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The Zeus and Ganymede Myth: Paragon and Battleground of Greek Homosexuality

by Andrew Calimach

Reproduced here by permission of the author.
A version of this article, titled The Exquisite Corpse of Ganymede: An Ancient Gender Studies Discourse appeared in THYMOS: Journal of Boyhood Studies I.2 (Autumn 2007), pp. 117-137. © 2007 Men's Studies Press, LLC. All rights reserved. www.mensstudies.com

Abstract: The Zeus and Ganymede myth was the main vehicle for discussing male homosexuality from antiquity until a hundred years ago. Close inspection of Greek and Roman art and literature reveals two interwoven discourses on love and sex between males. The first is based on a pederastic Cretan rite of initiation and its mythic story line. This prescriptive Cretan myth had an opposite analogue, the Boeotian myth of Narcissus and Ameinias, that also alludes to homosexual pedagogy but is cautionary in nature. The second function of the Zeus and Ganymede myth was as an arena for a polemic on intergenerational homosexuality, from Minoan times through Late Antiquity and beyond.

This essay examines gay Greek mythology as a key to identifying the ancient pedagogical and hedonic functions of gay love, and the evolution of ancient attitudes towards pederastic relationships. As the Ganymede myth presented here in the form of a pastiche evoking the atmosphere of the tradition and its offshoots reflect their Classical echoes through Western and Oriental interpretations, a recurring homosexual male love ethic and aesthetic take shape.

The Greek paideia,[1] simultaneously the epitome of human culture and path toward it, hinged in no small part on the love between teacher and pupil. That love, however, could not be an unrestrained, impulsive matter, but had to be part and parcel of that paideia, had to be itself an epitome of male love culture. How did that ethic evolve, how was it preserved, and how transmitted?  While there surely is more than one answer to that question, we would be well advised to look first of all at the cultural continuum in Greece that tied together different generations and different cities, the mythical tradition. And what better example than the iconic myth of male love[2] in antiquity, the myth of Zeus and Ganymede?

Although the original recountings of this myth have long been lost, by piecing together from ancient fragments[3]the following narrative of the love between the Olympian god and the Trojan youth, we can begin to get a sense of various ways the personages of Zeus and Ganymede were employed, and what they may have symbolized for later cultures, since first the divine lovers stepped upon the stage of history.

Myth of Zeus and Ganymede

On the wide plain at the feet of Mount Ida, King Tros, Zeus’ own grandson, in love with the daughter of the river god, lay in her arms. Their child, a golden-haired boy named Ganymede, grew into a limber youth and a skilled hunter.

His beauty, however, was beyond compare, for he was the most handsome born of the race of men, and he turned the head of every Trojan. Ganymede spent his days on the slopes of Mount Ida, setting his hounds on the heels of antlered stags, debating with his tutors, or running and wrestling naked with his friends in the dust and the sun. Then he would dive into a cool mountain spring, far from the eyes of the crowd.

The eye of wise Zeus, however, lingered upon the prince. Swept away by a river of desire, the god unleashed a fierce thunderstorm and took the shape of that eagle who carries his thunderbolts. Black clouds coiled about the flanks of Mount Ida, wind and lightning lashed them without mercy. Suddenly a massive eagle swooped down. He gently set the boy astride his back, and launched himself once more upon the wind. The old tutors reached for the air with impotent hands; the dogs leaped, barking madly at the sky, all in vain. 

         As quick as thought the majestic bird landed again, and Ganymede was awed to find himself among the crystal mansions of Olympus. A god once more, Zeus embraced the prince and welcomed him with lavish gifts. He granted deathlessness to the wide-eyed mortal, and then heaped on eternal youth as well, that way his beauty might not wane. The greatest honor he saved for last. Zeus named Ganymede cupbearer to the gods. No feast could take place in Olympus without him, the one entrusted to mix the magic nectar and pour each god his share. Ganymede strode through Olympus with a broad smile on his lips, well pleased with his gifts, impatient to rub shoulders with the immortals.

