The Dioskouroi: A Brief Introduction

John Drury

Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioskouroi (or Dioskouro, or Dioscuri), were popular throughout Greece and her colonies, and their popularity followed the Greeks under Alexander.  With their worship originating in Sparta, but reflecting ancient Indo-European motifs and being as old as The Illiad, the Dioskouroi have a long and revered history to them.

Origins

The term ‘Dioskouroi’ (or Dioskouro, if you want to use the dual instead of the plural), is a combination of two words; Dios, or Zeus, and Kouroi, which is sons.   They are, literally, the Sons of God/Sons of Zeus.  They are twins, one mortal and one immortal, born of eggs with their twin sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra.  Their mother, Leda, was the wife of the Spartan king Tyndareos.  Zeus visited Leda as a swan.  In later narrative, Leda consorts with both Zeus and Tyndareos on the same day.  As a result, Polydeuces and Helen spring from one egg, and are immortal as children of Zeus.  From another egg, children of Tyndareos, sprang the mortals Castor and Clytemnestra.  However, some say that both twins sprang from Zeus.

The earliest associations of the Dioskouroi are with Sparta and her colonies, and the surrounding areas in Laconia.  However, the cultus of the Dioskouroi was adopted throughout Greece and beyond.  Modern scholars, as discussed below, assign the stories of the twins to an even older Indo-European heritage.

Names and Attributes

The Dioskouroi go by many names; ‘the young boys of Zeus,’ ‘the two Lords,’ ‘the two gods,’ and ‘white colts of Zeus’ (leuko polo (or leukopoli) Dios).  There is also a title, Sotere, or ‘Rescuers,’ associated with their role in protecting sailors.  Another term for them, also associated with sailors, is the Phosphori, and they sometimes appear as St. Elmo’s Fire.  At times they are referred to as the Tyndarids (after Tyndareos).  Navigators in distress would often sacrifice a white sheep in the poop of a ship.  Plutarch stated that “They do not navigate with men, nor do they share their dangers, but they appear in the sky and are saviors.”  At sea and in battle, they appear as two horsemen of light, bringing instant salvation into the invisible, where their presence is never invoked in vain.

Castor is a warrior, and a horse-tamer, and can run faster than his brother.  Polydeuces, while being an expert boxer, is also known for his intelligence.  Castor is often represented mounted on a horse, alone or with his brother.  Polydeuces, if not on a horse, is often represented with a dog.  It is said that Castor invented hunting with horses, while Polydeuces invented hunting with a pack of hounds.  The Dioscuri often can be recognized by the caps that they wear, known as the pilos.  These were supposedly the remnants of the egg(s) from which they hatched.  A Spartan representation of the Dioskouroi was as two upright posts joined by a cross-bar.  Other symbols, besides of course horses, include the serpent, double amphorae, and a double beam (dokana) that represents both the stabilizing force of a house and the indissoluble brotherhood.   They are also known as the heteromeres; living and dying from one day to the next.

In classical sculpture the Dioskouroi were represented as a pair of naked youths, sometimes with traveler’s cap and cape, and a horse or horse-head beside them. At other times, as Olympians, they were crowned with a wreath of olive, and bearing an upturned torch.

Literature

The Dioskouroi are mentioned in some of the earliest Greek literature.  They are mentioned in the Illiad at 3.236.  Helen, speaking to Priam, identifies the various heroes from Greece that have come to the shores of Troy. At the end of the list, she states “ ‘And now all the rest of the bright-eyed Achaeans do I see, whom I could well note, and tell their names; but two marshallers of the host can I not see, Castor, tamer of horses, and the goodly boxer Polydeuces, even mine own brethren, whom the same mother bare.  Either they followed not with the host from lovely Lacedaemon, or though they followed hither in their seafaring ships, they have now no heart to enter into the battle of warriors for fear of the words of shame and the many revilings that are mine.’  So said she; but they ere now were fast holden of the life-giving earth there in Lacedaemon, in their dear native land.”

In other words, they have perished by the time of the siege of Troy.  However, both are also mentioned in the Odyssey.  As Odysseus travels to Hades to visit Leda, he makes specific mention of them.  In the ‘Catalog of Heroines’ in the Nekyia (Odyssey II.298-304), Odysseus states:  “And Leda I saw, the bed-mate of Tyndareus, who to Tyndareus bore a pair of strong-minded boys, Castor the horse tamer, and Polydeukes handy with his fist, whom both, live, the grain-growing soil holds down.  And they, below, as an honor granted by Zeus, alternatively live every other day, and alternatively again are dead.  The honor granted them equals that of gods.”

