Dioscuri: Castor and Pollux
What was it like being the brothers of the most beautiful woman in the world? The twins Castor and Polydeuces (the latter is often known as Pollux, his Latinized name) could sure spin a yarn about it. From sailing on the Argonaut with Jason and his crew to dying in a blaze of glory over – what else? – a lover’s quarrel, this demigodly duo deserves a tale of their very own.
A Family Affair
Perhaps best known as the Dioskouroi, or “sons of Zeus" - Latinized as the "Dioscuri" - Castor and Polydeuces were the sons of Leda, the queen of Sparta who was raped by Zeus in swan form, and the great god himself. Pseudo-Apollodorus dubs them “sons of Zeus and Leda."
The moniker is misleading, though: only Polydeuces and Helen were Zeus’s, while Castor and Clytemnestra, eventual bride of Agamemnon, were her kids by her husband, Tyndareus. To save space, they were often called the “Tyndarids,” the son of Tyndareus, like they were in Pindar’s third Ode.
The boys even had to rescue Helen once upon a time.
Theseus, king of Athens, abducted the gorgeous princess, as part of a pact with his pal Pirithous; they both pledged to kidnap daughters of Zeus. Pirithous went to the Underworld in an attempt to grab the goddess Persephone. Writes Pseudo-Apollodorus, “And when she grew into a lovely woman, Theseus carried her off and brought her to Aphidnae [a spot near Athens].”
Chimes in Plutarch, from his Life of Theseus, “Theseus won, and taking the maiden, who was not yet ripe for marriage, conveyed her to Aphidnae. Here he made his mother a companion of the girl, and committed both to Aphidnus, a friend of his, with strict orders to guard them in complete secrecy.”
While waiting for Helen to come to full maturity, Theseus kept busy elsewhere, but he didn’t count on Helen’s brothers.
Pseudo-Apollodorus continues, "But when Theseus was in Hades [trying to help Pirithous retrieve Persephone, and ultimately failing], Pollux and Castor marched against Aphidnae, took the city, got possession of Helen, and led Aethra, the mother of Theseus, away captive.” Plutarch notes that the regent of Athens in Theseus’s absence, Menestheus, was happy to help the Dioscuri – and undermine his cousin’s reign in the process.
Out Hunting, Be Back Later
In their spare time, Castor and Polydeuces loved to play sports. Ovid waxes lyrical about them in his Metamorphoses: “Castor and Pollux, twins of Tyndar[e]us; one famous for his skill in horsemanship, the other for his boxing.” Hymn 17 to the Dioscuri proclaims, “Hail, children of Tyndareus, riders upon swift horses!” These skills came in handy during their heroic adventures.
One such event? The hunt for the Calydonian Boar, a bad beast plopped down in King Oeneus of Calydon’s backyard for not honoring the gods properly. Meleager, the king’s son, organized a hunt of the best warriors in Greece in an attempt to kill the beast; that number included Iphicles, Heracles’s half-brother; the aforementioned Pirithous; Peleus, father to Achilles; and the maiden huntress Atalanta.
The latter ended up being the first one to shoot the beast, so she received the prize: the boar's skin and head. Meleager, having fallen in love with Atalanta, ended up defending her to his uncles, who wanted the boar’s skin for themselves, and killing them. That made Meleager’s mother really angry, so she tossed a log in the fire that held Meleager’s life force within it, burning her son to a crisp.
Cogito, Argo Sum
The Dioscuri also joined the crew of the Argo, the ship Jason sailed to claim the Golden Fleece. Apollonius Rhodius lists the esteemed crewmembers, including Heracles and Orpheus, as well as the divine twins. Their mom sent them off to gain glory for the fam, says Apollonius Rhodius: “Moreover, Aetolian Leda sent from Sparta strong Polydeuces and Castor, skilled to guide swift-footed steeds; these her dearly-loved sons she bare at one birth in the house of Tyndareus; nor did she forbid their departure; for she had thoughts worthy of the bride of Zeus.”
During the journey, Polydeuces got into a fist-fight with Amycus, king of the Bebrycians. These folks lived in Bithynia, a.k.a modern Turkey, according to Strabo. Amycus engaged everyone who came ashore in a boxing match to the death. Needless to say, he was always a winner. Talk about a bad version of Pacquiao vs. Mayweather. Polydeuces put his dukes up against Amycus when the ship docked.
