Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Ganymede

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GANYMEDE (Greek, Γανυμήδης, Latin, Ganymedes) affords a typical example of the manner in which myth-making continued as a living process through the whole of Greek history. In the thought of the primitive Indo-Germanic race, occupied with the simplest cares of living, a very frequent subject was naturally the rain; and their thought has been preserved to us in the form of mythology. As the rain descends to earth it is the chief blessing to men, while in the clouds it gladdens the dwellers there. Hence arises the idea of a drink for the gods—the soma of the Hindus, the meth of the Norsemen, and the nectar of the Greeks—which plays such an important part in the Rig Veda, the Edda, and the Homeric poetry. The guardian and giver of the divine drink occurs in many forms, sometimes as a bird, sometimes as a divine being. Just as the eagle brings nectar to Zeus in Crete, so Odin takes the form of an eagle to steal the meth from Guttung for the use of the gods. The same divinity that in heaven distributes the drink to the gods is on earth the genius that presides over the due supply of water. Hence among the Greeks Ganymede, as this genius is called, exists in heaven as the Aquarius of the zodiac (Hyginus, fab. 224), while on earth he is, as Pindar (fr. 207 [110]) tells us, the genius of the fountains of the Nile, which was par excellence the life-giving and fertilizing river of the earth.

But the form under which the Ganymede myth most commonly appears has its origin in Asia Minor and in Crete. Homer (Il., xx. 232) says that Ganymede was a son of Tros, and that the gods on account of his beauty carried him off to heaven to dwell among the immortals and pour out the wine for Zeus. The Little Iliad again makes him the son of Laomedon, and says that Zeus gave his father a golden vine in exchange for him. In the Trojan Ganymede there is not much trace left of the old kindly genius who distributes the blessing out of the clouds. We may indeed, when we remember that the Greeks admired personal beauty as almost divine (cf. Hdt., v. 47), be able to see in this translation the good genius returning alive to heaven after his sojourn on earth, an idea that occurs in the mythology of almost every race. But now he seems rather to represent the everlasting youth and beauty that attend on the gods, and to be the male counterpart of Hebe, who was worshipped in Phlius under the name Ganymeda (Pausanias, ii. 13). More and more the myth grows away from its earliest form, and as Greek manners altered the darkest side of their social system attached itself to it. Through the Ionian Greeks the Asiatic custom of secluding women had spread to the mother country and superseded the old heroic manners. The presence of women at meal-times, customary in the time of Homer (Od., iv. 221), was now discontinued. Beautiful young male slaves waited at banquets, and the feeling grew that the gods also observed this custom. Ganymede was now conceived as the favourite of Zeus. So early as the Hymn to Aphrodite, Zeus himself carries off Ganymede on account of his beauty; and Theognis (about 500 b.c.) speaks of the love of Zeus for Ganymede as a well-known tale. In Crete especially, where the love of boys was systematized and legalized, and from which the habit spread over the whole of Greece, does the myth find nourishment and growth. On the one hand, Zeus was represented to have himself, in the form of an eagle, carried off Ganymede; on the other hand, it was said that Minos, the primitive ruler and lawgiver of Crete, had been the ravisher of Ganymede. In this way it was attempted to give dignity and antiquity to a borrowed and loathsome custom. The rapidity with which the habit spread all over Greece makes the mythical embodiment of it fill an important place in the painting, sculpture, and literature of Greece in its decline. Thus it comes that the name which once denoted the good genius that gives the best gifts to man was adopted in the vulgar Latin under the form Catamitus to signify the most degraded of men (on this subject v. Böttiger, Kunst-Mythol., ii. 35, 61).

It is significant that in Greek art not one very early representation of the myth occurs (Overbeek, Kunst-Mythologie, p. 515); but in the middle and later periods it becomes a favourite subject. Two moments especially are represented—(1) Ganymede carried off by the eagle, where the eagle is sometimes Zeus’s messenger, but at other times obviously Zeus himself, as is shown by the sensual passion apparent in both figures (Jahn, Archæolog. Beiträge, p. 20), and Ganymede feeding or caressing the eagle.

Besides Preller’s and Jacobi’s elaborate works, see Kuhn, Herabkunft des Feuers; Braun, Naturgesch. der Sage; Hartung, Religion u. Myth. der Griechen; Schwartz, Ursprung der Myth.; and on the derivation of the name see Kuhn’s Zeitsch., ii. and v.