Castor and Polydeuces also appear on the list of the Argonauts with Jason, as part of a group of important heroes with special talents.  They appear with Idas and Lynceus, who will play a part in their final fate.  At any rate, only Polydeuces, of the two twins, has a significant role in the story.  In this instance, Polydeuces boxes with Amycus, the king of a Bithynian tribe (the Bebryces) who was the son of Poseidon and, until his meeting with Polydeuces, an invincible boxer.  Polydeuces kills Amycus, resulting in a battle between the Argonauts and the Bebryces, in which the Bebryces are defeated with large losses.

As brothers of Helen, they participated in a rescue of their sister far before the incident at Troy.  Theseus, a hero to Attica and Athens, is involved in this particular saga.  It is said that he and Pirithous, the king of the Thessalian tribe of the Lapiths, and son of Ixion (the father of the Centaurs), made a vow to help each other find a wife.[1] Theseus decides to try and wed Helen (at the time only a child), while Pirithous decides that he wishes to wed Persephone.  Theseus kidnaps the young Helen and brings her to the village of Aphidnae in Attica, placing her in the care of his mother Aethra.  With Theseus and Pirithous now searching for Persephone, Helen’s brothers the Dioskouroi invaded Attica and rescued Helen.  Despite the violence inflicted on the region, the people of Athens favorably received the Dioskouroi.  The regent Menestheus instituted a cult in their honor, and they were called by the title Anakes or Anaktes (kings).  Their temple, in historical times in Athens, was called the Anakeion.[2]

When Peleus, son of Aeacus (King of Aegina) and father of Achilles, and a fellow Argonaut, attacked and laid waste to Iolcus, the Dioskouroi assisted him.  Peleus attacked Iolcus after the queen, Astydameia, offended him.

The final fate of the Dioskouroi is told in two slightly different tales, one by Pindar and one by Theocritus.  In the tenth Nemean Ode, Pindar tells of a quarrel between the Dioskouroi and the two sons of Aphareus, who are Idas and Lynceus.  The four former Argonauts participated in a cattle raid, and then began to squabble over the division of the cattle/oxen they had taken.  Idas was allowed to divide the cattle.  He cut a cow in four pieces, and said that one half of the captured cattle should go who ate his share first.  The remaining half of the cattle should go to who ate his share second.  Before the Dioskouroi could react, Idas had swallowed his one-fourth share of the cow, and his brother Lynceus did the same.  As a result, quarrel led to battle.  The Dioskouroi marched on Messenia and took not only the cattle they had lost but other goods as well.  In the ensuing battle between the four, both Lynceus and Castor were killed.  Polydeuces was wounded in the head, and Idas was killed by a thunderbolt from Zeus.  As Castor was dying, Polydeuces prayed to Zeus and asked that he be allowed to die with his brother.  Zeus gave him a choice of his fate.  Either he could remain immortal while Castor perished, or he and his brother could share both immortality and death.  In this case, they would spend one day on Olympus, and one day in Hades (or, in Therapne, at Sparta, where their tomb is found).  Polydeuces chose the latter.

According to Theocritus, the Dioskouro abducted the daughters of Leucippus, Phoebe and Hilaeira, known as the Leucippides (“white horses”), and married them.  However, Phoebe and Hilaeira were meant to be the brides of Idas and Lynceus.  It is over these two women that the four fight, with the results as mentioned above.

At Alexandria during the Hellenistic period, the rise and development of astral legends reflected the advances being made in astronomy there, and the growth in astrology.  A work known as Catasterisms contains many such astral legends, including the association of the constellation Gemini with the Dioskouroi.  The book stated that the Dioskouroi “exceeded all men in brotherly love, for they never quarreled about power or about anything else.  So Zeus, wishing to make a memorial of their unanimity, called the ‘the Twins’ and placed them together among the stars.”  They were also associated with Venus, identified with the Morning Star and the Evening Star, of which one rises while the other sets.

