• It is enacted by a mortal lover, whose very name, Laius, “of the people,” highlights the contrast with the god;
• The father of the beloved is betrayed and robbed;
• The youth is dishonored by being reduced to the level of a sex slave;
• The lover forces himself upon the unwilling boy;
• Far from gaining anything, the beloved loses his very life – as does, later, the lover himself.
In one final item of evidence of the connection between the tales, it is Zeus who, by delivering Laius’ punishment, avenges the rape and death of young Chrysippus.
It may be tempting to see this story as reflective of Boeotian disapproval of all such relationships, but there is no historical evidence for any blanket disapproval, quite the opposite. Boeotia was renowned for the importance it assigned to male love, even blamed for making it too easy. Therefore, by altering the Cretan myth, the Boeotians appear to have turned the divine example on its head as a warning to any who may have been tempted to deviate from the path blazed by the god, or to those who would take the workings of the gods as license to do as they saw fit.
These two tales thus form a complementary and opposite pair. Their similarity of form implies a similarity of function. The analogous structuring of the cautionary tale of Laius and Chrysippus and of the prescriptive ur-myth of Zeus and Ganymede is suggestive not only of the related yet contrary uses to which the tales may have been put, but also of the pedagogic consciousness of the makers of the myths
Myth always speaks to us in symbolic language. Seen in this light, Zeus and Laius are avatars for Everyman, in encounter with the universal adolescent and with himself. Their stories are illustrative of the choices all Greek men had to make. Likewise, the eternal life of Ganymede and the death of Chrysippus reflect the Greeks’ view of the spiritual and psychological opportunities and pitfalls of adolescent development. The subtext of the tales could be read as saying that a male love relationship that follows the way laid out by custom and religion leads to a sharing of the lover’s qualities with his beloved, much as Zeus shares some of his own attributes with his cupbearer. Hence Ganymede’s empowerment, represented by his ascent to Olympus, his official function, and his newfound immortality. Conversely, straying from that road and giving in to self-indulgence and violence leads to spiritual death for the youth as well as for the lover, a case of psychic murder and suicide. As fortunate and desirable as are the fruits of walking a path that is sacred, the Greeks seem to be saying, so bitter and hopeless are the prospects of those who yield to the profane.
Complex as the Cretan custom seems to have been, that finely wrought edifice of legal and moral rights and obligations, perfected in all likelihood over thousands of years of practice, it is simplicity itself when compared with the cultural ferment of the Classical and Hellenistic ages. Here the story is bent by each new writer to his own ends – one to tragedy, another to love poetry, another to philosophy, yet another to biting irony.
The “river of desire” which possesses any man on seeing a beautiful boy is none other than the passion that first possessed Zeus when he fell in love with Ganymede, and to which he gave the name of himeros, according to Socrates. Though he thus grants the emotion a divine pedigree, the philosopher views this desire as ethically neutral. Upon it he lays the philosophical foundation for two contrasting currents of male love: one of abandon bent on copulation, a practice which he styles vulgar, the other also erotic but modulated, a form of male love he judges modest and virtuous and deems the “summum bonum” of human life.
Xenophon, himself a lover of youths, seems to be inspired by a similar ethic when he judges the elevation of Ganymede to be a spiritual, rather than a sensual apotheosis. The beauty of the boy’s soul, not his physical attractions, was Zeus’ motivation for the abduction, according to the historian. This theme persisted into the modern era, being echoed by the Renaissance Italian jurist Andrea Alciati, who ventures to declare that “the story of Ganymede’s abduction does not contain a disgrace, but a fable by which men can be aroused to the worship of God.”
Apocryphal characters become central. The eagle,for example, was depicted as early as 460 BCE on an Attic bronze lid and satirized in 421 BCE by Aristophanes in his comedy The Peace, but not widely emblematic until mid-fourth century, when we begin to see it on Apulian pottery, and then ubiquitous in Roman art. Was it originally a shamanic element, or a symbolic one playing off Homer’s identification of the eagle as the bird with the keenest sight, or merely a dramatic invention? If it mattered to the Greeks we have no knowledge of it.
A woman also enters the fray: Hera, or should we say Juno, her Roman counterpart? After all, it is the poet Virgil’s account that is the earliest surviving to explore her role and emotions, maybe illustrating the Romans’ different take on male love, as well as the greater freedom and power women had in Roman times compared with the Greek. Significantly, the only object on which she is depicted in this role is a vase painted around 380 BCE, from Apulia, on the Italian peninsula. Hera mattered a great deal, and still does. It is probably no coincidence that the ancient Greek kind of male love, a love of youths that is routinely practiced by men who also enjoy relations with women, is found mostly in Central Asia and the Middle East – a region where Hera is still locked up in the women’s quarters and covered with a burqa. With her appearance, a new theme comes to the fore: the displacement and jealousy experienced by women whose husbands took male lovers. Need we point out Hera prevails in the end, forcing the exasperated Zeus to exile Ganymede among the stars?
Just as pungently, subtle and not-so-subtle critiques begin to take shape in other treatments of the myth, under the guise of innocuous details. In The Peace Aristophanes mocks Zeus’ love of beauty as an anal fixation: The playwright harnesses a giant dung beetle to ferry a mortal to Olympus, its fodder there being “Ganymede’s ambrosia.” Later, we hear that when Ganymede plays with Eros he always loses,a damning indictment of decadent male love relationships in 250 BC, when Apollonius was writing. Perhaps we should not be surprised: already a hundred years earlier, the orator Aeschines was vehemently denouncing his fellow statesman Demosthenes for betraying his boyfriends by stealing their money, and accusing Timarchos, another eminent politician, of having spent his youth as the anally penetrated kept boy of a series of rich men, no better than a common prostitute. At the same time, however, Aeschines points out that – in contrast to brutal (hubristou) and uncultured (apaideutou) men who pay boys and then physically abuse them – noble male love still exists. His own, of course, which consists of “desiring youths who are beautiful and restrained, and is the mark of a generous and kindhearted spirit,” a love in no way diminished by his making a nuisance of himself in the gymnasia, where he had loved many, nor by his many quarrels and street fights over handsome boys, or the many passionate poems to his young lovers, all common knowledge among the Athenians.
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Andrew Calimach, World History of Male Love, "Queer Studies", The Exquisite Corpse of Ganymed: An Ancient Gender Studies Discourse, 2008 <http://www.gay-art-history.org/gay-history/gay-literature/gay-studies/queer-theory/greek-mythology-roman-homosexuality.html>