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Male love was also a common affectional and erotic ground for all males, a territory shared alike by those men who never developed a desire for women, and all the others, for whom desire for males was a passing stage or a chance attraction. For the ancients this translated into a rich and varied love life, fueled by the enjoyment of the entire gamut of human relationships and erotic pleasure. For us moderns, it transforms the dilemma of male love from a tolerance of “the other” – always a weak moral position[56] – to an acceptance of self. The tradition also suggests that exclusive heterosexuality, rather than a biological orientation, is but a convention of recent vintage, grounded in the denial of one’s own natural homosexual potential.

Another difference between past and present constructions of male love highlighted by the Zeus and Ganymede tradition is the blend of history, culture, and religion that informed male love in antiquity, the end result of thousands of years of evolution, as well as an ongoing process. That cultural edifice was torn down, and the further evolution of the tradition was cut short in the West by the destruction of Greco-Roman civilization and the imposition of love-life prohibitions based on ascetic religious dogma. The structure and rituals of male love in antiquity evoke analogous modern customs whose evolution was not interrupted, such as those associated with marriage between a man and a woman. Among the central attributes of such a living tradition are official sanction and legitimization, attributes which some gay groups are struggling to reclaim through their fight for marriage rights. The longevity and popularity of the Zeus and Ganymede complex validates such a struggle, attesting that formalizing same-sex relationships is possible and can be beneficial, and that these can develop a nomenclature of their own[57] and take forms analogous to, but different from, male/female marriage.

And “everything”? We see the rejection of engaging children in such relationships, as well as concern for the welfare of the younger partner and a condemnation of ill usage. Inescapably, we also infer the presence of abuse. This is confirmed by many historical accounts that reveal a society where sexual predation of the weak – of boys as well as women who, for social, political or economic reasons, were bereft of protection – took place side by side with legitimate ethical and loving relationships. We also encounter the roots of the social debate – which continues to this very moment – between homophobia and erotic authoritarianism on one side, and authentic living on the other. We discover recognition of beauty, the fundamental creative act. Finally, through the haze of the millennia we glimpse one last shared detail, that one thing which is everything: love.

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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-roman-pederasty-homosexuality.html>


[1] The process by which the Greeks transmitted the Hellenic values and ideals to the best of their youth, as well as the result of that process are known as paideia, from the Greek pais, “child.” The Greek paideia was considered “the fundamental justification of both individual existence and the community’s existence,” and implied shaping the intellect and body according to the natural laws discovered by the Greeks. This modeling was based on the human spirit as a supreme value and was meant to nurture its true and ideal form. Paideia is the opposite of that education that treats the youths as animals to be trained for specific tasks; instead, it offered pupils basic instruction in the arts, music, philosophy, athletics, nobility and freedom. Paideia was passed down through various methods, one of which was love. See Werner Jaeger.

[2]This essay uses “male love” to refer to all erotic relationships between males. Terms such as “pederasty” and “homosexuality” are usually avoided as too restrictive or too ethnocentric. For example, in antiquity relations between males, even if pederastic, often involved older youths, such as might be encountered in modern homosexual relationships, or were purely sexual and devoid of either emotional or pedagogical components. Likewise, they may well have been pursued by men who in modern times would identify themselves as gay. Conversely, the term “homosexual” carries implications of sexual orientation which do not necessarily fit this discussion, and elides the focus on youthfulness in modern gay culture.

[3] The fragments and sources from which the tale was reconstructed are given, in chronological order, in an Appendix to this article.

[4]It is not so much the myth itself, which has not been passed down to us as such in any case, but the corpus of references to the Zeus and Ganymede theme (references that were adapted for the pastiche included in the present essay), that constitutes a gender studies discourse avant la lettre. Thus the Zeus and Ganymede “complex” along with Ephorus, a key source, prefigure modern gender studies.

If we take into account every single allusion to and mention of the Zeus and Ganymede story, we get the picture of a whole range of attitudes-in-dialogue similar to the modern public and academic debates on same-sex relationships. Among it many functions, the story is also a vehicle by means of which the ancients discussed this topic, and functions as a paragon of male love relationships.

The transformations of the Zeus and Ganymede legend outline the evolution of the ancients’ outlook on male love. This process may also be traceable for the stories of Poseidon and Pelops, Hercules and Hylas, or Apollo and Hyacinth (see Andrew Calimach, Lovers’ Legends. The Gay Greek Myths), but the central, most representative, and historically richest example remains the story of Zeus and Ganymede. It is the archetype; the others are variations on a theme, such as Pelops’ story or – related, but different – Narcissus’ drama.

