In order to understand the story of Zeus and Ganymede, we have to set the stage. Before the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greeks, there was a process which started with Chaos. Next was Gaia the Earth Goddess, then Tartaros in the pit of the earth, and finally Eros. Who is Eros? Eros is, according to Hesiod, “love, handsomest among all the immortals, who breaks the limbs’ strength, who in all gods, in all human beings overpowers the intelligence in the breast, and all their shrewd planning .” Eros tends to destabilize things and brings us close to Chaos.
After the early period when heaven and earth were separated by Time. Zeus emerges victorious. He is the symbol of order and structure. His wife Hera is the jealous protector of marriage. She is a feminine ordering principle and the complementary opposite of our heavenly father god Zeus. All the deities love and fear Eros. He can make them do the craziest things. His beauty enchants, breaks the will, destroys reason. Eros compels his victims with lusty desire and entraps them. The sudden change in his victims is symbolized by the tools of his trade, the bow and arrow. Falling in love is transforming, wounding, like being penetrated by a magic arrow. One is never the same after falling in love. And this can happen to the best of us, especially Zeus.
That happened in ancient times when tribal chiefs had herds of sheep. One such chief sent his son out to protect the sheep from predatory wolves. This strong young man was extraordinary, in many ways much like Eros himself. He was an amazingly attractive young man and his name, Ganymede, sort of states the obvious. He was well developed, what we would call “a stud”, someone who would make beautiful children. Ganymede means “beautiful genitals”. I guess we would have to say he was “well hung” and a perfect specimen of the male form in humans.
The Hellenes, as the ancient Greeks referred to themselves, had a rather primitive equation which appears in Plato’s dialogues. (Beauty = the Good) was the equation. This idea existed before people became more discerning and added ethics to the definition of the Good.
The beautiful, lonely shepherd must have been laying out in the hot sun playing his pipe when Zeus noticed him. If beauty equals the good, then here was its manifestation in human form. Eros must have unsheathed and shot one of his arrows, because Zeus was overcome with desire for the youth. The stories vary on how Zeus seduced Ganymede, but his animal familiar, the eagle, played a central role. First you have to get close to the young man in a form he can relate to. Deities are energy matrices, what we call archetypes in the 21st century. They have to take on some shape, some form, in order for humans to see them. An eagle is a rather scary predator. It has sharp talons and beak, which are used to kill lambs. The potential enemy of his herd has to appear friendly to the shepherd or the youth must be very naive. Perhaps there is another amorous arrow in this story, one which penetrates Ganymede. In any case there is a fascination for the youth, a curiosity which wounds, when he gets close to the eagle, who surprises him. Having won his victim’s trust, the eagle plunges his talons into the youth and carries him upward into the heavens.
This image would frighten many a civilized European of today. The indigenous plains tribes of Turtle Island (North America) still pierce the chests of Sun Dancers, who willingly tie themselves to the Tree of Life. Some of these dancers are eagle dancers and the symbolism of the eagle, which soars high in the sky, is the messenger who carries the people’s prayers to Creator/Great Mystery. The Mandan tribes would hoist the pierced dancers to the top of the structure, as the men swang from leather thongs attached to their chests. Chief Seattle’s tribe did the same thing, before the Europeans stopped the practice in the 19th century. The image of being transported into another dimension by pain and suffering is that of Ganymede. Like the eagle dancer who bleeds and hangs completely dependent upon the divine powers, the beautiful youth is transformed.
In Olympos, the home of the divine beings, Zeus honors the beautiful and the brave human. He takes him to his bed and makes love to him. He gives him a job where Zeus can show him off, both his beauty and his charm. He pours ambrosia, the elixir of immortality, for all the divine beings. Being a just god, Zeus compensates Ganymede’s parents for stealing their son. The constant presence of her husband’s lover annoys Hera, his wife, and she threatens to destroy the beautiful human. Zeus, refusing to part with his prize, transforms Ganymede into a constellation of stars, which is now called Aquarius, the Water Pourer. This action by the divine father puts the story on the front page of the celestial court’s newspaper. As long as we look up at the starry night and wonder about the camp fires of the star nations, our Hellenistic brothers and sisters can tell us the ancient story of Zeus and Ganymede, a time when warriors and their lovers began to transform human consciousness. We are living in the culture which they created, one of war, abuse of human freedom, piracy, slavery, and destruction of Gaia, Mother Earth.
There is hope in this story, because the 2000 year Age of Aquarius is dawning, and that means love, harmony, trust, peace, and understanding are possible. We just have to change direction and become children of Aquarius instead of Aries, the god of war.