Castor and Polydeuces
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.
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. But modern scholars have been hesitant to adopt this reasoning, so that the exact origins of Castor’s name remain uncertain.
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.”
[KAS-ter, KAH-ster] /ˈkɑːstə(r)/
[pol-i-DOO-seez, -DYOO-] /ˌpɒl ɪˈdu siz, -ˈdyu-/
Polydeuces was known as Pollux in Roman literature, and the Romans referred to Castor and Polydeuces/Pollux as the Gemini (“twins”).
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”).
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).
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.
Castor’s Family Tree
- Helen of Troy
- Phoebe (daughter of Tyndareus)
Polydeuce’s Family Tree
- Helen of Troy
- Phoebe (daughter of Tyndareus)
- Phoebe (daughter of Leucippus)
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. But in the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women, Castor and Polydeuces are the sons of Zeus, the king of the gods.
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.
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.
According to some sources, Castor and Polydeuces were also the brothers of Philonoe, Phoebe, and Timandra.
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.
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.
Calydonian Boar Hunt
According to some sources, Castor and Polydeuces were also among the heroes who participated in the Calydonian Boar Hunt. 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.
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.
Thus, Castor and Polydeuces enjoyed immortality on alternating days and were worshipped as gods in Sparta.
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. Cyrene, a Greek colony in north Africa, also held a great Dioscuria festival.
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.
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).
The rite of theoxenia (literally, “entertaining of the gods”) was also closely associated with the Dioscuri. An elaborate feast would be prepared and the host (whether an individual or public group) would invite the gods to take part.
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; at Sparta itself; and at Argos. 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.
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.