by Tiffany Volonakis
April 2008

In Rainer Marie Rilke’s “Leda,” a poem based on the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, Zeus comes down from Mount Olympus full of desire for the mortal woman, Leda. He assumes the guise of a swan to avoid revealing the “god” that would serve to frighten Leda.  As a swan, Zeus attacks and rapes Leda.  In Encyclopedia Mythica, Zeus is “the supreme ruler [who] upheld law, justice and morals, and this made him the spiritual leader of both gods and men.”  Rilke smashes the concept of a just and moral god in “Leda.”  Thematically, Rilke recreates a god who loses control in the act of trying to gain control over the mortal woman he desires.  Zeus uses the disguise of a swan to catch his prey yet is not prepared for what happens when he enters the swan and the “swan splendor shatter[s]” (2) him. This god becomes overwhelmed and is shattered by the experience.  Paradoxically, he loses control as he attempts to assert his power upon the object of desire. What we see is a god who is flawed like all humans and succumbs to the power of his own emotions.

Rilke begins his poem with the introduction of “the god, yearning” (1). This unorthodox illustration of a god driven by lust and desire is remarkable. Although married, in many tales he is a philanderer filled with the human characteristics of ego, desire, lust and, when he doesn’t get his way, anger and impatience. Zeus is a being with “intense longing or desire” (“yearning”). Though he is considered the most powerful of all the gods  he “yearn[s]” for a mortal, Leda. This yearning within Zeus is human in its connotation, suggesting a loss of control and power in Zeus that Greek myth would have not upheld. Yet, his choosing to “enter the swan” (1) to disguise himself further suggests the paradox of an all-powerful god who must hide to get what he wants. In “Leda, Twice Assaulted,” Jane Davidson Reid states, “For Rilke, Zeus is a god ‘in need” and not an “omnipotent god, not a magnificent bird[…]” (383).  Metaphorically, the swan represents purity and, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, “a type of faultlessness or excellence” (“swan”). The obvious irony is highlighted by Zeus’ decision to transform himself into a swan to cover up his true, unholy motive.

Rilke has created a god that has less power on earth among mortals than he does upon Mount Olympus because he has entered a corporeal creature and that act has made him vulnerable.  It is the image of what happens to a god who enters a mortal creature which Rilke brings to the forefront and we see Zeus become overwhelmed by his own desires and lose his godhead. The effect of the disguise has “shattered” his senses, and the “all-powerful” god becomes encumbered by the disguise as he enters the creature. Zeus is unable to reason. All the yearning he has for Leda is washed over suddenly by the “splendor” of the swan, “great brightness” (“splendor”), blinding his senses. His godhead “vanishe[s] within its flesh” (3) and becomes “completely entangled” (3)  Zeus is “entangled” within two states of being.  All of what he is as a god becomes intertwined with the senses of the swan. What was meant to be a disguise to help the god becomes, at the moment of entering, a hindrance and a liability to his ultimate goal, the conquest of Leda.

Rilke’s powerful and telling image of a less than perfect god whose own disguise betrays him drives the motif of a god who has become less-powerful. Though Zeus was “[t]rying to fool her,”

        he was drawn to the act
        before he could probe what it meant to be and to feel
      in this strange way. (4-6)

“[B]efore he [can] probe what it means to be [a swan]” (5), his desire for Leda as a conquest pushes him to rush forward. He is fumbling, “trying to find her” (4).  His desire to have her “draw[s him] to the act” (4).  His desires become more important than thought or reason.  He is unable to stop himself and comprehend “his strange way” of being the swan. As Reid says so well, “[the god is] perplexed in this change of form and psyche”(383).  If this god is truly omniscient, he should have known his wants and desires would have a stranglehold on him. Zeus, in the process of transformation, becomes divided in his senses between god and swan. He begins to lose his identity as an omnipotent god. He does not allow for the moment needed to gather his wits about him and, in the loss of control which his power should have given him, he takes the aggressive stance propelled by human desire and lust.  This causes the god to stumble blindly towards his goal.

