Ganymede the Cupbearer – Storytelling for Everyone

Greek Myth

Ganymede (or Ganymedes) was a young man from Troy. His beauty was unparalleled and for that reason, Zeus abducted and brought him to Olympus to serve as his cupbearer and lover. Ganymede’s myth is an important step in the history of homosexuality.

Who Was Ganymede?

“… godlike Ganymedes that was born the fairest of mortal men”

Homer Iliad 20.199

Ganymede’s myth was especially popular amongst the Greeks and the Romans. The first recorded mention of Ganymede is found in Homer’s Iliad dating back to the 8th century BCE. Other notable sources include Hesiod, Pindar, Euripides, Apollodorus, Virgil, and Ovid.

According to Homer, Pindar, and Apollodorus, Ganymede was the son of Tros and Callirhoe. However, Euripides and Cicero, wrote that he was the son of Laomedon while there are other later mentions that he was the son of Ilus. This is not the only disagreement amongst the ancient sources.

The ancient writers seem to have adopted varying traditions of Ganymede’s myth which was a quite common phenomenon with Greek Mythology. It seems that the Greeks enjoyed retelling myths with slightly altered storylines, a practice that propelled the creative spirit that was expressed through ancient theatre.

Ganymede was an oxherd from the city of Troy and, although none of the sources mentions his age, we are consistently told that he was beautiful and young. His beauty apparently was so great, so “godlike” (in Greek, antitheos) as Homer and Hesiod put it, that even the gods themselves could not resist him.

The Abduction of Ganymede

In particular, Zeus, the usual suspect of almost every Greek myth related to seduction and rape, decided that Ganymede was too perfect to walk the earth.

Zeus transformed himself into or sent an eagle and abducted the unsuspected Ganymede who was brought to Olympus. There, he was welcomed by Zeus who presented him with an unprecedented offer, to become his cupbearer; that is to pour the divine drink called nectar, into Zeus’ and the other gods’ cups. Zeus also offered to make Ganymede an immortal, blessed with eternal youth, serving in the banquets of the gods forever.

The Gift Of Zeus

Ganymede disappeared from earth abducted by an eagle, without warning or trace. His parents must have been terribly worried. According to the Homeric Hymn To Aphrodite:

“But grief that could not be soothed filled the heart of Tros; for he knew not whither the heaven-sent whirlwind had caught up his dear son, so that he mourned him always, unceasingly, until Zeus pitied him and gave him high-stepping horses such as carry the immortals as recompense for his son. These he gave him as a gift. And at the command of Zeus, the Guide, the slayer of Argus, told him all, and how his son would be deathless and unageing, even as the gods.”

According to the Hymn, Zeus took care to let Ganymede’s father know that his son was now walking among the gods blessed with the gift of immortality. Still, the god understood that he had to offer something to compensate for taking the son away from the family.

Although the above excerpt, mentioned that Zeus gave Ganymede’s father two horses of incomparable beauty, other sources mention a golden vine. Besides, the gift is in some versions presented by Zeus himself and in others by Hermes.

In any case, Zeus ensured that the father would be happy with the arrangement, even though it is unimaginable that anyone would happily trade their son for two horses or a golden vine. Yet, then again, this is a neglectable detail within the context of a story where an eagle abducts a boy to a neverland on top of a mountain where no one ever grows old.

Hera Is Jealous

Although Zeus is well-known for his multiple affairs, Ganymede is a unique case. There are not many amongst Zeus’ lovers who were chosen to live on Olympus amongst the immortals. In fact, according to Xenophon’s Symposium, Ganymede was the only one of Zeus’ lovers to be ever granted immortality.

Ganymede’s ascension did not please everyone. Ovid writes that Ganymede came to Olympus “against Juno’s (Hera’s) will.”

The previous cupbearer of the gods was Hebe, Hera’s daughter. Now Ganymede was not simply replacing Hebe, but, as Nonnus – the Roman author of Dionnysaica – wrote, he was offending the goddess by pouring Nectar with human hands.

But there is more. Zeus did not only abduct Ganymede to serve as a simple cupbearer. The Greek sources are not really clear on this point. But they nonetheless imply that Ganymede was abducted by Zeus to serve as his cupbearer and lover. In later Roman sources, Ganymede is explicitly presented as Zeus’ erotic partner.

Hera’s anger is also described in more detail:

“There Hera sat, looking furious even upon the shield, and showing in her mien how jealousy filled her soul; for she was pointing a finger at the boy, to show goddess Pallas who sat next her how a boy Ganymedes walked among the stars to pour out their wine, the sweet nectar of Olympos, and there he was handing the cups which were the lot of virgin Hebe.” Nonus Dionysaica 25.439



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *