Cor Hendriks – The Macaws (30): Ganymede + Psyche and the Eagle of Zeus

Ganymedes voedt de arend (1e eeuws Romeins reliëf) (foto Wikipedia)

The Macaws (30): Ganymede + Psyche and the Eagle of Zeus


The nectar and ambrosia mentioned in connection with the phoenix bring to mind the Greek myth of Ganymede [Richter account, p. 82, has a parallel from the end of the 4th century Anno Domini. by Prudentius (Contra Symmachum, 1, p. 274ff).

non cyanthos dis
porgere, sed medio recubantem
(that is to say Ganymedem)
cum Iove fulcro
nectaris ambrosii sacrum potare Lyaeum

Ovid has a short line about Ganymede in his ‘Song of Orpheus’ in Book X of his Metamorphoses. Orpheus begins his song about Hyacinthus with Jove, since all things begin with Jove’s might. He has told of Jove’s power before; in loftier strains he has sung of the giants and those victorious thunderbolts which were hurled down upon the plain of Phlegra, but now he needs a lighter refrain to tell of boys whom the gods have loved, and of girls who, seized with unlawful passion, have paid the penalty for their amorous desires. The first example he gives is that of Ganymede.

The King of the Gods was once fired with love for Phrygian Ganymede, and when that happened Jupiter found another shape preferable to his own. Wishing to turn himself into a bird, he none the less scorned to change into any save that which can carry his thunderbolts. Then without delay, beating the air on borrowed pinions, he snatched away the shepherd of Ilium, who even now mixes the wine cups, and supplies Jove with nectar, to the annoyance of Juno [Ovid, Metamorphoses, X, p. 148 – 160 (translation Innes 1955, p. 228f).]

The bird, capable of carrying Jove’s thunderbolts, is of course the eagle (familiar from the seal of the USA, carrying arrows). Even more cryptic is Virgil in the Aeneid (V, p. 250ff), where he tells about a cloak the victor (Cloanthus) received,

(…) embroidered with gold round which there ran a broad double meander of Meliboean purple, and woven into it was the royal prince running with his javelin and wearing the swift stags on the leafy slopes of Mount Ida. There he was, eager and breathless, so it seemed, and down from Ida plunged the bird that carries the thunderbolt of Jupiter and carried him off in its hooked talons high into the Heavens while the old men who were there as his guards stretched their hands in vain towards the stars and the dogs barked furiously up into the air [Virgil, Aeneid, V, p. 250 – 258 (translation West, 1990, p. 112)].

Here, the shepherd of Ilium is turned into a ‘royal prince’, hunting on Mount Ida, the holy mountain near Troy in Phrygia. The abducting bird is here also not named but identified as ‘the bird that carries the thunderbolt of Jupiter’.

Homer mentions in the Iliad (5, p. 293 -294) when speaking of the horses of Aeneas, that

’they are the very strain farseeing Zeus gave Tros
payment in full for stealing Ganymede, Tros’ son.’

And in summing up Troy’s kings, he starts with Dardanus, the son of Zeus, who founded Dardania, long before holy Troy arose, who had a son, King Erichthonius, the richest man in all the world, who was the father of Tros, who had three distinguished sons.

Ilus, Assaracus and Ganymede radiant as a god,
and he was the handsomest mortal man on earth –
and so the immortals, awestruck by his beauty,
snatched him away to bear the cup of Zeus
and pour out wine for all the deathless gods.
[Homer, Iliad, XX, p. 268 – 272 translation Fagles, 1990, p. 511].

See Pausanias, V, 42.5.

Homer has written how Ganymede was carried off by the gods to be Zeus’ winen pourer, and how Zeus gave Tros a gift of horses in exchange
(translation Levi, 1984, II, 271).

The numbering of Fagles does not correspond; the references are to V, p. 65f and XX, p. 231ff]. No mention of the eagle, just ‘snatched him away’. Hesiod in The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (p. 202 – 217) has a lot more to say.