He looked good doing it, too, says Apollonius Rhodius. "…the son of Tyndareus was like a star of heaven, whose beams are fairest as it shines through the nightly sky at eventide. Such was the son of Zeus, the bloom of the first down still on his cheeks, still with the look of gladness in his eyes.” After a long struggle, Polydeuces triumphed, dealing his opponent a fatal blow above the ear.
But Amycus’s subjects weren’t too thrilled at this, so they rushed Polydeuces; the champ’s friends helped him out.
After Jason used Medea to help him get the Golden Fleece, the princess of Colchis killed her brother who was following the Argonauts. The gods were displeased, to say the least. To placate them, the prophetic beam of the Argo “bade Polydeuces and Castor pray to the immortal gods first to grant a path through the Ausonian sea where they should find Circe,” the sorceress who would purify them. Circle was also Medea's aunt. Thanks to these dudes, then, the Argonauts had an O.K. journey home.
The Dioscuri ended up meeting their gruesome ends because of a love affair gone bad. Like many ancient princes, their rivals and love interests were close relatives: in this case, their paternal cousins, sons of Tyndareus’s brother Aphareus. Their enemies were comprised of Idas and Lynceus, according to Hyginus. These brothers were betrothed to two sisters, Phoebe and Hilaira, also called the Leucippides because they were daughters of Leucippus, yet another brother of Aphareus and Tyndareus. So everyone was related to everyone!
Both ladies were religious – “Phoebe being a priestess of Minerva, and Hilaira of Diana." They were already engaged to the Aphareids, so they were off-limits.
But the Dioscuri fell hard for their cousins’ fiancées. “Inflamed with love, [they] carried them off,” according to Hyginus. The twins hid in an oak tree to keep away from their cousins, says Pindar. This theft didn’t sit well with Idas and Lynceus, notes Theocritus, a third-century B.C. poet in his Idylls. Everyone took up arms once they got to Aphareus’s grave. Lynceus spotted his cousins hiding – “Lynceus excelled in sharpness of sight, so that he could even see things underground, notes Pseudo-Apollodorus.
He even expressed his displeasure, retorting that “It ill becometh princes, good friends, to go a-wooing such as be betrothed already.” There were plenty of fish in the see, so the Dioscuri didn’t have to steal other men’s ladies! But Pseudo-Apollodorus says that the conflict kicked off due to a quarrel over stolen cattle.
The two youngest of the four cousins, Lynceus and Castor, engaged in a duel. Eventually, Castor killed Lynceus, and, when Idas tried to avenge his brother by hurling his father’s headstone at his cousin, Zeus defended his son and burned the other son of Aphareus to a crisp, writes Theocritus. Hyginus disagrees on the account, saying Idas started to bury his brother and was putting up a headstone for Lynceus. Furious, Idas either crushed Castor with the monument or stabbed him. Then, Polydeuces rushed Idas and murdered him.
But Polydeuces didn’t want to live on earth without his brother, even though Pseudo-Apollodorus said he was wounded at the end. As a son of Zeus, he was a demigod, entitled to living it up on Olympus, but that wasn’t enough for him. Polydeuces gave up half of his immortality to Castor, so the twins alternated where they lived. They spent one day with Zeus, then the next in the Underworld. So the bros hung out together for eternity.
(The constellation Gemini is said to represent these twins, and its brightest stars Castor and Pollux (α and β Geminorum) are named for them.)
Once they became demigods, what did the Dioscuri do? Castor and Polydeuces were said to keep the waves calm for sailors. They also watched over the Olympian Games, says Pindar in his Nemean Odes. “Since the Dioscuri, guardians of spacious Sparta, along with Hermes and Heracles, administer the flourishing institution of the games, and they care very much for just men. Indeed, the race of the gods is trustworthy.” They were very helpful to men in need, says Theocritus, who describes them as “the two Spartan brethren which [were] wont to save both men that are come upon the brink and horses that are beset in the bloody press.”
Their wives are worshiped, too, in Sparta. Pausanias, in his Description of Greece, comments that the famous egg from which their husbands hatched was hung from the roof of their temple. At Argos, there was a sanctuary of the Dioscuri with ebony-wood statues of the gods, their wives, and kids. “The images represent the Dioscuri themselves and their sons, Anaxis and Mnasinous, and with them are their mothers, Hilaeira and Phoebe,” says Pausanias. Sometimes, though, they’re called Anogon and Mnesilaus. So the twosome spent eternity together as a sextet.
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