Myths of the Moon: Ganymede (Jupiter)

The myths of Ganymede are hard to relate, because they involve the abduction, and very likely the rape, of a youth. We’ve seen how Zeus can take advantage of mortals, and how his wife, Hera, responds. Io had to flee, in bovine form, to Egypt. Europa found herself on the shores of Crete. But the young boy, Ganymede, had a different fate.

Should you have found yourself on Mount Olympus, and you needed to refill your empty glass of wine (or possibly mead), you would have been served by a young boy. Zeus went to great lengths to bring this child to the heavens: he transformed himself into an eagle and swooped down on the youth. This has been a mythic/artistic image from ancient Greece through the Renaissance, but it does beg a troubling question: should the story of Ganymede be seen as pederastic propaganda, or is there a more innocent interpretation of a story that that often has the word “rape”, or “abduction”, in its title?

In exchange for the boy, Zeus offered the child’s father horses worthy of the gods – a trade that no (loving) parents I know would make. Maybe that’s part of the point of this tale.

Not that horses would end up serving his father well. His name was Tros, and the city he founded was called Troy…and maybe it’s possible that the tale of Ganymede was on Homer’s mind when he wrote the Iliad. Might the sins of the father have led to the Trojan horse that resulted in the destruction of Troy? That’s a question only Zeus can answer.

On the bright side, Zeus did make Ganymede immortal, a gift he conferred on no one else. While he elevated both Io and Europa to the status of Earthly queens, he literally elevated Ganymede to the status of a god.

Of course, his wife Hera would have nothing to do with this affair, and so to protect the boy, Zeus did what good gods do – he transformed him into a constellation.

Age of Aquarius? Actually, it’s the age of Ganymede. The word Aquarius comes from the Greek word for eagle, Aquila, the form Zeus took when he stole Ganymede away.

Simon Marius, a contemporary of Galileo, started the convention of the mythological naming of moons, even though it took a few centuries to catch on. So, what can we say about Ganymede, the moon?

For one thing, it’s the largest moon in our solar system. It’s also the only moon (known to date) to have its own magnetic field.  And in 2022, we’ll probably know more about Ganymede and its other Jovian partners than ever before. That’s when JUICE (yep, not making that one up), a European Space Agency satellite, will be exploring all three of the icy spheres that revolve around Jupiter (alas, poor volcanic Io is not on the list, but Europa, Ganymede and Callisto are).

Back to the myth, what is the take-away? Is this a tale of heavenly sanctioned pederasty, or can we assume a more benign relationship between the elder god and his young cup bearer? Many artists, poets, and philosophers have claimed stakes in this centuries old debate.

I, for one, am simply going to cop out by stealing a theme from Yann Martel‘s book, The Life of Pi:

In the end, always go with the better story (in this case, the not rapey one).

The next moon story involves a different Jovian transformation: instead of turning into an eagle, Zeus turns into a female goddess. This is the story of Callisto, or Kalliste, the fairest, and like Ganymede, her fate would eventually lead her to the stars.

Until then, keep looking up at the heavens. And if Zeus tries to hit on you, remember his track record: it doesn’t improve…

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