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Greek Heroes

Castor and Polydeuces

Castor and Polydeuces, often known as the Dioscuri, were the sons of either the Spartan king Tyndareus or Zeus, the king of the gods. They grew into some of the greatest heroes of their time, taking part in such exploits as the voyage of the Argonauts and the Calydonian Boar Hunt. They were worshipped as gods after their death.

By Avi Kapach13 min read • Last updated on Mar. 30th, 2022
  • Yes. Castor and Polydeuces were the brothers of Helen and Clytemnestra, who were important in the myth of the Trojan War.

  • Yes. Castor and Polydeuces sailed to Colchis with Jason and the Argonauts to steal the Golden Fleece. Like many other Argonauts, they were also often said to have taken part in the Calydonian Boar Hunt.

  • No. Castor and Polydeuces died or were deified before the Trojan War began.

  • Yes and no. In most traditions, Castor and Polydeuces had a curious afterlife, in which they alternated between living as gods and being dead in the Underworld.

Castor and Polydeuces, or the Dioscuri, were twin brothers who were inseparable in life as well as in death. According to the best-known tradition, however, Castor and Polydeuces had different fathers: Castor was the son of Leda and her husband Tyndareus, the king of Sparta, while Polydeuces was the son of Zeus, who slept with Leda in the form of a swan. Castor and Polydeuces were raised in Sparta, where they distinguished themselves as horsemen and warriors. 

When their sister Helen was abducted for the first time by the Athenian king Theseus, Castor and Polydeuces were the ones who rescued her. They also sailed with the Argonauts and participated in the Calydonian Boar Hunt, rivaling the greatest heroes of Greek mythology. 

Later, they carried off the daughters of Leucippus, which led to a quarrel with the women’s husbands, Idas and Lynceus, twin brothers from Messenia. There was a fierce battle between the two sets of twins, during which Castor, Idas, and Lynceus were all killed. 

Polydeuces, who was the son of Zeus, begged his father not to let him be separated from his dead brother. Zeus responded by making Castor and Polydeuces immortal on alternating days: one day they would live among the gods in heaven, and the next day they would be among the dead in the Underworld. 

Castor and Polydeuces were worshipped as gods throughout Greece, but especially in Sparta. The twins were believed to be the patrons of sailors, to whom they appeared as St. Elmo’s fire,  a glowing electric field that commonly occurs during thunderstorms.

#Etymology

The names “Castor” and “Polydeuces” are both likely to be native Greek in origin, though their exact etymology remains obscure. 

The name “Castor” seems to be related to the Greek word kastōr, meaning “beaver.” A very old suggestion has it that the name of the hero Castor was transferred to the beaver because both were said to be in some sense saviors of women: in myth, Castor saved his sister Helen when she was kidnapped by Theseus, while the castoreum derived from beavers was said to have a medicinal properties for women.1 But modern scholars have been hesitant to adopt this reasoning, so that the exact origins of Castor’s name remain uncertain.2

The name “Polydeuces” also seems to be related to a Greek word for an animal—specifically, a “foal” or “filly” (Greek pōlos). The second part of the name, the stem deuk-, is trickier etymologically: it may mean “to care for,” but could also be related to the Indo-European *dewk-, meaning “to lead” (compare the Latin ducere). Polydeuces’ name can thus mean either “he who cares for foals” or “leader of foals.”3

#Pronunciation

Castor

  • English
    Greek

    Castor

    Κάστωρ

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    [KAS-ter, KAH-ster]

    /ˈkɑːstə(r)/

Polydeuces

  • English
    Greek

    Polydeuces

    Πολυδεύκης

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    [pol-i-DOO-seez, -DYOO-]

    /ˌpɒl ɪˈdu siz, -ˈdyu-/

#Alternate Names

Polydeuces was known as Pollux in Roman literature, and the Romans referred to Castor and Polydeuces/Pollux as the Gemini (“twins”).

Dioscuri Statues, Capitoline Hill, Rome

Statues of the Dioscuri stand tall at Capitoline Hill in Rome.

Diana Ringo / CC BY-SA 3.0

#Titles and Epithets

Castor and Polydeuces were most often called the “Dioscuri” (“Sons of Zeus”), but they were sometimes also called “Tyndaridae” or “Tyndarids” after their mortal father, Tyndareus. In some parts of Greece (such as Attica), they were invoked as the Anaktes (“lords”).

