Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Lady Zeus? Curious parallels between Jesus and Ganymede

I'm currently re-reading James Davidson's The Greeks & Greek Love, a fascinating and bulky (nearly 600 pages) study of ancient Greek homosexualities. I'm not going to write about his main thesis or, perhaps better, his key arguments. You can get a bit of a sense from an essay he wrote back in 2007 for the Guardian. But for now I'm interested in some small details he gives about the story of Zeus and Ganymede and make some connections with ancient West Semitic religion and its resulting biblical world.

For those who don't know, Zeus is the High God of the ancient Greek pantheon. Ganymede is the beautiful youth who was carried off to the heavens, in Homer's Iliad by the gods but in later accounts and later representations by Zeus himself, sometimes in the form of an eagle. Zeus fell in love with Ganymede and so the youth was made immortal and ageless, dwelling in Olympus as the High God's cupbearer (a role previously filled by Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera). According to the Iliad, Ganymede was a prince of Troy and Davidson details similar stories of divine abductions of mortals many of which seem to take place in the region near Troy. One such abduction is of Tithonus, a relative, in some accounts a brother, of Ganymede. He is carried away by the "serial rapist" (Davidson's term) Eos, the goddess of Dawn. Riding the dawn skies in her chariot, winged Eos, carries Tithonus away and grants him immortality but forgets to grant him agelessness. He gets progressively older and more decrepit and eventually she turns him into a cicada.

Briefly Davidson considers other parallels to Ganymede further east - Anatolia, Mesopotamia and the biblical world. An example Davidson gives from the latter is Elijah who gets carried away in a fiery chariot recalling for me more Tithonus carried off by Eos than Ganymede himself. I was struck, however, by the parallels between Enoch and Ganymede but Enoch doesn't get a mention by Davidson. In standard bibles today, Enoch only gets the briefest mention too. His main appearance is in Genesis where he is the father of Methuselah. Genesis also tells us that "Enoch walked with God, then he was no more because God took him" (5.24). He also gets a couple of references in the New Testament. He is cited as a prophet in Jude 14-15 while Hebrews tells us "By faith Enoch was transferred, that he should not see death, and was not found, because God had transferred him; for before his transference he had the witness that he had pleased God well." (Hebrews 11:5). So basically Enoch, a prophet from primordial time, is taken away by God and does not know death but gains immortality and agelessness in the heavenly realms. The books of Enoch give us a lot more information about Enoch as a prophet and his translation to, and new life in, the heavenly realm which I will come back to later. But just briefly about the books themselves 1 Enoch is the oldest being in five parts, the oldest dating back to the 3rd century BCE. It seems to have been very popular at Qumran and was also influential in early Christianity and is indeed part of the Ethiopian Bible. 2 Enoch most likely dates from the 1st century CE and only exists in Slavonic, being preserved in Russia, and in several recensions but has never been part of any biblical canon. Neither of these books of Enoch are specifically Christian but they have only been preserved by Christians. 3 Enoch is a Rabbinic mystical text from the 6th century CE.

Returning to Ganymede, Davidson considers evidence that Ganymede might not have been of Trojan origin but Greek instead. There are two references in ancient literature to Ganymede as a Greek. One locates him at Chalcis on Euboea which, as well as having a temple to Olympian Zeus, also had a sacred grove dedicated to Ganymede. It was also regarded as the site where the youth was carried off to the heavens. The other site is in the Peloponnese, the city of Phlius, where there was a sanctuary "nestling in a grove of cypresses... dedicated to a goddess called Dia, also called Hebe" (191). However the ancient writer Pausanius was told by locals that the goddess "most anciently... was (called) Ganymeda" (ibid). Yes, a female Ganymede who had also disappeared "or at least there was no cult image... not even a secret one" (ibid). According to Pausanius, the sanctuary was very ancient "going way back" (ibid). Davidson then tells us that back in Bronze Age Greece, the Mycenaean period in the second millennium BCE, many of the later deities of Greece were worshipped including Zeus/Dios and Poseidon. But he also tells us that Zeus and Poseidon and possibly other deities too were worshipped in both genders, thus Dia/Lady Zeus and Posideia/Madame Poseidon. Lady Zeus/Dia survived into the Classical and later periods in out of the way places like Phlius.

