(Boylove Essays) - The Exquisite Corpse of Ganymede

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Greek pederastic mythology and analysis; critique of sexual conformism; history of male love. [1] [2]

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The Exquisite Corpse of Ganymede

An Ancient Gender Studies Discourse
Andrew Calimach

Independent researcher

Abstract: This essay examines surviving fragments of the Zeus and Ganymede myth and identifies two interwoven discourses on male love in antiquity: one, a tradition integral to a Cretan initiatory rite, its didactic nature evidenced by an analogous and opposite Boeotian cautionary myth; the other, a nucleus of polemical and shifting male love constructions from Minoan times through Late Antiquity. The mythic tradition is discussed as an archetypal key to identifying the ancient pedagogical and hedonic functions of male love and the ancients’ evolving attitudes towards such relationships. As the myth and its offshoots – presented here in the form of a pastiche evocative of the atmosphere of the tradition – reflect their Classical echoes through Western and Oriental interpretations, a recurring male love ethic and aesthetic take shape.

Key phrases: male love, Platonic pederasty, ancient Greek rites and initiations, homosexual morality and ethics, Greek mythology, Zeus and Ganymede

Note: Greek terms in italics

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The Greek paideia, [1] simultaneously the highest level of human culture,

as well as the method to reach that level, depended in large part on the love between

teacher and pupil. That love, however, could not be wild and uncontrolled, but had to be an

integral part of that paideia, had to be itself the highest level of male love culture.

How did the ethic of that love evolve, how was it preserved, and how transmitted?

While there surely is more than one answer to that question, we would be wise 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?

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.

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BERLIN PAINTER -495c Ganymede holding a hoop and a cock (Louvre G175) 1874x1998.jpg

Ganymede with love gift from Zeus [3]

Although the original recountings of this myth have long been lost, by piecing together from

ancient fragments [4] 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, ranging from worship to irony,

and what they may have symbolized for later cultures, since first the divine lovers

stepped upon the stage of history.

Zeus and Ganymede

King Tros, lord of the rich and mighty citadel of Troy, lusted for the nymph of the

river and lay in her arms. His beloved soon gave birth to an amber eyed, blond haired boy, and they named him Ganymede. All the king’s treasures were as chaff to him, compared to his son. Concerned about the child’s safety, he appointed handpicked men to guard him. Under their watchful gaze the boy grew into a limber youth, and a skilled hunter. His beauty, however, was beyond compare, for

he was the most handsome of the race of men. Whenever he set foot upon the

3 Ganymede holding a hoop, symbol of his youth, and a cock, a traditional love gift. Side A from an Attic redfigure bellkrater by the Berlin Painter, ca. 500–490 BCE. The Louvre Museum, Paris: Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities. Source: <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Berlin_Painter_Ganymedes_Louvre_G175.jpg>

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

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streets of Troy, Ganymede all the townsfolk turned to look at him. The young prince paid them no attention. He spent his days on the slopes of nearby Mount Ida, setting his hunting dogs after antlered stags, or wrestling naked with his friends in the dust, as the sun beat down upon them. Then he would plunge headlong into the cool river, far from the eyes of the crowd.

But the eye of Zeus, the king of gods, is allseeing. The god had been watching Ganymede, and the more he looked at him, the hotter he burned for him. Finally, swept away by a flood of desire and scornful of his wife Hera’s jealous rages, Zeus decided to act. He unleashed a violent thunderstorm upon Troy and then took the shape of an eagle. Winging down into the black clouds coiling about the peaks of Ida, Zeus hurled lightning bolts every which way. Ganymede’s guardians raced for shelter, each one thinking that the others were protecting the boy. In the midst of the turmoil, the great eagle swooped unseen out of the clouds. He placed the youth upon his back and launched himself once more upon the wind. The guardians grasped at the sky with powerless fingers; the dogs leapt up and down, barking madly at the heavens, all in vain. The god beat the air with powerful wings once, twice, and the storm swallowed them up. They flew beyond the clouds, lost themselves into the deep blue sky, and the boy clung in wonder to the eagle’s plumes.