#Attributes

Castor and Polydeuces were usually depicted as youthful and handsome. They were almost always associated with horses and horseback riding, much like their counterparts from Indian mythology, the Vedic Ashvins. In ancient iconography, Castor and Polydeuces often wore the Phrygian skull-cap, or pilos. This distinctive hat signified Castor and Polydeuces’ patronage of travelers and sailors, who were often seen wearing it in the ancient world. 

Castor and Polydeuces’ identity as twins was frequently symbolized by pairs of objects, including amphorae, shields, snakes, and dokana (two upright wooden beams connected by two cross-beams). 

#Family

Castor and Polydeuces were raised by Tyndareus, the king of Sparta, though one or both of them may have been fathered by Zeus (there are different versions of the myth). They were the brothers of two of the most infamous women in Greek mythology: their sister Helen became the cause of the Trojan War when she abandoned her husband Menelaus and ran off with Paris of Troy, while their other sister, Clytemnestra, brutally murdered her husband Agamemnon on his return from fighting the Trojan War.

#Family Tree

Castor’s Family Tree

  • Parents
    fathers
    mother
    • Leda
  • Siblings
    brother
    sisters
    • Polydeuces
  • Consorts
    wife
    • Hilaeira
  • Children
    son
    • Anogon

Polydeuce’s Family Tree

  • Parents
    fathers
    mother
    • Leda
  • Siblings
    brother
    sisters
    • Castor
  • Consorts
    wife
    • Phoebe
  • Children
    son
    • Mnesileus

#Mythology

#Birth

There are many different versions of the birth and parentage of Castor and Polydeuces. In the Odyssey, they are both the sons of the Spartan king Tyndareus and his wife Leda.4 But in the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women, Castor and Polydeuces are the sons of Zeus, the king of the gods.5 

What is now considered the standard account of their lineage first appeared in Pindar’s Nemean Ode 10 (ca. 444 BCE): according to this version, Castor was the son of Tyndareus, while his twin Polydeuces was the son of Zeus, as Zeus himself explained:

You are my son. But Castor was begotten after your conception by the hero, your mother's husband, who came to her and sowed his mortal seed.6

In most subsequent versions of the story, Zeus fell in love with Leda, the beautiful wife of Tyndareus, and forced himself upon her in the form of a swan. Later that night, Leda slept with her husband Tyndareus, too, and so became pregnant by both of them. Soon after, Leda gave birth to two sets of twins: Castor and Clytemnestra, whose father was Tyndareus, and Polydeuces and Helen, whose father was Zeus. 

In some versions, Leda’s children were hatched from a swan egg. The second century CE travel writer Pausanias claimed that the egg laid by Leda could be seen on display in a temple in Sparta.7 

According to some sources, Castor and Polydeuces were also the brothers of Philonoe, Phoebe, and Timandra.8

#Rescue of Helen

When Castor and Polydeuces’ sister Helen was still an unmarried girl, she was carried away by Theseus, the king of Athens. Theseus hoped to make Helen his wife as soon as she came of age. But Castor and Polydeuces invaded Athens while Theseus was absent and brought Helen home to Sparta. They also captured Theseus’ mother Aethra, who was forced to become Helen’s slave.

#Argonauts

Castor and Polydeuces were both accomplished heroes: Castor was a champion horseman, while Polydeuces was a gifted boxer. They were among the heroes who sailed with Jason on the Argo to steal the Golden Fleece. During the voyage, Polydeuces distinguished himself by defeating Amycus, the king of the Bebryces, in a boxing match.

Ficoroni Cista detail, National Etruscan Museum, Rome

Detail from the frieze on the Ficoroni Cista showing Pollux defeating Amycus (350–330 BC). This bronze cylindrical vessel is part of the collections of the National Etruscan Museum in Rome.

Sailko / CC BY-SA 4.0

#Calydonian Boar Hunt

According to some sources, Castor and Polydeuces were also among the heroes who participated in the Calydonian Boar Hunt.9 This famous exploit took place when the goddess Artemis sent a monstrous boar to ravage the kingdom of Oeneus of Calydon—a punishment for Oeneus’ failure to properly honor Artemis. In addition to Castor and Polydeuces, many of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology also took part in the Calydonian Boar Hunt, including Theseus, Peleus (the father of Achilles) and his brother Telamon, the heroine Atalanta, and Oeneus’ son Meleager.