         The immortals esteemed the Trojan prince for his beauty and welcomed him with open arms - all except Hera. The Queen of the Gods drew back her hand, refused her nectar. Then, bursting with jealous rage, she wheeled on Zeus: “How dare you drag among us this fey mortal? The very glory of the Heavens you have soiled!” Zeus threw in her face that he liked the boy's kisses. Aflame for his thighs, the Father God kept the blond prince as his beloved and took him to his bed.  

         In Olympus, Ganymede lacked for nothing, nor was he ever lonely - he and young Eros became bosom buddies. Every chance they got, the boys went off by themselves, casting dice for hours on end. Eros, however, was way too slick a player: he beat Ganymede every time, left him penniless and furious. And the sly little god smiled to himself, knowing full well he had cheated a beginner.  

Ever since King Tros learned his boy had been stolen, grief beyond all measure had filled his heart. He wept bitter tears, desperate to know where the heaven-sent whirlwind had carried his son. He forgot sleep, forgot food, and mourned the boy night and day. Zeus saw his suffering and took pity on the man. He hurried Hermes down to make known to the king his son was like a god now, immortal and forever young. Zeus also counted out rich payment, in trade for snatching Ganymede: A grapevine of glinting gold that always bears fruit, and a brace of prancing stallions, the finest beneath the dawn, the same that carry the immortals. When Tros learned of his son's glory, he rejoiced and drove his storm-footed horses as fast as the wind, all his sorrow now turned to joy.

Hera thirsted for revenge. Not for a single moment had she forgotten the humiliation she suffered. Unstoppable, the brutal Queen of Heaven went after Zeus’ boyfriend. She whipped all Greece into a frenzy against his beloved homeland. As Ganymede looked on in horror, the Greeks slaughtered Ganymede’s kin and the whole Trojan race. All Zeus could do was draw a veil of cloud over the butchery to shield the boy from the gory sight. Ganymede himself he placed beyond her reach for all time. He set his darling among the stars as Aquarius, the water bearer.

We should not look to the story of Zeus and Ganymede, as unfolded above, for the tale as it might have been told at some particular point in time. Rather, this assembly of fragments that span nearly a millennium summarizes a conversation on gender relations,[4] one that extends from its ritual beginnings in Minoan Crete to its polemical Roman Empire interpretations. Though each individual instance may be little more than a curious historical detail or amusing anecdote, taken as a group and in historical sequence we discern the emergence of a dialectic.[5] Thus we can read them as an ancient running commentary on love between males, and mileposts of an evolving discourse ever since.

Until now, the few mentions of male love in the mythic record have been treated as random naughty bits, or perhaps apologia for practices that were too embarrassing to mention but too pervasive to ignore. What if these stories are looked at in a different
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light, what if we examine them as pages torn out of an ancient textbook, so to speak, a male love manual that had evolved over the centuries and that preserved the teachings on how – and how not – to practice the art of love between one male and another? According to Plato, “Everyone blames the Cretans” for the story that Zeus, possessed by desire, kidnapped young Ganymede.[6]Surely those Cretans were a bunch of oversexed ruffians! What to make of it, then, when we discover that the moralist Plutarch admired them as a people renowned for their sober and restrained ways?[7]

Homer himself borrowed the story from the Cretans, an indication of its great antiquity. Indeed, archeological evidence of initiatory male love in Crete has been traced back to the Minoan Age: In the andreion[9] of the palace ruins at Hagia Triada a 3500-year-old chalice known as the “Chieftain cup” was found.[10] One side depicts a young man, hardly more than a teenager himself, offering a sword and a javelin to a youth barely his junior. On the other side, several young men, the first one’s friends, bring three ox hides for making a shield. How can we jump to such conclusions? We have a guide: a 2400-year-old text by the historian Ephorus describing the Cretan male initiation rite. It reveals that weapons were among the lover’s gifts to his beloved, and that the lover’s friends helped out with the presents. As in the myth of Zeus and Ganymede, the love affair starts out with a kidnapping. Unlike the myth, the abductor must first ask for the hand of the son by presenting formal notice to the father at least three days in advance. Some kidnapping!

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/zeus-ganymede-gender-studies.html>
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