EUCHARIDES PAINTER -485c Ganymede pouring Zeus a libation (MET L.1999.10.14) 1214x1252.jpg

Ganymede pouring nectar for Zeus [5]

5 Attic red figure calyx krater by the Eucharides Painter, c. 490480 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), LevyWhite Collection, L.1999.10.14. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ganymedes_Zeus_MET_L.1999.10.14.jpg

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Faster than thought the majestic bird reached Olympus, the abode of the gods. Turning once again into a god, Zeus embraced the prince, and welcomed him with lavish gifts. He granted deathlessness to the wideeyed mortal boy, and to that he added a second gift, eternal youth. Finally, Zeus bestowed great honor upon him: The god appointed Ganymede to be Heaven’s cupbearer. He churned, in a great golden bowl, the red nectar of immortality, and then served each god his portion. Ganymede strode through Olympus with a broad smile on his lips, well pleased with his gifts, and impatient to rub shoulders with the immortals.

The immortals admired the Trojan prince for his beauty and welcomed him with open arms – all except Hera. She, wife to Zeus and Queen of Heaven, was outraged to have been shoved aside in favor of a longhaired boy. At feasts Hera drew back her cup, refused Ganymede’s nectar. Then she turned her fury on Zeus: “How dare you bring among us this girlish mortal? You have soiled the glory of Heaven with your doings!” Zeus threw in her face that he liked the boy’s kisses. Burning with desire for the boy’s smooth thighs, Zeus kept the blond prince as his beloved and took him to his bed, eager to embrace the sleeping youth.

In Olympus, Ganymede was never lonely – he and Eros, the young god of love, became best friends. Every chance they got, the boys went off by themselves, and played dice the whole day long. Eros, however, was a much more experienced player: he beat Ganymede every time, left him penniless and furious. And the horrid little god smiled to himself, knowing very well he had cheated a beginner.

Ever since King Tros saw his best men come down from the hills emptyhanded and learned that his beloved son had been stolen, grief beyond measure had filled his heart. He wept bitter tears, desperate to know where the divine whirlwind had carried his son, and he mourned Ganymede day and night. Seeing his

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suffering, Zeus took pity on the king. He hurried down a winged messenger to let Tros know that his son was now deathless and never aging like a god, and that he had become one of the Olympians. Zeus also gave the father rich payment in trade for snatching Ganymede: a pair of prancing stallions, the finest on Earth, the same that the immortals ride. When Tros learned of his son’s glory, he ceased mourning and drove his spirited horses as fast as the wind, all his sorrow turned to joy.

Hera thirsted for revenge. Not for a single moment did she forget the humiliation she had suffered. To punish Zeus, the brutal queen set out to destroy his boyfriend, , sending all of Greece to wage war against his beloved homeland. As Ganymede stared in horror, the Greeks slaughtered Ganymede’s family together with the whole Trojan race, razing his city to the ground. All Zeus could do was draw a veil of cloud over the butchery, to shield his beloved friend from the sight of the burning ruins. But he placed Ganymede far beyond Hera’s reach. He set his darling among the stars as Aquarius, the water bearer, and made sure his fame would be undying.

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, [6]

one that extends from its ritual beginnings in Minoan Crete to its polemical Roman Empire

6 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.

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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. [7] 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

sexy bits, or perhaps a way to make excuses for practices that were too embarrassing to

mention but too pervasive to ignore. What if these stories are looked at in a different light,

what if we examine them as pages torn out of an ancient textbook, so to speak, a manual

of male love that had evolved over the centuries and that preserved the teachings on how to

practice – 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. [8] Surely those Cretans were a bunch of oversexed

ruffians! What to make of it, then, when we discover that the great moralist Plutarch praised

them as a people renowned for their sober and measured ways? [9]

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

8 “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).

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

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(Αγία Τριάδα) -1600-1450 Κύπελλο της αναφοράς (Ηράκλειο 341) 423x500.jpg

Chieftain Cup [10]

Homer, the most ancient of Greek authors, 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 [11] of the palace ruins at

Hagia Triada, the site of an ancient Minoan settlement, a 3500-year-old chalice known as

the “Chieftain cup” was found. [12] One side depicts a young man offering a sword and a

10 Chieftain Cup; Late Minoan, ca. 16001450 B.C.; Herakleion Archaeological Museum, Crete

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

12 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 is more likely 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 standin 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, which embarrassed no one in its ideal form. (Koehl 99110).