#Death and Deification

The deaths of Castor and Polydeuces were the result of a quarrel with the twins Idas and Lynceus, the sons of Tyndareus’ brother (and their uncle) Aphareus. There are different explanations for this altercation. According to one tradition, Idas and Lynceus had been engaged to the daughters of the Arcadian Leucippus, Phoebe and Hilaeira. The wedding was held in Idas and Lynceus’ home in Messenia. But after the wedding, Castor and Polydeuces decided they wanted the brides for themselves and carried them off. Idas and Lynceus pursued Castor and Polydeuces. In the ensuing fight, Castor and Lynceus were killed. Idas in turn was killed by one of Zeus’ thunderbolts.10 

The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus painting by Peter Paul Rubens, 1618

The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus by Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1618), Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

According to another tradition, though Castor and Polydeuces did carry off Phoebe and Hilaeira, this was not the cause of their quarrel with Idas and Lynceus. Instead, the cousins fell out over a cattle raid that they had carried out together. While dividing their spoils, Idas and Lynceus tricked Castor and Polydeuces into giving up their share of the cattle. In retaliation, Castor and Polydeuces stole the cattle back and then attempted to ambush Idas and Lynceus. In the resulting fight, Idas killed Castor and Polydeuces killed Lynceus. Zeus then struck Idas down with a lightning bolt before he could finish off Polydeuces. 

Zeus wished to make Polydeuces, his son, immortal, but Polydeuces would not accept this while his brother Castor was dead. In the best-known version of the myth, a unique compromise was reached:

These two the earth, the giver of life, covers, albeit alive, and even in the world below they have honor from Zeus. One day they live in turn, and one day they are dead; and they have won honor like unto that of the gods.11

Thus, Castor and Polydeuces enjoyed immortality on alternating days and were worshipped as gods in Sparta. 

#Worship

The worship of the Dioscuri, thought to have been deified after their death, was widespread in Greece, Sicily, and Italy.12 In some regions, such as Attica, the Dioscuri were worshiped under the title of Anakes or Anaktes (“lords”).13 They were considered especially helpful to sailors14 and travelers,15 appearing to them as twins mounted on white horses or as St. Elmo’s fire. Finally, the Dioscuri were closely associated with war: they were credited as inventors of the war-dance and war music,16 and Spartan kings carried a symbolic representation of the Dioscuri, the dokana, when they went to war.17

#Festivals and/or Holidays

Festivals of the Dioscuri were usually called Dioscuria and were celebrated widely throughout the ancient Mediterranean. In Sparta, the Dioscuria involved sacrifices, rejoicing, and drinking.18 Cyrene, a Greek colony in north Africa, also held a great Dioscuria festival.19 

In Attica, where the Dioscuri were worshiped as the Anakes or Anaktes, their festival was known as the Anakeia. There was also an Anakeia festival celebrated by the city of Amphissa near Delphi, though the identity of the gods being honored in this festival has been disputed since antiquity.20 

The Romans gave special honors to Castor and Polydeuces (whom they called Castor and Pollux, or the Gemini): it was believed that the twins had descended from heaven atop their horses and helped the Romans win the historically significant Battle of Lake Regillus (ca. 496 BCE). This was commemorated each year on the Ides of Quinctilis (July 15).21

The rite of theoxenia (literally, “entertaining of the gods”) was also closely associated with the Dioscuri.22 An elaborate feast would be prepared and the host (whether an individual or public group) would invite the gods to take part. 

#Temples

There were numerous temples and even sepulchral monuments (tombs) of the Dioscuri scattered throughout Greece and Italy. Important examples were at the Menelaion in Therapne, just outside of Sparta;23 at Sparta itself;24 and at Argos.25 At Sparta, where worship of the Dioscuri was best established, there was a statue of Castor and Polydeuces at the entrance to the race course. The temple of the Dioscuri in Athens was called the Anacaeum. 

In Rome, the twins were believed to have helped the Roman army during the Battle of Lake Regillus (ca. 496 BCE); following their victory, the Romans honored their divine helpers with a temple of Castor and Pollux, built in the Roman forum. Later, the Romans erected additional temples to the brothers. 

Temple of Castor and Pollux Ruins, Roman Forum

Remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum.