Importance to Sparta/Laconia

While the Dioskouroi are considered to be Indo-European in origin, their principle place of worship in ancient times was centered on Sparta, in Laconia.  Situated on the southern tip of the Peloponnesus, the region geographically is the closest part of the mainland to both Crete and Egypt.  As already noted, the father/stepfather of the Dioskouroi is Tyndareos, a king of Sparta.  Sparta itself was very archaic in its political structure, having two kings for much of the ancient and classical times.[3] During times of war, one of the Spartan kings would accompany the warriors into battle.  Some historians indicate that the king in charge of the military campaign would take one of the Dioskouroi with him, likely Castor.  The Spartans would fight to the music of the song ‘of Castor’ and Castor is the patron of the group of the Hippeis, the Three Hundred, who are dressed in red, like Castor ‘of the red mantle (chlamus).’

In his Description of Greece, the author Pausanias (ca. 120-180 AD) goes through a number of regions in Greece, including Laconia.  In addition to telling stories both historical and fanciful, he describes a number of shrines, temples, and landmarks.  A number of these are to the Dioskouroi, and it’s worth going through the catalog of sites to see the diversity and number of such shrines.

After leaving the marketplace in Sparta, and traveling the Aphetaïd road, Pausanias mentions the hero shrines of Iops and Amphiaraus.  The shrine of Amphiaraus is supposed to be the cousin of the Dioskouroi, and it is said that the ‘sons of Tyndareus’ erected the shrine.  At the end of the road, near a location called the Hellenium, is a sanctuary of Arsinoë, daughter of Leucippus and sister of the wives of the Dioskouroi.  Along another road from the marketplace is a place known as the Canopy, where the Assembly meets.  Near this is the tomb of Castor, “and over the tomb there has also been made a sanctuary, for they say that it was not before the fortieth year after the fight with Idas and Lynceus that divine honours were paid to the sons of Tyndareus.”  (Pausanias, XII,11).  Nearby is an image of Aphetaeus, and nearby are alters of Zeus Counsellor, Athena Counsellor, and the Dioskouroi Counsellors.  Past a temple of Dionysus is another sanctuary to Zeus (of the Fair Wind), with a hero-shrine next to it for Pleuron.  It is said that Leda, mother of the Dioskouroi, was descended from Thestius, who was son of Agenor, who was the son of Pleuron.

Moving west from the marketplace along another road, Pausanias mentions a running course, where young Spartan men still practice running.  At the beginning of the course are the Dioskouroi Starters.  Just beyond the course is a sanctuary to the Dioskouroi, and other sanctuaries to other deities.  Beyond a sanctuary to Agnitas stands a trophy, which was supposedly raised by Polydeuces to celebrate his victory over Lynceus.

To the east of the course is a sanctuary of Hilaeira and of Phoebe.  Pausanias (XVI,1-3) states that ‘their priestesses are young maidens, called, as are also the goddesses, Leucippides (Daughters of Leucippus)[4].  One of the images was adorned by a Leucippis, who had served the goddess as a priestess.  She gave it a face of modern workmanship instead of the old one; she was forbidden by a dream to adorn the other one as well.  Here there has been hung from the roof an egg tied to ribands, and they say that it is the famous egg that legends says Leda brought forth.  Each year the women weave a tunic for the Apollo at Amyclae, and they call Tunic the chamber in which they do their weaving.  Near it is built a house, said to have been occupied originally by the sons of Tyndareus, but afterwards it was acquired by Phormion, a Spartan.  To him came the Dioskouroi in the likeness of strangers.  They said that they had come from Cyrene, and asked to lodge with him, requesting to have the chamber which had pleased them most when they dwelt among men.  He replied that they might lodge in any other part of the house they wished, but that they could not have the chamber.  For it so happened that his maiden daughter was living in it.  By the next day this maiden and all her girlish apparel had disappeared, and in the room were found images of the Dioskouroi, a table, and silphium upon it.”  Silphium is a tuberous plant from Cyrene.

In the city center, on a hill known as the citadel, there is a sanctuary of Athena that is said to have been begun by Tyndareus, and later work was also done by his children (including the Dioskouroi).  Later Spartans completed the work, and on the bronze temple are the various achievements of the Dioskouroi, including the rape of the daughters of Leucippus.

Leaving Sparta and going to the town of Amyclae, Pausanias mentions that the rape of the daughters of Leucippus, among many other scenes, is represented on a throne of the Amyclaean.  On the upper edge of each side of the throne are wrought the Dioskouroi, on on each side, on horses.  At a separate sanctuary in Amyclae, Pausanias relates that there is a statue of Clytaemnestra with what is supposed to be the tomb of her husband Agamemnon.

