In Greek myth, Ganymede was the son of Tros, king of Troy. His extraordinary beauty came to the attention of Zeus, king of the gods. He carried the boy off to Mount Olympus to serve as cupbearer to the gods. The deities were so struck by his beauty that they did not want it to fade with age or perish in warfare, but to endure forever for their delight, so they made him immortal.
There are several different legends of the actual abduction of Ganymede. In one version, Ganymede was borne aloft by a whirlwind and then taken to Mount Olympus by the eagle of Zeus. In another account, Zeus first spotted Ganymede herding a flock of sheep on Mount Ida. The god was smitten by his good looks and offered the boy a rooster, a traditional love gift. In this version, the story of Ganymede acquired a homoerotic element: Zeus brought the Trojan prince to Olympus as his young lover. The Romans were particularly interested in the erotic element of the myth; the Latin equivalent of Ganymede was Catamitus. According to other accounts, Ganymede was kidnapped by Eos, goddess of dawn, who wanted to add him to her long list of mortal lovers. Zeus then snatched him from her. One detail, however, is the same in all versions of the myth: when Ganymede was installed on Olympus, he became the cupbearer of the gods, responsible for serving them nectar.
When Tros learned of his son's disappearance, he was devastated. His grief touched Zeus and moved the god to offer recompense. Zeus presented Tros with a golden vine and two swift horses that could run over water. Zeus also reassured him by telling him that Ganymede would become immortal. Later, Tros offered the horses to the famous hero Heracles in payment for destroying the sea monster sent by Poseidon to besiege the city of Troy. Heracles kept his part of the bargain, but Tros reneged on his, thus earning the everlasting hatred of heroes and gods alike.
When Ganymede arrived on Mount Olympus, the cupbearer of the gods was Zeus's daughter Hebe. Hebe and Ganymede vied with each other for the honor of serving the gods. Eventually Ganymede won the position and became the close companion of Zeus.
Another Olympian upset by the arrival of Ganymede was Hera, the wife of Zeus. When Zeus took Ganymede as his lover, Hera was consumed by jealousy. In order to protect the boy from her wrath, Zeus granted him immortality and installed him among the stars as the constellation Aquarius. There he eternally carries water for the gods, while Aquila, the eagle, stands guard nearby.
The people of Troy expected to reap some benefits from Ganymede's move to Mount Olympus, but they were sadly disappointed. In the second choral song of Trojan Women, a play by Euripides (c. 486–c. 406 BCE), the women of the city lament that the boy's abduction has brought them no favors from the gods, and that Ganymede himself has no concern for the fate of his native city.
Ganymede is thought to be unique among the characters of Greek mythology: he is the only mortal who did not have to win the right of abode on Mount Olympus. Pollux, Heracles, and Asclepius, each of whom had one divine parent, all had to earn their place among the gods. Tithonus, also taken aloft from Troy, was granted immunity from death, but he did not gain exemption from old age, and thus his "gift" was more of a curse than a blessing. Yet the wholly mortal Ganymede was granted immortality without any effort on his part, or any physical transformation. His elevation to Olympus was in itself sufficient to strip away his mortality.
Ganymede has been a favorite subject for artists since classical times. In the art of ancient Greece and Rome, he is often depicted holding a rooster or receiving the rooster from Zeus as a symbol of his love. Later artists, such as Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), tended to focus on the dramatic moment when the eagle snatched the boy and bore him off to Mount Olympus. By the mid-16th century, the church had begun to frown on nudity and the subject became less popular.
See also: GREECE; HEBE; HERA; LAOMEDON; TITHONUS; ZEUS.
- The Complete Euripides, 5 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009–2010. , and Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro, eds.
- The Iliad. New York: Penguin, 2009. , and Robert Fagles, trans.
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