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javelin to an adolescent. On the other side, several young men, presumably the friends of

the young man on the other side of the cup, 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 expensive presents. As in the myth of Zeus and Ganymede, the love

affair starts out with a kidnapping, as historians tell us. 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. What kind of kidnapping is this?!

Here Cretan male love begins what has been described as ritual display of nobility, or what

might be called an “economics of honor” that promises great enrichment of honor, through

the mutual giving and receiving of esteem, for those who act nobly – but threatens a

bankruptcy of honor, 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 such honor. Likewise,

failure to acquire a lover, remaining skotios, “obscure,”[13] is shameful for a boy of the right

age and noble social class. If the parents, however, resist and take back the boy from the

suitor’s chariot, he is the one dishonored, for being considered unworthy of such a noble

youth. How will this story turn out?

On the appointed day the suitor (or philetor, “befriender,” a more reserved term than the

Athenian erastes, “he who desires”) arrives, honoring the boy with his presence. The youth

is in plain sight. Is it a trap? Quickly he snatches the boy into his chariot and takes off at full

gallop, the men of the family in hot pursuit. Is it possible that neither the philetor nor the boy

knows the outcome of this adventure? And what are the boy’s feelings? Does he hate his

abductor and pray to be freed, or does he enjoy the adventure and urge him to go faster?

Soon the two will discover the father’s choice. Should he grant the suitor the honor of

keeping the son, the pursuers join in the joy of the occasion, though tradition requires the

13 Percy 66.

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chase go on regardless, until they reach the suitor’s andreion (the men’s meeting hall).

There the youth (now known as the parastates, “one who stands by his side”) 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 symbols of their relationship 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?!

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PAINTER OF CAMBRIDGE -540c Man touching chin and genitals of a boy (Munich 1468) 369x602.jpg

Courtship ritual [14]

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 raised on the slopes of

Cretan Mount Ida [15] – desires, abducts, and brings the boy into his realm, bestowing

priceless gifts. Just like mortal Cretans, he allies himself with his beloved’s father,

though as a god he does so indirectly, through the agency of Hermes, just as in the

early versions of the myth heexecutes the kidnapping through the agency of the other gods.

14 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. Source: <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Erastes_eromenos_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_1468.jpg> 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 “upanddown 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 “dehomosexualize” 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 halfturned 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 samesex 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.

15 Not the similarly named one in the Troad, from which Ganymede was abducted.

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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 in early adulthood, since Cretan Zeus – unlike the bearded,

middle-aged Athenian lord – was only a few years past adolescence. [16] He was depicted

as a long-haired athletic kouros in the first flush of manhood and hymned as ho megas

kouros, “the great young man,” one who, together with his age-mates,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. [17] Honor comes to the honorable.

The two-months-long initiation, 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: acceptance into the world of illustrious men.

A youth who accomplishes the ritual acquires life-long honor, official dress, 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 the three principal aspects of manhood, martial,

sacred, and economic: 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.

16 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 postgraduate years.

17 Universal values for a young man in ancient Greece. According to Aristotle, “the moral excellences of a young man are selfcontrol (sophrosune) and courage (andreia)” (1.5.6). See <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0060%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D5%3Asection%3D6>.

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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 shame him before

the eyes of all. It is for him to decide whether his lover, after all his work and risk

and effort and expense, will likewise be covered in honor, or will be cast down into 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,

after all his troubles and expense, is left with only lifelong shame. [18]

(Ελλάδα) -480-470 Δίας και Γανυμήδης (Ολυμπία Τ2) 454x450.jpg

Zeus abducting Ganymede [19]

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

19 Terracotta akroterion from Olympia, ca. 480-470 BCE.


Modern popular notions about adolescent sexuality may lead us to imagine that some

Cretan boys would have used this power to denounce their lovers and tutors for any sexual

gesture. But it is not very plausible that a Cretan youth would have objected to noncarnal

sex play, or that anyone would have taken him seriously had he done so, in a world where

erotic relations between young males, or between adolescents and adults, were normal,

and expected, and mutually enjoyed. The one and only act that was systematically seen as

abusive, shameful, and degrading was copulation in the anus or mouth. At the time

Ephorus wrote his account of the Cretans this was known as hubris, which was understood

to mean “outrage” in the sense of sexual violation. Thus Ephorus’ account tells us as

explicitly as it can, without going beyond the boundaries of what could decently be set down

on paper in ancient Greece, that the initiatory pederasty of the Cretans was a Platonic

pederasty, meaning it was passionate and sexual yet strictly avoided any form of

penetration, which would have been the greatest dishonor and betrayal imaginable.