Beyond Amyclae, near the village of Therapne, is a temple to the Dioskouroi called the Phoebaeum.  At this temple youths sacrifice to Enyalius.  On the road from Sparta to Arcadia is a Tomb of the Horse.  It is so-called because here Tyndareus sacrificed a horse and administered an oath to the suitors of Helen, making them stand up the pieces of the horse.  The oath was to defend Helen, and after it was sworn the horse was buried in that place.  Going towards the sea and at the village of Croceae, there is a quarry that has a statue of Zeus in marble and the Dioskouroi in bronze.  At the ruins of the town of Las is a temple to Athena Asia which is said to have been made by the Dioskouroi on their return form Colchis.  Finally, at a place called Pephunus on the coast, there is an island that the people of the village of Thalamae say is the birthplace of the Dioskouroi.  The small island has bronze statues of the Dioskouroi which are a foot high in open air, not moved by the ocean.  Pausanias says that the area is claimed as once being Messenian, and that the Messians claim the Dioskouroi as their own.

Historians also state that, along with their sister Helen, the Dioskouroi played important roles in many festivals of importance to Sparta and the surrounding area.  Some have already been mentioned.  As the ‘young men of Zeus’ the Dioskouroi are the patrons of a class of young men in Sparta who are training for battle, working in the gymnasium, and in athletic life.[5] The Dioskouroi were honored in war dances, of which the most famous was the Pyrrhis.  This dance mimed combat by means of a complex series of geometric figures.  Another ritual is the Theoscenia, a festival of hospitality offered to the gods and performed by a group of priests.  It was directed by a person called ‘the one who welcomes the gods’ (sidektos) who was charged with setting up a table covered with food of an older era, such as cheese, dry cakes, olives, and leeks.  This festival was meant to emphasize the connection between the Dioskouroi and human society in general.

Other ancient authors also write of the importance of the Dioskouroi in Laconia.  Pindar  (Odes Nemean 10), for example, states that:  “The two brothers, at the games of Sparta’s wide-built city, joint partons with Hermes and with Herakles the presidency share.”  Strabo (Geography 8.5.3) speaks of their presence in the village of Las:  “As for Las, the story goes, the Dioskouroi once captured it by siege, and it was from this fact that they got the appellation ‘Lapersai.’ And Sophokles says, ‘by the two Lapersai, I swear, by Eurotas third, by the gods in Argos and about Sparta.”

Clearly, the Dioskouroi were very important to the people of Laconia

Importance in Other Parts of Greece

While tied principally to Laconia, the Dioskouroi received cult honors in many other locations.  Pausanias lists the largest number by far.  The Argolid contained multiple locations where the Dioskouroi were worshipped, according to Pausanias.  At Argos itself there is a:  “[t]emple of the Dioskouroi. The images represent the Dioskouroi themselves and their sons, Anaxis and Mnasinous, and with them are their mothers, Hilaeira and Phoibe. They are of ebony wood, and were made by Dipoinos and Skyllis. The horses, too, are mostly of ebony, but there is a little ivory also in their construction.”

Another location with multiple worship sites was Acradia.  Again, Pausanias speaks of these sites.  At Mantineia:  “there is also a sanctuary of the Dioskouroi, and in another place one of Demeter and Kore.”  At Kleitor there is also:  “a sanctuary of the Dioskouroi, under the name of the Megaloi Theoi (Great Gods). There are also images of them in bronze.”

Other locations had a single known place of worship for the Dioskouroi.  Pausanias also writes that at Sikyon, in Sikyonia:  “On the modern citadel is a sanctuary of Tykhe, and after it one of the Dioskouroi.”  At Olympia, in Elis, he states that: “At the starting-point for the chariot-race, just about opposite the middle of it, there are in the open altars of Poseidon Hippios (Of the Horses) and Hera Hippia (Of the Horses), and near the pillar an altar of the Dioskouroi.”  At Amphissa, in Ozolian Lokris, Pausanias states that:  “The Amphisians also celebrate mysteries in honor of the Boy Kings (Anaktes Paides), as they are called. Their accounts as to who of the gods the Boy Kings are do not agree; some say they are the Dioskouroi, and others, who pretend to have fuller knowledge, hold them to be the Kabeiroi.”

