THE DEBATE OF GANYMEDE AND HELEN
The Debate of Ganymede and Helen is a twelfth-century poem in Latin by an unknown, probably southern French author. Ganymede, as the loved boy of Zeus, the king of the gods, had endured since antiquity as a synonym for loved-boys, whilst Helen’s fame from Homer’s Iliad as the most beautiful woman in the world was equally enduring. Here they are debating as to whether the love of boys or of women was better. In doing so, they offer rare insight into high mediaeval attitudes and practices regarding Greek love.
Debate on this topic was in an old classical tradition, but the circumstances under which it was debated by ancient Greeks, amongst whom boy-love was much admired, were very different to those of mediaeval Christendom. Hence it is important to note that the work under consideration was, far from being obscure and derided, evidently popular, since it survives in manuscripts all over Europe, and profoundly influenced subsequent literature, suggesting the times were, by Christian standards, surprisingly receptive to its unapologetic arguments in favour of Greek love.
There are striking similarities between Ganymede and Helen and the debate in the mediaeval Arabic tale “Girls or Boys?” in The Thousand Nights and One Night, suggesting a common protype for some of their ideas. Not only are many of the arguments deployed similar, but both depart from the classical tradition in having a woman argue for the love of women rather than a woman-lover. Ganymede and Helen takes this a step further by also having a boy, rather than a boy-lover, make the case for loving boys.
The translation is by John Boswell in Appendix 2 of his Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago, 1980), pp. 381-9, using Rolf Lenzen’s critical edition collating numerous manuscripts, “ ‘Altercatio Ganimedis et Helene’: Kritische Edition mit Kommentar,” published in Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 7 (1972), pp. 161-186, but modiﬁed on the basis of readings from Houghton Library MS Lat. 198.
The sun had entered the House of the Bull, and spring, blossom laden,
Had reared its lovely, ﬂowered head.
Under an olive tree I lay, on a bed provided by the grass,
Amusing myself by recalling the sweetness of love.
The redolent scent of the ﬂowers, the freshness of the season, 5
The gently billowing breeze, the chorus of the birds -
While these caressed my mind, sleep crept slowly up.
Oh, that it had never left my eyes!
For I seem to see Ganymede and Helen
Standing on the summer grass beneath a lovely pine, 10
With regal air and serene faces,
With foreheads that shame the lily and cheeks, the rose.
They seem to sit down together on the ground,
Which smiles up at their faces.
It is said that only the gods bestow such beauty. 15
Each is astonished to have found an equal in loveliness.
They exchange words about many things,
And they contend with each other about their comeliness,
Just as if radiant Phebe and Apollo were arguing.
The impudent youth compares himself to the female. 20
She, already longing for the male and ready for bed,
Has for some time felt the proddings of love.
The singular beauty of Ganymede inﬂames her
And already the warmth within proclaims itself without.
Modesty shrinks from a hospice of love: 25
Nor has the maid still the modesty of a virgin;
And since she is not asked, she asks, and entices,
Offering him her lap, her kisses, her bosom.
Both are stretched out upon the verdant grass,
And might have been blessed with union, 30
But Ganymede, not knowing the role expected of him,
Presses himself against her as if he wishes to be passive.
She senses something is wrong and is astounded.
She pushes him away, rails at him;
She curses nature and rants at the gods 35
That a monster should be clothed with so fair a face.
The matter brings them to a ﬁght:
The more she praises the female, the more he the male.
They agree that Nature and Reason shall be
The judges and determine the issue. 40
Each therefore mounts a steed without delay.
Three dawns see them hurrying on,
Until the face of the rising sun greets them
At the house of Nature, toward which they give rein.
Mother Nature is in the palace of Jupiter, 45
Ruminating over the secrets of things to come,
Weaving thread into countless ﬁgures
And creating things with precise scales and balances.
Close by stands her companion, Reason, under whose surveillance
She causes the newborn to grow and sows the seeds of those yet to be born. 50
They mix the different sexes, and from this mixture
Of different kinds, fertility arises.
Providence also attends, of loftier stature,
Whom the Creator of nature bore of pure thought.
Neíther the past nor the present escapes her; 55
Every visible creation is under her observation.
“Lo,” she says, “I behold two humans coming,
Of elegant beauty and astonishing comeliness.