(Kato Symi) -660c Cretan hunters (Louvre Br93) 512x1024.jpg
Cretan couple [20]

20 This votive plaque in which a man holding a bow grasps the arm of a youth carrying venison is representative of the offerings found, together with the remains of animal sacrifices, at the rustic shrine to Hermes and Aphrodite at Kato Syme on Mount Dikte, near the cave sanctuary where Zeus was said to have been born. Such plaques are thought to have been dedicated by male lovers as part of the ritual abduction. The intimacy between the two is indicated by their mutual gaze and their touching. Bronze sheet cut, embossed and chased, Cretan artwork from the Temple of Hermes at Syme Viannou, Crete, ca. 670–650 BCE. The Louvre Museum, Paris: Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities. Source: <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Cretan_hunters_Louvre_Br93.jpg>

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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 proposing here a functional role 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 a revisionist interpretation? Maybe in antiquity myths were used as

ritual, or perhaps to amuse rather than to 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 byany 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 story-makers, and what they do well we must allow 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 much more so than their bodies by their hands. [21]

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 by the man, and aloofness

and unresponsiveness in the youth.

21 Republic 377bc.

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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 one [22] – that may seem remarkable to

us only due to its dissonance with current mainstream modern customs, several noteworthy

elements remain: the story is a model of constructive male love, patterned along the lines of

an ennobling abduction, a “good kidnapping”:

  • It is enacted by a divine lover;
  • The father of the beloved [23] is honored and enriched;
  • The lover empowers the youth by granting him official duties;
  • The youth welcomes his new role (as symbolized by Ganymede’s smile, an oftmentioned attribute);
  • Most significantly, the beloved gains benefits of lasting value.

22 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.

23 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 offers the son to the gods in sacrifice; 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 connection between these two stories.

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Let us now turn to a later [24] Greek tale of male love, apparently patterned as an “outlaw”

version of the Ganymede tale, and functioning as parallel tale that instead of teaching how

to initiate and love a youth, warns about dangers in such relationships. The story of Laius

and his beloved, Chrysippus, [25] can be read as the “evil twin” of the Zeus and Ganymede

myth, and suggests – through the specifics of its reversals – 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.

In contrast to the original, the tale of Laius [26] is a story of destructive male love consisting of

a degrading rape, a “bad kidnapping”:

  • 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 taken against his will and tries to resist;

24 First attested in Euripides’s lost or destroyed play, Chrysippus.

25 The story of Laius is one of several Boeotian male love parables. Boeotia was a Greek citystate 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 unresponsive 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 “Frontline fighter” and “Blondie.” In this story the youth challenges his suitor to a number of arduous tasks, culminating in retrieving a priceless and heavily guarded helmet. Promachus, exasperated by his beloved’s endless demands, retrieves the helmet at the risk of his life, but then 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.

26 Calimach 3135.

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  • The lover dishonors the youth by forcing anal sex on him;
  • Instead of gaining honor and position, the beloved loses his life – as does, later, the lover himself. [27[

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 a Boeotian disapproval of all erotic

relationships between men and youths, but there is no historical evidence for any such

general disapproval, quite the opposite. Boeotia was renowned for the importance it

assigned to male love, even blamed by some for making it too easy. [28] 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 distort the workings of the gods into an excuse to do as they

pleased. [29]

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 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

27 Laius’ death (an early example of “road rage,” in which he demands right of way at a crossroads, ordering his men to shove Oedipus, his son whom he does not recognize, off the road and thus provoking him into the murderous attack that claims Laius’ life) coming as the immediate result of yet another arrogant 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 rape of Chrysippus: 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).

28 Percy 133.

29 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.

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Myth always speaks to us in symbolic language. Seen in this light, Zeus and Laius are

avatars for Everyman, [30] in encounter with the universal adolescent and with himself.

Their stories are illustrative of the choices that confronted all Greek men,

which could be summed up in this case as the choice between selfishness and altruism.