Very wise Zeus carried off golden haired Ganymedes because of his beauty, to be amongst the Deathless Ones and pour drink for the gods in the house of Zeus – a wonder to see –, honoured by all the immortals as he draws the red nectar from the golden bowl. But grief that could not be soothed filled the heart of Tros; for he knew not whither the heaven sent whirlwind had caught up his dear son, so that he mourned him always, unceasingly, until Zeus pitied him and gave him high stepping horses such as carry the immortals as recompense for his son. These he gave him as a gift. And at the command of Zeus, the Guide, the slayer of Argus [this is Hermes] told him all, and how his son would be deathless and unageing, even as the gods. So when Tros heard these tidings from Zeus, he no longer kept mourning but rejoiced in his heart and rode joyfully with his storm footed horses [Hesiod (translation Hugh G Evelyn White), 1982, p. 421. Hesiod continues with the rapture of Tithonus by Eos. See for another translation Morford & Lenardo, 1985, p. 74].

Also here no eagle but a ‘heaven sent whirlwind’ (θέσπις ’άελλα [’άελλα (1) strong wind, storm; (2) dust cloud; (3) impetuous movement, whirl, cycle. θέσπις: spoken or animated by a God, so here: sent by a God, meaning: ordained by Zeus]) that took away the beloved third son of Tros, who founded Troy, also called Ilium after his oldest son Ilus.

Strange is the Scholiast on Euripides’s Troades, p. 822.

(…) The vine which the son of Cronos gave him as a recompense for his son. It bloomed richly with soft leaves of gold and grape clusters; Hephaestus wrought it and gave it to his father Zeus; and he bestowed it on Laomedon as a price for Ganymedes. [Hesiod, The little Iliad, 1982, p. 515].

So no horses but a golden vine made by Hephaestus is given to Laomedon, who is here called the father of Ganymede. Laomedon is the son of Ilus and the father of Priam. He promised Herakles the horses that Tros had received from Zeus as recompense for the robbed Ganymede, when he, Herakles, would release his daughter Hesione. But Laomedon did not live up to his promise, which led to a war, in which Troy was conquered and destroyed and all the sons of Laomedon killed except for Priam; and at last also Laomedon was killed [Vollmer, 1978, 1874, p. 307b].

According to the compiled version of Graves (p. 29.b), Hermes presented (after the robbing of Ganymede), on Zeus’s behalf, Tros with a golden vine, the work of Hephaestos, and two fine horses, in compensation for his loss, assuring him at the same time that Ganymedes had become immortal, exempt from the miseries of old age, and was now smiling, golden bowl in hand, as he dispensed bright nectar to the Father of Heaven [Graves 1977, I, p.116 (Scholiast on Euripides’s Orestes, p. 1391; et cetera). In his note (1) he refers to Euripides’s Trojan women, p. 822, where Laomedon is said to be the father of Ganymede, while he is also the father of Tithonus, who was abducted by Eos. The father is not mentioned by Hesiod, and according to Vollmer (p. 434b) he was the son of Ilus and a brother of Laomedon, but more commonly the son of Laomedon and a brother of Priam and the beloved of Eos, and with her father of Memnon and Emathion. She asked Zeus to give him immortality, but forgot to ask for eternal youth; so when he became old and decrepit she changed him in a grasshopper; but Hesiod just has her lock him in a room. ‘There he babbles endlessly (…)’ (Hesiod 1982, p. 423)].

Graves adds another paragraph (p. 29.c). Some say that Eos had first abducted Ganymedes to be her paramour, and that Zeus took him from her. Be that as it may, Hera certainly deplored the insult to herself, and to her daughter Hebe, until then the cup bearer of the gods; but she succeeded only in vexing Zeus, who set Ganymedes’s image among the stars as Aquarius, the water carrier [Graves 1977, I, 116 (Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius, III:115; et cetera)].