According to Davidson that the unique female Ganymede appears in a sanctuary of Lady Zeus is too much of a coincidence. He raises the possibility that perhaps "Zeus and Ganymede were once aspects of a single deity like Dia/Ganymeda" (192). He says "we could generate a nice little tetragram of relationships: Lord Zeus (Dios), his youth Ganymede, Lady Zeus (Dia) and her youth (Hebe) Ganymeda" (ibid). This tetragram immediately recalled for me a similar tetrad in West Semitic religion as found at Ugarit in the second millennium BCE. Here we have El, the High God, and Athirat (Asherah) together with Ba'al and his sister/consort Anat. Nick Wyatt says that these two pairs represent androgynous dyads of divinity and both pairs are connected, Ba'al and Anat are alter egos of the primary dyad of El and Athirat. El and Athirat represent the divine at a macrocosmic level while Ba'al and Anat are the divine at a microcosmic level. If El and Athirat can be seen as in parallel to Zeus and Lady Zeus can Ba'al and Anat be seen as a parallel to Ganymede/a?

Interestingly, the 5th century BCE Jewish community at Elephantine in southern Egypt worshipped Yahweh (Yahu/YHWH) together with a consort, Anat-Yahu. In the biblical world Yahweh and Ba'al are rivals; El is also there as the Most High and so is Asherah who is worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple and is most notably always associated with sacred groves, including one in Jerusalem. So we have that same Ugaritic tetrad here except that Yahweh has replaced Ba'al. So can Yahweh be likewise seen as a parallel to Ganymede?

If so, it comes most strikingly through the parallel between Ganymede and Enoch, a parallel which will also incorporate Jesus. But Davidson has a bit more to say about Ganymede and Zeus which is worth considering before I further explore the parallels. He makes the point that perhaps everyone has been too hung up on the sexual side of the relationship between god and boy to see the significance of the relationship. Instead, he points out, this is a story of apotheosis. Ganymede "is a unique figure in Greek religion, a mortal on Olympus. It was the very nectar served by Ganymede and the ambrosia, the food of the gods..., that kept the gods gods, that kept them up there (on Olympus)" (196). He continues, the Greeks "would see in Ganymede a pure once-mortal boy mediating between earth and heaven, a resonant symbol of human and divine exchange, a uniquely remarkable figure... a mortal removed from the earthly sphere and chosen by the most awesome of the gods to perform holy offerings in his presence. Here sacrifice and the food of the gods are as one" (197). He underlines his argument by noting that in the Greek city of Aegion there was the custom of holding a beauty contest of adolescent youths, the winner being appointed as priest of Zeus, an office he held until the hair began to darken his upper lip and jaw. Furthermore, in many of their images Zeus and Ganymede are wearing yarmulkes. These are now seen as Jewish headgear but it seems they were once regarded as a sign of holiness across the ancient Mediterranean.

Davidson has plenty more to say about Ganymede, including exploring the way Plato recalibrates the dynamics of the love between the god and the boy in the Phaedrus. But what came as a big surprise for me was the discovery that the ancient Jewish philosopher and Torah commentator, Philo of Alexandria, used the image of Ganymede in his work. Here Davidson draws on a short paper by John Dillon published back in 1981 in the Classical Quarterly, "Ganymede as the Logos".

It is the image of Ganymede as the wine-steward or wine-pourer, that Philo draws on (Ganymede is identified with the constellation Aquarius, the water-pourer). On three occasions Ganymede appears in this context in Philo's work. In Quod Deus sit Immutabilis, 155-8, he compares God's grace to nectar and ambrosia and says

He is not, then, going to drink from a cistern, to whom God has granted unmixed draughts of intoxication, either from the hand of one of his servants among the angels, whom he has designated to be his wine-steward , or even from his own hand, without the mediation of anyone between the donor and receiver
The wine-steward is a Ganymede image, the ambrosia of Olympus, here the wine of divine grace

There are two more striking images in Philo's Somneia.