I wonder that earth could have produced them:
Heaven itself would be proud of such offspring. 60
I seem to hear them bringing their accusations against each other.
I understand the argument, but I wish I did not.
Now will you see all the gods gather.”
She had spoken, and they saw it happen just so.
The tale arouses Jove and his whole brood; 65
Some are drawn by Helen, others by Ganymede.
The palace is opened, the seats are ready.
The gods ﬁll the heavenly halls with majesty.
Meanwhile Dardanus and Tindaris are called in;
They are already stepping onto the threshold of the palace. 70
They leave their horses; they shine with golden appointments.
As they enter the celestial gateway, they are sighted immediately.
Unexpected, the boy is seen to enter
Like the morning star shining before the
He seems to scorn all with his eyes, 75
And his face disdains to adorn a mortal.
His hair is like imperial gold cloth,
Which is dyed by the Chinese from pure
When it tries to reach his eyebrow
It curls back coyly on the smoothness of
his forehead. 80
His eyebrows are separated by a comely
His wide eyes sparkle with sweet rays;
His mouth invites a kiss almost as a
His whole face glows with sweet charm.
Her hair is partly loose and hanging free,
Partly bound into an elaborate coiffure, go
Which is well pulled back from the top of her face;
She holds her head aloft as one unused to fear.
Her brow is proud, but her eye is playful.
Her nose is beautifully shaped;
Venus has seasoned her kiss with her own nectar, 95
And some god polished her chin with his own hand.
Lest her hair cover her real beauty,
She moves it away from her face, pushing it up behind each ear,
So her face appears like the dawn,
Mixed, when it comes, with pink and white. 100
Then you could see the gods squirming on all sides,
Apollo growing hot, Mars panting,
Groaning as if he had Venus herself in his arms.
He made no effort to restrain himself; it was disgusting to hear.
Jupiter calls Ganymede without shame, 105
But Nature has prepared a seat for the maiden.
She takes it ill that the boy has entered her home:
She calls him neither son nor heir.
A silence comes over the hall; the boy stands up.
Helen stands also, turning her face away from him. 110
Assuming that she will charge ﬁrst into the fray of this battle,
The entire assembly turns its eyes to her.
“Alas,“ says Helen, “I am sorry for you.
You clearly hate the female gender.
The natural order is overturned and law destroyed through you. 115
I wonder why, since you will not produce children, your father produced you?”
“Let the old produce sons, for the enjoyment of the young:
The young lust to have those in their prime.
The game we play was invented by the gods
And is today maintained by the brightest and best.“ 120
“That face of yours is only decoration for the sake of
It will pass away with you, since you will never know a wife.
If you would marry [and beget a son],
Your son could replace the form of his father.”
“I have no interest in replacing my face, 125
But only in pleasing individuals with my individual being;
I only hope that beauty of yours fades with age,
Since I think it causes me to be loved a little less."
“Oh, how lovely is love between different sexes,
When a man favors a woman in a mutual embrace! 130
He and she are drawn together by natural attraction:
Birds, wild animals, boars, all enjoy this union."
“But humans should not be like birds or pigs:
Humans have reason.
Peasants, who may as well be called pigs - 135
These are the only men who should resort to women.“
"No love has ever touched the heart of a boy,
But when the same bed joins a man and a woman,
This is the correct connection, the proper arrangement,
For like affections arise only from different sexes." 140
“Disparity divides things: it is rather like things that are rightly joined together;
For a man to be linked to a man is a more elegant coupling.
In case you had not noticed, there are certain rules of grammar
By which articles of the same gender must be coupled together.”
“When the creator of men formed man, 145
He tried to make woman more beautiful than man,
So that he might attract man to mate with woman,
And men would not love other men more than women."
“I should have agreed that it was decorous to love women,
If appearance were the same thing as good manners. 150
But when women are married, they sully the delights of the bed;
And when they are not married, they make themselves public utilities."
“Let men blush, let Nature grieve;
It is not the intention of Nature that men be bound to each other.
Venus joins men only in a fruitless union: 155
The boy sells his charms heedless of his sex."
“We know this activity is accounted worthy by those worthy to be counted;~
The people with power and position in the world -
The very censors who decide what is sin and what is allowed -
These men are not immune to the soft thighs of a boy.“ 160
“I am not considering those people who
act when driven by frenzy.
