Pop-culture woman of the week: Leda

Leda and the swan

Name: Leda (Λήδα)
First appearance: Greek mythology
Creator: Some Greek
Weapon/ability: Child-bearing
Race: Aetolian (Greek)
Age: Lived a normal lifespan

Leda was probably the daughter of the Aetolian king Thestius (Θέστιος) – as usual the Greek mythology is not completely clear on who is related to who, and how. Thestius was (probably, of course) a son of the god Ares and the human woman Epicaste (Ἐπικάστη), thus making Leda herself partly divine. Her mother was Eurythemis. She was the sister of Iphicles, one of the Argonauts – a band of heroes who accompanied Jason on his hunt for the golden fleece, Althaea, Eurypylus, Evippus, Hypermnestra, and Plexippus.

Leda was married to the Spartan king Tyndareus (Τυνδαρεύς – or sometimes Tyndareos Τυνδάρεως), but it was not that which was to make her famous. Instead it was the illicit meeting she had with a bird. The god Zeus got infatuated with the Spartan queen, and to satisfy his lust he turned himself into a swan and then seduced, or raped, her. The same night she slept with her husband – and the result was four children.

A common idea is that the queen laid two eggs, as a memory of the encounter. Who was in which egg differs between different sources, but it is generally believed that Helena and both or one of the twin-brothers Castor and Pollux were the children of Zeus. If it was just one of the brothers, it is generally believed to be Pollux who was the partly divine one. And in some earlier stories it seems like both brothers were mortal. On the other hand it has never been any debate on the second daughter, Clytemnestra, being mortal and the daughter of the Spartan king.

But Leda also had three other daughters by her husband, Thestius: Philonoe, Phoebe, and Timandra.

What happened to the Spartan queen later in life, the myths are less helpful with. But there are plenty of stories around her children, from the Iliad and such onwards.

Leda and the swan has been a motif in art, since ancient times – continuing into our own. The mosaic here can be found in the British Museum, it is Roman and dates to the later part of the second century A.D.