Who, then is God's wine-steward? It is he who pours the libation of peace, the truly great High Priest who first receives the loving-cups of God's perennial bounties, then pays them back when he pours a libation of that potent undiluted draught, himself (2. 183).
Here the wine-steward is turned into the great High Priest who serves in the heavenlies and who is represented on earth by the High Priest in the Temple. As Dillon observes

For Philo, the figure of the High Priest (of whom the ideal example is Moses himself) is a mediator between God and man, a representation of the Logos immanent in the world.

And further on in Somneia, Philo explicitly uses the same Ganymede image in reference to the Logos

And who can pour over the happy soul which proffers its own reason as the most sacred cup, the holy goblets of true joy, except the cup-bearer of God, the master of the feast, the Word (Logos)? not differing from the draught itself, but being itself in an unmixed state, the pure delight and sweetness, and pouring forth, and joy, and ambrosial medicine of pleasure and happiness; if we too may, for a moment, employ the language of the poets (2.249)

John took a fairly standard (according to Daniel Boyarin) 1st century Jewish hymn to the Logos and Christianised it, or maybe more appropriately, Jesusified it to serve as the introduction to his gospel. So this last passage from Philo already serves as a link from Ganymede to Jesus. But the High Priestly role gives a direct link to Enoch the prophet in Genesis who was carried up to heaven. Here is what Jubilees, another ancient text that didn't get into any canons apart from the Ethiopian Bible, has to say about Enoch

And he was taken from amongst the children of men, and we conducted him into the Garden of Eden in majesty and honour, and behold there he writeth down the condemnation and judgment of the world, and all the wickedness of the children of men. And on account of it (God) brought the waters of the flood upon all the land of Eden; for there he was set as a sign and that he should testify against all the children of men, that he should recount all the deeds of the generations until the day of condemnation. And he burnt the incense of the sanctuary, (even) sweet spices, acceptable before the Lord on the Mount. For the Lord hath four places on the earth, the Garden of Eden, and the Mount of the East, and this mountain on which thou art this day, Mount Sinai, and Mount Zion (which) will be sanctified in the new creation for a sanctification of the earth; through it will the earth be sanctified from all (its) guilt and its uncleanness throughout the generations of the world. (Jub 4:23-26)

Here we have Enoch as both the heavenly scribe, as well as the High Priest offering incense to the Lord, to ensure some sort of sanctification of the earth, a form of atonement. The first two books of Enoch give very detailed accounts of this same process - the prophet is carried off to the heavens where he is anointed and vested to become an angelic and (high) priestly being. In subsequent rabbinic tradition, too, Enoch on his ascent to heaven is transformed into the great angel Metatron and in 3 Enoch is termed the lesser Yahweh beside the Lord, the greater Yahweh. In many respects Enoch's story more explicitly and spectacularly is one of apotheosis, deification than that of Ganymede but the core of both is the same principle - a human/mortal who wins the favour of a god and is taken to heaven and there transformed into a heavenly, a divine being to sit or stand beside the Most High God.

These Enochian themes of apotheosis/deification, heavenly high priesthood, grace and atonement are also central to the Christian portrait/understanding of Jesus, so crucial, in fact that I'm inclined to regard them as coming from the source, Jesus himself. Thus Enoch also serves to link Jesus and Ganymede. Jesus is further linked, via Philo's applying Ganymede imagery likewise to the Logos.

It's clear from his book that Davidson has a somewhat jaundiced view of Christianity. Given that he's a gay man it's quite understandable. But Davidson does note how prominent Ganymede imagery was in late medieval and Renaissance Christendom. He notes wryly that the image of Ganymede's abduction is actually on the doors of St Peter's in Rome. Given the bitter contemporary debates about Christianity and homosexuality I'm sure many conservative Christians might look askance at Ganymede's image on the entrance to the most important church in Western Christendom. But ironically it would seem that there is no more appropriate place for Ganymede to be seen. Perhaps the Ganymede story can be seen as a pagan prefiguring of the Christ story. And perhaps Ganymede might enable Christians to see just how much the homo-amorous, homo-erotik inheres in the very divinising dynamics the Christ story itself.

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