Castor and Pollux (Dioscuri) – Greek Mythology

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In Greco-Roman mythology, Castor and Pollux (or Polydeuces) were twin brothers, one of whom was a demigod. Together they were known as the ‘Dioscuri’, while in Rome they were called Gemini. They featured in several myths and often crossed paths with other famous characters in Greek mythology.

Who Were Castor and Pollux?

According to the myth, Leda was an Aetolian princess, regarded as the most beautiful of mortals. She was married to the Spartan king, Tyndareus. One day, Zeus happened to look upon Leda and, stunned by her beauty, he decided that he had to have her so he transformed himself into a swan and seduced her.

That same day, Leda slept with her husband Tyndareus and as a result, she became pregnant with four children by both Zeus and Tyndareus. She laid four eggs and from these hatched her four children: the brothers, Castor and Pollux, and the sisters, Clytemnestra and Helen.

Although the brothers were twins, they had different fathers. Pollux and Helen were fathered by Zeus while Castor and Clytemnestra were fathered by Tyndareus. Because of this, Pollux was said to be immortal whereas Castor was a human. In some accounts, both brothers were mortal whereas in others they were both immortal, so the mixed nature of these two siblings wasn’t universally agreed upon.

Helen later became famous for eloping with the Trojan Prince, Paris which gave rise to the Trojan War, while Clytemnestra married the great King Agamemnon. As the brothers grew up, they developed all the attributes that were associated with famous Greek heroes and they featured in many myths.

Depictions and Symbols of Castor and Pollux

Castor and Pollux were often depicted as horsemen wearing helmets and carrying spears. Sometimes, they’re seen on foot or on horseback, hunting. They’ve appeared on black-figure pottery in scenes with their mother Leda and the abduction of the Leucippides. They’ve also been depicted on Roman coins as cavalry riders.

Their symbols include:

  • The dokana, two pieces of wood standing upright and connected by crossed beams)
  • A pair of snakes
  • A pair of amphorae (a type of container similar to a vase)
  • A pair of shields

These are all symbols which represent their twinhood. In some paintings, the brothers are portrayed wearing skull-caps, which resemble the remains of the egg they were hatched from.

Myths Involving the Dioscuri

The two brothers were involved in several well-known myths of Greek mythology.

  • The Calydonian Boar Hunt

According to the myth, the Dioscuri helped bring down the terrible Calydonian boar that had been terrorizing the kingdom of Calydon. It was Meleager who actually killed the boar, but the twins were among the hunters who were with Meleager.

  • The Rescue of Helen

When Helen was kidnapped by Theseus, the hero of Athens, the twins managed to rescue her from Attica and take revenge against Theseus by kidnapping his mother, Aethra, to give him a taste of his own medicine. Aethra became Helen’s slave, but she was finally sent back home after the sack of Troy.

  • The Brothers as Argonauts

The brothers joined the Argonauts who sailed on the Argo with Jason on his quest to find the Golden Fleece in Colchis. They were said to be excellent sailors and saved the ship from being wrecked several times, guiding it through bad storms. During the quest, Pollux participated in a boxing contest against Amycus, King of Bebryces. Once the quest was over, the brothers assisted Jason in taking revenge on the treacherous king Pelias. Together, they destroyed Pelias’ city of Iolcus.

  • The Dioscuri and the Leucippides

One of the most famous myths featuring Castor and Pollux is that of how they became a constellation. After going through many adventures together, the brothers fell in love with Phoebe and Hilaeira, also known as the Leucippides (the daughters of the white horse). However, both Phoebe and Hilaeira were already engaged to be married.

The Dioscuri decided that they would marry them regardless of this fact and took the two women to Sparta. Here, Phoebe gave birth to a son, Mnesileos, by Pollux and Hilaeira also had a son, Anogon, by Castor.

Now the Leucippides had actually been betrothed to Idas and Lynceus of Messenia, who were the offspring of Aphareus, Tyndareus’ brother. This meant that they were cousins of the Dioscuri and a terrible feud began between all four of them.

