National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, Part 26 This Week: Ganymede & the Three Greek Terms for Love

The earliest ancient Greek myth with an explicitly homosexual theme is the story of the abduction of Ganymede, the most beautiful among mortal boys who is abducted by no less than Zeus, himself, the god of the gods. Zeus espied the beautiful young mortal, swept down in the form of an eagle to kidnap him and brought him to Mt. Olympus, where he was assigned “cup bearer for the gods,” and was ultimately honored by Zeus by being transformed into the starry constellation of Aquarius.

The earliest ancient Greek myth with an explicitly homosexual theme is the story of the abduction of Ganymede, the most beautiful among mortal boys who is abducted by no less than Zeus, himself, the god of the gods. Zeus espied the beautiful young mortal, swept down in the form of an eagle to kidnap him and brought him to Mt. Olympus, where he was assigned “cup bearer for the gods,” and was ultimately honored by Zeus by being transformed into the starry constellation of Aquarius.

The myth reflected the most common form of homosexual relations documented in ancient Greek and Roman cultures covering over 1,000 years, that involving older men and younger boys who’d reached their “full height,” as in their upper teens (citing K.D. Dover, “Greek Homosexuality,” 1978).

According to the historical record, almost all identified homosexual relations, at least up until the modern era, involved inequalities of age and station in society, the paradigm being the Greek-Roman model of an older man of wealth seeking liaison with a younger lad, commonly in search of the older’s money, gifts and pathways to success in later life. Record of such trysts ranged from more acceptable ones among free men to less savory encounters involving slaves and prostitutes.

While such disparities are disquieting to modern sensibilities, if not illegal, in the ebbs and flows of history in the West, higher regard for the potentially virtuous nature of such relations was held in times that roughly correlated to eras of great cultural, scientific and political advance, such as in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. in Greece, and the height of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th and early 16th centuries A.D.

In both those periods, the writings of Plato, especially those dealing explicitly with homosexual relations, “The Symposium” and “Phaedrus,” were models for discourses on the role of ethics and morality in those relations. Arguments ranged from, among others, (1) limiting expectations to purely non-abusive pleasure-seeking, to (2) considering the younger participant’s well being psychologically and over the long haul, and (3) Plato’s and Socrates’ case for restraining from sex, but to use the erotic impulse as a driver to introduce higher notions of love, of friendship and of love for beauty and truth, into the relationship.

In that order, the three Greek words for love — “eros” as sexual desire, “philia” as friendship and “agape” as divine or universal love — are summoned as applied to the three stages of the Plato/Socrates option, and they all are deployed in that fashion as well in the myth of Ganymede.

First concerning that myth, it should be noted that, insofar as it was Zeus, the highest of the gods, who initiated the relationship, it signals that in the ultimate order of things there is a proper and sanctified role for same-sex passion. While most of Zeus’ appetite was for women, his Ganymede caper showed that a role for homosexuality, in the eyes and desires of the top god was OK.

Second, the disparity in ages and rank not only reflected the prevailing cultural norm (Dover’s researches indicate in that era there was no record of any other kind of homosexual relations, at least that were sanctioned or reported) but was symbolic of the kind of inequality that is, on a personal level, endemic to most relationships: one party usually having some, even nuanced, role difference from the other (one more active than passive, for example) that belies the exact notion of equality as a political and legal term. As terms best to describe interpersonal relations, “complementarity” and “reciprocity” are better choices.

In the disparity of roles, the issue lies in what each party brings to the other and whether it is “net zero sum” in nature, a reciprocity that fulfills the expectations, goals and gratifications of both. Of course, all unequal interactions bear an acute potential for abuse and cruelty, such as especially when one lacks the maturity for discerning powers of free choice, which is why the matter of the true meaning of love, versus abuse and exploitation, is always so important.

In the Ganymede myth, Zeus, synonymous among the Greeks with our notion of God as the creative force of the universe, embraces Ganymede, the archetypical representation of same-sex passion, brings him to a heavenly purpose as servant to the oversight of human affairs (the gods on Olympus). Then finally he elevates and sanctifies him, lifting him to the status among the twelve gears of the universe in the sky as the constellation Aquarius in the Zodiac, by which the entire universe is governed and unfolds, and from whence the very notions of beauty and truth are derived.

Ganymede is transported by Zeus through the three powers of love, in its eros, philia and agape manifestations, for purposes of aligning human behavior in accordance with the divine purpose present in the homosexual impulse.