Category Archives: Spy
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolism.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guesswork and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift-giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that has contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of mens’ deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one who could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Sidenote: I had notes say the pepernoot would have letters on them and made of chocolate. The pepernoot doesn’t have to be made of chocolate. That these letters represented runes that Woden would pass out to men. I did find, looking at this closer, that the tossing of pepernoten at children, especially a baby stems from an old fertility rite where Sinterklaas is blessing them.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
WWII – After the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers who were helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up as Zwarte Piet. As these numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
All of these Pieten all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift-giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current, there have been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others outright calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips, and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Another commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed out that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
This is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure on how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.
Other names: Catamitus (Latin), Ganymedes
Etymology: The etymology of the name Ganymede is rather uncertain with many people and sources giving different meanings. A possible Latin meaning is “Gladdening Prince” that takes from the Greek words of ganumai meaning “gladdening” and mêdon or medeôn which means “prince.” As this last word likely has a double meaning, another translation is “genitals.” In which case, Ganymede’s name is meant to have a deliberate double-meaning.
Plato gives forth the meanings of “Ganu,” meaning: “taking pleasure,” and “med,” meaning: “mind.”
Robert Graves in his “The Greek Myths” says that Ganymede comes from the words: ganyesthai and medea, meaning “rejoicing in virility.”
The story of Ganymede is one that is some three thousand years old and dates from the pre-Hellenic and Aegean myths. It’s important to note too, that Ganymede is Trojan and has his place first in the Anatolian myths before his story later becomes part of the classical Greek and Roman legends.
Ganymede’s story and myth is one that has changed too over the millennia. Later Cretan and Minoan additions to the story come some many hundreds if not a thousand years before the Greek version of the story. For many modern day readers, the Hellenic version of the story is the most familiar and well-known.
Ganymede was the son of King Tros of Dardania and who is the basis for the kingdom of Troy in Phrygia from Greek mythology. An exceptionally beautiful youth, Ganymede had caught the attention of Zeus when he was out watching over his father’s flock of sheep on Mount Ida. Now, depending on the versions of the story being told, Zeus, either in the guise of an eagle or sending his eagle Aquila, comes and carries him off to Mount Olympus.
Now, when King Tros heard of his son’s disappearance, he grieved so much that Zeus sent the messenger god Hermes to deliver two storm-footed horses as compensation. Other versions state that Zeus gave Tros a golden vine crafted by the god Hephaistos in addition to the two horses. These horses were said to be so fast that they could run over water. The legendary Heracles would ask for these same horses later as payment for destroying the sea monster sent by the god Poseidon when he attacked the city of Troy. Hermes was tasked too with assuring Tros that Ganymede would become immortal and have a place of great honor among the gods as Zeus’ cup-bearer.
Once he arrived in Olympus, Ganymede faced the wrath of Hera, the wife of Zeus. She was angry and very likely jealous that her husband had taken such a fancy to a young boy. In addition to this, Hera was also angry that Zeus intended for Ganymede to replace Hebe, her daughter as the cup-bearer, after an incident where Hebe had accidentally spilled some of the nectar of the gods.
Eos Kidnapping Ganymede & Tithonus
Another version of this myth says that it was Eos, the goddess of the Dawn who carries off Ganymede to Mount Olympus. At this same time, Eos had also kidnapped another, Tithonus. Zeus succeeded at snatching Ganymede away from Eos while making a bargain with her for Tithonus to become immortal. In her bargaining, Eos forgot to ask for Tithonus to also remain youthful. As a result, every day Eos watched Tithonus grow older until she locked him in a room as she could no longer bear the sight of him so old or he turned into a grasshopper.
Ganymedes’ Lineage – Divine Heritage
While Ganymede is listed as the son of Tros, ruler of Dardania that would become known as Troy, and Callirrhoe, the daughter of the river god Scamander.
Tros and Callirrhoe had two other sons: Assaracus and Ilus.
In Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, he mentions that Tros and Callirrhoe also had a daughter, Cleopatra, a rather common name and not necessarily any of a line of Egyptian Queens.
It should be noted in some versions, Tros is the son of Erichthonius, who in turn is himself the son of Astyoche the daughter of the river god Simoeis. Following the lineage back through Tros’ grandfather of Dardanus, you find a connection to Zeus in the way of his being the great grandfather to Tros.
Ultimately, that makes Zeus Ganymede’s’ Great-Great Grandfather.
Sometimes, the genealogy of Ganymede gets confused and instead of Tros as his father, it is another king of Troy, Laomedon who is mentioned as the youth’s father. It can get rather confusing, as the genealogy will place Laomedon as a nephew to Ganymede with Ilus II as his father and thus Tros as grandfather to him. The overall story of Ganymede is still pretty much the same regardless of who’s mentioned as the father.
Cup-Bearer To The Gods
Regardless of the versions of the story told, Ganymede does become the cup-bearer to the gods and basically serves them their wine. Further variations of this story tell how Ganymede would ride Zeus’ eagle Aquila, accompanying this god on his travels. Both the Aquila constellation near Aquarius and the constellation of Crater, said to be Ganymede’s cup, are near the Aquarius constellation to complete this story.