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

transmission of the lover’s qualities to his beloved, much as Zeus imparts

some of his own attributes to his cupbearer. Hence Ganymede’s empowerment, represented

by his ascent to Olympus, his official function,and his immortality. Conversely,

straying from that road and succumbing to self-indulgence and abuse of power leads to

spiritual death for the youth as well as for the lover, a case of

murder and suicide of the soul. 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. [31]


Complex as the Cretan custom of love between men and boys 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, or to justification for abuse.

30 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.

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

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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 sensual abandon

having copulation as its sole aim, a practice which he styles vulgar; the other also erotic but

measured and considerate, a form of male love he judges modest and virtuous and deems

the “summum bonum” of human life. [32]

Xenophon, himself a lover of youths, [33] 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. [34] 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.” [35]

32 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.

33 Cf. Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, IV.

34 Xenophon, Symposium 8.2830.

35 Alciati, Emblemata IV.

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Bronze mirror cover; Attic, 360350 BCE; Inv. 7928, Staatliche Musee, Berlin.jpg

Ganymede and the Eagle [36]

As time goes on, 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, [37] but not widely emblematic until midfourth

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 steps upon the stage: Hera, or should we say Juno, her Roman counterpart?

After all, it is the Roman poet Virgil’s account [38] that is the earliest one to explore her role

36 Bronze mirror cover; Attic, 360350 BCE; Inv. 7928, Staatliche Musee, Berlin. Photo: A. Calimach

37 Act I, Prologue, 1120.

38 Aeneid I.28.

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and emotions, maybe illustrating the Romans’ different views about male love, as well as

the greater freedom and power that women had in Roman times compared with the place

of women in Greek society. 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. [39] Hera

mattered a great deal, and, on an emotional and psychological level, still matters today. It is

probably no coincidence that the male love practiced in ancient Greece, a love of youths

that is routinely practiced by men who also enjoy relations with women, is found mostly in

Central Asia [40] and the Middle East [41] – 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 importantly, subtle and not-so-subtle critiques begin to take shape in other versions

of the myth, camouflaged as innocuous details. In his comedy The Peace, Aristophanes

mocks Zeus’ love of beauty as being nothing but an anal fixation: The playwright, as a

satire of the image of Zeus as an eagle flying to Olympus with Ganymede on his back,

depicts a giant dung beetle that eats turds as the “bird” on the back of which the

protagonist is to fly to Olympus. When one character asks another what the beetle will eat

in Olympus, the answer is, “Ganymede’s ambrosia.” Later, we hear that when Ganymede

plays with Eros he always loses, [42] 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 denouncing his fellow statesman

Demosthenes for betraying his boyfriends by stealing their money.

Later, the orator Aeschines was to make a speech, before a jury consisting of five hundred

39 Lexicon # 483.

40 See Skier.

41 See Gert Hekma.

42 Apollonius Rhodius 3.112f.

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Athenian men, accusing Timarchos, another Athenian politician, of having spent his

teenage years as the anally penetrated concubine of a series of rich men, no better than a

common prostitute and despicable for two reasons: the selling of his favors, which was the

crime for which he was being prosecuted, and the self-degradation of having allowed

himself to be used as a woman, an act the Athenians thought so despicable it could not be

mentioned in polite society, and which Aeschines used as an emotional lever to excite the

jury’s disgust against Timarchos. This speech however is not at all an attack against all

male love. Aeschines points out [43] that – in contrast to the brutal (hubristou) and uncultured

(apaideutou) men who pay boys and then perform degrading acts with them – legitimate

male love, which he calls eros dikaios, still exists. He presents his own love of boys as a

positive example of what has been called “philosophical pederasty”, which, as Aeschines

states, consists of “desiring youths who are beautiful and self-controlled, and is the mark of

a generous and kindhearted spirit.” Aeschines asserts that this love in no way defiled by

his frequent visits to the gymnasia, where he had met many of his young athlete beloveds,

nor by his many quarrels and street fights over handsome boys, or the many passionate

poems he wrote and sent to his young lovers, activities of his which, as he reminds the jury,

were all common knowledge among the five hundred Athenians jurors before whom he was

declaiming his speech, who presumably understood and sympathized since they too lived

their lives in similar fashion.

43 “Against…” passim.

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606px-Metropolitan kylix - Man bargaining for sex.jpg

Bargaining for a beautiful youth’s favors [44]

The comments of many of these writers illustrate another aspect of the role of the Zeus and

Ganymede symbol in the debate on male love: its employment as an ideological vehicle for

rejecting and condemning anal sex in male love relationships, an ethic often formulated by

the very proponents and practitioners of erotic and loving relations between males. [45] 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.

