Archaeologists digging in Pompeii have unearthed a rare fresco depicting the mythological sexual encounter between the Spartan queen Leda and the god Zeus in the form of a swan. The wall painting adds to the already rich catalogue of erotica found among the ruins of the ancient Roman city.
The fresco, whose discovery was announced Monday, emerged on the wall of a lavish Roman house that had become blanketed in ash and debris along with the rest of Pompeii and nearby settlements when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E.
The explicit painting shows a semi-naked Leda sensually draped over a chair with the swan sitting in her lap while nuzzling her neck. The woman’s eyes are painted to look straight at the observer, as if catching any onlookers in a voyeuristic act.
Erotic art is legion in Pompeii, and depictions of people having sex (sometimes with animals) and/or men sporting enormous phalluses abound. In the summer, archaeologists digging in the same villa where the Leda fresco was found uncovered an image, decorating the building’s entrance, of the god Priapus weighing his penis, a fairly common motif in the city.
Still, the new find is “exceptional and unique for its decisively sensual iconography,” says Massimo Osanna, the director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park.
The image is very different from other more common portrayals of the story that were found in Pompeii and elsewhere, which don’t often depict the sexual act and tend to show Leda standing while being pursued by the swan, Osanna said.
Masquerading as a sexy beast
There are many versions of Leda’s myth, but most identify her as a queen of Sparta who struck Zeus (or Jupiter for the Romans) with her beauty.
On the same night she lay with her husband, King Tyndareus, she was also seduced (or raped, depending on the interpretation) by the leader of the Greco-Roman pantheon in the guise of a swan.
This was reportedly a common ploy for Zeus, who frequently masqueraded as an animal to have affairs behind the back of his wife Hera. In another myth, the god abducts the princess Europa while in the form of a bull.
In this case, Zeus’ lust set in motion the events of an even more famous myth: the Trojan War. The most common version of the story says that Leda’s night of sex with her husband and the swan resulted in two eggs, from which were hatched a son and a daughter each, two from Tyndareus and two from Zeus.
The boys were Castor and Pollux, the semi-divine heroic twins of other Greek myths, while the girls were Helen and Clytemnestra. The former would go on to seal Troy’s fate with her doomed love affair with the Trojan prince Paris, while the latter married (and later murdered) the Mycenaean king Agamemnon.
The myth of Leda and the Swan-cum-Zeus is one of the most popular and enduring in Western art and literature. It has been depicted by artists ranging from Michelangelo to Cezanne and retold as a violent rape in a 20th century poem by W.B. Yeats.
The story was also very popular with ancient Romans, and was most commonly depicted as a variation of a 4th century B.C.E. statue attributed to the Greek sculptor Timotheos.
Multiple copies of this statue have been unearthed across the Roman world, and the iconography may have also inspired the newly-uncovered fresco in Pompeii, says Osanna.
While the fresco was found in one of the house’s bedrooms, it is not certain that its purpose was to inflame the passions of those spending the night there, the Italian official says. It could have been erotic art for erotic art's sake.
While we do not know for sure who owned the large 1st century house, the most likely theory is that it belonged to a rich merchant, possibly a former slave, he says.
In this case, the image of Leda and the swan could have been a way for this newly-moneyed man to pander to the local aristocracy, showing off his knowledge to “try to elevate his social status by referencing the myths of high culture.”
Because the ruins of the ancient house are unstable, it is unlikely that visitors will be granted access to it, Osanna told Italy’s ANSA news agency. However, he reassured: experts are studying the possibility of removing the Leda fresco, and the previously discovered image of Priapus, and putting them on display in a museum.