Zeus and Ganymede
Ganymede was a handsome young prince in Greek mythology. His story had less in common with those of the great heroes, however, than it did with many of the princesses.
As a young man Ganymede was abducted by Zeus and taken to Mount Olympus to be his cupbearer. Most ancient sources make it clear that their relationship was a romantic one.
The idea of the king of the gods having a same-sex relationship may seem surprising, but in the Greek world it was reflective of a fairly common practice. Paiderastia was a socially-permitted practice in which married men had romantic relationships with younger male partners.
To modern readers the practice raises many issues of consent and power dynamics, but in many parts of ancient Greece paiderastia was believed to create deeper emotional bonds than could be found in marriage. This view was not universal, however, as is evidenced in some of the more negative reactions to Ganymede’s legend.
While the male gods of Olympus were most often known for their love of beautiful young women, many also had stories featuring male love interests. Sometimes these relationships can only be inferred from the stories that survive, but other stories are more explicit.
One of these more obvious examples is the tale of Ganymede.
The handsome young man was a prince of Troy, the son of King Tros from whom the city was named. King Tros had three sons who were each without fault, but Ganymede in particular was renowned for his beauty.
He was regarded as the most beautiful human on earth, male or female. Poets described him as having golden hair that fell in curls while artists gave him a lean body and perfectly shaped face.
Ganymede was tending flocks of sheep on nearby Mount Ida, or hunting there according to some, when his youthful beauty attracted the attention of Zeus. The king of the gods flew down in the form of a giant eagle and carried the boy to Olympus.
Ganymede became the cupbearer of the gods, and of Zeus in particular. His father was compensated with a team of immortal horses and was content in the knowledge that his youngest son had become an immortal in the household of the king of the gods.
A gift of horses is sometimes specified as a dowry in mythology, for example in the story of Perseus. Ganymede was also often shown with a rooster, which was a traditional gift between lovers in parts of Greece.
In later stories, it was assumed that Ganymede replaced Hebe in this role. The daughter of Zeus and Hera had previously been her parents’ cupbearer but retired from that position when she married Heracles after his ascent to Olympus.
He was most often shown in his duties as cupbearer, serving wine and nectar to the gods as they feasted. He was also, as one of the youngest residents of Olympus, sometimes a playmate of youthful gods such as Eros.
In one story, Ganymede was playing dice with Eros and grew angry when the god of love cheated. Aphrodite scolded her son for not playing fair with a beginner at the game and urged him to be kind to the younger boy.
Some other legends show Ganymede’s life on Olympus as less idyllic. According to some stories, Hera’s infamous jealousy was turned toward the Trojan prince.
To both honor him and keep him safe from Hera’s jealousy, Zeus placed Ganymede in the sky as a constellation. Aquarius, the Water-Bearer, was placed near Aquila, the Eagle, so Ganymede would always be associated with Zeus’s sacred bird.
According to some Roman writers, Hera sided with Greece in the Trojan War not because of Paris’s judgment but because she held anger toward the city for being Ganymede’s home. One late Roman source claimed that Zeus shrouded the city in heavy clouds when it fell to spare Ganymede the sight of his father’s city in flames.
Ancient writers made it clear that Zeus was inspired to take Ganymede to Olympus because of the boy’s beauty. The love the king of the gods bore for Ganymede was explicitly described as romantic and based on physical attraction.
Ganymede is thus sometimes considered a god of homosexuality, but his legend and the reactions of Greek writers show that the contemporary view of the myth was more complicated than it may first appear.
Physical relationships between men and younger teens were so common that the Greek language had a term for the practice – paiderastia. Paiderastia was a widespread custom and in some areas even an honored tradition.
The Greeks did not necessarily have the same views of sexuality as modern cultures. Paiderastia, for example, did not equate to homosexuality.
Men and women were so separated in Greek culture that many married couples, whose unions had often been arranged by their parents or extended families, had little contact. Marriage was entered into primarily to fulfill family obligations and produce children with little expectation of a close bond.
Paiderastia was considered to be a way for married men to find a more fulfilling relationship outside of their marriage. Men who had little in common with their wives could have deeper bonds with partners of the same sex.
Regardless of gender, however, the Greeks believed that every romantic relationship needed to have a clear delineation of power and authority. By taking a younger male lover, Greek men could form emotional bonds while still maintaining that power structure.
The supposed strength of these relationships can be seen in Ganymede’s legend. While most of Zeus’s female lovers went on to marry other men, Ganymede was made immortal and lived in Zeus’s household in a position of honor.
Like Zeus, men in many regions of Greece married their wives for practical reasons but carried on relationships with younger men. When these young men married themselves, and thus no longer socially-acceptable as partners, they often maintained close relationships with their former lovers in the military, politics, or through family marriage.
While it was a common practice, paiderastia was not universally accepted in the Greek world. Some contemporary writers condemned the practice in language that is familiar in today’s world.
Plato was particularly opposed to paiderastia not because of the young age of some participants but because of its homosexual nature. Using language that would be echoed for many centuries, be described same-sex relationships of any form as “contrary to nature” and rooted in “slavery to pleasure.”
Plato specifically referenced the legend of Ganymede in his denunciations of homosexuality. Of course, he could not accuse the king of the gods of being guilty of something he believed was sinful.
Instead, Plato claimed that the story was untrue and not even of Greek origin. The people of Crete, who in mythology were often accused of crimes against the Greek mainland, bore the blame in Plato’s mind.
Plato claimed that the Cretans created the story to justify their own practices. By falsely claiming that they were following Zeus’s example they could practice paiderastia for their own selfish reasons.
The philosopher seemed to be in the minority among Greeks and their Roman neighbors, however. As shown in the legend of Zeus and Ganymede, same-sex relationships were widely seen as valid and socially acceptable in Greece, providing they followed certain conventions.
The story of Zeus and Ganymede bears many of the hallmarks of the god’s love affairs. He appeared as an eagle when Ganymede was alone on a mountain, spurred by incredible beauty.
The difference between this story and those of Zeus’s many mistresses, however, was that Ganymede was a male. The handsome prince of Troy was taken to Olympus and given the role of cupbearer, an position of honor and importance in Zeus’s household.
Ganymede was often shown in art as a handsome young man pouring the gods’ wine. He was also depicted as a playmate of Eros and a rival to Hera.
The constellation Aquarius was said to have been placed in the sky in part to protect the beautiful youth from Hera’s jealousy. It was adjacent to Aquila, the Eagle, which was one of Zeus’s symbols as well as the form in which he took Ganymede.
The story of Zeus and Ganymede reflects the Greek tradition of paiderastia in which older, usually married, men took younger men as their lovers.
While modern readers understand these relationships as exploitative, the Greeks saw them as a way for men to create bonds not available in most heterosexual marriages while also maintaining socially-mandated structures of power and authority within relationships.
The practice was a common custom in many parts of Greece, but it was not universally accepted. Plato, for example, rationalized the myth of Ganymede as an invention of the Cretan people to legitimize their “unnatural” relationships.
The story of Zeus and Ganymede, and classical reactions to it, sheds light on Greek views of homosexuality and relationships. While the Greeks believed in the necessity of marriage, some found greater satisfaction and connection in a socially-accepted same-sex relationship.