No reasonable argument defends you, O
This boy has never felt any desire,
Whence he sins and offends even more
“The fragrance of proﬁt is pleasing; no one
avoids gain. 165
Wealth, if I should speak plainly, does
have a certain appeal.
Anyone who wishes to grow rich is
willing to play this game:
If a man desires boys, he is willing to
“Even if this were not counted a sin for
No rationalization could defend the
I can only laugh when I see some obstinate old man:
A game of this sort is surely a sin in old age.”
“I do not excuse the elderly, whom age accuses;
It does seem disgraceful, when they can already see white hairs,
To occupy themselves with such matters and usurp the activities of the young. 175
But the old should not be a discouragement to the young.”
“Tell me, youth, when youthful good looks change,
When you grow a beard, when your face gets wrinkles,
When your chest turns bushy, when your hole grows tough,
What anxious stud will dream of you then?” 180
“Tell me, maiden, when your virginal charms waste away,
When your lips grow thick, your skin dries out,
When your eyebrows droop and your eyes are tired,
Is not then the most passionate of your lovers also going to droop a bit?”
“You try to be smooth and hairless below 185
So that your temple there might be like that of a
So that in deﬁance of nature you might become a
You have declared war on nature with your ﬁlth.”
“I might wish to be smooth and soft below the
But God forbid that I should have the shrine of a
This is done precisely so I might repel women,
whom I contemn.
How much difference is there between a woman
and an ass?”
“Oh, if I were not restrained by gentle modesty,
I would not be mincing any words with you.
But it is demeaning to use bad language, 195
And foul words ill become the mouth of a maiden.”
“But we came prepared to speak of vulgar matters:
There is no place here for the modest.
Shame and piety have already been abandoned,
Nor shall I spare either maidenly airs or the truth." 200
"I do not know which way to turn, for if I do not speak on a par with the vicious,
I shall be called the loser;
But if I strive to equal you in words,
I shall be thought a whore to have spoken so impurely.”
“Find someone else to fool, someone who does not know you. 205
I know whom you have offered your bosom to, lying on your back.
Where was that dovelike innocence then?
Suddenly Thais has become Sabina.”
“You males who apply yourselves to men,
Who rashly emasculate males, 210
By night you taint both boys and yourselves with vice;
In the morning - I should really pass over this - the shame is on the sheets.“
“You men in whose bed sleeps a prostitute,
Whom it delights to be ﬁlled with feminine ﬁlth,
When Thais, recumbent, reveals herself to you, 215
You know what her bilge water smells like.“
“Thais smells of Thais in the manner of Thais,
But a girl excels balsam in fragrance.
There is honey in her kiss, honeycomb in her lips.
Blessed he who enjoys sleep with a virgin.” 220
“When Jupiter divides himself in the middle of the bed,
And turns ﬁrst to Juno, then to me,
He hurries past the woman and spends his time playing love games with me.
When he turns back to her, he either quarrels or snores.”
“Your Venus is sterile and fruitless, 225
And highly injurious to womankínd.
When a male mounts a male in so
reprobate a fashion,
A monstrous Venus imitates a
“It is not a monstrous thing, if we
avoid the monster:
The yawning cave and the sticky bush,
The hole whose stink is worse than
anything else in the world,
The cavern which neither pole nor oar
“Hush your foul and unpleasant
Converse more modestly, you ﬁlthy boy!
If you are not willing to defer to a maiden, 235
At least defer to the gods and to Nature.“
“If the subject is cloaked with the ornaments of words,
Decorated ﬁlth will be able to fool us.
I will not be a party to gilding the dross:
It is only right for the words to ﬁt the subject.” 240
“I shall throw away the cloak of modesty;
If you feel that way, I shall henceforth speak plainly:
When that impure coupling joins you
And you lose the tear of Venus between your thighs,
Ha! There, if you do not realize it, is the offense to mankind! 245
The words are nasty, but the deed even more so.”
When the boy hears the unmentionable crime,
A stupor seizes his tongue, a blush rises to his checks.
A warm dew steals furtively from his eyes.
Wanting an argument, he does not defend himself. 250
He is silent. Reason rises to speak.
She prudently limits herself to a few words:
“There is no need of a judge,” she says, “the matter speaks for itself.
“I say to the boy, Enough. The boy is conquered.”