[5] As J. A. Symonds first noticed, labeling it the “nucleus” of such discussions in antiquity (17). 

[6] “The Cretans are always accused of having invented the story of Ganymede and Zeus because they wanted to justify themselves in the enjoyment of unnatural pleasures by the practice of the god whom they believe to have been their lawgiver” (Laws 636D).

[7] “... the manners and rules of life of the Cretans, which were very sober and temperate.” (Parallel Lives, “Lycurgus” 55)

[8]Eromenos holding a hoop and a stick in his left hand, and a venison hindquarter in his right hand. Interior of an Attic red-figure kylix by Macron, from Vulci, ca. 470 BCE. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich.

[9] In some Greek states, an institution where men had communal dinners known as syssitia, compulsory in Crete and Sparta.

[10] A number of researchers have discussed the implications of the Chieftain Cup found at Hagia Triada and its relationship to the myth of Zeus and Ganymede and the historical account of Ephorus. Of these, Koehl’s work is one of the cornerstones of the present commentary; nevertheless, I must take exception to one point in his paper. Probably following Plato, Koehl sees the story of Zeus and Ganymede, and in particular the inclusion of Zeus, as an “apology” for Cretan male love practices. I would like to suggest an alternative interpretation: since the myth can be shown to be a paragon of the ideal male love relationship and since Plato does not represent the Cretan point of view, it may well be that the ancient Cretans intended it instead as the proclamation of one of the mainstays of their culture. Koehl also suggests that the original Cretan abduction myth may have featured Minos, rather than Zeus as protagonist, Zeus being later substituted for Minos to lend the practice the authority of the god. I would suggest that one does not exclude the other. Just as the Boeotians juxtaposed an abduction by a mortal to that by the god, it may be that analogous myths existed in Crete, in which Minos played the leading role, and which were later conflated into a single one. At the same time we should bear in mind that the connection between Minos and Zeus is extremely close: Minos is Zeus’ son with Europa, and also Zeus’ priest, receiving teachings from the god and disseminating them to his people. If it was the case that the myths were not coexistent, then could it be that Minos was the one substituted into the myth as a kind of stand-in for the god, to humanize a story ritually enacted by each generation of Cretans? Finally, Zeus’ role as patron of the Cretan paideia, in his function as megas kouros, and his function in the rite described by Ephorus would seem to provide sufficient explanation for his presence in the tradition, with no further need to postulate his inclusion as a justification for an embarrassing act (Koehl 99-110).

[11] Percy 66.

[12] Man courting a youth who is holding the victor’s wreath of laurels in his hand. Scene from a sacred rite with dancing, athletic contests and animal sacrifices. Amphora by the Painter of Cambridge, 5th c. BCE. Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich.

The artistic convention for scenes of seduction was to show the lover fondling the young man’s genitals with one hand, and with the other cupping his chin to look him in the eye, otherwise known as the “up-and-down gesture.” The youths are often depicted with their hands touching or holding the forearms of their lovers. Scholars, starting with Dover, have assumed that the boys are “restraining” the men from further intimacies. 

Dover, however, had no personal experience of male eros, and his whole thrust is to “de-homosexualize” the Greeks by depicting them merely as overly randy heterosexuals bent on “penetration” and “domination.” His interpretation of the vases seems to be undermined by a study showing other figures which likewise lay hands on arms but are in poses of mutual intimacy or mutual arousal (see Keith DeVries). 

The same could be said of a number of Roman era homoerotic pieces. Though they differ from the Greek artwork in the activity depicted – the Romans placed less importance on the mind and heart, and focused instead on the anus, perhaps because free boys were off limits to them and the men had to make do with slaves – the youths being pedicated are often half-turned around and place their hands on the forearms of their lovers in poses that can best be described as tender. This artistic convention may have roots far older than the Greek tradition. An Egyptian tomb painting dating back to 2400 BC shows a male pair considered to be one of the earliest representations of same-sex love. The two, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, both “overseers of manicurists” at the royal palace, are shown with arms around each other, the one on the left grasping the forearm of the one on the right.

[13] Not the similarly named one in the Troad, from which Ganymede was abducted.

[14] This relationship model was valid in other parts of Greece, too. The typical Athenian erastes was a young bachelor between the end of the teenage years and his marriageable age, a little over 30 – the ancient equivalent of our college or post-graduate years.