Athens (with the temple known as the Anakeion, or Shrine of the Kings), as well, had multiple locations for the cult to the Dioskouroi, according to multiple authors.  In speaking of the Dioskouroi in Athens and Attica, Pausanias states:  “The sanctuary (in Athens) of the Dioskouroi is ancient. They themselves are represented as standing, while their sons are seated on horses.”  Also, there was a temple in the village of Kephale:  “At Kephale the chief cult is that of the Dioskouroi, for the inhabitants call them the Megaloi Theoi (Great Gods).”  In two places, Plutarch (Lives Theseus 33.1 and Lives Lysander 12.1) mentions the Dioskouroi:  “They also obtained honors like those paid to gods, and were addressed as ‘Anakes,’ either on account of their ‘stopping’ hostilities, or because of their ‘diligent’ care that no one should be injured, although there was such a large army within the city for the phrase ‘anakos ekhein’ is used of such as ‘care for’, or ‘guard anything’, and perhaps it is for this reason that kings are called ‘Anaktes.’ There are also those who say that the Tyndaridai were called ‘Anakes’ because of the appearance of their twin stars in the heavens, since the Athenians use ‘anekas’ and ‘anekathen’ for ‘ano’ and ‘anothen,’ signifying ‘above’ or ‘on high.”  Also:  “There were some who declared that the Dioskouroi appeared as twin stars on either side of Lysander’s ship just as he was sailing out of the harbor against the enemy, and shone out over the rudder-sweeps.”

Finally, Apollonius of Rhodes (Argonautica 2.805) mentions them in Asia Minor, at the Akherousian Cape in Bithynia, in connection with Lycos, king of the Mariandyni:  “I propose to build high up on the Akherousian Cape a great temple to the sons of Tyndareos for sailors out at sea to mark and reverence; and then I will dedicate to them, as gods, some rich acres of the fertile plain outside the town.”

Thus, it is clear that the cultus of the Dioskouroi was widespread in Greece, and even Asia Minor.

Cult Titles

The following are cult titles generally associated with the Dioskouroi:

Amboulion – Counsellors

Anakeion – the term used for them in Athens

Anaktes Paides – Boy Kings

Aphethrioi – Starters of Horse Races

Lapersai – Of Las (a village in Laconia)

Soteroi – Saviors

Theoi Megaloi – Great Gods

Indo-European Aspects

After the discovery by Sir William Jones in 1796 (or by James Parsons in 1767, take your pick) that a group of languages, principally in Europe, India, and Iran, were descended from a common root, the study of Indo-European languages and their cultures blossomed along many paths.  One of these paths of study concerned Indo-European religious beliefs.  While linguists could reconstruct common words for ‘father sky,’ ‘sun,’ ‘moon,’ and ‘dawn,’ among others, a linguistic reconstruction of the names of other gods and goddesses was not possible.  However, a group of scholars beginning with Georges Dumézil, in the 1930’s, has attempted to reconstruct an ‘Indo-European’ belief system by attempting to discern the social divisions in Indo-European societies, and then studying the religious systems to discern similarities across cultures.  Using this comparative mythology approach, the group suggested that early Indo-European speaking cultures were divided into three groups; priests/rulers, warriors, and herder-cultivators (including artisans, sailors, and other craftsmen).  Using this tripartite system, scholars have examined gods and goddesses in many Indo-European cultures and identified similarities across the various cultures, indicating a common theme or source for these deities.

Using this system of identification and study, some scholars strongly believe that the Dioscouroi have parallels in other Indo-European societies.  In fact, if one accepts this comparative system, the Dioskouroi appear in other societies under slightly different names, but with essentially the same attributes, indicating that they are, in fact, the same deities.[6]

In the Indo-European family, the Dioskouroi are attested clearly in two other cultures; Vedic India and Latvia.  In India, the Ashvins (or, in the dual, Ashvinau) (ashva– = horse), are ancient and important gods in the Vedas.  In fact, they are two of the most ancient of gods, having been mentioned in the Rig Veda (1700–1100 B.C.) and separately as early as 1380 B.C.[7] In the dual, or Ashvinau, the literal translation is ‘Pair of Horsemen.’

