Popularly known in Greek mythology as the twin brothers Castor and Pollux, they have never been regarded as major deities and little attention has been paid to their story. This remarkable book by Henry John Walker fills a major gap in the literature by explaining who and what they are.
Walker often terms them the Dioskouri, twin horse gods. The Spartan explanation of their existence is the one most widely accepted from ancient Greek times. The Spartans claimed they lived normal human lives, and were then worshipped as gods 40 years after their deaths. Walker, a senior lecturer in Classical and Medieval Studies at Bates College in Maine, says by this explanation “the Spartans are merely expressing a metaphysical gap in terms of a time gap. They are trying to build a bridge between the life of two heroes and the worship of two gods. The essence of the Dioskouri, however, lies in those 40 years, in that gap between mortality and divinity.”
A portion of this book is the result of an exploration of that gap.
It takes an unexpected turn, however, as Walker leads us not only to ancient Greece, but ancient India as well. Specifically, he traces the legend of the brothers, known as Asvins, to the Vedic period 25 centuries ago. Here we see the difference between the Asvins and the other gods: they “were not allowed to join the other soma-drinking gods.” In Greek terms this is akin to ambrosia, the nectar of the gods.
“This is a very significant aspect of the Asvins in Vedic thought,” says Walker, “and will lead to a wide range of speculations in the later interpretations of Vedic ritual.” The author spends close to 95 pages detailing this; since the text is only 196 pages followed by more than 70 pages of notes, bibliography and index, it is in fact the major portion of his research.
In Vedic myth the Asvins are criticised “by the other gods for associating too much with humans...They are especially famous for helping those who have been trapped by enemies, for providing people with emergency food-supplies, and for solving marital problems.” Thus their reputation is entirely good, unlike many other gods who have a vengeful streak.
It appears that the Vedic myths derive from even more ancient sources. The Asvins need to learn the secret of soma from a god known as Dadhyanc. He is not allowed to let the secret pass his lips, so the Asvins oblige by removing his head so that Dadhyanc can replace it with a horse head which tells the secret. “The Asvins bring Dadhyanc back to life by putting his human head back on his shoulders.”
Sounds like a crazy tale, doesn't it? Martin relates “Archeologists have found the body of a decapitated man with the head of a horse in a north Asian tomb dating from 2100-1700 BC.” While we have only found once such tomb, it seems likely that this mythic ritual was actually performed some 40 centuries ago!
In ancient Greece, the Dioskouroi have their most famous role as the rescuers of Helen, held captive in Troy (the Trojan War, mentioned on pg. 172, strangely does not appear in the Index). Why were they involved? Because they are the elder brothers of Helen.
The brothers also are bit players in the greatest voyage of all, the journey of Jason on the ship Argo to search for the Golden Fleece. The author says the brothers are depicted on horseback in front of the Argo on the Treasury building at Delphi. He mentions other depictions of them, but sadly the book contains no illustrations. The front cover, however, shows them from the Capitoline Hill in Rome.
While the description of the Vedic tales is complex and by its very nature confusing, overall this is an engaging book that illiminates a myth that has spanned a wide range of human existence. Castor and Pollux finally have a book of their own.
The Twin Horse Gods (271 pages) is $110 from I.B. Tauris