MM / Public Domain

#Pop Culture

Castor and Polydeuces are rarely encountered in modern popular culture, though they do play a minor role in some adaptations of the voyage of the Argonauts, such as the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts and the 2000 television miniseries of the same name. However, the names Castor and Polydeuces (or Castor and Pollux) are sometimes used to describe other twins. For example, there are at least four sets of twin summits named after Castor and Polydeuces/Pollux: in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, US; in the Pennine Alps at the Swiss-Italian border; in Glacier National Park in western Canada; and in Mount Aspiring National Park in New Zealand.

Fictional twin characters named Castor and Pollux appear in novels by Robert A. Heinlein (The Rolling Stones), Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games trilogy), and Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians series). The villains of the 1997 film Face/Off are named Castor and Pollux Troy. Castor and Polydeuces are also the names of characters in the role-playing video game Persona 3

Finally, Canadian singer Kathryn Calder released a song called “Castor and Pollux” in 2010.

#Further Reading

#Primary Sources

Greek

  • Homer: The earliest references to Castor and Polydeuces are in the Homeric epics, now usually thought to have been written around the eighth or seventh century BCE. In Book 3 of the Iliad, Helen wonders why her brothers Castor and Polydeuces are not at Troy, not realizing that they are already dead (236–44). The unique afterlife of Castor and Polydeuces is described in Book 11 of the Odyssey (298–304).

  • Homeric Hymns: Two of the Homeric Hymns, 17 and 33, are dedicated to the Dioscuri. These were probably composed in the sixth century BCE.

  • Hesiod: The genealogy of Castor and Polydeuces is given in the fragmentary Catalogue of Women (fragment 24 M–W), written around the sixth century BCE.

  • Pindar: Nemean Ode 10 (444 BCE) tells the story of Castor and Polydeuces’ death and deification. The Dioscuri are also included in Pythian Ode 4 (466 BCE), which describes the voyage of the Argonauts.

  • Euripides: The Dioscuri appear as divine characters in Euripides’ Electra (ca. 414 BCE) and Helen (412 BCE).

  • Apollonius of Rhodes: The epic poem Argonautica (third century BCE), which tells the story of the Argonauts, features Castor and Polydeuces as characters.

  • Theocritus: The twenty-second Idyll, sometimes called the Hymn to the Dioscuri (third century BCE), tells two stories about the Dioscuri: first, Polydeuces’ defeat of Amycus during the voyage of the Argonauts; and second, Castor’s defeat of Lynceus. 

  • Strabo, Geography: A late first-century BCE geographical treatise and an important source for many local Greek myths, institutions, and religious practices from antiquity.

  • Pausanias, Description of Greece: A second-century CE travelogue; like Strabo’s Geography, an important source for local myths and customs.

  • Orphic Argonautica: A poem by an unknown author, probably written after the fourth century CE, the Orphic Argonautica tells the story of Jason and the Argonauts from the point of view of Orpheus.

Roman

  • Ovid: The Dioscuri feature briefly in the epic poem Metamorphoses and in the fifth book of the calendrical poem Fasti (both ca. 8 CE). 

  • Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica: Like Apollonius’ earlier Argonautica, this Latin epic, written around the end of the first century CE, is about Jason and the Argonauts. It describes some of the exploits of Castor and Polydeuces, such as the fight with Amycus while the twins were sailing with the Argonauts.

Mythological Handbooks (Greek and Roman):

  • Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History: A work of universal history, covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time (mid-first century BCE). The myths of Castor and Polydeuces are treated in Book 4.

  • Apollodorus, Library: A mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE. The chief myths of Castor and Polydeuces are in Book 3.

  • Hyginus, Fabulae: A Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE) that includes sections on the myths of Castor and Polydeuces.

#Secondary Sources

  • Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

  • Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.

  • Kerényi, Károly. The Heroes of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974.

  • Parker, Robert. “Dioscuri.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 466. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • Robbins, Emmet. “The Divine Twins in Early Greek Poetry.” In Thalia Delighting in Song: Essays on Ancient Greek Poetry, edited by Bonnie MacLachlan, 238–53. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.

  • Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.

  • Smith, William. “Dioscuri.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed March 19, 2021. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0104:entry=dioscuri-bio-1.

  • Theoi Project. “Dioskouroi.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Dioskouroi.html.

  • Walker, Henry J. The Twin Horse Gods: The Dioskouroi in Mythologies of the Ancient World. London: Tauris, 2015.

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