The Cousins in Sparta

Once, the Dioscuri and their cousins Idas and Lynceus went on a cattle-raid in the region of Arcadia and stole an entire herd. Before they divided the herd amongst themselves, they killed one of the calves, quartered it and roasted it. Just as they sat down to their meal, Idas suggested that the first pair of cousins to finish their meal should get the entire herd for themselves. Pollux and Castor agreed to this, but before they realized what had happened, Idas ate his portion of the meal and quickly swallowed Lynceus’ portion as well.

Castor and Pollux knew that they had been fooled but though they were angry they gave in for the moment and allowed their cousins to have the entire herd. However, they silently pledged to take revenge on their cousins some day.

Much later, the four cousins were visiting their uncle in Sparta. He was out, so Helen was entertaining the guests in his place. Castor and Pollux made an excuse to leave the feast quickly because they wanted to steal the cattle herd from their cousins. Idas and Lynceus also left the feast eventually, leaving Helen on her own with Paris, the Trojan prince, who abducted her. Therefore, according to some sources, the cousins were indirectly responsible for the events that led to the start of the Trojan War.

The Death of Castor

Things reached a climax when Castor and Pollux tried to steal back Idas and Lynceus’ cattle herd. Idas saw Castor hiding in a tree and knew what the Dioscuri were planning. Outraged, they ambushed Castor and injured him fatally with Idas’ spear. The cousins began to fight furiously, and as a result, Lynceus was killed by Pollux. Before Idas could kill Pollux, Zeus hit him with a thunderbolt, striking him dead and so saved his son. However, he wasn’t able to save Castor.

Pollux was overcome with grief at Castor’s death, that he prayed to Zeus and asked him to make his brother immortal. This was a selfless act on Pollux’s part since making his brother immortal meant that he himself would have to lose half of his immortality. Zeus took pity on the brothers and agreed to Pollux’s request. He transformed the brothers into the Gemini constellation. Due to this, they spent six months of the year on Mount Olympus and the other six months in the Elysium Fields, known as the paradise of the gods.

Roles of Castor and Pollux

The twins became personifications of horsemanship and sailing and they were also considered as the protectors of friendship, oaths, hospitality, home, athletes and athletics. Castor was highly skilled at horse-taming whereas Pollux excelled in boxing. They both had the responsibility of protecting sailors at sea and warriors in battle, and often appeared in person in such situations. Some sources say that they appeared at sea as the weather phenomenon, St. Elmo’s fire, a persistent bluish glowing fire that appears occasionally near pointed objects during storms.

Worship of Castor and Pollux

Castor and Pollux were worshipped extensively by Romans and Greeks alike. There were many temples dedicated to the brothers in Athens and Rome, as well as in other parts of the ancient world. They were often invoked by sailors who prayed to them and made offerings to the brothers, seeking favorable winds and success on their journeys at sea.

Facts About the Dioscuri

1- Who are the Dioscuri?

The Dioscuri are the twin brothers Castor and Pollux.

2- Who are the parents of the Dioscuri?

The twins had the same mother, Leda, but their fathers were different with one being Zeus and the other being the mortal Tyndareus.

3- Were the Dioscuri immortal?

From the twins, Castor was mortal and Pollux was a demigod (his father was Zeus).

4- How are the Dioscuri connected to the star sign Gemini?

The constellation Gemini is assocated with the twins, who were turned into it by the gods. The word Gemini means twins, and those born under this star sign are said to have dualistic traits.

5- What were Castor and Pollux associated with?

The twins were associated with the role of saving those in distress at sea, in danger at war and were connected to horses and sports.

In Brief

Although Castor and Pollux aren’t very well known today, their names are popular in astronomy. Together, their names were given to the constellation of stars known as Gemini. The twins also influence astrology, and are the third astrological sign in the zodiac.