Ganymede also becomes deified as he was given immorality and eternal youth by Zeus and ends up being the one responsible for the annual Nile River flooding and the life-giving waters of rain. Some scholars have pointed out that like the story of Capricorn, the Greeks are borrowing from other older stories and cultures as well as coming up with their own stories to explain the images and what the constellations mean.
In Roman times, the name Ganymede was sometimes used for handsome slaves who served as cupbearers. Furthering this, many have pointed out that the story of Ganymede is a clear indication and precedence for homosexuality in Greek culture. Others, like in Plato’s writings of dialogues between him and Socrates, say that it wasn’t homosexuality. Instead, they point out the meaning of the name Ganymede for “taking pleasure of the mind.” That Zeus loved Ganymede non-sexually for his mind. Still, other sources point out that this is where the Latin word for catamite originates.
Homosexuality Within Greek Myths
There is a line of thought that points out that all of Zeus’ romantic affairs have some sort of allegorical meaning. The primary one with the story of Ganymede being that of homosexuality in Greek culture.
Before the story of Ganymede and Zeus became popular, the only mention of this type of behavior is found within the worship of the goddess Cybele. Her male followers and devotees would try to attain unity with her through castration and dressing as women. That description though, speaks more of being transgender.
Early Versions Of The Myth – As previously stated, the earliest retellings of Ganymede’s story have no erotic overtones. It isn’t until the fifth century B.C.E. that any sort of sexual relationship between Ganymede and Zeus is mentioned. There has been found a number of Attic vases showing the erotic relationship between the two.
Pederasty – Becoming popular around 7 B.C.E. in ancient Greece, the social acceptance of pederasty appears very suddenly and the first mention of it is on a Cretan brass plaque. Even the famous philosopher Plato makes mention of pederasty having Cretan origins. Pederasty is the relationship between an older man and a younger man, often in his late teens. Ancient Greek social customs say this relationship was consensual.
Note: In Ancient Greek culture and a few others, a youth is just a young adult. About 15 years old for young women and 17-18 for young men. Not as young as a modern mindset is likely to assume.
Plato had Socrates deny Ganymede as the catamite of Zeus. Plato goes on to say that Zeus loved the youth non-sexually and for his mind or psyche. Further, of all of Zeus’ lovers, Ganymede is the only one who is given immortality. Though this is likely overlooking the genealogy of Ganymede’s and that he’s given immortality as he’s a descendant of Zeus’. At the same time, it makes sense for Zeus to love Ganymede’s mind or intellect when he’s just bringing home a descendant of his in whom he might see a lot of potentials and wants to preserve it with immortality.
Once pederasty became popular, some scholars point out that it is or was part of an initiation ritual and in line with entering into the military and the worshiping of Zeus. There would be the presenting of gifts to the youth after his being abducted and taken to the countryside. When the youth returned later, he would sacrifice a bull to Zeus.
Among the different regions of ancient Greece, pederasty was viewed and seen differently. Among the Spartans and Megarians, their cultures didn’t allow for the practice. In Athens, it was a practice reserved only for the aristocracy. Thebans and Boeotians used the practice as an educational means for young boys and to curb their more aggressive tendencies. The Dorians practiced it as well.
For those who have analyzed the myth of Ganymede, they have noted that in many Greek Coming-Of-Age stories about homosexuality, such pederastic relationships didn’t take place without the father’s approval or supervision.
Artistic & Poetic Symbolism – In poetry, Ganymede is used to symbolize an attractive young male drawn towards homosexual desires and love. He is not always shown as such though. In Apollonius’ Argonautica, Ganymede gets upset with a young, god Eros when he’s cheated at a game of chance with dice. Aphrodite, goddess of Love proceeds to chastise her son Eros for cheating on a beginner.
The poet Virgil uses the imagery of Ganymede’s abduction with the youth’s elderly tutors trying uselessly to pull him back to earth while his hounds howl pathetically up towards the heavens.
Fifth-century Attic vases frequently show Ganymede and Zeus’ sexual relationship. Ganymede is shown as a handsome youth. In his abduction scenes, he’s shown with a rooster (a lover’s gift), a hoop (a boy’s toy), or a lyre. In these scenes, he is either being carried off by an eagle or offering food to an eagle from a patera. When Ganymede is shown as the cup-bearer to the gods, he is usually shown as pouring nectar from a jug.
Sculptures and mosaic art often show Ganymede with a shepherd’s crook and wearing a Phrygian cap.
God Of Homosexuality
Despite what the early myths may show and as stories do change and evolve over time, Ganymede does become the god of Homosexuality. Ganymede is often shown as a companion and playmate to the other gods of love, Eros (Love) and Hymenaios (Marital Love). Plato referred to Ganymede as Himeros (Sexual Desire).
The Trojan War
Hera had once been the patron goddess of Troy and her hatred of Ganymede as another lover in a long line of Zeus’ many affairs, has been used by poets and writers to explain why in the story of the Trojan War there is a sudden shift in alliances and support by the gods.
