Castor and Pollux
Castor and Pollux
KAS-ter and POL-uhks
Castor and Polydeuces (Greek), the Dioscuri, the Tyndaridae
Homer's Iliad, Hyginus's Fabulae
Sons of Zeus and Leda
In Greek and Roman mythology , Castor and Pollux (known as Polydeuces to the Greeks) were twin brothers who appeared in several prominent myths. The twins were worshipped as gods who helped shipwrecked sailors and who brought favorable winds for those who made sacrifices to them. The Romans considered Castor and Pollux the gods who watched over horses and the Roman horsemen known as equites (pronounced EK-wi-teez).
There are many stories about the twins and numerous versions of those stories. According to the Greek poet Homer, Castor and Pollux were the sons of Tyndareus (pronounced tin-DAIR-ee-uhs) and Leda, the king and queen of Sparta. For this reason, they are sometimes called the Tyndaridae (sons of Tyndareus). Another account identifies the twins as the sons of Leda and Zeus , from whom they received the name Dioscuri (sons of Zeus). Still another legend says that Castor was the son of Leda and Tyndareus—and therefore a human—while Pollux was the son of Zeus—and therefore a god. This difference became significant later in their lives. All tales about the twins agree in portraying Castor as a skilled horse trainer and Pollux as an expert boxer. Inseparable, the brothers always acted together.
In one of the earliest myths about the twins, Castor and Pollux rescued their sister Helen after she had been kidnapped by Theseus (pronounced THEE-see-uhs), king of Attica. Helen would later gain fame as the queen whose abduction by Paris, a Trojan prince, launched the Trojan War. The twins also accompanied Jason and the Argonauts on their voyage in search of the Golden Fleece . During that expedition, Pollux demonstrated his boxing skills by killing the king of the Bebryces. When a storm arose during the voyage, the Argonaut Orpheus prayed to the gods and played his harp. The storm immediately ceased and stars appeared on the heads of the twins. It is because of this myth that Castor and Pollux came to be recognized as the protectors of sailors.
Another story concerns the death of Castor. According to one account, the twins wanted to marry their cousins Phoebe and Hilaria. The women, however, were already promised to two other cousins, Idas and Lynceus. Castor and Pollux carried the women away to Sparta, pursued by their male cousins. In the fight that followed, the twins succeeded in killing both Idas and Lynceus, but Castor was fatally wounded.
St. Elmo's Fire
St. Elmo's fire is a natural phenomenon that occurs during certain stormy weather conditions. It appears as a glow on the top of tall pointed objects, such as the masts of ships, and is often accompanied by a cracking noise. When stars appeared on the heads of Castor and Pollux during the voyage of the Argonauts, the twins became known as the protectors of sailors. From that time, sailors believed that St. Elmo's fire was actually Castor and Pollux coming to protect them during a storm.
In another version of this story, the four men conducted a cattle raid together. Idas and Lynceus then tried to cheat Castor and Pollux out of their share of the catde. The twins decided to take the cattle themselves, but were caught as they started to sneak away. A fight broke out in which Castor, Idas, and Lynceus were all killed.
This story also has several different endings. In one, Castor's spirit went to Hades , the place of the dead, because he was a human. Pollux, who was a god, was so devastated at being separated from his brother that he offered to share his immortality (ability to live forever) with Castor, or to give it up so that he could join his brother in Hades. Taking pity on his son Pollux, Zeus declared that the brothers would take turns dwelling in Hades and with the gods on Mount Olympus. On one day, Castor would be with the gods and Pollux would be in Hades; on the next, the two would change places. In another ending, Castor remained in Hades, but Pollux was allowed to visit him every other day. Most versions of the myth say that Zeus placed the brothers in the heavens as part of the constellation—group of stars—known as Gemini. Today the two brightest stars in the constellation Gemini are named Castor and Pollux.
Castor and Pollux in Context
The Romans developed a strong cult—a group that worships a specific god or gods above all others within a religion—around Castor following a military victory by the Romans over the Latins at Lake Regillus in 499 BCE. When the Roman infantry failed to hold its ground in the battle, the dictator Aulus Postumius decided to send in the cavalry (the horsemen of the military) to help. Castor's association with horsemen prompted the dictator to make a vow to build a temple to Castor in exchange for his help, and the Romans were victorious. The Romans completed the temple in 484 bce. Pollux joined his brother in the cult much later, but never had quite the same level of honor. The images of Castor and Pollux appear on many early Roman coins. The Romans celebrated the Theoxenia Festival each year on July 15th in their honor, with the Roman cavalry riding in a ceremonial parade.
Key Themes and Symbols
Castor and Pollux are symbols of brotherhood and the bond that unites two people even after death. Castor and Pollux can also be seen as a symbol of inequality: though they are twins, one is immortal while the other is not. Although Castor is known as the patron of horsemen, both Castor and Pollux were known as the “riders on white steeds,” and both were thought to represent the spirits of young warriors riding into battle.
Castor and Pollux in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Castor and Pollux were featured in the works of many ancient Greek and Roman writers. Besides appearing in Homer's poems, the twins have a role in the play Helen by the Greek playwright Euripides. They also figure in Pindar's Nemean Odes and in Ovid's Metamorphoses. There is even a reference to the twins in the Bible: in the New Testament book Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul is said to sail from Malta aboard a ship bearing the sign of Castor and Pollux. The English poet Edmund Spenser included the twins in his poem Prothalamion. The greatest work by the French composer Jean-PhiUipe Rameau, the tragic opera Castor and Pollux, was based on the story of the brothers.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research the constellation Gemini, and in particular, the stars known as Castor and Pollux. Where in the sky does this constellation appear? Does it always appear in the same place in the sky, or does its position change throughout the year? See if you can spot Castor and Pollux in the nighttime sky.