Castor and Pollux: The Twins that Shared Immortality

If you were told that the Gemini constellation and the philosophy of Yin and Yang were related, would you believe it? Although Yin and Yang is not central to the story of Castor and Pollux, it is definitely an interesting fun fact that comes with it. 

Castor and his twin brother Pollux were considered to be demigods in Greek mythology. Their deaths and shared immortality has resulted in the fact that they are closely related to what we today know as the Gemini constellation. Actually, they are the very representation of it. 

Whether you are interested in how the Gemini zodiac sign came about, or if you’re looking for an epic mythological story, how Castor and Pollux lived their life and how they obtained their god status is an intriguing tale. 

What is the Story of Castor and Pollux?

Still, the exact answer to what the story is of Pollux and Castor is a question that nobody really knows the answer to. There are many versions. That doesn’t make them special, at least not in Greek and Roman mythology. 

For example, there are many contested stories surrounding Pluto and Hades, or the god of medicine Asclepius. When we compare them to these stories, there seems to be a bit more consensus about the story of Castor and Pollux. To start, it is a fact that Castor and Pollux were twin brothers with the same mother, Leda. 

In Greek mythology, Leda was a princess who eventually became a Spartan queen. She became a queen by marrying the ruler of Sparta, king Tyndareus. But, her beautiful black hair and snowy skin made her an astonishing appearance, something which was noted by any ancient Greek or Greek god. Indeed, even Zeus, who was peacefully living his life on Mount Olympus, fell for her.  

When queen Leda was walking along the Eurotas river on a sunny morning, she noticed a beautiful white swan. But, as soon as she noticed the swan, it was attacked by an eagle. She saw that it had trouble escaping the attack of the eagle, so Leda decided to help him. After saving him, the swan managed to seduce Leda with its appearance.

How does one get seduced by a swan? Well, it turned out to be Zeus himself, transformed into the beautiful swan. How convenient would it be to transform into another creature, more appealing to the person you want to seduce. Unfortunately, us mere mortals have to hope our cheesy pick-up lines will hit home. 

The Birth of Castor and Pollux

Anyway, this interaction laid the foundation for the birth of two boys named Castor and Pollux. Zeus and Leda shared a bed together on the day that they met. But, the same night her husband king Tyndareus also shared a bed with her. The two interactions resulted in a pregnancy that would birth four children. 

Because queen Leda was seduced by a swan, the story goes that the four children were given birth out of an egg. The four children born to Leda were Castor and Pollux, and their twin sisters Helen and Clytemnestra.  However, not all children could call the god of thunder, Zeus, their father. 

Castor and Clytemnestra are believed to be the children of king Tyndareus of Sparta. On the other hand, Pollux and Helen are believed to be the offsprings of Zeus. This means that Castor and Pollux should be seen as half brothers. Still, they were inseparable from birth onwards. Later in the story, we will elaborate on their inseparability. 

Mortals and Immortals

So far, the myth of Castor and Pollux is pretty straight forward. Well, that is if we take into account the standards of Greek mythology. There is, however, a bit of discussion on whether there were actually four children born out of the described pregnancy of Leda. 

Another version of the story tells us that Leda only slept with Zeus that day, so that there was only one child born out of the pregnancy. This child would become known as Pollux. Since Pollux was the son of Zeus, he is regarded to be immortal.

On the other hand, Castor was born after another pregnancy. He was begotten by king Tyndareos, which meant that Castor is seen as a mortal man.

Although this version of the story is a bit different, the mortal and immortal characteristics of Castor and Pollux are still loosely applied throughout their appearances in Greek mythology. Indeed, the timeline and content of their stories is somewhat elastic. The differences in mortality are, too, central to this version of the story. 

How to Refer to Castor and Pollux

In ancient Greece, many languages were spoken. Because of the interactions between Latin, Greek, and dialects such as Attic and Ionic, Aeolic, Arcadocypriot, and Doric, the ways in which people refer to the twins changed over time. 

Diving a bit more into the origin of their names, the two half brothers were originally called Kastor and Polydeukes. But, due to the changes in language use, Kastor and Polydeukes eventually became known as Castor and Pollux. 

They are also referred to as a pair, because they are generally perceived as inseparable. As a pair, the ancient Greeks referred to them as Dioskouroi, meaning ‘youths of Zeus’. Nowadays, this name is molded into Dioscuri.

Clearly, this directly refers to the twin sons of Leda both being related to Zeus. Although this might be somewhat the case, the paternity over the twins is still contested. Therefore, another name that is used to refer to Castor and Pollux is Tyndaridae, referring to Tyndareus, the king of Sparta.  

