People in Fiction: Zeus and Ganymede

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“Ganymede carried off by the eagle.” Marble, Roman copy after bronze original, ~325BC

One of the most enduring of the Greek myths concerns Ganymede, the son of Tros, a great king for whom Troy and the Trojans are named. Tros had three sons, all perfect, but Ganymede was said to be the most beautiful boy who had ever lived. One day, while still a youth, Ganymede was resting in a meadow on Mount Ida when Zeus, king of the gods, saw him and fell instantly in love.

Summoning a great storm, Zeus transformed into an eagle and swept from the skies, seized the boy, and carried him off to the heavens. There, he made Ganymede immortal and gave him a position as cupbearer to the gods, supplanting his daughter Hebe, who had previously held the title.

Tros was so grief-stricken with the loss of his son that even Zeus was moved to pity, sending the messenger god Hermes to inform the man of Ganymede’s fate, and compensated him with a pair of the god’s own horses, said to be able to run on thunder and race over water.

Hera, Zeus’s wife and Hebe’s mother, was incensed by her husband’s favouritism of the boy, and swore vengeance. To keep him safe, Zeus placed him among the stars as the constellation Aquarius (the Water-Bearer). Unable to strike at Ganymede directly, Hera engineered the fall of Troy, venting her anger on Ganymede’s family and their kingdom.

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Peter Paul Rubens , “The Abduction of Ganymede”, 1611-12

The legend has strange durability: Ganymede appears in Roman mythology as Catamitus (the origin of the English term “catamite”), and in Egypt as Aquarius, the divine source of the Nile. The tale of the fall of Troy, made immortal by Homer in the Iliad, was at its root the actions of a woman spurned by her husband in favour of Ganymede’s charms. One of the moons of Jupiter (the Roman name of Zeus) is called Ganymede.

During the Renaissance, Classic myth underwent a revival, and Ganymede’s legend provided the inspiration for countless works of art. In As You Like It, Shakespeare’s Rosalind disguises herself as Ganymede to seduce Orlando, and of course Zeus and Ganymede set the opening scene for Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage.

The overt sexual element of the story has not, however, always existed unchallenged. Plato suggested the story was Cretan in origin, pederasty having supposedly originated in Crete, and therefore implied the myth existed as a way of promoting the model by giving it divine precedence; Xenophon meanwhile wrote that Socrates invalidated the theory that Zeus and Ganymede were lovers by examining the etymology of his name —  ganu-, “taking pleasure,” and mēd-, “mind” — and concluding their love was purely spiritual in nature.

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Bertel Thorvaldsen, “Ganymede”, 1817

Throughout the Renaissance, artists, sculptors, and writers fell over themselves to manipulate the homoerotic element of the story, be that played for laughs by Shakespeare (a boy playing a girl playing a boy seducing a boy playing a girl), or for dreamy sighs by Rubens.

Then, in later tradition, Ganymede is reinvented, becoming towards the Enlightenment a naive or innocent adolescent, with Zeus accompanying him in eagle form. Ganymede’s imagery endures even to modern times: appearing in an advert for Budweiser beer in 1904 (collectible graphics of the ad — posters, etc — were in production until the early 1990s), and there is a mural of Ganymede riding the back of the eagle in the Library of Congress, Washington. Rarely has one story proven so enduring across so many nations and art forms and philosophies. That it should be the tale of the king of the gods falling for a beautiful adolescent boy makes it all the more remarkable.


Born on this day: Ana Carolina (41, Brazilian), singer-songwriter; John Curry (1949-1994, English), Olympic gold medallist and World Champion figure skater; Paul Goodman (1911-1972, American), novelist and philosopher; Edward Hibbert (60, English), actor best known for his role as Gil Chesterton in Frasier; Beverley Nichols (1898-1983, English), author; Jamie Pedersen (47, American), current Democratic representative of the 43rd district in the Washington State Senate; Jesús Vázquez (50, Spanish), TV presenter and first Spaniard selected as a UN Goodwill Ambassador; and Gok Wan (41, English), TV fashion consultant best known for his show How to Look Good Naked.

Died on this day: Steen Fenrich (1980-1999, American), a nineteen-year-old gay man whose dismembered and partially dissolved remains were discovered in a park in Queens, New York. Suspicion fell on Fenrich’s stepfather, John, after he revealed he knew the body had been dismembered before the police had informed the family. After an eight-hour standoff with the police, John committed suicide by shooting himself; and Declan Flynn (1952-1982, Irish), the last victim of a series of gaybashings in Fairview Park, Dublin. Five people were charged with his murder, ranging from 14-19 years old. In court they stated:  “We were part of the team to get rid of queers from Fairview Park… A few of us had been queer-bashing for about six weeks before and battered about 20 steamers. We used to grab them. If they hit back we gave it to them.” They were found guilty of manslaughter and all walked free, handed suspended sentences by a judge who said their crime “could never be regarded as murder.” The march through Dublin protesting the sentence is regarded as Ireland’s first pride parade.

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2 replies on “People in Fiction: Zeus and Ganymede”

  1. Helena Stone says:

    Just wanted to say I’m thoroughly enjoying these posts. Especially the Greek those on Greek mythology bring back wonderful memories of times when I was younger and my mother and I shared an obsession – I mean interest – in all things old and Greek. The very first paper I ever wrote for (primary) school was on the Trojan War. 🙂

    The month’s still young so there’s lots more to come and I am thoroughly looking forward to all of it.

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