This is the famous story of Zeus’s mating with Leda, but told from a different perspective – not Zeus’s. It never stirs much in the reader when told, Zeus simply falls in love with a mortal, assumes an identity (in this case a swan) and has sex with the mortal. His task satisfied he goes back to Mount Olympus and basically forgets about the transaction, unless the mating brings about offspring, in which case he becomes interested in the child’s future. As for the woman who begat the child, she is subject to what ever whims the gods bestow upon her, usually the wrath of Hera, Zeus’s wife, or some other jealous goddess.
When I read these myths as a little girl, I always found it profoundly unfair that the woman should be subject to a punishment for a crime she didn’t commit. How could she know that she was the subject of the God’s cravings when so many others are passed by? What could she have done to prevent it? And why could she never reason with Hera woman to woman? Surely, the goddess, of all people, should understand the plight of a woman wronged. And Hera was the symbol of Justice. Surely, there must have been a version of these myths in which Hera had found a way to right this woman’s destiny, to make certain that she was compensated for the God’s random desires (either that or the Greeks didn’t think too highly about Justice).
But in this case, she listened, or so the poem implies. Usually, there was little Hera could have ever done about Zeus’s acts. Women never had any choice in the matter, even the goddess. He was the symbol of the Father of the Universe, the Emperor of all things, the purveyor of all laws. The buck stopped with him. Nobody questioned him, at least, not at that time.
But with this poem we come to the modern era (written in 1924) where people are questioning the hierarchy. We have revolutions in France, America, and Russia. The people are saying, “Why should this one man have all the power, we do all the work and he gets away with everything – murder practically!” The people want justice; the people want to matter.
Yeats takes a legend where nobody ever thinks of what the woman in the story was going through and puts it into her perspective. Perhaps if we were to look at literary symbology (which is what I’m doing today), then I would say that she is the point of view of the powerless, common man or woman, the one who is subject to the whims of the rich and the powerful, the power structure overhead that cannot be questioned, the Patriarchy (another way of saying Emperor of all things).
Did Leda get her revolution against the Patriarchy? The result of that union was Helen and Clytemnestra, two women who got the better of their powerful men. Helen caused a war of a thousand boats as she flaunted a woman’s convention and left the man who had claimed her (and, no, he was not her lover or her husband). Clytemnestra murdered the powerful Agamemnon who was so instrumental in destroying Troy. She was a symbol of retribution for such a hideous act, a death ordained by the gods who were horrified by the destruction of the city. But did this bring justice to Leda? Did Leda raise these girls to be the instrument of destruction upon powerful men? Did Zeus’s hideous act endow her with her own godly power to bring down men and nations? The poem asks this when it says, “Did she put on his knowledge with his power,/Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” And was this a parable for the modern century where the common man spoke out against the powerful?
Can we learn this lesson today? Do the bankers on Wall Street and the rich CEOs of giant multinational corporations get to do whatever they want like Zeus on Mount Olympus watching the common people below and having his way whenever he feels like it? Or is there still that spark of fire still in the common man, that feeling of righteous indignation that has been transferred from the symbolic acts of violation by the self-appointed gods?
What I also like about this poem is that Leda is not treated as simply a vessel for destiny, her thoughts and feelings are recognized, that she isn’t simply a line in a poem, or myth, that her pain was real. Instead of only recognizing the victor, as history has so often done, the one who has suffered and lost is recognized and given immortality. A small supplication to those who have been lost and then forgotten. They mattered too. They are the reason that we matter.
Leda and the Swan
by William Butler Yeats
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
He holds her helpless breast uon 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?