What we begin to see in Rilke’s poem is that the driving force behind Zeus’ assault is not Leda herself but the god’s desire. Rilke objectifies Leda, placing her in the weakened position of an object that is wide open for the taking. Leda’s body, that is to say her womb, is the image and object of Zeus’ desire.  Zeus projects his desire onto Leda, and this desire is what he sees:

        And what gaped wide in her
        already sensed that advent in the swan
      and knew: he asked for [. . .]one thing.  (6-8)

Zeus’ desire becomes so strong that he believes that Leda senses the “epoch-making arrival” (“advent”), and knows this swan in front of her is a god who “ask[s] for one thing” (8). Zeus is further reduced to a lustful beast trapped in his fantasy of power as much as he is trapped in his own disguise.  At this moment, he no longer wears the disguise but is controlled by it.

Zeus believes he is “ask[ing]” Leda to agree to this consummation, but it is violence which takes what his desire seeks. Leda, “tangled in resisting him” (9), is overcome only because of Zeus’ violent impatience. She “could no longer withhold” (9-10) from his physical attack. We see the “attack” for what it truly is — a rape. Zeus “c[omes] at her harder” (10) and, Leda’s “hand grow[s] weaker and weaker” (11).  When Leda finally gives in to the rape, Zeus’ “godhead disperse[s] into what he love[s]” (12). What Zeus “loves” is nothing more than the reflection of his desire and ego. This is “what gaped wide in her”.  The godhead, “the divine nature or essence” (“godhead”) is “dispersed into what he love[s]” (12) and Zeus is able to “realize feathers were glory” (13). All sense of what Zeus is suppose to be, a powerful god, completely vanishes at the moment the “godhead disperse[s]” and we are left with the swan, the disguise.  The “glory” is found with the swan and Zeus realizes the victory is at hand and will only happen as the swan. As long as he struggled and allowed his ego to try to maintain control he would lose.  The power came from the swan, no longer from Zeus, who was presumed to be the most powerful of the gods.

Rilke’s was raised in an intensely Catholic home by his mother, Sophie Rilke (1851-1931). She has been criticized by many for her alleged religious fanaticism in raising her only child (Wich-Schwarz). Yet, his mother’s efforts at providing a religious education did give Rilke knowledge of the old and New Testament God.  According to Jane Davidson Reid in “Leda, Twice Assaulted,” Rilke worked “from the Old Testament and the New Testament and recreated worlds with an unorthodoxy sometimes startling” (379). In “Leda,” Rilke has redefined the understanding of what this god was, and even more importantly, what was not god-like in Zeus.  Zeus’ weaknesses are those similar to weaknesses of mortal men including desire, impatience, violence, and ego. It was not Zeus’ god-like powers that helped him to attain his goal but the brute force of his attack.  His clever disguise was only a façade to hide the violence and lust that drove him.

In the Old and New Testaments, God is an omniscient and omnipotent being who seeks a relationship with mortals to demonstrate their need for His strength and guidance. This god is far from the God of the Old and New Testament.  This god doesn’t seek a relationship but wishes only to feed his own ego and take what he wants. Rilke’s poem is an image of a god full of confusion, a god who is similar to mortal men and not a god to be revered. The disguise meant to deceive Leda only hindered Zeus. Zeus loses his power when he gets lost in his own disguise and though he may have won out in the end, brute force wins out and the disguise is unable to hide what Zeus is – a lustful, violent, ego-driven god.

Works Cited

“advent, 2.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 2007 12 December 2007 < cgi/entry/50003241>

“godhead, 1.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 2007 12 December 2007 <>

Rainer Marie Rilke. “Leda”. Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths. Ed. Nina Kossman. Oxford University Press, New York: Oxford, 2001. 16-17

Reid, Jane Davidson. “Leda, Twice Assaulted.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 11 (1953). 378-389.

“swan, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 2007 12 December 2007 < org/cgi/entry/50243935>

Wich-Schwarz, Johannes “From Ahasverus to Orpheus: Transformations of Christ in Rainer Maria Rilke.” 22 Sept 2007. Goliath Business News . Christianity and Literature. 3 April 2007 < coms2/gi_0199-7274966/From-Ahasverus-to-Orpheus-transformations.html>

“yearning, vbl.n1.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 2007 12 December 2007 <>

“Zeus.” Encyclopedia Mythica. 2008. Encyclopedia Mythica Online. 26 Mar 2008 < articles/z/zeus.html>.

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