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Classical Mythology  
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The Greco-Roman myths concerning same-sex love have been of crucial importance to the Western gay and lesbian literary heritage, both as texts and as icons.

Myth and literature are deeply interdependent and often indistinguishable. Being, in essence, the traditional tales told about gods and about human or semidivine heroes, myths generally take a narrative though sometimes a dramatic form. Usually they are first recorded in poetry, as Homer and Hesiod demonstrate with respect to the classical mythology that is to be focused on here.

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Myth as Literature and Literature as Myth

The Iliad and Odyssey, from the eighth century, and Theogony, from around 700 B.C.E., are our prime and richest sources of the Greek myths, but the poems are themselves mythic, that is, they belong equally in the fields of the mythologist and of the literary scholar. Aristotle ranks plot--or muthos, the source of our word myth--as the first element of tragedy and epic.

In the Poetics (Chap. 6) muthos refers to "the combination of the incidents, or things done in the story," but the Greek tragedies and Homeric epics that Aristotle has in mind are mythic also in the sense of being "imitations"--or representations--of the legendary actions of divine and heroic agents. Thus Aristotelian poetics enables us to equate myth with the plot that is the "life and soul" of the poems in the two highest literary genres.

Pindar uses a lyric form, the ode, to draw upon and contribute to the treasures of Hellenic mythology. The Latin works that are most remarkable for being at once literature as (Greco-Roman) myth and myth as literature are Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphoses.

The Functions of Myth

The literariness of myth, however, is but part of the story. Mythological scholarship has discerned many additional features and functions: Myths explain origins; the genesis of everything from the cosmos, the gods, or mankind to the emergence of a species of flower. They can accomplish in a non-abstractive mode some explanatory functions of philosophy or science; yet the physical sciences and philosophy tend to refute and reject myths, the literary and other arts to adopt, adapt, and invent them.

Variant versions are rather the rule than the exception. Myths may combine with rituals and cults to compose the religious experience of a community. Anonymous for the most part, myths are as if communal dreams emanating from the unconscious of a people.

The truth-value varies, with myths believable as literally true within the orbit of the culture that spawns them and deemed erroneous or fictitious elsewhere; yet elsewhere they may also be viewed as imparters of archetypal and psychological verities.

Finally, they may mirror, account for, and validate social institutions, such as, for example, the male that prevailed in ancient Greece.

The Rape of Ganymede

Of all the myths from Greco-Roman antiquity that treat of male , the rape of Ganymede deserves first place. The youngest son of Tros, eponymous king of Troy, he excelled in physical beauty, and that determined his fate. He was tending flocks or else hunting game one day when Zeus, having fallen in love with him, swooped down in the form of an eagle (or, in a variant, sent an eagle), seized him, bore him to Mount Olympus, and there made him the cup-bearer of the gods--in place of Hebe--and his own ever-youthful beloved.

Tros was grief-stricken at his loss, until Zeus sent him some superlative horses as a compensatory gift and the message that his son would never age or die, whereupon his sorrow turned into joy. Hera (the Romans' Juno) was doubly offended, as mother of the displaced Hebe, also goddess of youth, and as the chief god's ever jealous wife.

Zeus was an inveterate womanizer, and "goddessizer," but his way with female partners was to impregnate them and leave; he had never brought any of his women to live on Olympus nor granted any of them divine immortality.

Ganymede may have been his only masculine love, but he was special. Eventually he was celestialized as the constellation Aquarius, the "water-bearer."

The Ganymede legend goes all the way back to the Iliad, where, however, it differs significantly from the more familiar later version. The boy was already the son of a Tros recompensed with horses (5.265-269), but no eagle abducts him. Some unnamed gods, finding him "the loveliest born of the race of mortals," do so instead, and they take him up to dwell with them and to be the wine-pourer of Zeus (20.230-235). He is not said to be enamored of the youth, to whom the divinities apparently respond aesthetically rather than erotically.

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Zeus pursuing Ganymede. Of all the myths from Greco-Roman antiquity that treat male , the rape of Ganymede deserves first place.
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