Welcome to Rome Across Europe!
As we all know mythology made up a huge part of the creation of Ancient Rome. The Imperium Rōmānum swelled to include the peoples all over Europe, around the Mediterranean, and into the Middle East. Rome was never against incorporating gods and goddesses from other religions, as long as it would be a benefit to Rome.
The biggest influence on Roman mythology, however, was Greek mythology. It basically amounted to the Romans renaming all of the Greek gods with Latin names. For instance, the Greek goddess of love & beauty, Aphrodite, became the Roman Venus and the Greek god of War, Ares, became the Roman Mars.
So today we take a look at a Roman pair known as the Dioskouri. Today we check out Castor and Pollux!
Castor and Pollux were twin brothers from their mother was Leda. Castor, though, was the mortal son of Tyndareus, the king of Sparta, while Pollux the divine son of Zeus, who seduced Leda in the guise of a swan.
Though accounts of their birth are varied, they are sometimes said to have been born from an egg, along with their twin sisters and half-sisters Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra. In Latin the twins are also known as the Gemini or Castores.
When Castor was killed, Pollux asked Zeus to let him share his own immortality with his twin to keep them together, and they were transformed into the constellation Gemini. The pair was regarded as the patrons of sailors, to whom they appeared as St. Elmo’s fire, and were also associated with horsemanship.
The best-known story of the twins’ birth is that Zeus disguised himself as a swan and seduced Leda. Thus Leda’s children are frequently said to have hatched from 2 eggs that she then produced.
The Dioskouri can be recognized in vase-paintings by the skull-cap they wear, the pilos, which was explained in antiquity as the remnants of the egg. Whether the children are thus mortal or half-immortal is not consistent among accounts, nor is whether the twins hatched together from one egg.
In some accounts, only Pollux was fathered by Zeus, while Leda and her husband Tyndareus conceived Castor. This explains why they were granted an alternate immortality. It is a common belief that one would live among the gods, while the other was among the dead.
Castor and Pollux are sometimes both mortal, sometimes both divine. One consistent point is that if only one of them is immortal, it is Pollux. In Homer‘s Iliad, Helen looks down from the walls of Troy and wonders why she does not see her brothers among the Achaeans.
The narrator remarks that they are both already dead and buried back in their homeland of Lacedaemon, thus suggesting that at least in some early traditions, both were mortal. Their death and shared immortality offered by Zeus was material of the lost Cypria in the Epic cycle.
The Dioskouri were regarded as helpers of humankind and held to be patrons of travelers and of sailors in particular, who invoked them to seek favorable winds. Their role as horsemen and boxers also led to them being regarded as the patrons of athletes and athletic contests. They characteristically intervened at the moment of crisis, aiding those who honored or trusted them.
Ancient Greek authors tell a number of versions of the story of Castor and Pollux. Homer portrays them initially as ordinary mortals, treating them as dead in the Iliad, but in the Odyssey they are treated as alive even though “the corn-bearing earth holds them.” The author describes them as “having honor equal to gods,” living on alternate days due to the intervention of Zeus.
In both the Odyssey and works of Hesiod, they are described as the sons of Tyndareus and Leda. In Pindar’s poetry, Pollux is the son of Zeus while Castor is the son of the mortal Tyndareus.
The theme of ambiguous parentage is not unique to Castor and Pollux. Similar characterizations appear in the stories of Hercules and Theseus.
Cicero tells the story of how Simonides of Ceos was rebuked by Scopas, his patron, for devoting too much space to praising Castor and Pollux in an ode celebrating Scopas’ victory in a chariot race. Shortly afterwards, Simonides was told that 2 young men wished to speak to him; after he had left the banqueting room, the roof fell in and crushed Scopas and his guests.
Both Dioskouri were excellent horsemen and hunters who participated in the hunting of the Calydonian Boar and later joined the crew of Jason‘s ship, the Argo.
During the expedition of the Argonauts, Pollux took part in a boxing contest and defeated King Amycus of the Bebryces, a savage mythical people in Bithynia. After returning from the voyage, the Dioskouri helped Jason and Peleus to destroy the city of Iolcus in revenge for the treachery of its king Pelias.
When their sister and half-sister Helen was abducted by Theseus, the half-brothers invaded his kingdom of Attica to rescue her. In revenge they abducted Theseus’s mother Aethra and took her to Sparta while setting his rival, Menestheus, on the throne of Athens.