In Quintus Smyrnaeus’ “Fall of Troy” Ganymede is horrified by the invasion of his homeland and pleads with Zeus as he mentions their relationship as kinsmen not to be allowed to see the destruction of Troy. Persuaded by Ganymede’s tears, Zeus veils the city of Priamos in a fog bank that stopped the Greeks from fighting.
Patriarchy Versus Matriarchy
The ancient historian and mythographer Apollodorus has taken the stance that the story of Ganymede shows the triumph of the patriarchy over the matriarchy. That men didn’t need women or their attention.
The famous philosopher Plato used the story of Ganymede to justify his sexual feelings with his male students. That is, loving someone for their intellect.
That certainly seems to be evident with Zeus taking an interest in Ganymede and having him replace Hebe as the cup-bearer to the gods in the accounts that remember Zeus’ and Ganymede’s genealogy and relationship to each other.
Cretan & Minoan Connection – Possible Reality
First, it helps to remember and know that the Minoan culture and civilization predate the Classical Greek culture by some two thousand years. In the Cretan accounts of the story of Ganymede, it is either Tantalus or Minos who abducts the youth. While they were chasing after Ganymede, he is killed and they end up burying him up on Mysian Olympus.
There is a story of King Minos’ brother, Rhadamanthus who loved the youth Talos. Some scholars have speculated that this may be the source of Cretan traditions and customs of homosexuality.
In Plato’s Timaeus, he has no problems blaming the Cretes for coming up with the story of Ganymede as being a lover of Zeus in order to justify their own practices of homosexuality and saying they were only following an example set out by Zeus and his laws. Many Greek authors beyond Plato tended to agree on the practices of pederasty being introduced to the Greeks from Crete.
In the Byzantine Suda, King Minos of Crete on hearing of Tros’ fame in Phrygia, he went to the city of Dardanos to stay as a guest of Tros. While there, Minos and Tros exchanged gifts with each other. After a while, Minos asked to see Tros’ sons, so that he could give them gifts too. Tros informed Minos that his sons were out hunting. Hearing that, Minos wanted to go hunting with the youths too. Tros sent an attendant out to meet his sons where they were hunting near the Granikos river. Minos however, had already sent his ships ahead of the hunting party. Minos had seen the youth Ganymede and fallen in love with him. So he had given orders to his men to the youth. Ganymede however, to escape the pain of his captivity, killed himself with a sword and Minos had him buried in a temple. From there of course, comes the later, more familiar story of Zeus abducting Ganymede and making him immortal.
Ganymede, far as Greek myths go, is viewed as the source of the Nile river and its life sustaining waters. In Egyptian legend, this god is Hapi, who is responsible for dispensing the life sustaining waters and making the Nile valley fertile.
The story of Ganymede seems to be related or taken from a Sumerian story of Etana, who descended to the heavens with the help of an eagle while looking for a plant of birth that in turn leads to the birth of his son, Balih.
In the Roman telling of the myth, before Ganymede replaced Hebe’s role as cup-bearer, they held a competition to see who would have the honor of serving the gods. Naturally, Ganymede won, replacing Hebe and taking his place as a favorite companion to Jupiter. Apuleius, in his 2nd century C.E. novel The Golden Ass refers to Ganymede as being a country-lad rather than a prince of Troy.
A catamite in Roman usage is the younger, passive partner of a pederastic relationship between an older man and a youth. Nowadays in more modern slang, catamite has come to mean an effeminate homosexual man. The Latin word Catamitus comes from the Etruscan word catmite. Though the word has lost many of the mythological connections to the Greek myth. While many vulgar Latinizations of the name Ganymede change it to Catamitus or Catamite, Ovid in his Metamorphoses continues to use Ganymede’s Greek name.
Similar to the Cretan connection, a possible real-world reality involves King Tantalus of Thrake mentioned in the Byzantine Suda. After Tros had won over all the local rulers or conquered them, he sent his son Ganymede with some 50 men to go out and make sacrifices in thanks to Zeus. Tantalus, certain that Ganymede was there to spy on his kingdom, sent his own men to intercept the youth. Once Tantalus, learned the truth of Ganymede’s mission, the king of Thrake tried to nurse the youth back to health. Unfortunately, Ganymede died from illness and Tantalus sent messengers to inform Tros of his son’s death. According to this account, it is later poets who are responsible for changing the story so that Zeus kidnapped Ganymede and became immortal.
Ganymede In Astronomy
Moon – In what should be no surprise to anyone, the seventh and largest moon of the planet Jupiter (the Roman counterpart to Zeus), is named Ganymede after the myth. Ganymede is the second-largest moon in the Solar System and the ninth-largest object as well.
Its discovery is attributed to Galileo Galilei on January 7th, 1610. However, Chinese astronomical records dating to 365 B.C.E. have a Gan De detecting with the naked eye, a moon of Jupiter. This moon is most likely to have been Ganymede.
Astrology – To commemorate Ganymede’s place among the gods and his story, Zeus placed his eagle, Aquila, up into the heavens to become the constellation of the same name, along with the Aquarius Constellation representing Ganymede and the constellation Crater, representing the cup holding the nectar of the gods in it. None of which I can imagine sat well with Hera that Zeus seems to rub it into her face his new favorite mortal.