There is a Canadian video making the rounds on the internet of a golden eagle snatching a toddler. Perhaps you’ve seen it?
Alas, it is all too likely to be fake, yet somehow still captures the imagination. Why? My friend John puts it best: because of “its mythic overtones. Zeus and Ganymede, for real.”
If you don’t know it, the Ganymede myth is a compelling one. In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (circa 600 BC), the author writes, “Clever Zeus abducted gold-haired Ganymede because he was so beautiful, to be among the immortal gods, to pour them drinks in Zeus’ hall–a marvel to look upon–honored by them all as he draws the dark nectar from the golden bowl . . . ageless and immortal, as the gods are.” Later sources make it clear that Zeus came in the form of an eagle to bear the young man off, and artists since antiquity have indulged their geniuses in depicting the scene.
There is a small statue of Ganymede in a nook of the Oxford pub, “The Eagle and Child,” famous for being a favorite haunt of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I recall seeing the statuette there this summer and thinking, Aha! The pub is named for the Ganymede myth. But no. According to the pub’s website, “The first record of the pub’s present name is in 1684, when Richard Platt was granted a licence to hang out a sign depicting the coronet with an eagle and child that appears on the crest of the Earl of Derby.” I take it that the Ganymede statuette is what might be called a “learned reinterpretation” of the pub name, a kind of donnish joke.
The crest of Stanleys, the hereditary Earls of Derby, indeed features an eagle and child that are part of a family legend with similarities to the Ganymede legend. According to John Seacome’s The History of the House of Stanley from 1776 ,
Sir Thomas Latham [a Stanley ancestor] and his lady, taking their usual walk in his park, drew near to a desert and wild situation, where it was commonly reported an eagle usually built her nest; and upon their near approach thereof heard the cries of a young child, which they ordered the servants attending to look for; who, on search, reported it was in the eagle’s nest, which they directed to be taken down, and to their great surprise and wonder was found to be a male infant, dressed in rich swaddling clothes. And they, having no male issue, looked upon this child as a present sent from heaven, and that it could be no less than the will of God that they should take this desolate infant under their care and protection, which they accordingly did, and had it carefully nursed, and baptized by the name of Latham; and, as the story goes on, he became possessor of that large estate, and at his death left an only daughter named Isabel, whom Sir John Stanley married; and in memory of this event took the eagle and child for his crest, as since used by his noble successors the earls of Derby.
The critical difference between this story and that of Ganymede, of course, is that the child is not abducted but delivered by the eagle. In this sense, the story is closer to the well-known folk motif of the newborn-bearing stork which that in the logo of virtually every pregnancy-related service, like that of the ultrasound imaging company in Nashville called Stork Vision, for instance, to the left.
The Earl of Derby’s crest can be found not just in front of one of England’s most beloved pubs, but also on one of North America’s most sought-after trophies. The Stanley Cup, hockey’s highest honor, was first awarded to a championship-winning hockey team in 1892 by the Governor-General of Canada, Frederick Arthur Stanley, 16th Earl of Derby, whose crest graces it. It is a unique sports trophy in that a new one is not made every year (like, say, the Heisman trophy), but the winning team keeps it for the year that they are champions. One of my most treasured childhood memories is seeing Bobby Orr shooting the overtime goal that won the Stanley Cup for the Boston Bruins in 1970. It is traditional for the captain of the winning team to take a victory round on the ice with the Cup hoisted over his head.
There are other traditions as well: champagne has been drunk from the Cup, soup has been served from it, and in recent years, babies have been baptized in it. On the right you can see the controversial Swedish defense man, Andreas Lilja, who won the championship in 2008 with the Detriot Red Wings, having his daughter baptized in the Stanley Cup later that year. If you look closely, you can just make out the Earl of Derby’s crest beneath the newly-christened girl. The eagle and child video from Canada may not be real, but there’s nothing more authentic than the NHL’s Holy Grail. Perhaps there’s a donnish joke to be made here?