[15] Universal values for a young man in ancient Greece. According to Aristotle, “the moral excellences of a young man are self-control (sophrosune) and courage (andreia)” (1.5.6).  See also <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Aristot.+Rh.+1.5.1>.

[16] Strabo X 4.21.483. See also Ephorus of Cyme, in Thomas K. Hubbard, p. 72.

[17] Republic 377b-c.

[18] The term “intergenerational” (interchangeable here with the more accurate though often misused “pederastic”) is used to indicate an erotic relationship between partners separated not necessarily by a span of twenty years or more, but in particular by the boundary between adolescence and adulthood, irrespective of how close to this boundary each of them may be.

[19] It may strike us as odd that Ganymede’s father plays a role in his intimate relationship with a male figure. Is the presence of the father a chance event? A quick survey of the principal myths of male love reveals that the father of the youth makes an appearance not only in the myth of Zeus and Ganymede, but, in some guise or another, in most of the stories. In the story of Hercules and Hylas the lover kills the father; in that of Pelops and Poseidon the father sacrifices the son; in that of Laius and Chrysippus the lover deceives the father; and in that of Achilles and Patroclus, whose very name means “the glory of the father,” the lover promises the father the safe return of his son. Xenophon provides more details on the triangular nature of the relationship between lover, youth, and father: “Nothing [of what concerns the boy] is kept hidden from the father, by an ideal [kalos kagathos] lover” (Symposium VIII.11.). Thus the contrast between the relationship of Zeus and Tros (Ganymede’s father) on the one hand, and that of Laius and Pelops (Chrysippus’ father) on the other hand, is significant for what it says about paternal involvement in normative Greek male love, as well as about the relationship between these two stories.

[20] First attested in Euripides’s lost or destroyed play, Chrysippus.

[21]The story of Laius is one of several Boeotian male love parables. Boeotia was a Greek city-state noted for the strength of its male love tradition. Two of its cautionary male love myths have survived (though only in Classical Athenian or later retellings), the other being the myth of Narcissus, a parable warning boys against being cruel and unfeeling towards their suitors (Conon 83). Coincidentally or otherwise, the myths of Laius and Narcissus complement each other in a fashion analogous to the relationship between the stories of Ganymede and Chrysippus. Laius’ can be read as a admonition to lovers and Narcissus’ as a warning to beloveds. In this latter category we should add the Cretan pederastic parable of Promachus and Leucocomas. Their names could be rendered as “Front-line fighter” and “Blondie.” In this story the youth challenges his suitor to a number of arduous tasks, culminating in retrieving a priceless helmet. Promachus, exasperated by his beloved’s endless demands, retrieves the helmet but places it on the head of another boy, driving Leucocomas to suicide (Conon 16).  Each of these stories highlights the pitfalls of male love relationships and, conversely, the obligations.

[22] Calimach 31-35.

[23] Laius’ death (an early example of “road rage,” in which he claims right of way at a crossroads, shoving Oedipus off the road and thus provoking him into the murderous attack that claims Laius’ life) coming as the immediate result of yet another hubristic act reinforces the connection to the rape of Chrysippus. The centrality of this story within the Theban mythic cycle is suggested by the notorious retribution in kind which befell the Thebans for their complicity in the act: they were hounded by the Sphinx who, in a number of traditions, oppressed the city by snatching up (harpazo) young boys at will. The parallel between crime and punishment shows that the Greeks were cognizant of the condemnable nature of Laius’ crime and had linked the two myths. This reading is also supported by a commentary to Euripides’s The Phoenician Women (see Gantz 495).

[24] Percy 133.

[25] One can only wonder whether the Latin saying, Quod licet Jovi non licet bovi (“What is allowed to Jove is not allowed to the ox”) owes more than just a little to this myth.

[26] In literature and drama, “everyman” refers to an ordinary individual with whom the audience or reader can identify easily, and who is often put in unusual situations. The term comes from a 17th century English moralizing play titled Everyman.

[27] Thanks to Miles Groth of Wagner College for the suggestion of a parallel between the two myths.

[28] Hubbard 249-250. This dichotomy is a recurrent theme that appears in various forms in the Phaedrus. The dramatic events of the dialogue itself could be read as a critique of intercourse with boys, presenting it as an abuse of power, a pederastic rape. Young Phaedrus forces Socrates to give a speech on love, threatening him with his superior strength and reminding him they are alone in a deserted place from which they will not leave until the older man yields what is requested. Socrates finally relents, covering his head with his robe in feigned shame. The ironic twist on the scenario in which an adult compels a boy to submit sexually must have been particularly juicy to the ancient Greeks.