Aethra was then forced to become Helen’s slave. She was ultimately returned to her home by her grandsons Demophon and Acamas after the fall of Troy.
Castor and Pollux aspired to marry the Leucippides (Daughters of the White Horse), Phoebe and Hilaeira, whose father was a brother of Leucippus (White Horse). Both women were already betrothed to cousins of the Dioskouri, so Castor and Pollux carried the women off to Sparta wherein each had a son. Phoebe bore Mnesileos to Pollux and Hilaeira bore Anogon to Castor.
Sometime later, Idas and Lynceus visited their uncle’s home in Sparta. The uncle was on his way to Crete, so he left Helen in charge of entertaining the guests, which included both sets of cousins, as well as Paris, Prince of Troy. Castor and Pollux recognized the opportunity to exact revenge, made an excuse that justified leaving the feast, and set out to steal their cousins’ herd.
Idas and Lynceus eventually set out for home, leaving Helen alone with Paris, who then kidnapped her. Thus, the 4 cousins helped set into motion the events that gave rise to the Trojan War.
Meanwhile, Castor and Pollux had reached their destination. Castor climbed a tree to keep a watch as Pollux began to free the cattle. Far away, Idas and Lynceus approached.
Lynceus, named for the lynx because he could see in the dark, spied Castor hiding in the tree. Idas and Lynceus immediately understood what was happening. A furious Idas ambushed Castor and fatally wounded him with a blow from his spear, but not before Castor called out to warn Pollux.
In the ensuing brawl, Pollux killed Lynceus. As Idas was about to kill Pollux, Zeus, who had been watching from Mt. Olympus, hurled a thunderbolt, killing Idas and saving his son.
Returning to the dying Castor, Pollux was given the choice by Zeus of spending all his time on Mount Olympus or giving half his immortality to his mortal brother. He opted for the latter, enabling the twins to alternate between Olympus and Hades.
The brothers became the 2 brightest stars in the constellation Gemini (The Twins): Castor (Alpha Geminorum) and Pollux (Beta Geminorum). As emblems of immortality and death, the Dioskouri, like Heracles, were said to have been initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries.
Castor and Pollux are consistently associated with horses in art and literature. They are widely depicted as helmeted horsemen carrying spears. The Pseudo-Oppian manuscript depicts the brothers hunting, both on horseback and on foot.
On votive reliefs they are depicted with a variety of symbols representing the concept of twinhood, such as the dokana, 2 upright pieces of wood connected by 2 cross-beams, a pair of amphorae, a pair of shields, or a pair of snakes.
They are also often shown wearing felt caps, sometimes with stars above. They are depicted on metopes from Delphi showing them on the voyage of the Argo and rustling cattle with Idas.
Greek vases regularly show them in the rape of Phoebe and Hilaeira, as Argonauts, as well as in religious ceremonies and at the delivery to Leda of the egg containing Helen. They can be recognized in some vase-paintings by the skull-cap they wear, the pilos, which was already explained in antiquity as the remnants of the egg from which they hatched.
The Dioskouri were worshipped by the Greeks and Romans alike; there were temples to the twins in Athens, such as the Anakeion, and Rome, as well as shrines in many other locations in the ancient world.
Their herōon or grave-shrine was on a mountain top at Therapne across the Eurotas from Sparta, at a shrine known as the Meneláeion where Helen, Menelaus, Castor and Pollux were all said to be buried. Castor himself was also venerated in the region of Kastoria in northern Greece.
They were commemorated both as gods on Olympus worthy of holocaust, and as deceased mortals in Hades, whose spirits had to be propitiated by libations. Lesser shrines to Castor, Pollux and Helen were also established at a number of other locations around Sparta.
The pear tree was regarded by the Spartans as sacred to Castor and Pollux, and images of the twins were hung in its branches. The standard Spartan oath was to swear “by the two gods”.
The rite of theoxenia (god-entertaining) was particularly associated with Castor and Pollux. The 2 deities were summoned to a table laid with food, whether at individuals’ own homes or in the public hearths or equivalent places controlled by states. They are sometimes shown arriving at a gallop over a food-laden table.
Although such “table offerings” were a fairly common feature of Greek cult rituals, they were normally made in the shrines of the gods or heroes concerned. The domestic setting of the theoxenia was a characteristic distinction accorded to the Dioskouri.
From the 5th Century BC onwards, the brothers were revered by the Romans, probably as the result of cultural transmission via the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia in southern Italy. An archaic Latin inscription of the 6th or 5th Century BC found at Lavinium, which reads Castorei Podlouqueique qurois (To Castor and Pollux, the Dioskouri.