In antiquity Ganymede was a beloved subject and Vollmer has three pictures, one from a cut stone, with Ganymede lifted up by the eagle, who carries him with his claws around his sides, as befits the scene pictured by Virgil, that the eagle took the royal prince while he was hunting, for a dog is jumping up at his feet, while the naked prince is already off the ground, making a helpless gesture of protest. In Dutch high school we had a joke about the name Ganymede that expressed this sentiment: ‘Ga nie[t] mee dus’, meaning ‘So [I] won’t go with [you]’.] As a statue he is standing naked with crossed legs, leaning casually on a stick with his left hand, while in his right he has a small bowl. Around his shoulders and on his back, covering part of his left arm, hangs a cape (cloak) and on his head he has a stylised Phrygian cap. He is looking down – it seems – on an eagle, sitting before his stick and looking up to Ganymede, both probably wondering how such a small bird could have carried him up. The other statue has Zeus or Jupiter sitting on his throne, his lower part covered by a cloth, with in his right hand the bowl given by Ganymede, who standing completely naked before Zeus, kissing him on the mouth, while in his right hand he carries an amphora. Vollmer has also a picture of Hebe with an eagle from an antique gem. She can be recognized by the fact that she is ‘leicht geschürzt und halb unbekleidet’, meaning that she wears some kind of light cloth, covering only her legs, not her behind. She standing face to face with the man sized eagle and caresses him at his throat, probably with the intent of kissing him on the beak. She is the daughter of Zeus and Hera and represents eternal youth and as such she is the trophy bride for Herakles after his reception among the gods [Vollmer 1874, 1978, p. 212, figure 119-121; p. 230, figure 136. As to the homosexual relations of Zeus, Graves quotes to this ‘wicked Cretan invention (Plato, Laws, I:8)’ Stephanus of Byzantium [sub Harpagia], who says that King Minos of Crete carried off Ganymedes to be his bedfellow, ‘having received the laws from Zeus’].

According to Koster, Hebe has also the name Ganyméde, and the meaning of Ganymede is ‘the cheerful one’ or ‘thinking about joy’, [Koster, Mythologisch Woordenboek, p. 96. Bartelink, 1988, p. 129, ‘Inventor of joy’] from γάνος (1) bliss, beauty, joy, pride, (2) deliciousness, refreshment, from γάνυμαι (1) radiate, beam, (2) be happy, be joyful; and μηδος, consideration, deliberation, plan, advice, decision; from μήδομαι (1) consider, deliberate, (2) take care of, (3) invent, plan. Graves translates this last part everywhere as ‘cunning’, but here he has ‘rejoicing in virility’ [Graves, 1977, II, p. 392; compare ID., p. 398: Lycomedes – wolf cunning, p.  405: Perimedes – very cunning. He says over Ganymede’s name, that it refers, properly, to the joyful stirring of his own desire at the prospect of marriage, not to that of Zeus when refreshed by nectar from his bedfellow’s hand; but, becoming catamitus in Latin, it has given English the word ‘catamite’, meaning the passive object of male homosexual lust (§29.4)]. My idea would be ‘he, who minds about the refreshment’, as the person taking care of the rejuvenation liquor. The refreshment he pours is the nectar, nine times sweeter as honey, the liquor of the Gods, that gave them eternal youth and immortality. The difference with ambrosia is not clear, this also gives eternal youth and immortality. It means immortality (ambrotos, better abrotos).

Kerenyi points, speaking about the eagle of Zeus, to a boy called Aetos (‘eagle’), born from the earth and together with Celmis, a Dactyl from the Ida (on Crete), and Aegipan, a playmate of the little Zeus. He was beautiful, but Hera changed him in an eagle, because she suspected that he and Zeus were lovers. [Kerenyi, 1955, p. 58. Celmis, one of the Kouretoi, keepers or playmates of the child Zeus, could not keep the secret of the hiding of the young God, and was therefore changed in a diamond (Vollmer, p. 127a), but Graves (p. 53.c) says that Celmis, one of the three Dactyls, was turned to iron as a punishment for insulting Rhea].

