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Chapter 5: The Twelve Olympians: Zeus, Hera, and Their Children

The life of Zeus illustrates special motifs that appear again and again in the lives not only of other deities but also in the mortal lives of the heroes of saga, to be sure with infinite variations and amplifications; see also MLS, pp. 402–406.

  • He is the child of extraordinary parents; both of Zeus’ parents are gods.
  • The circumstances of his birth are unusual or difficult. He must avoid being swallowed by his father.
  • He must be brought up in secret and he leads a charmed and idyllic childhood. This motif is that of the “Divine Child.”
  • Upon reaching manhood he must come into his own by overcoming challenges and adversaries: his father (Cronus) and the Titans, the Giants, and Prometheus.
  • His must kill the real and symbolic dragon (Typhon) to achieve the archetypal status of Dragon-slayer.
  • In the end, he is the victor and wins a bride, a kingdom, and power. Zeus triumphs to become almighty god, although his exploits and trials are by no means over.

Ganymede, Rape, and Homosexuality. The carrying off of Ganymede by Zeus introduces yet other significant motifs, reflecting Greek society in particular and human life in general, i.e., the motifs of homosexuality and rape. Since the gods embrace all of the passions and appetites of being human, it would be surprising if homosexuality were not present.

The story of Zeus and Ganymede illustrates succinctly the wide variation of interpretation and reinterpretation that these myths are capable of inspiring a principal reason for their immortality. The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (MLS, pp. 121–123) tells a simple story of how wise Zeus singled out beautiful Ganymede to grace Olympus as cupbearer and live there forever, immortal, like a god.

The spirituality and also the sensuality of the myth emerge with sublimity in the poem “Ganymed” by Goethe, especially in its musical settings by Schubert and Wolf. The incident is seen from the point of view of a devoted Ganymede. In a passionate religious aura, Ganymede ecstatically cries to the descending clouds to carry him aloft to the breast of his loving and beloved father. For a different artist, the homosexuality latent in the myth may offer amoral or nonmoral testimony to the fact of a physical relationship, and not a religious calling. Another may tell the story to prove a divine vindication of male relationships. Yet another may vehemently identify the myth as the rape of Ganymede by Zeus—accusing god of the sin of rape, an idea inconceivable to the poet and philosopher Xenophanes. Or the tale may become (as in the case of the Greek writer Lucian) a divinely amusing, urbane, satiric jest. Variations and interpretative possibilities seem infinite!

There is, of course, no single “correct” interpretation of a great myth. Myth is protean by nature; most gratifying because it forever changes through the personality and genius of each and every artist, in any medium at any time, to provide pleasure and enlightenment in our search to find in the work of art our own individual meaning and enrichment.

The myth of Zeus and Ganymede is similar to the story of how Poseidon fell in love with the son of Pelops, Chrysippus, and brought him up to Olympus (MLS, p. 411). The theme of rape is discussed in the Commentary to Chapter 11.

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