44 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. Source: <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Metropolitan_kylix_Man_bargaining_for_sex.jpg

45 Xenophon, Constitution 6869.

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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 anal intercourse with beloveds as the most shameful of acts. [46] 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

inside man’s rectum. Shame agrees only on one condition: that Eros never enter there,

else she will leave immediately - branding as shameless those who allow themselves to be


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 anal

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, [47] fulfilling their

desires without resorting to anal 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.

46 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 160161; cf. also Cohen). The moderate yet sexual aspect of Greek male love 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 anal sex (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).

47 Erotic fondling of the boy and frontal betweenthethighs intercourse 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 2325), 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/2003/20030922.html>)

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The essential act of male love, from this perspective, is not a sexual coupling, but

inebriation with male beauty. [48]

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. [49] In a further, informative 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 wineboy, or cup-bearer.

In Europe, 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:

according to him, the gods were those who brought the practice down to Earth. In any case,

the poet sings unabashedly of love and pleasure, following the Greek preference for

making love between the thighs, instead of anal 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.”) [50]

Similar Platonic values were revived in the 19th century in the Victorian culture of male love

48 Plato, Phaedrus 244 - 256.

49 ElRouayheb 53 - 60.

50 Wattenbach 124.

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– a culture whose foundation consisted of Greek and Roman literature – by prominent

leaders of this movement, 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 [51] which consummated itself in anal

copulation. [52] 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 practicing anal

sex with their lovers. [53] 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. [54]

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 parody of ancient homophobia was thought by at least one Renaissance

commentator to “signify the calumny of the envious, who usually complain at happy

outcomes.” [55] 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. [56] Lucian of Samosata also contributes to the

tradition, 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 – Christianity – would take hold in the Empire and destroy the

51 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.

52 Symonds 15.

53 Hyde 67.

54 See Increases in Unsafe Sex and Mosher et al.

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

56 Lexicon #86.

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mainstays of polytheism and Hellenic culture, foremost among which were the Olympic

games, the Eleusinian mysteries, the philosophy schools and gymnasiums, and the

paideia based on male love, triggering a thousand years of intellectual darkness.


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 a useful 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 in function, with a shortlived erotic/sexual phase but a lifelong friendship.
• It was fueled 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 similarity between the two lovers but, quite the opposite, from the complementary qualities the dissimilar partners brought to the mix.

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• It featured systems of protection against possible dangers by means of:
1. A corpus of educational myths and parables, analogous to modern sex education:
2. Paternal consent and awareness of the love life of the adolescent;
3. Discrimination between acts that were allowed, and acts that were considered disgraceful;
4. Empowerment of the youth to counterbalance the power of the adult
• Male love was an affectional and erotic experience of most 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 resulted in a rich and varied love life, consisting of the enjoyment of a

more complete gamut of human relationships and erotic pleasure. For us moderns, living in

a society that imagines itself as principally heterosexual, it transforms the dilemma of male

love from a tolerance of “the other” – always a weak moral position [57] – to an acceptance of

self. The tradition also suggests that exclusive heterosexuality, rather than a biological

orientation, is but a convention of recent vintage, or perhaps a collective panic reaction,

grounded in the denial of one’s own natural homosexual potential, or the erroneous

identification of male love with anal penetration, and the instinctive repugnance evoked by it.

Another difference between past and present constructions of male love highlighted by the

Zeus and Ganymede tradition is the rich blend of history, culture, and religion that informed

male love in antiquity, the product of thousands of years of evolution, as well as an ongoing,

living, process. That sophisticated cultural edifice was torn down, and the further evolution

of the tradition was cut short, by the destruction of Greco-Roman

civilization and the imposition of love-life prohibitions based on ascetic religious dogma.