Aethon is the name of the eagle, who ate Prometheus’s liver [Vollmer 1874, 1978, p. 80). Aethon is also the name of some horses: from Pallas, son of Evander, from Eos, from Hades, and from Hector. It is also the name of the father of Tantalus, the Phrygian king. The eagle was the assistant of Zeus in his war against the Titans, robbed Ganymede, and punished Prometheus’ presumptuousness. He was the symbol of the glorification, so that at the funerary feasts of kings or great heroes, and particularly the old Roman emperors, an eagle was led loose from the funeral pyre, representing the soul flying up to heaven. The Romans used the eagle also as army sign; every legion had one (instead of a flag). A star sign of the northern sky bears the name Aquila. This is the eagle of Zeus or Merops, King of the island Kos, changed into this eagle by Hera because of his grief, after the reception in the underworld of his wife, the beautiful nymph Ethamea, hit by an arrow of Artemis because of her pride [Vollmer, p. 11, 194]. Merops had a daughter, Kos, and gave the people their name Meropians.

Psyche and the Eagle of Zeus

The third and most difficult of the tasks Venus, the cruel mother in law, has Psyche performed, is to go get water of the Styx. Venus points to the summit of a high mountain. ‘You’ll find that a dark coloured stream cascades down its precipitous sides into a gorge below and then floods the Stygian marshes and feeds the hoarse River of Wailing. Here is a little jar. Go off at once and bring it back to me brimful of ice cold water fetched from the very middle of the stream at the point where it bursts out of the rock. Psyche climbs the mountain, called Aroanius, and sees that the terrible Styx waters burst out from half way up an enormously tall, steep, slippery precipice [vergelijk Macaws] (cascading from there down into a narrow conduit), and are guarded by two fierce never sleeping dragons. She hears the waters singing: ‘Be off!’, ‘What do you wish?’. ‘Take care!’, ‘Death!’, but the Eagle of Zeus guided by Providence comes to her rescue from heaven (being grateful to Cupid, Amor, Eros for his help in the abduction of Ganymede), takes the jar, steers a zigzag course between the two dragons and fills the jar with the (reluctant) water. These dragons are in the words of Apuleius ‘two rows of furious fangs and vibrating three forked tongues between which the Eagle steers on his zigzag course until he reaches the spot. The water makes protests, so the Eagle has to explain his mission in order to get permission to fill the jar and bring it to Psyche [Apuleius (edited by Graves, 1950), p. 150f (Cupid and Psyche, III). The help Cupid gave to the Eagle is the fact that he made Zeus in love with Ganymede, but it is of course possible that Apuleius knew more about Cupid’s help, maybe in the stealing Ganymede away from Aurora, Eos rumoured to have first kidnapped him.]