They are ‘born differently’ according to tradition.  They are healers, practicing Ayurvedic medicine.  They travel in boats.  They are also givers, being known to be generous.  They are known as Nasatya and Dasra.  Their allonym Nasatya (this time meaning both of them, as opposed to just one of them) is interpreted as ‘Rescuers,’ and they are also known for saving many people.  Another allonym is as Divo Napata, or [grand]sons of Dyaus, indicating descent from Father Sky.  One veda states that one of them is the son of Father Sky, while the other is the sone of Sumakka, or ‘Good Warrior.’  They are sometimes said to be sons of Usas, a dawn goddess (cognate with Eros).  An alternate lineage is as the suns of Vivasvat and Saranyu.  Saranyu attempted to escape from Vivasvat and, after tricking him, turned herself into a mare. Vivasvat turns himself into a stallion, after recognizing the trickery, and mates with Saranyu as such, resulting in the birth of the Ashvins.  The Ashvins are carried daily on an air-born chariot.  They are joint husbands of Surya, who is the sun-maid daughter of the sun-god Surya.  She is also known as Duhita Suryasa, or ‘Daughter of the Sun.’  They father, through another woman, the twin sons Nakula and Sahadeva, who are expert at horses and cattle, respectively.

The second strong correlation is with Latvian culture, as attested in folklore hymns (or dainas).  In these appear the gods Dieva deli, the ‘Sons of Dievs’ (clearly, sons of Father Sky, of God), who are horsemen and who pursue the daughter of the sun,  Saules meita.  They save her from drowning, in fact.  Here is a translation of part of one of the songs concerning these three entities:

Two candles burned at sea

In silver candelabra;

Sons of Dievs lit them,

waiting for Saule’s daughter.

Saule’s daughter waded in the sea,

they saw only her crown.

Row the boat, sons of Dievs,

save Saule’s soul!

Sons of Dievs built a barn,

fixing rafters of gold.

Saule’s daughter walked through,

trembling like a leaf.

Another possible attestation in a separate Indo-European group relates to the Germanic groups, and is attested by Tacitus.  In his Germania he reports that the eastern Germanic tribe known as the Naharvali worship a pair of twin male gods known as the Alcis.  The tribe worshipped these gods in a grove, with no visual representation of the deities.  The priest presiding over the ceremony was said to wear women’s clothes, or to have a womanish insignia.  Tacitus specifically related these two gods to Castor and Pollux, the Roman names for the Dioskouroi.  Scholars also point to the Welsh Bran and Manawydan as a possible attestation of the same divine twins with a female consort connected to the sun.

Comparative scholars also link Helen, the sister of the Dioskouroi, in a similar manner.  Though these scholars identify Helen with being a pre-Doric tree-goddess in Laconia, her name may be cognate with Helios, the sun.  Helen’s priestesses are the Leucippides, which mean ‘white/bright horses,’ and again clearly indicate her function as a dawn-goddess.

Taken as a whole, these Divine Twins, regardless of their culture, have certain shared traits.  They are closely related to, and often appear as, horses.  They are sons of Father Sky, sometimes related to the sun, and either marry or consort in some way with the daughter of the sun or Father Sky.  They are protectors and benefactors, and seem to provide protection specifically in water-related instances.  One is usually more of a warrior, while the other more of a healer.  They are third-function deities, with a chthonian cycle (similar to that of Persephone) well-attested by the Dioskouroi (being a daily life and death cycle change rather than yearly or half-yearly).

Rome and the Dioskouroi

As with so many other deities, the Romans adopted these Greek gods into their pantheon.  Known as Castor and Pollux, the two gods appear to be borrowed from Greek colonies (perhaps Tarentum, or Taras, a Spartan colony).  While it is said that they appeared in the 6th century B.C. at the Battle of Sagra, in south Italy, between the Locrians and the men of Croton, their history with the Romans begins a bit later.  It is said that they appeared in at the Battle of Lake Regillus, in 496 B.C.  The Romans, being hard-pressed by the Latins at that moment, were instead lead to victory as the Dioskouroi appeared on horseback before them.  It is said that after their appearance on the battlefield, they appeared in the Roman Forum to announce the victory.  They then watered their horses at the Fountain of Juturna and then vanished.  Cicero (De Natura Deorum 2.2) records their appearances at Regillus and at other places:  “[i]n the Latin War, at the critical battle of Lake Regillus between the dictator Aulus Postumius and Octavius Mamilius of Tusculum, Castor and Pollux were seen fighting on horseback in our ranks. And in more modern history likewise these sons of Tyndareus brought the news of the defeat of Perses. What happened was that Publius Vatinius, the grandfather of our young contemporary, was returning to Rome by night from Reate, of which he was governor, when he was informed by two young warriors on white horses that King Perses had that very day been taken prisoner.”

