The Abduction of Ganymede (ca. 1650),
By Eustache Le Sueur
“Verily wise Zeus carried off golden-haired Ganymedes 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–, honoured by all the immortals as he draws the red nectar from the golden bowl . . . deathless and unageing, even as the gods.”
– Homeric Hymn 5 to Aphrodite 203 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C7th – 4th B.C.)
In Greek Mythology, Ganymedes was the embodiment of beauty. He was a handsome, young Trojan who was, as Homer describes, “the most beautiful of mortals.” In the myth of Ganymedes and Zeus, Ganymedes is herding his flock on the mountainside when Zeus sees him and is determined to make Gaynmedes his lover. Zeus, in the form of an eagle, abducts the young Ganymedes and carries him off to Mount Olympus to be the god’s lover and cupbearer. Hera, Goddess of Women and Marriage, and wife of Zeus, upon hearing that Ganymedes was to be cupbearer as well as Zeus’ lover, became enraged with jealousy. Her own daughter Hebe, Goddess of Youth, previously held the favored position of cupbearer. The omnipotent Zeus did not waiver in his affection for Ganymedes who would carry a golden cup as he accompanied the powerful god on his travels. Eventually, Ganymedes, recognizing the thirst of the mortals, no longer coveted his role and, refusing his position as Zeus’ cupbearer, decided to pour out all the wine, ambrosia, and water of the gods. Although Zeus, a notoriously angry god, first wanted to punish Ganymedes, he eventually realized he had been unkind to the boy. Instead, Zeus set Ganymedes’ image among the stars as the constellation and God Aquarius, making him immortal and fulfilling Ganymedes wish of sending rain down to the people of the earth who were in need. This myth is often depicted through artwork of Ganymedes and an Eagle, or Ganymedes and Zeus, seen on canvas, pottery, and multiple other mediums of art.
Ganymede pouring Zeus a libation (c, 490-480 BCE)
By the Eucharides Painter
Greek mythology often portrays Ganymedes as the God of Homosexuality. It is fascinating that sex between men was not only seen throughout Ancient Greece, but was also revered. Men often lusted after other men, and as can be seen in the myth of Ganymedes and Zeus, the Gods themselves could not resist the allures of the youthful man. The culture does not dismiss homosexuality as an aberrant behavior but rather deifies it. The Greeks appreciated beauty in a very natural, stripped down form, to them beauty was not gendered, nor as we will soon discuss, was it confined by age. This is an important point of notice for queer culture because there was a time where rather than being sin, which is the dogma many religions currently preach, men having sex with men was to the Greeks a behavior of the Gods. Growing up in a world where same-sex relationships are streamlined in religious tests and stories could ultimately result in a more accepting environment.
The story of Ganymedes and Zeus is one that depicts a common theme throughout Greek mythology, which is pederasty. The word pederasty derives from the Greek “love of boys,” and it is the relationship between an adult male and a pubescent or adolescent male. Today, in our culture we may consider this to be pedophilia, however to the Greeks, this was a behavior that their very own Gods partook in.
The act of Zeus abducting Ganymedes to be
his lover would now make frontline news.
It is important to question why when reading about Ganymedes and Zeus the reader’s focus is on the beauty of the young male, not the actions of Zeus. If translated into common day form, with idols we recognize, people would be outraged. However, it is common to be taught various Greek myths in classrooms, which cover similar content. It is not viewed as pedophilia to us, however if it was rewritten without ties to an ancient culture, you could almost guarantee that if would be controversial. Foucault would link this to his repressive hypothesis. In the beginning of the “The History of Sexuality” Foucault claims:
“Sexual practices had little need of secrecy; words were said without undue reticence, and things were done without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit”
However, a very apparent switch was then made and sex was “moved into the home” where it could be carefully confined. It was restricted to simple procreation between a man and a woman. Other forms of sex were deviant and therefore not discussed. Except…
“If it was truly necessary to make room for illegitimate sexualities, it was reasoned, let them take their infernal mischief elsewhere: to a place where they could be reintegrated, if not in the circuits of production, at least in those of profit. The brothel and the mental hospital would be those places of tolerance: The prostitute, the client, and the pimp, together with the psychiatrist and his hysteric…”
Non-heterosexual behavior was essentially demonized. The only place non-missionary between a man and a woman belonged was in a whorehouse or in a mental institute. Foucault would argue, in his repressive hypothesis, that since the rise of the bourgeoisie if Ganymedes and Zeus were to be rewritten it would be worthy of sending Zeus to a mental institution. Man has come to jail the actions of a God.
It is impossible to know how the individual Greek from ancient times interpreted the actions of their Gods, however we can infer from the recurrent themes seen throughout the myths that pederasty was widely accepted. It is also impossible to know what the focus of the myth was intended to be. Logically, understanding that these myths were embodied through art and storytelling it would make sense to assume that beauty was a central focal point when sharing and preserving their culture. As mentioned earlier, if this myth were to be modernized, our repressed society would not focus on the beauty. However we still read Ganymedes and Zeus in a positive frame of light. The discrepancy is due to the common reader of Greek Mythology reading it in the vein in which it was written. This may be due to the cultural ties that come along with something that is not of our time-period. The only difference between the story of Zeus abducting a child and a Catholic priest and an altar boy is that the former is a remnant of a time period where people were not focused on the sexual acts that occurred and that sentiment carried through the generations of storytelling, keeping beauty the main focus.
“Thus the image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality.”