The third task of Psyche is examined by Ludwig Bieler in an article about ‘Psyche’s Third and Fourth Task at Apuleius’. The first problem is that of a fourth task. Of course Bieler knows about the ‘epische Erzählungsschema’ of the ‘Dreizahl mit Achtergewicht’, the law of three, as in the expression ‘Three times is a charm’ [Bieler, Ludwig, ‘Psyches dritte und vierte Arbeit bei Apuleius’, in: ARW, 30, 1932, p. 243. I could only find like a charm = ‘perfectly’. In Dutch the expression is Driemaal is scheepsrecht,Three times is the law of the sea’, the origin of which is unknown (Van Dale 1999, p. 736f). The expression is used to justify a third try, or to mock, and sometimes has an undertone of ‘when it doesn’t work the first two times, it also won’t work the third time’. The meaning of the word ‘scheepsrecht’ (or schippersregt) is ‘the law that rules on ships’, which has nothing to do with any legal system but is a folk expression (Van Dale, 1984, p. 2507; Harrebomée, I, 153f). This proverb is never used in a negative sense, and so cannot come from the scheepsstrafregt, the legal laws of the sea). ‘Mit Achtergewicht’, means that only the third try succeeds. The ‘law of three’ in fairytales like in real life is not absolute and there can be all kinds of reasons to deviate from it (for instance the similarity of the first two times can lead to the elimination of one of them). We can compare the tasks of Psyche with those of the Bororo hero, who also had to perform three tasks in which he was aided, just like Psyche, by animals. After that his father, who is very much the same as Venus towards Psyche, orders him to climb up for the macaw feathers, which can be seen as a fourth task, but I would rather treat it as something different. The tasks are all indirect attempts to eliminate the hero: ‘when you don’t succeed in the task, I will kill you,’ is the slogan of all the task givers. After the three tasks the hero has won the price: Venus has to admit the marriage, and goes over to a direct way to get rid of Psyche, but it is covered in a simple household task: go to the ‘neighbour woman’ to borrow something. Such an extra job can be seen in one of the examples Bieler gives, the Greek tale of ‘The King’s Son and the Beardless One’, that we saw above (ATU 531). [Bieler, a.c., 255f: Hahn, Griechische Märchen, I, 233ff: ‘Der Königssohn und der Bartlose’.] After the three task that are ordered by the king the Beardless One orders the King’s son to climb in the tree and pick the topmost apple. So it is clear that this is not a fourth task, but a separate assignment. The King’s son climbs up and as he has not the handy stick of his grandmother like the Bororo hero, he plummets to his death. The same with Psyche, who climbs a high tower to plummet herself to her death as a short way to fulfil the wish of Venus. But Psyche has also something as the saving grandmother; the tower speaks to her and refers her to Taenarus, where a ventilation hole into the Underworld is.

So we have three situations who are the same: the Bororo hero and the King’s son on top of a tree and Psyche on top of a tower; then the Bororo hero goes into a deathlike state, the King’s son plummets to his death, and Psyche goes down the ventilation hole into the Underworld.

Bieler claims that the water of life is always brought for a definite goal, but this is not true in ATU 531: here the King’s son first has to bring (as third task) to bring the Water of Life, and when he has plummeted to his death the princess revives him with it. [Bieler, account, p. 252-254, Das Wasser des Lebens wird steds zu einem bestimmten Zweck gesucht (…) die Gewinnung des Lebenswasser eine Not (zum Beispiel Krankheit) zur Voraussetzung hat (with stress). He claims, ‘daß das Holen des Lebenswassers nicht in den Kreis der typischen “Aufgaben (tasks) gehört (obwohl der Umstand, daß es eine Jenseitsfahrt voraussetzt, in gewissem Sinn dafür spräche, es sogar als Steigerung an die letzte Stelle zu setzen‘)].

These tasks we saw before in the Estonian story of ‘Big Pete and Small Pete’, where the third task was to get the clock of the devil, and they can also be found in a Croatian version of ATU 531. A Gypsy has forced the Emperor’s son to switch places, but wants to get rid of him, and has him sent (by the Emperor) to the ‘Wild Emperor’ to fetch his daughter. On his way the prince spares a bunch of ants, then comes to a golden eagle lying on the road, near starvation. The prince cuts a piece off of his horse, offers it, and the eagle gives him a feather (as the ant king had given a wing). At the court of the Wild Emperor the first task is sorting out grains which is done by the ants. For the 2nd task the King chops the heads off of all his soldiers and their horses and the prince has to revive them before the morning. At night the princess comes to the lad, telling that there is a water called Jordan that has water that can cure everyone even when they are dead. She gives him a bottle and tells him to hurry, not everyone can do it, only a bird. The lad thinks of the eagle, burns the feather and the eagle comes, and tells him to sit on its back. They fly up with the bottle and are back before the morning and revive the soldiers and horses. The water comes in handy, when the prince brings the princess to the Emperor and is killed by the Gypsy. The princess revives the Emperor’s son, who is now released of his promise of silence, and reveals the treason of the Gypsy [Neweklowsky & Gaál ,1987, p. 18 – 195, nº21, ‘Kaiser, Prinz und Zigeuner’. Here we see a deviation of the ‘Law of Three’: only two tasks are given as are also only two animals mentioned, who are similar with the ants and the eagle of the Psyche tale. Here there is no task at all: the Gypsy just chops off the head of the hero to prevent him from revealing the truth; and the hero goes to the underworld, albeit for just a few moments, because he is quickly revived with the water of the river Jordan.

