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Here Cretan male love begins what has been described as a pageant of nobility, or what might be called an economics of honor that promises great riches, through the mutual giving and receiving of esteem, for those who act nobly – but threatens bankruptcy, through great disgrace, for those who misbehave. If the parents hide their son, they are the ones shamed, for they imply he is not worthy of the honor. Likewise, failure to acquire a lover, remaining skotios, “obscure,”[11] is a blight for an eligible boy. If the parents, however, resist and grab the boy back from the suitor, he is the one dishonored, for being found unworthy of such a beloved. Which will it be?

On the appointed day the suitor (or philetor, “befriender,” a more reserved term than the Athenian erastes) arrives, honoring the boy with his presence. The youth is in plain sight. Is it a trap? Quickly he snatches the boy and takes off at full gallop, the men of the family in hot pursuit. Can it be that neither the philetor nor the boy knows the outcome of this escapade? And what are the boy’s feelings? Does he hate his abductor and pray to be freed, or does he thrill to the adventure and urge him on? It cannot take long for the two to discover the father’s choice. Should he grant the suitor the honor of keeping the boy, the pursuers join in the joy of the occasion, though

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tradition requires the chase go on regardless, until they reach the suitor’s andreion. There the youth (now known as the parastates, “assistant”) is honored in turn: he receives presents, and then the couple and their companions go off into the wilderness. The initiation is to last two whole months, a paideia of hunting, war dances, animal sacrifice, consecrating tokens of their bond at mountain shrines, of feasting, of erotic intimacy and, one hopes, of love. Until now everyone has had his say in this love affair except the boy. He has been kidnapped. What kind of love is that?!

In these events we can catch a glimpse of the ritual mold from which this aspect of the original myth must have been cast, the myth itself serving as pattern for further ritual. Like all gentlemen in Crete, Zeus – himself a native, born and reared on the slopes of Cretan Mount Ida[13] – desires, abducts, and brings the boy into his realm, bestowing priceless gifts. Just like mortal Cretans, he placates his beloved’s father, though as a god he does so at a remove, through the agency of Hermes, just as in the early versions of the myth he executes the kidnapping through the agency of the other gods.

Countless generations of men and youths enacted the story of the King of Heaven and the handsome boy. What were these men like? If we are to be guided by Cretan mythology, they must have been quite young, since Cretan Zeus – unlike the bearded, portly Athenian lord – was hardly past adolescence.[14] He was depicted as a long-haired athletic kouros in the first flush of manhood and hymned as ho megas kouros, “the great youth,” one who, together with his young companions, the kouretes, ruled over the military-athletic training of the Cretan paideia. And the youths? They certainly had to be old enough to begin taking on a man’s duties. What, we may wonder, made a boy beautiful to the Cretans? The poets tell us that it was his curly blond hair and, yes, his thighs. Ephorus tells a different story: In real life, the boys most sought after were those who were bravest and best behaved.[15] Honor comes to the honorable.

The ceremony, if it is to follow what the myth teaches, must end with the boy entering the world of the immortals. And so it does. The parastates receives the greatest gift any boy can imagine: entrance into the world of illustrious men. A youth who accomplishes the ritual acquires life-long honor, garb and privileges. He is lifted out of the ranks of the obscure and becomes kleinos, “glorious.” At this juncture the philetor offers him the three ritual gifts (gifts of such value his friends must help with the expense) symbolizing three principal aspects of manhood: a military outfit, a wine cup, and an ox.

Here the ritual passes beyond the letter of the myth. The young man gives a great feast, honoring all those who accompanied him in the wilderness. He first takes the ox and sacrifices it to the patron deity of this ritual of love and transformation, Zeus. Then he turns to his lover. Up to this moment, as a boy, he has had to obey, but now, in what may be his first act as a man, comes his turn to exercise power: Having received great and lasting honor, it is his turn to bestow honor on his lover, or to withhold it. It is up to him whether his lover, after all his work and risk and effort and expense, will likewise be covered in honor, or in infamy. At the height of the feast he stands up and declares before the ruler of Heaven and the community of gentlemen whether the relations between him and his lover pleased him or not. If he had been violated, if his honor had been besmirched, this is his opportunity to recover it and take revenge, cutting off all ties to his kidnapper, escaping him who, for all his troubles, is left with only life-long shame.[16]


It is risky when studying another culture, especially one so far removed in time from ours, to interpret it through modern eyes, and even more hazardous to impute any understanding thus gleaned to the people we are examining. We are positing here a functional structure for the myth, viewing it as a pedagogical and ethical technology – but what does that have to do with how the Greeks themselves experienced the story? Is ours not an arbitrary projection or back-reading? Maybe in antiquity myths were used to amuse, or perhaps to mystify, rather than instruct. We have to look beyond the myth itself for evidence that the Greeks not only were clearly aware of the pedagogic power of myth in general, but actually recognized as important in the Zeus and Ganymede myth the same structures and functions claimed here.

It is Plato himself, through Socrates’ voice, who discusses the use of myth for teaching purposes, or “soul-shaping,” as he puts it:

Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we shall think it desirable for them to hold when they are grown up?” “By no manner of means will we allow it.” “We must begin, then, it seems, by a censorship over our storymakers, and what they do well we must pass and what not, reject. And the stories on the accepted list we will induce nurses and mothers to tell to the children and so shape their souls by these stories far rather than their bodies by their hands.[17] 

That this awareness did not start or end with Plato will be apparent from an analysis of the structure of the Zeus and Ganymede myth in comparison with other Greek male love myths, stories through which the Greeks appear to have mapped out a path to a moderate and socially useful form of male love, one which condemns hubris (here, sexual violation) by the man and unresponsiveness in the youth.

When we examine the Zeus and Ganymede myth today we see an initiatory tale defined by a number of key aspects. Leaving aside the fact that it depicts an erotic relationship between two males – moreover, an intergenerational[18] one – that may seem remarkable to us only due to its dissonance with current mainstream Western customs, several noteworthy elements remain: the story is a model of constructive male love, patterned along the lines of a “good snatching”:

• It is enacted by a divine lover;

• The father of the beloved[19] is honored and enriched;

• The lover empowers the youth by raising him to the level of assistant;

• The youth welcomes his new role, as symbolized by Ganymede’s smile, an oft-mentioned attribute;

• Most significantly, the beloved gains benefits of lasting value.

Let us now turn to a later[20] Greek tale of male love, apparently patterned as an antinomian version of the Ganymede tale, and functioning as an admonitory foil to it. The story of Laius and his beloved, Chrysippus,[21] can be read as the “evil twin” of the Zeus and Ganymede myth, and suggests – through the specifics of that reversal – the elements which the Greeks considered significant in the Zeus and Ganymede story, as well as their use of the tale as an educational tool and paragon of male love.

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-pederasty-initiation-pedagogic.html>

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