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Poseiden and Pelops

Poseidon Chasing Pelops - 5th c. Attic column krater (wine mixing bowl); Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Poseidon Chasing Pelops
Tantalus, the king of Sipylus - the first city built by man - was a son of Zeus and also a great friend of his. The king of the gods confided many secrets in him, and often invited him up to Mount Olympus at banquet time, to partake of divine nectar and ambrosia. Tantalus however, swollen with pride, betrayed Zeus' trust, revealing his secrets and stealing Olympian food for his mortal friends to taste. One time, having invited the gods to a feast in his home and wanting to serve only the very best, he had his son, Pelops, whose name means "Muddy Face," cut into pieces and boiled, without a word to the mother, Dione. The gods did not touch their food, all except Demeter, who was so distracted by the recent loss of Persephone, her daughter, that she bit into the shoulder - the cut of honor - on her plate. For his crimes Tantalus' kingdom was laid waste. He died by Zeus's own hand and was cast into Tartarus, the deepest pit of Hades, for eternal torment, doomed amidst plenty to suffer hunger and thirst.

Having punished the father, Zeus set upon the task of restoring the son to life. He ordered Hermes to gather all the pieces, and to return them to the cauldron, upon which he laid a spell. There they were set to boil again, and the Fate Klotho joined the pieces back together. Demeter replaced the shoulder she had eaten with one made of the purest ivory. This mark - of the white shoulder - in years to come was to mark all the descendants of Pelops. Rhea, the mother of all the gods, breathed new life into him as Pan was dancing a dance of joy around the fire.

Pelops rose renewed from the pure cauldron, and though he had been handsome before, his beauty was now beyond compare. Poseidon, the god of the seas, saw the radiant boy and instantly fell in love. His heart broken by desire, he ran after the lad, lifted him into his chariot drawn by golden horses, and took him up to Mount Olympus. Dione, his mother, in vain sent men through Sipylus to search for him, for they found no trace of the boy. Up on Mount Olympus Poseidon appointed Pelops to be his cup-bearer and lover. He fed the youth on ambrosia, taught him to drive his magic chariot and would have kept him there forever, but the other gods, still smarting over the experience with the father, banished Pelops back to earth. Poseidon sadly parted from his friend, but not before heaping great treasure upon him.

Later, when the first beard began to darken his cheeks, Pelops fell in love with the enchanting Hippodameia, daughter of King Oenomaus of Pisa. Her father however had been warned by an oracle that he would meet his death at the hands of his son in law. Oenomaus had decreed
 Pelops Fleeing Poseidon - 5th c. Attic column krater (wine mixing bowl); Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Pelops Fleeing Poseidon

that whoever wanted to win her hand had to beat him in a chariot race or lose his life. He had no fear of losing: His mares were the fastest in all of Greece, divine horses given to him by his father, Ares, the god of war, and his charioteer, Myrtilus, was a son of Hermes and a horseman without compare. Twelve brave princes had already come as suitors, only to perish under his bronze lance. Pelops, no mean driver of horses himself, having learned the skill from a god, took no chances. He went down to the sea shore, and called on his old lover and teacher for assistance: "Listen, Poseidon, if you had any pleasure in our love, Aphrodite's sweet gift, block the brazen spear of Oenomaus, and grant that my chariot will be the speedier one. It is for me to risk my life, and for you to help me win."

The god, glad to help, gave him a golden chariot that could roll over the ocean waves without getting wet, drawn by a team of winged horses, tireless and immortal. Back at the palace, Pelops, still worried about the race, bribed Myrtilus, promising him the first night with Hippodameia. Myrtilus, who secretly loved Hippodameia, sabotaged the king's chariot. When the race began Pelops took off like an arrow. King Oenomaus, with Myrtilus at the reins, raced madly after him, but just as he drew close and was about to run Pelops through with his spear and rip out his life, the wheels of his chariot flew off, his chariot broke into pieces, and he, tangled in the reins, was dragged to death by his own horses. Thus Pelops won Hippodameia's hand, and with it the throne of Pisa. But he no longer had any need of Myrtilus and murdered him before the bargain could be fulfilled. Pelops and Hippodameia had many children, and Pelops fathered yet another with the nymph Astyoche, a bastard son named Chrysippus, but the curse of Myrtilus was upon all their heads and Hermes saw to it that it would be accomplished.

To atone for the death of Oenomaus, Pelops founded a great festival to be held every four years in the king's honor, named the Olympic Games. Later, Herakles (who was Pelops' great-grandson) decreed that Pelops was the one to be honored, and that sacrifices to him should take place even before those to father Zeus.

Pelops was a great king, and all of western Greece was named after him. Even today we call that land "Pelops' Island" - Peloponessus.

Comments on the Concepts of Gay and Homosexual:

The book The Gay Greek Myths restores the homosexual and homoerotic content of the Greek myths. But Gay Greek Myths, indeed "gay mythology" in general, is a misnomer. "Gay" as a sexual identity is a recent development, emerging only in the 20th Century and our idea of what it means to be gay or a homosexual has largely been influenced by recent gay activism and the emergence of gay rights on the cultural landscape. In the time of the Greeks there was no such identity as gay - or straight - and they did not compartmentalize their sexuality into homosexual and heterosexual. Their homosexual passions were part of their erotic expression as sexual beings. They would not have considered their love for boys as gay or homosexual, as separate from other sexual expressions, and the worth of the relationship was judged not by the gender of the person one loved, but by its results. Nevertheless, throughout this site you will see the use of the words gay, homosexual and homosexuality when referring to ancient practices. Indeed this very section is titled "Homosexual Greek Myths." This is done for practical purposes, so we can easily describe the sexual relations of the ancients with familiar vocabulary. Things, however, were much more complex then the words might indicate.

Mythographer's Comments

These Greek myths are based quite closely on ancient fragments, materials until now passed over by modern mythographers. The sources range from poets to historians to playwrights and early Christian polemicists. Thus the form of the stories should be seen as a late one, incorporating in many cases Roman sensibilities.

Of course there has never been any one "true" version of any of these stories, as they were told and retold over a span of at least two thousand years across a region ranging across three continents, from the Black Sea to the shores of North Africa, an area now occupied by such countries as Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and others. Nonetheless, the myths collectively reflect a world view in which male love was wholly compatible with living life in a sacred way, a path to heroism and divinity.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Editorial Board, World History of Male Love, "Greek Mythology",
Posiedon and Pelops, 1999 <>

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