The reason for Bieler to examine the underworld journey of Psyche with the third task is the resemblance of the ‘water of life’ the eagle brings, and the formonsitas, the beauty crème, which in fairytales is called ‘the water of beauty’, but which turns out to be ‘water of death’. That there are these three waters (and not just two as Bieler mentions) we have seen above, although most stories limit themselves to two waters, wherein the ‘water of death’, used to join the pieces in which the body is cut, also has the effect of the ‘water of beauty’, making the hero much more beautiful (= rejuvenation), which was the reason for the king in ATU 531 to also try the experiment (but he did not have the protecting salve Medea gave to Iason and was burned to a crisp: Styx water, while cold, burns!).

The strange place where the Styx water comes from, so oddly agreeing with the place where the macaws nest or the honey was found in the Chinese tale (supra), is also examined by Bieler, who remarks that the Water of Lifenicht ganz selten’ is found in (or on) a mountain. He uses as example the (new) Greek tale of ‘Sun, Moon and Morning Star’, a version of ATU 707, where the spring is in mountain that opens only at noon. And in a note he mentions another Greek tale, where the water of immortality is at the End of the World, behind two mountains, that part, and strike together, possibly the same as ‘Water of Life behind symplegadischen Bergen’. [Bieler, account, p. 249, after Hahn, II, p. 46; ID, p. 250, N° 7. About the connection with Medea, Bieler remarks that (still) in the Trojanischen Krieg of Konrad von Würzburg Medea rejuvenates Iason’s father with water from Paradise; that ‘war mit ir ze lande komen in vazzen lieht von golde rôt’ (verse 10657).] We can observe this very beautifully in the tale of ‘The Golden Boughs’ (infra). The hero, Little John, has been treacherously killed and his bloodbrothers, alerted by the life token, find his corpse, join the parts, but lack water of life. They tie a little jug to the leg of a pigeon, who flies quickly through the mountain that opens and closes [Megas, 1978, p. 161 – 179, Nº 42].

Finally there is the ‘death’ of Psyche: When she comes back from her visit to Persephone with the pyxis (‘box’) with the formonsitas. She is forbidden to open the box, but she wants to make herself more beautiful for her gorgeous beloved, and is seized by a Stygian sleep, making her fall down in a death like sleep. Fortunately her lover Eros flies to her rescue, sweeps away the cloud of sleep from her body into the box, and awakens her. But if he hadn’t come she would have slept forever, just like the wolf remarks to Ivan in the tale of the Firebird. The situation is the same: Ivan has returned from the Other World and meets up with his brothers, who were not able to enter the Other World, and have gotten stuck in the borderland, where the inn is. Ivan frees them from their slavery, but on the way he has to sleep a great sleep and commands his brothers to watch over him. Instead they kill and rob him of the Water of Life (in ATU 551) or the bird, horse and princess (ATU 550) or the three princesses (ATU 301, where he is left behind in the underworld). The situation can also be compared with ATU 300, where the hero, after killing the dragon, has his hero sleep and is killed by the treacherous coachman (‘Two Brothers’, KHM 60).


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Vollmer, Wörterbuch der Mythologie aller Völker, 3e Auflage, Stuttgart, 1874 (reprint Leipzig 1978).
Richter, “Zwei spätantike Gedichte über den Vogel Phoenix” in Rheinisch Museum für Philologie, 1993, p. 62 – 90

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