The Dioskouroi were important deities in the city of Tusculum, a Latin city near the lake.  Strabo (Geography 6.1.10) reports that the Dioskouroi had a temple at Lokroi:  “After Lokroi comes the Sagra, a river which has a feminine name. On its banks are the altars of the Dioskouroi.”  Romans later tended to venerate Castor more than Pollux, to the point where the twins were later known as the Castores.

After the battle, Rome erected a temple in the Forum some twelve years later.  They were the patrons of horsemen and of knights.  The festival day for the Dioskouroi in Rome was on July 15th.   Ovid (Fasti 1.705) records the dedication of the temple as follows:  “January 27 Comitialis. The sixth day before the next a temple was dedicated to Ledaean gods. Brothers from a family of gods (Tiberius Caesar and Drusus) founded it for the brothers gods near Juturna’s pool.”

Though some comparative mythology scholars see hints of original divine twins in the early Roman system, there was no obvious or pronounced pairing prior to the arrival of the Dioskouroi.  In fact, the pair appears to have been lost to the Romans.  As an example, in ancient India there was a festival called the sautramani, which consisted of a sacrifice of a ram, a bull, and a he-goat.  The ram was sacrificed to Sarasvati, the bull to Indra, and the he-goat to the Ashvins.  The corresponding festival in Rome, known as the suovetaurilia (su = swine, ove = sheep, tauro = bull), saw the sheep sacrificed to Jupiter, the bull to Mars, and the swine to Tellus, or ‘Earth.’

The Etruscans, a non-I-E people, also co-opted the Dioskouroi into their pantheon.  They translated the name into their language, calling them Tinas clenar (Sons of Zeus).

As an aside, Juturna sister of Turnus, King of the Rutuli, was a water nymph with a spring in the Forum.  Said to be the object of Jupiter’s love, she was rewarded when Jupiter made her the most important of the water nymphs.  The temple of the Dioskouroi in Rome was next to her precinct.   Her husband is Janus, and their son is Fontus.

The Dioskouroi and the Greeks in Egypt

Connections between Egypt and Greece existed for many centuries.  In the late Bronze Age, a number of sites in Egypt contained Mycenaean Greek pottery.  Much of this was stirrup jars of a type made in the Peloponnese (where Laconia is located), attesting to a brisk oil trade between the two countries.  However, the first that history records of a number of Greeks in Egypt occurs after Egypt throws off Nubian and Assyrian control, with the establishment of a new dynasty under Psammetichos I, or Psamtick I (664-610 B.C.).  He first brought in Greek mercenaries, specifically Carian pirates.  He rewarded them for their help by granting them two pieces of land, known as the Stratopeda, or Camps, on either side of the Pelusian branch of the Nile.  According to Herodotus, they were well-treated by the king, who also founded a school of interpreters.  As the first foreigners to live in Egypt with the ruler’s blessing, interactions between the Greeks and Egyptians increased.

Under Necho (610-595 B.C.), there is no evidence of the use of Greek mercenaries, but he did create ‘trireme’ warships at this time.  Next, Psammetichos II (595-589 B.C.) led an expedition against Nubia, that included Greek mercenaries.  We see their graffiti engravings on the large statutes at Abu Simbel.  Next, King Apries (Wahibre; 589-570 B.C.) led a mercenary army of 30,000 Carians and Ionians against Amasis (Ahmose) in 570.  He was defeated and Amasis became king (570-526 B.C.).  However, rather than hate the Greeks, he also favored them, and again used them as mercenaries in an attack against the Babylonian king Nebuchandrezzar.  Amasis moved the Greeks from Stratopeda, and there is evidence of movement to Memphis and a fort at Daphnae.  But, most famously, he granted the right for many to move to Naucratis.  Herodotus provides the narrative of what happens, the states that founded the Hellenion and the importance of the port itself.

