The story of the love between Zeus, king of the gods, and Ganymede, the handsome son of the Trojan king, goes back at least three thousand years and its roots disappear into the prehistoric neolithic. According to Plato (The Laws), the story originated in Crete, a land with a rich ancient history of its own.(1) Its Minoan civilization, named after the mythical king Minos, predated Classical Greece by two thousand years. Though the story of Ganymede itself cannot be traced back that far, ancient myth tells of the love of Rhadamanthus, a brother of king Minos, for young Talos, evidence of an ancient tradition of homosexual initiation.
One function of myth is to encode the rites and customs of a culture in order to validate them and to transmit them across the generations. Therefore, if the Ganymede myth originated in Crete, we might expect to find a corresponding tradition in ancient Cretan practices. Indeed, Ephorus, an ancient Greek ethnographer, describes a Cretan initiatory rite in which a man takes as lover a boy who is coming of age. To summarize it, the man chooses a boy of exceptional moral character, steals him away from his home in a ritual abduction, and takes him into the mountains, together with other companions, for a set period of time. During this period of introduction to adult ways, the two have sexual relations. At the completion of the rite, the man bestows rich gifts upon the boy and returns him to his family.
The Strangford Apollo
ca. 500-490 BC. Said to be from the island of Anafi, Cyclades. Aegean Sea
Cycladic marble statue of a youth standing in the conventional pose of a kouros.
London, British Museum
The parallels between the rite and the myth are clear enough.(2) And were all the surviving fragments of the myth in concordance with this rite, the mythographer's work would end here. However, in comparing this initiatory tradition with the many elements of the myth that have come down to us we are confronted with numerous discrepancies. For example, women do not figure in the ritual; yet in many of the fragments the "jealous wife" theme is predominant. In the rite, the principal conflict seems to be between the family and the "outsider" who takes the son away;(3) in the later fragments, the conflict comes from sexual tension in a domestic environment. Furthermore, religious myth was marked by a strong sense of propriety which excluded any direct mention of sexuality; some sources, however, are quite explicit, bordering on lewd. To sum up, some of the surviving fragments are in keeping with the lineaments and function of ancient myth, while others appear to make up the elements of a domestic farce.
These mutually incompatible materials lead us to the conclusion that as the ancient world changed, so did its relationship to its founding myths. Clearly, the stories chanted in the temples of ancient Crete or the walled city of Thebes were very different from the ones published for the amusement of literate aristocrats in cosmopolitan Rome a thousand years later. Thus, in order to resolve the thematic and stylistic conflicts in the fragments we are obliged to assemble these fragments so as to compile two distinct versions of the story of Zeus and Ganymede. In this fashion most of the information about the story can be put to use, and important material need not be excised arbitrarily.
The archaic Greek version is an attempt to glean the ritual form of the tale. In it the divine is predominant. The story
emulates the form of the rite, it is anchored in genealogy and history, and is styled in the reserved and formulaic manner of its fundamentalist creators. Women are absent, reflecting the functionality of the tales and the early texts on which this version is based, as well as the marginal role to which women were relegated in Greek society.(4) In order to respect the thematic constraints of myth, the sexual bond between Zeus and Ganymede is not developed. However, there is more here than meets the eye: the immortality Zeus grants Ganymede would have been, to the ancients, a clear indicator of a sexual connection between them, because "the gift of immortality coincides with sexual contact"(5) in all instances of such relationships between men and gods. This restoration presents the tale as an epic that might have been sung by a bard at a ceremonial gathering during Homeric times.
The Hellenistic version is a "modern" form of the story, almost a thousand years closer to our time than the first. It is assembled from materials dating from Classical Greece to the days of the Roman empire and is marked by the satire of the late Greeks and the virulent misogyny of the Roman writers, a misogyny which likely arose as a response of a patriarchy besieged by the emancipation of women. This version also reflects the brazen secular style of the late Greeks and Romans, and is devoid of the sense of history and of the sacred on which the ancients built their myths. A slave in a Roman villa might well have told one very much like it to amuse the guests during the course of a sumptuous dinner, and they might have recognized in it familiar domestic scenes and emotions.
The two different stories vividly illustrate the evolution of ancient culture (6) and with it, the evolution of male love. If we could use art as analogy, the modern version of the story evokes the voluptuous and dramatic forms of Hellenic and Roman sculptures, while the archaic version stands stylized and static, like a kouros statue, smiling mysteriously, suffused with an inner light.
1. One may fairly ask, if the Ganymede myth comes to us from the Cretans, how come Ganymede is an integral part of a Trojan dynasty and the action of the story takes place in Troy? Which came first, the Cretan custom or the Anatolian myth? Why does the principal mountain in the Troad have the same name as the Cretan mountain from which Ganymede was said by the Cretans to have been kidnapped by the god? back
2. In the myth the boy is not returned to his family, but is given immortality and installed in the heavens. That is not a departure from the pattern of the rite, but simply symbolizes the irreversible transformation which the rite is meant to confer upon the initiate. back
3. Another discrepancy, not easily resolved, is the role of the eagle. In the early versions he does not appear. Indeed, the Olympia ceramic acroterion depicting Zeus kidnapping Ganymede, one of the earliest representations of the myth, shows the god in human, not avian, form. One explanation is that the eagle is a dramatic flourish added later in antiquity. Another is that the eagle is an initially secret relic left over from the shamanic roots of the myth (since in the shamanic tradition taking to the air or diving into water were symbols of initiation) and revealed later, when the mystic meaning was forgotten. back
4. The one woman who does make a cameo appearance, Ganymede's mother, does so as the wife of one man and the daughter of another, male property twice over, used simply as a tool for one man to produce more men. We should note here, however, that the exclusion of women from this myth is consistent with a homoerotic male initiation rite, in which the boy is taken from the mother's world and entered into the father's. back
5. Bernard Sergent, Homosexuality in Greek Myth, p. 209 back
6. "Mythology is shown as a kind of evolving pattern, constantly undergoing revision to keep pace with the evolution of the culture, and hence offers an archaeology of a people's changing sense of identity." C. Ruck and D. Staples, The World of Classical Myth.back