[29] Cf. Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, IV.

[30] Xenophon, Symposium 8.28-30.

[31] Alciati, Emblemata IV.

[32]View B of an Antonine period copy of a Greek original, late 4th c. BCE. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.

[33] Act I, Prologue, 1-120.

[34] Aeneid I.28.

[35] Lexicon # 483.

[36] See Skier.

[37] See Gert Hekma.

[38] This mosaic, while featuring Greek heroes, is more reflective of Roman attitudes towards male love. Hercules’ “Herculean” member, prominently displayed, would have been judged unaesthetic by the Greeks, whose ideal of beauty included a small penis. The vulgar note of the work is also against Hellenic ideals. It illustrates the Roman focus on the sexual act and specifically on penetration, in contrast to the sensual but restrained eros dikaios of the Greeks. Fountain mosaic from the Anzio Nymphaeum, Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. 1st c. BCE. Source:

[39] Apollonius Rhodius 3.112f.

[40] “Against…” passim.

[41] Man soliciting boy for sex in exchange for a purse containing coins. The hand language of the two characters is eloquent: the boy wants more money and the man is trying to talk him down in price. Athenian red figure kylix, 5th c. BCE. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

[42] Some modern historians have interpreted this ethic as an ancient conceit unrealistically idealizing male love relationships as “sexless,” in contrast to a presumed widespread culture of penetration – see, for example, Eugene Rice and Michael S. Armstrong, who regard the “chaste” interpretation as “naïve.” However, the bulk of the iconography and much of the literature suggest that the relationships seen as optimal occupied the middle ground between these two extremes and were sexual indeed, just not anal. This view is clearly supported by Aeschines in his “Against Timarchos,” where he accuses Timarchos not just of prostituting himself in his youth, but especially of being guilty of the “sins of a woman” and of committing consensual hybris against himself (Aeschines 160-161; cf. also Cohen). The moderate yet sexual aspect is apparent from comments such as Cicero’s, for instance, who asserted that the Spartans, “while they permit all things, except for outrage [stuprum, “illicit sexual rapport,” here most likely referring to copulation (Armstrong 26)] in the love of youths, certainly distinguish the forbidden by a thin wall of partition from the sanctioned, for they allow embraces and a common couch to lovers” (Symonds 27).

[43] Xenophon, Constitution 68-69.

[44] Erotic fondling of the boy and frontal between-the-thighs frottage by the man are the practices most frequently illustrated on ancient pottery. Though it is probably simplistic to assume that the iconography is an unfailing guide to actual practices (Lear & Cantarella 23-25), that iconography taken in conjunction with textual evidence allows us to draw certain conclusions. As T. K. Hubbard points out, “fondling a boy’s organ (cf. Aristophanes, Birds 142) was one of the most commonly represented courtship gestures on the vases. What can the point of this act have been, unless lovers in fact derived some pleasure from feeling and watching the boy’s developing organ wake up and respond to their manual stimulation? Surely playing with a dead penis wasn’t any more fun then than it is now.” (See Hubbard’s review of David M. Halperin’s How to Do the History of Homosexuality, in Bryn Mawr Classical Review/2003.09.22. Source: <http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2003/2003-09-22.html>)

[45] Plato, Phaedrus 244-256.

[46] El-Rouayheb 53-60.

[47] Youth pouring wine with an oinochoe in Dionysus’ kantharos. Detail of Attic red-figure kylix by Triptolemos Painter, ca. 480 BC. The Louvre Museum, Paris, Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities.

[48] Wattenbach 124.

[49] In the passage alluded to by Symonds, the word used by Herodotus (I.135), misgontai, “to have intercourse with, to be united to,” is a neutral term for penetrative sexual relations, also applicable to sexual intercourse with women.

[50] Symonds 15.

[51] Hyde 6-7.

[52] See Increases in Unsafe Sex and Mosher et al.

[53] Commentary to Alciati’s Emblem IV. See <http:www.mun.ca/alciato/cl004.html>.

[54] Lexicon #86.

[55] Man and youth. Detail of a red-figure Peithinos kylix from Vulci, ca. 500 BCE. Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Antikenmuseum, Berlin. 

[56] See Gavriluta. 

[57] Albanian has preserved such a concept through vellameria (vella, meaning “brother,” and marr – “to accept”), a term similar to the Greek adelphopoiia (“brother-making”). See <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albanian_pederasty>.

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