath.eu/projects/europe-and-the-bull/.
  11. Ibid.


Brown, Megan. The Seventh Member State: Algeria, France, and the European Community. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022.

“Current Banknotes.” European Central Bank | Eurosystem, July 10, 2023. https://www.ecb.europa.eu/euro/banknotes/current/html/index.en.html.

“Europe and the Bull.” European Sculpture Path, May 25, 2022. https://european-sculpturepath.eu/projects/europe-and-the-bull/.

“European Cultural Heritage.” European Parliament. Accessed October 14, 2023. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/cmsdata/155357/L012149%20POSTER%20A3-EN%20NatParl_FINAL.pdf.

Herodotus, The Histories, trans. A. D. Godley (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1920), Perseus Digital Library, accessed October 13, 2023.

Homer, The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1924), Perseus Digital Library, accessed October 13, 2023.

“Inauguration of the Goddess Europa Tile Fresco by Artist Aligi Sassu on the 12th Floor of the PHS Building in Brussels. Mosaic PHS.” European Parliament Multimedia Centre. Accessed October 13, 2023. https://multimedia.europarl.europa.eu/de/photo/inauguration-of-goddess-europa-tile-fresco-by-artist-aligi-sassu-on-12th-floor-of-phs-building-in-br_19930300_002_038.

Manners, Ian. “Global Europa: Mythology of the European Union in World Politics.” Journal of Common Market Studies48, no. 1 (2009): 67–87. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5965.2009.02042.x.