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Bargaining for a beautiful youth's favors
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The comments of many of these writers illustrate another aspect of the role of the Zeus and Ganymede complex in the debate on male love: its employment as an ideological vehicle for rejecting penetrative sex in male love relationships, an ethic often formulated by the very proponents and practitioners of erotic and loving relations between males.[42] While the philosophical foundation for chaste pederasty was laid by Plato in his dialogues Phaedrus and the Symposium, some early mentions suggest that its roots are older still. Allegedly, it was the lawgiver Lycurgus in the seventh century who, while encouraging Spartan men to love youths by calling it the noblest kind of education, at the same time prohibited copulation with beloveds as the most shameful of acts.[43] Not long thereafter, Aesop propounds the same morality in a fable (“Zeus and Shame”) featuring Zeus himself: as the story would have it, Zeus persuades Shame to take up residence in man’s rectum, and she agrees only on condition that Eros not follow her there, else she will leave immediately - branding as shameless those who allow themselves to be penetrated.

As we saw earlier, Plato in the Phaedrus lays out a similar value structure, though he further qualifies his position by taking into account the presence of love. He judges intercourse between males to be especially degrading if love is absent. Carnal relations that are loving, though he considers them still problematic, he values more highly, since they are inspired not by mundane reason but by divine madness, “bringer of all that is best.” The ideal lovers, however, are those who restrict themselves to caresses, [44] fulfilling their desires without resorting to intercourse. Their “stream of desire,” aroused by the beauty of the youth and amplified by spending time together, talking, and touching, is thus channeled into greater friendship and virtue. From this eros another is alleged to arise: anteros, the equal and reciprocal intoxication of the beloved, triggered by his lover’s love. The essential act of male love, from this perspective, is not a sexual coupling, but inebriation with male beauty.[45]

These values outlived the Greeks. In the Middle East, long a repository for Greek texts lost in the West, we rediscover them in certain Sufi schools, traditions of mystical aestheticism which taught the contemplation of a beardless youth’s beauty as a path to God, while condemning carnal relations.[46] In a further, telling parallel with the Ganymedean tradition, suggesting their homologous nature, the beloved youth in the Islamic spiritual tradition is often represented by the figure of the saki: the tavern wine-boy, or cup-bearer.

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Dionysus and wineboy
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In the West, the Ganymede theme resurfaces in Medieval France, in the form of a poetic sample of “contest literature”: the anonymous but probably ecclesiastical Altercatio Ganimedes et Helene, written at the end of the 12th century in the Pays de la Loire. Unusually, this time it is the boy, Ganymede himself, who pleads in favor of male love. Pedagogy seems forgotten, payment for favors is a fine thing, and the speaker has nothing to say about male love as a way to ascending to the Heavens – rather the other way round: the gods were those who took the practice down to Earth. In any case, the poet sings unabashedly of love and pleasure, following the Greek preference for the thighs instead of intercourse, and praising male love as the product of superior minds: 

“Non aves aut pecora debet imitari,

Homo, cui datum est ratiocinari.”

(“Neither bird nor sheep should man imitate,

To whom granted is to cogitate.”)[48]

Similar Platonic values were revived in the 19th century in the Victorian culture of male love – a culture steeped in the Classics – and in Modernism by prominent leaders of these schools, men like William Johnson-Cory, Oscar Wilde and André Gide, who publicly pressed for the freedom of males to love each other, and privately exercised the same sexual morality that characterized the Greek male love tradition at its height. In the same spirit, John Addington Symonds, the noted classicist and Uranian campaigner for homosexual rights, labeled as “vicious” that male love[49] which consummated itself in copulation.[50] This ethos persisted into the middle of the last century: as late as the 1950s, 85 percent of English men involved in male love relationships reported not engaging in copulation with their lovers.[51] That situation was soon to change. By the end of the century the practice became widespread, with close to half of homosexual – as well as heterosexual – couples engaging in it.[52]

In antiquity, the controversy between supporters and opponents of male love, a steady drumbeat of criticism and counterattack, became an integral part of the Zeus and Ganymede tradition. Virgil again makes his mark upon it, with the image of dogs barking and old men clutching vainly at the air, trying to bring down the eagle and the boy. This late Roman sendoff of ancient homophobia was thought by at least one Renaissance commentator to “signify the calumny of the envious, who usually carp at happy outcomes.”[53]  Virgil may have been inspired by the same tradition that led an unknown Apulian potter working around 330 BCE to depict Ganymede being abducted by a swan, while a pedagogue and a hound look on.[54] Lucian of Samosata also puts in an appearance, with a scathing satire that rips into Zeus for wanting to sleep with a child, one who is both uninterested and unaware.

Little did Virgil and Lucian know that soon afterward a new religion from Asia would take hold in the Empire and suppress the mainstays of polytheism and Hellenic culture, foremost among which were the Olympic games, the Eleusinian mysteries, and the paideia based on male love.


We may well ask what male love in the Zeus and Ganymede tradition has to do with modern love relationships between males. The only answer possible, of course, is “nothing and everything.” In the “nothing” category we can count a number of key aspects of male love in Greek antiquity that are absent today: It played an important and valued role in the social structure, one which at its best combined personal good – emotional, hedonic and pedagogic – with public good. It was initiatory, temporary, and universal. It was fueled by the energy generated by the attraction of opposites: youths whose minds were maturing, yet still open to guidance and nurturing, choosing as lovers passionate men who were educated and experienced. Its balance came not from any resemblance between the two lovers but, quite the opposite, from the complementary qualities the dissimilar partners brought to the mix. The tradition set up bulwarks against possible dangers by means of a corpus of educational myths and parables, through parental guidance and supervision over the homosexual love life of the adolescent, and through the empowerment of the youth.

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-queer-theory.html>

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