Monday, February 8, 2010

Leda and the Swan

Many slightly different versions of Leda's myth exist. I like to start with images from Maurice Sendak's third great picture book, Outside Over There, which seem inspired by the idea of babes born to birdlike women, born inside eggshells. I showed them to you last term, but unfortunately I can't locate the images online so you'll have to wait 'til I get home to scan them.

So instead we'll start with the myth proper.
Though married to Tyndareus, king of Sparta, Leda lay one night with both Zeus and her husband, the king. Zeus, King of the Greek Gods, seduced her while deceptively disguised as a beautiful swan, and her husband Tyndareus followed the feathered philanderer into her featherbed, resulting in the birth of two sets of twins. The many sources for the story disagree about whether human or divine father spawned Castor and Pollux (the Gemini twins) and Clytemnestra and Helen (the face that launched a thousand ships... the most beautiful of women whose abduction began the Trojan War). Some say Zeus fathered the boys and Tyndareus the girls, some say Zeus fathered Pollux and Helen, and Tyndareus Castor and Clytemnestra. I guess they didn't have dna testing. Like the children in Sendak's picture book, Leda's four children emerged from eggshells at their birth, two per egg.

Like this:

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This image shows Leda embracing Zeus in the form of a swam immediately after the hatching of her two pairs of twins. And unnamed follower of Leonardo painted it in 1580, presumably using a cartoon (full sized sketch) painted by Leonardo... that cartoon is now lost, but history has preserved this sketch, by Leonardo, of Leda's lovely head.

Leonardo da Vinci, Head of Leda, c. 1505, chalk and ink on paper

Leonardo, Study of Star and Bethlehem plant, c. 1505

Leda and the Swan

-William Butler 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?

Giampietrino? (active 1520-40) copy after the lost painting by Leonardo

Giampietrino? (active 1520-40) copy after the lost painting by Leonardo, detail

artist unknown (Sodoma, Salai?) Leda and the Swan. Probably unfinished portrait and background sketches by Leonardo, finished by others. begun by 1516.

Leonardo, study for Leda,

after Michelangelo, Leda and the Swan,

Michelangelo, Leda and the Swan,

CLÉSINGER, Auguste, Leda and the Swan, 1864

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