He replies, “At least I utter no rebuttal. 255
“I recogníze error, now that I have learned what it is."
“And I,” Apollo adds, "have come to my senses.”
Jupiter says, “I am aﬂame for my Juno."
The ancient heresy is banished by the inhabitants of heaven.
The chorus of virgins rejoices; Juno gives thanks. 260
Reason celebrates with the children of Nature.
The maiden is crowned with public approval.
Ganymede asks to be granted her hand in marriage:
All the attendant gods approve this as ﬁtting.
The blessed union joins them in bliss, 265
The voice of joy resounds; my slumber departs.
This vision befell me by the will of God.
Let the Sodomites blush, the Gomorrhans weep.
Let everyone guilty of this deed repent.
God, if I ever commit it, have mercy on me! 270
 The manuscripts are listed in Rolf Lenzen’s “ ‘Altercatio Ganimedis et Helene’: Kritische Edition mit Kommentar” in Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 7 (1972), pp. 161-186.
 See John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago, 1980), pp. 255-6.
 Cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses 9.736. [Translator’s note]
 In other words, Ganymede (descendant of Dardanos and inhabitant of the realm called after him: Homer, Iliad XX 215) and Helen (daughter of Tyndareos).
 Note the discrepancy between this line and line 26. [Translator’s note]
 Cynthia is an epithet of Artemis, the virgin goddess of hunting and the moon, here imagined as shining on the sea (Thetis being a sea-deity).
 Lenzen prefers "Jupiter" (“Iovem") to “Mars " on the basis of the reading in D (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek Diez B Sant. 28), but this seems highly unlikely in view of line 105. Jupiter remains on the side of Ganymede up to line 258. [Translator’s note]
 This topos was a favorite of later literature (e.g., Lorenzo Valla De voluptate). Cf. Shakespeare's sonnet 11:
Let those whom Nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless and rude, barrenly perish:
Look, whom she best endow'd she gave the more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:
She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die. [Translator’s note]
 According to Boswell, op. cit., p. 259, where the literature on the subject is described, this “argument about the superiority of same-sex coupling on the basis of grammar was so clever and so felicitously phrased that it was quoted for more than a century after in the major works on homosexuality, whether for or against.”
 The appeal of boys’ soft thighs implies that men practised intercrural sex with them, and is yet another confirmation that androphilic sex (involving hairy thighs) was not under discussion.
 Helen’s argument here is a reminder of the importance of love in 12th-century thinking.
 Ganymede’s admission here is an important indication that boy prostitution was a notable feature of 12th-century pederasty.
 Ganymede’s inability to counter this, except by pointing out that Helen’s beauty will fade, shows that males could not expect to be desired by men once they had grown facial and body hair.
 Thus the smooth, soft skin of a boy is an essential element of Ganymede’s attraction, but he is emphatically not a mere substitute for a woman.
 Thais is a synonym for a courtesan, derived from two ancient women, the mistress of Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy and a 4th-century Egyptian sanctified for her repentance.
 Sabina is presumably intended as a personification of the admired Sabine women of Roman legend.
 If, as Boswell says, op. cit., p. 257, the “shame”on the sheets referred to here is that also referred to by the advocate of heterosex in the Arabian tale Boys or Girls, qv., then it implies that men pedicate boys (as well as having the intercrural sex with them implied elsewhere).
 The “tear of Venus”, the goddess of love, is semen.
 Intercrural sex is again implied here.
 Note that Apollo had previously been identified as a partisan of Helen's faction (line 103). This is one of several dífficulties of the concluding lines. [Translator’s note]
Comments of general interest will be collected at Letters To The Editor (some editing may be involved)
Helen 06 February 2020
I am curious about the nature of Helen's final case: is it the spilling of the seed that cannot be redeemed? It is not clear to me how this can be the final blow, to what element of Reason is being appealed.
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Editor 07 February 2020
I had exactly the same reaction. Ganymede's very sudden capitulation is indeed rather odd.
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ANON 33 19 December 2020
From the description of Ganymede I'd choose him. I know the last part is like "wasting the seed" and all but to be honest it felt like the person writing this was obliged to say "yeah mmm man loving/having sex with man is bad" and had to finish the story like that to not seem like they were supporting it. Also seems like both sides are only trying to tear each other down, I'm kinda mad that it ends like that, why not let everyone choose what they like?