The construction of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, located in the Roman Forum at the heart of their city, was undertaken to fulfill a vow (votum) made by Aulus Postumius Albus Regillensis in gratitude at the Roman victory in the Battle of Lake Regillus in 495 BC. The establishing of the temple may also be a form of evocatio, the transferral of a tutelary deity from a defeated town to Rome, where cult would be offered in exchange for favor.
According to legend, the twins fought at the head of the Exercitus Romanus and subsequently brought news of the victory back to Rome. The Locrians of Magna Graecia had attributed their success at a legendary battle on the banks of the Sagras to the intervention of the Twins. The Roman legend may in fact have had its origins in the Locrian account and possibly supplies further evidence of cultural transmission between Rome and Magna Graecia.
The Romans believed that the twins aided them on the battlefield. Their role as horsemen made them particularly attractive to the Roman Equites and Cavalry. Each year on July 15, the feast day of the Dioskouri, the 1,800 Equestrians would parade through the streets of Rome in an elaborate spectacle in which each rider wore full military attire and whatever decorations he had earned.
Even after the rise of Christianity, the Dioskouri continued to be venerated. The 5th Century Pope Gelasius I attested to the presence of a “cult of Castores” that the people did not want to abandon.
In some instances, the twins appear to have simply been absorbed into a Christian framework. Fourth Century AD pottery and carvings from North Africa depict the Dioskouri alongside the Twelve Apostles, the Raising of Lazarus or with Saint Peter.
The church took an ambivalent attitude, rejecting the immortality of the Dioskouri but seeking to replace them with equivalent Christian pairs. Saints Peter and Paul were thus adopted in place of the Dioskouri as patrons of travelers, and Saints Cosmas and Damian took over their function as healers.
The New Testament scholar Dennis MacDonald identifies Castor and Pollux as basis characters for the appearance of James son of Zebedee and his brother John who appear in the narrative by Mark the Evangelist. MacDonald cites the origin of this identification to 1913 when J. Rendel Harris published his work Boanerges, a Greek term for Thunder, the epithet of Zeus father of Pollux in what MacDonald calls a form of early Christian Dioscurism.
Two brothers named Castor and Pollux Troy feature in the movie, Face Off. Castor is the main antagonist in the movie and Pollux is somewhat of sidekick to him, so the reference may be ironic.
In The Hunger Games, Castor (Wes Chatham) and Pollux (Elden Henson) are brothers who make up Cressida’s camera crew from the Capitol. They often wear “insect shells”, that is, a wearable carapace holding the camera and equipment. The brothers’ names derive from the twins of Greek mythology. In the myth, as in Mockingjay, Castor was killed, while Pollux lived on, alone.
We hope you enjoyed learning about the ancient world’s most revered set of twins. And to all those twins out there, please avoid skull-caps.
Come back soon to see what we have in store for you. Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Beard, Mary; North, John; Price, Simon. Religions of Rome, 1. Cambridge University Press (1998). ISBN 0-521-45646-0.
Bloomsbury. “Dioscuri”, Dictionary of Myth. London: Bloomsbury Publishing (1996).
Campbell, David. Greek Lyric Poetry. Bristol: Classical Press (1967).
Cotterell, Arthur. “Dioscuri”, A Dictionary of World Mythology, Oxford University Press (1997).
de Grummond, Nancy Thomson; Simon, Erika. The Religion of the Etruscans. University of Texas Press (2006). ISBN 0-292-70687-1.
Howatson, MC; Chilvers, Ian, eds. “Dioscūri”, The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Oxford University Press (1996).
Kazhdan, Alexander; Talbot, Alice-Mary. “Dioskouroi”, in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford University Press (1991).
Kerenyi, Karl. Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter. Princeton: Bollingen (1967).
McDonnell, Myles Anthony. Roman Manliness. Cambridge University Press (2006). ISBN 0-521-82788-4.
Mommsen, Theodor. The History of Rome II. Kessinger Publishing (2004). ISBN 1-4191-6625-5.
Roberts, John, ed. “Dioscūri”, Dictionary of the Classical World. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2007).
Smith, Christopher. “The Religion of Archaic Rome”, A Companion to Roman Religion. Blackwell (2007).
“Castor and Polydeuces”, Who’s Who in Classical Mythology. London: Routledge (2002).