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Leda and the Swan fresco found at Pompeii

Steamy Fresco Discovered In Pompeii Bedroom Depicts The Seduction Of Queen Leda By A Swan


Archaeologists in Italy have discovered an “excellently" preserved and highly-colorful detailed fresco in an ancient Pompeii bedroom depicting an erotic scene in which a god disguised as a swan copulates with a famous Greek mythological queen of Sparta.

The fresco was discovered last Friday during archaeological work attempting to “consolidate the ancient city’s [Pompeii’s] structures after rains and wear-and-tear caused some ruins to collapse,” the tourist site’s officials stated in their press release. According to Massimo Osanna, Pompeii’s archaeological park director, this particular fresco is “exceptional” because, “as she is being impregnated by the disguised god in swan form, Leda appears to be looking at the viewer entering the room.”

Leda appears to be looking at the viewer. (Cesare Abbate/ Parco Archeologico di Pompeii)

Leda appears to be looking at the viewer. (Cesare Abbate/ Parco Archeologico di Pompeii)

A Haaretz article about this latest find in Pompeii, which is the next in a series of similar discoveries made in the ancient city that was destroyed by the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, says, “The explicit painting shows a semi-naked Leda sensually draped over a chair with the swan sitting in her lap while nuzzling her neck.“ What is more, Leda "watches the spectator with a sensuality that’s absolutely pronounced,” Osanna told Italian news agency Ansa.

The bedroom in which the fresco was found is situated “near a corridor by the entranceway of an upscale  domus, or home, where another splendid fresco was discovered earlier this year,” staff at the Italian culture ministry told Ansa. According to the team of researchers, “The fresco’s context is that of the Greek myth of love, with an explicit sensuality in a bedroom where, obviously beside sleep, there could be other activities.” Naughty.

Is ‘a pronounced sensuality’ emanated by Leda? (Cesare Abbate/ Parco Archeologico di Pompeii)

Is ‘a pronounced sensuality’ emanated by Leda? (Cesare Abbate/ Parco Archeologico di Pompeii)

Mythology As A Status Symbol

According to a piece in The Guardian, rationalizing as to “why" the fresco might have been made in this particular bedroom, Osanna hypotheses that the “home’s owner was a rich merchant who wanted to give the impression he was culturally advanced by incorporating myth-inspired frescoes.” This logic, I suppose, is like western folk today displaying Buddha statues in their gardens aiming to project, through mythological figures, an air of spirituality; a breath of cultural awareness, understanding and most of all, coolness.

Seduction of Leda by the Swan

Leda was an very important character in Greek mythology and had many perceived mythological pedigrees, for example, Encyclopedia Britannica says she was “the daughter of Thestius, king of Aetolia, and wife of Tyndareus, king of Lacedaemon” but some ancient authors said she was the mother by Tyndareus of Clytemnestra, wife of King Agamemnon, and of Castor, one of the “Heavenly Twins”.

However, it is neither of these popular mythological origin stories that inspired the newly discovered fresco of Leda in Pompeii; it was third myth, in which Leda was believed to have been seduced by Zeus (Roman Jupiter) in the form of a swan, later mothering the famous twins, Pollux, and Helen (of Troy) who were not born, but ‘hatched’ from Leda’s eggs. This story was popularized in the Italian Renaissance world of art, for example, the earliest known Renaissance depiction is a woodcut illustration in  Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a book published in Venice  in 1499. There was also Correggio’s painting  Leda (c.1530s) and William Butler Yeats’, one of Ireland's most well-known and important poets,  Leda and the Swan; one of the classic poems of literary modernism.

Antonio da Correggio - Leda and the Swan (c.1530). (Public Domain)

Antonio da Correggio - Leda and the Swan (c.1530). (Public Domain)

Myths, They’re All About Archetypes

Interestingly, a research article about mythological archetypes on Shmoop, discussing Yeats’ poem, suggests he was inspired by “artistic depictions of the story of Leda and the swan by sculptors and painters like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.” However, the article points out that some art critics have interpreted Yeats’ Leda and the Swan as an allegory for the “rape” of Ireland by its British colonial masters. And, shockingly, others believe Yeats’ poem is “a depiction of rape to be tantalizing to the point of offensiveness.”

From an ethical perspective, literary specialists argue that if Yeats’ poem was actually sensationalizing a sexual assault involving two human beings, it is unlikely the piece would have received the enormous critical reception that it did, and still does. Just like the fresco discovered in the bedroom in Pompeii, this faction of specialists believe that Yeats’ poem was probably “originally intended to be erotic,” according to the report on Shmoop.

What is more, it is argued that if one were to accept that Yeats’ poem describes a ‘real life’ violent sexual act, then ipso facto we must admit that the three-headed dogs, goat-bodied men, cyclopes and seven-headed hydra of ancient myths were also literal truths. And that just wouldn’t do! In attempting to separate historical fiction from fact, the researcher would be wise to remember; ancient Greeks had lots of wild and twisted stories within their myths, many of which feature ‘men and gods behaving badly’ but equally, the ancient writers talked of ‘women and goddesses behaving wickedly,’ down right despicably in some cases.

Leda and the Swan, a 16th-century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo. National Gallery, London. (Public Domain)

Leda and the Swan, a 16th-century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo. National Gallery, London. (Public Domain)

Ancient myths depart archetypes, universal symbolic patterns in human nature; the femme fatale, the trickster, the great mother and father and the hero. And being true to their universal nature, archetypal characters, like Leda and the Swan, reappear, again and again, across time and cultural divides in myths, stories, folk tales, and apparently in bedrooms in Pompeii. The Leda story tells of the ‘male trickster’ seducing a human female, perfectly contrasting the seduction of Adam by Eve, the ‘femme trickster’.

Myths, go both ways.

Top image: Leda and the Swan fresco found at Pompeii   Source: Cesare Abbate/ Parco Archeologico di Pompeii

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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