While the port pre-dates Amasis, its growth occurred after this time.  Situated on the east bank of the Canopic branch of the Nile, about 50 miles from open seas and from Alexandria, and about ten miles from the city of Sais, it became the pre-eminent center of Greek life in Egypt for some time.  The earliest pottery from the site is Corinthian, and can be dated to the end of the seventh century.  Other pottery indicates Greeks in Naucratis by no later than 620 B.C.  Much of the other pottery finds include Rhodian (late seventh century), Chian (also seventh century), Samian (from at least the mid sixth century), Fikellura vases (probably from Rhodes, Samos, and Miletus), vases from Clazomenae (third quarter of the sixth century), Aeolic vases from Lesbos, Spartan vases from the first half of the sixth century, Corinthian vases, and some Athenian vases, again principally in the sixth century.

Within the city are a number of temples.  On the south side is the temple of Aphrodite.  To the north are temples to Hera and Apollo, side by side.  A smaller temple just to the north is to the Dioskouroi.  Pottery in this temple can be dated back to earlier than the mid sixth century.  Nearby is the Hellenion.

It thus seems likely that the Dioskouroi were in Egypt for some time, from the earliest times of trade and settlement by the Greeks.  Egyptians took the gods as their own in some cases, and merged them in a time-honored syncretic fashion with Sobek.  The two are often depicted as crocodiles in this guise.

Conclusion

From their Indo-European roots, through classical Greek texts such as the Illiad, through temples and cults originating in Laconia, to the Forum in Rome and the shores of the Nile in Egypt, the Dioskouroi were gods of the people.  They were positive deities whose intercessions of help were well recorded.  They continue to grace modern Rome today (in locations such as the Fontana dei Dioscuri), testament to their staying power.

Bibliography

Adams, D.Q. and Mallory, J.P.  The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.  New York:  Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006.

Boardman, John.  The Greeks Overseas, Their Early Colonies and Trade.  London: Thames and Hudson Limited, 1980.

Bonnefoy, Yves, ed.  Greek and Egyptian Mythologies. Translated Under the Direction of Wendy Doniger.  Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Buck, Carl Darling.  A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages.  Chicago:   The University of Chicago Press, 1988

Hesiod.  The Homeric Hymns and Homerica.  Loeb Series.  Translated by H.G. Evelyn-White.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1982.

Homer.  The Iliad.  Loeb Series, Book I.  Translated by A.T. Murray.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Lenardon, Robert J. and Moreford, P.O.  Classical Mythology.  2nd ed.  New York: Longman, 1977.

Mallory, J.P.  In Search of the Indo-Europeans.  London:  Thames and Hudson Limited, 1989.

Nagy, Gregory.  Greek Mythology and Poetics.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1990.

Pausanias.  Description of Greece.  Loeb Series, Books III-V.  Translated by W.H.S.

Jones and H.A. Ormerod.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1993.

Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology.  Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Theoi Project – http://www.theoi.com/

[1] Pirithous, in a separate saga, is said to be wedded to a woman named Hippodamia.  Apparently this event occurred prior to the saga with Theseus.

[2] The two suitors failed even more spectacularly in gaining Persephone.  They were caught in Hades and chained there forever (though apparently later Athenian revisions show Heracles interceding for the release of Theseus, leaving behind Pirithous).

[3] Comparative Indo-European mythology studies assert that ancient Indo-European myths indicate a dual-kingship ruling, or state foundation.  Sparta, unique among Greek city-states, seems to have kept this duality into historical times.

[4] In addition to their roles described above, the Leucippides also intervened in the ritual race of the Dionysiades.

[5] Whereas the Dioskouroi represented masculine adolescence, their sister Helen did the same for feminine adolescence in Sparta, and Helen was connected with the Leucippides in this respect.

[6] As opposed to individuals who have inherited the attributes of other gods.  For example, the Dioskouroi are known for their protection of sailors.  In Christian times, this attribute was absorbed by St. Nicholas.  Yes, THAT St. Nicholas.

[7] In a treaty of allegiance, king Sattiwaza (king of the Mitanni, an Indo-European people from the Indic branch) swears his allegiance to Suppliluliumas (king of the Hittites, another Indo-European people) by swearing before a variety of gods.  Among thes are Mitra and Uruwana/Aruna, Indara, and Nasattiya.  These correspond too the Vedic gods Mitra and Varuna (representing the first function), Indra (representing the second function), and the twin Nasatyas, or Ashvins (representing the third function).

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One Response to The Dioskouroi: A Brief Introduction

  1. Asterope says:

    Great overview!

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