That has forced male

57 See Gavriluta.

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love today to begin its cycle of evolution from zero, in the context of a total deprivation of

any culture or tradition. Thus while we are people of the 21st century, our construction of

male love can be said to have originated in the primitive Paleolithic only a few decades


ALMA-TADEMA Lawrence 1868 Phidias showing the frieze of the Parthenon to his friends (detail 1) 575x1006.jpg

Couple [58]

The structure and rituals of male love in antiquity remind us of 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

58 Alcibiades and Socrates detail from Phidias and the Parthenon marbles by Alma Tadema.

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relationships is possible and can be beneficial. At the same time they raise the question of

whether marriage is the best way of formalizing bonds between people of the same sex,

which are very often different in form and function from relations between a man and a

woman. The Greek, and other models, suggest that these can develop a nomenclature of

their own [59] and take forms analogous to, but very different from, male/female marriage.

Having examined in what way the past and the present are dissimilar, what common

ground can we find? We see the rejection of engaging children in such relationships, as

only adolescents were permitted to be involved, much as today we have age-of-consent

laws. Concern for the welfare of the younger partner and a condemnation of ill usage seem

to be universal. Inescapably, we also infer the presence of abuse. In the past, 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. In the present day, we see it in the news all the time, despite draconian laws

against sexual relations with children, and often even against relations with adolescents.

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

fog of the millennia we glimpse one last shared detail, that one thing which is everything:

we glimpse love.

59 Albanian has preserved such a concept through vellameria (vella, meaning “brother,” and marr – “to accept”), a term similar to the Greek adelphopoiia (“brothermaking”). The older partner is known as ashiq (“the one who loves,” from the Arab term “ishq,” meaning “ecstatic love”) and the younger, adolescent one, as dylber (“the handsome one”). [Nicholas Zymaris, personal communication]

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The majority of the references used in the reconstruction of the Zeus and Ganymede myth

is included below, to better illustrate the process by which all the present stories were


8th - 7th c. BCE

“… gave Tros full payment for stealing Ganymede.”

“… strongest stallions under the dawn.”

“… the most handsome of mortal men.”

“… the gods snatched him away to bear the cup of Zeus and live among the immortals.”

(Homer, Iliad, 5.265ff & 20.215235)

7th c. BCE

“… wise Zeus carried off goldenhaired

Ganymede because of his beauty, to be amongst

the Deathless Ones and pour drink for the gods in the house of Zeus – a wonder to see –

honored by all the immortals as he draws the red nectar from the golden bowl. But grief that

could not be soothed filled the heart of Tros; for he knew not whither the heaven-sent

whirlwind had caught up his dear son, so that he mourned him always, unceasingly, until

Zeus pitied him and gave him high-stepping horses such as carry the immortals as

recompense for his son. These he gave him as a gift. And at the command of Zeus, the

Guide, the slayer of Argus, told him all, and how his son would be deathless and unaging,

even as the gods. So when Tros heard these tidings from Zeus, he no longer kept

mourning but rejoiced in his heart and rode joyfully with the storm-footed


(Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, 202ff)

“The vine which the son of Kronos gave him [Laomedon] as a recompense for his son. It

bloomed richly with soft leaves of gold and grape clusters; Hephaistos wrought it and gave

it to his father Zeus: and he bestowed it on Laomedon as a price for Ganymede.”

(Little Iliad, Fr 7)

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“… in The Colchian Women, speaking of Ganymede ‘setting Zeus’s majesty aflame with his thighs.’”

(Sophocles, “The Colchian Women,” in Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, XIII.609) 428/427348/

347 BCE

“And when his feeling continues and he is nearer to him and embraces him, in gymnastic

exercises and at other times of meeting, then the fountain of that stream, which Zeus when

he was in love with Ganymede named Himeros (Desire), overflows upon the lover, and

some enters into his soul, and some when he is filled flows out again.”

(Plato, Phaedrus, 255c)

415 BCE

“Chorus: In vain, it seems, you Phrygian boy pacing with dainty step among your golden

chalices, do you fill high the cup of Zeus, a lovely service; the land of your birth

is being consumed by fire. The shore re-echoes

to our cries; and, as a bird bewails its young, so we

bewail our husbands or our children, or our old mothers. The dew-fed springs where you

bathed, the course [gymasion te dromoi,the track at the gymnasium] where you trained,

are now no more; but you beside the throne of Zeus are sitting with a calm, sweet smile

upon your fair young face, while the spear of Hellas has destroyed the land of Priam.”

(Euripides, The Trojan Women, 820835)

405 BCE

“Chorus: There was Ganymede, the darling of Zeus’s bed, drawing libations of wine

from deep in the bowls of gold.”

(Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis, p. 47)

3rd c. BCE

“The two of them were playing at knucklebones – golden ones – as boys in the same house

Page 34

will; and already greedy Eros was clutching a fistful in his left hand holding them tight, close

under his breast as he stood erect there, a sweet blush mantling the bloom of his cheeks.

But Ganymedes was crouched down beside him, silent, dejected: just two dice left, and he

threw them one after the other, maddened by Eros’ snickering, and losing them both in a

trice, like all their predecessors, took himself off, empty-handed and hopeless,

failed to notice Kypris approaching. She stopped before her son, chucked him under the chin,

and sharply addressed him: ‘What are you grinning at, you unspeakable little horror? Did you

cheat him again, win unfairly, cash in on his innocence?’”

(Apollonios Rhodios, Argonautika, (III. 115130)

140 BCE

“… Ganymede, for the sake of his beauty, Zeus caught up on an eagle and appointed him

cupbearer of the gods in heaven ….”

(Apollodorus, Library and Epitome, iii.12.2)

ca. 9030 BCE

“And Ganymede, who excelled all men in beauty, was snatched up by the gods to serve as

the cupbearer of Zeus.”

(Diodorus Siculus, Histories, 4.75.3)


“[Hera's] hate for Troy’s origin, Ganymede taken and made a favorite [of Zeus].”

“There Ganymede is wrought with living art,

Chasing thro' Ida's groves the trembling hart:

Breathless he seems, yet eager to pursue;

When from loft descends, in open view,

The bird of Jove, and, sousing on his prey,

With crooked talons bears the boy away.”

“… his aged guardians are raising their impotent hands to heaven, his dogs are furiously

Page 35

barking up at the sky above them.”

(Virgil, Aeneid , 5.252260, 1.28 & p. 161)

2-8 CE

“The king of the gods was once afire with love for Phrygian Ganymedes and hit upon a

guise that, just this once, he thought might be more suitable than being Jove himself: a bird.

But of all birds, he thought that one alone was worthiest; the bird with force enough to carry

Jove's own thunderbolts. Without delay Jove beat the air with his deceiving wings,

snatched up the Trojan boy. And even now, despite the wrath of Juno, he still fulfills his role,

the page of Jove, the boy prepares Jove’s nectar, fills his cups.”

(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.155ff)

ca. 40 BCE – 17 CE

“… the eagle which is said to have snatched Ganymede up and given him to his lover,


“Many have said he [Aquarius] is Ganymede, whom Jupiter is said to have made a

cupbearer of the gods, snatching him up from his parents because of his beauty. So he is

shown as if pouring water from a jar.”

(Hyginus, Fables and Poetic Astronomy in the Myths of Hyginus, II.16 & II.29)

ca. 81-96 CE

“Pine-clad Ida … boasts the cloud that veiled the heavenly rape [of Ganymedes]! She verily

gave to the gods him on whom Juno ever looks in wrath, and withdraws her hand and

refuses the nectar.”

(Papinius Statius, Silvae, 3.4.13)

120-180 CE

“GANYMEDE: No, no, I want to go home to my father right now. If you take me back, I

promise he’ll pay you for it. He’ll sacrifice another ram. We have a three-year-old, the big

Page 36

one that leads the flock to pasture.

ZEUS: How simple and ingenuous this boy is! When you come right down to it, he’s still just a child. (...)

GANYMEDE: Where will I sleep at night? With my play mate Eros?

ZEUS: No. I brought you here so we could sleep together.

GANYMEDE: Can’t you sleep alone? You mean it’s nicer for you to sleep with me?

ZEUS: With someone as beautiful as you are, Ganymede? Oh yes.

GANYMEDE: How can my being beautiful help your sleeping? …

ZEUS: If I can lie awake with you, kissing you and hold ing you in my arms, that’s the nicest

thing you can do for me.

GANYMEDE: You’d know about that. But I’ll be asleep, even while you’re kissing me.”

(Lucian of Samosata, “Zeus and Ganymede,” in Dialogues of the Gods, X)

ca. 9th - 11thc. CE

“Ganymede, son of Tros, whose first beauty all the other Trojans were fond of ….”

(First Vatican Mythographer, 184 Ganymede)

“… because of the beauty of his body subjected himself to masculine passions in infamy.”

(Second Vatican Mythographer, 198 Ganymede)

Page 37

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See also


External links