Castor and Pollux in Greek and Roman Mythology

During their upbringing, the twin brothers developed a range of attributes that were associated with Greek heroes. More specifically, Castor became famous for his skill with horses. On the other hand, Pollux became highly regarded for his fighting as an unrivaled boxer. A wise choice for the mortal Castor, a wise choice for the immortal Pollux.

There are some instances which are important for the story of Castor and Pollux. Particularly three, which we will discuss next. Due to these three stories in particular, the brothers became known as the patron gods of sailing and horsemanship.

First, we will elaborate on how they functioned as a protector of their sister Helen. The second story regards the Golden Fleece, while the third elaborates on their involvement with the Calydonian hunt. 

The Abduction of Helen

Firstly, Castor and Pollux play a central role in the abduction of their sister, Helen. The abduction was done by Theseus and his best friend, Pirithous. Since the wife of Theseus died, and Pirithous was already a widow, they decided to get themselves a new wife. Because they were pretty high on themselves, they chose no other than the daughter of Zeus, Helen.

Pirithous and Theseus headed to Sparta, where the sister of Castor and Pollux would reside at that point. They took Helen out of Sparta and brought her back to Aphidnae, home to the two abductors. Castor and Pollux couldn’t let this happen, so they decided to lead a Spartan army to Attica; the province where Aphidnae is located. 

Because of their demigod attributes, the Dioscuri would easily take Athens. Well, it helped that Theseus wasn’t present at their time of arrival; he was wandering around in the underworld. 

Either way, it resulted in the fact that they could take back their sister Helen. Also, they took Theseus’ mother Aethra in retribution. Aethra became Helen’s maid, but was eventually set free during the Trojan war by the sons of Theseus. 

Too young to fight?

Although they succeeded in rescuing Helen, there is one pretty big oddity to the story. There are some more, but the most mind boggling one is the following.

So, some say that Helen was still very young, namely between seven and ten at the time of the abduction by Theseus. Remember, Helen was born out of the same pregnancy as Castor and Pollux, which would mean that her two saviors would be of the same age. Pretty young to invade the ancient Greek capital and abduct someone’s mother. At least, for modern standards.

Jason and the Argonauts

Besides rescuing their sister, Castor and Pollux are known as two important figures in the story of the Golden Fleece. More famously, this story is referred to as the story of Jason and the Argonauts. The story is about, you guessed it, Jason. He was the son of Aeson, king of Iolcos in Thessaly. 

But, a relative of his father seized Iolcos. Jason was determined to take it back, but he was told he could only regain power of Iolcos if he would take the Golden Fleece from Colchis to Iolcus. Sounds easy, right? Well, not really. 

This is due to two things. First of all, it had to be stolen from Aeëtes, the king of Colchis. Second, the Golden Fleece had its name for a reason: it is the gold fleece of a flying, winged ram named Crius Chrysomallos. Pretty valuable, one might say.

Stealing from a king might be hard enough, but considering it is a valuable piece also means it’s well-guarded. In order to bring the fleece back to Iolcos and claim his throne, Jason gathered an army of heroes. 

The Role of Castor and Pollux

Two of the heroes, or Argonauts, were Castor and Pollux. In this story, the two brothers were very helpful for the fleet that came to capture the Golden Fleece. More specifically, Pollux is noted for having bested the King of Bebryces during a boxing match, which allowed the group to exit the kingdom of Bebryces. 

Other than that, Castor and Pollux were noted for their seamanship. The fleet would get into several situations which could have a deadly ending, particularly due to bad storms. 

Because the twins excelled over the other argonauts in their seamanship, the two brothers would be anointed with stars on their heads. The stars indicated that they are the guardian angels for other sailors.

Not only would they become known as guardian angels, they would also become known as the embodiment of St. Elmo’s fire. St. Elmo’s fire is an actual natural phenomenon. It is a glowing starlike mass of material that could appear after a storm at sea. Some saw the fire as a dead comrade who had returned to warn of danger ahead, affirming the guardian status of Castor and Pollux.

Calydonian Boar Hunt

Another event that cemented the legacy of the two brothers was the Calydonian boar hunt, albeit less impressive than their role as Argonauts. The Calydonian boar is known as a monster in Greek mythology, and many great male heroes had to come together to kill it. It had to be killed because it was on a warpath, trying to destroy the whole of the Greek region Calydon.

Castor and Pollux were amongst the heroes that helped with the difficult task of defeating the monster. Although they had a definite part to play, the actual killing of the monster has to be attributed to Meleager with the assistance of Atlanta. 

Who Killed Castor and Pollux?

Every good hero story must eventually come to an end, and so was the case with Castor and Pollux. Their death would be initiated with what seemed to be a valid partnership. 

Is Stealing Cattle Ever a Good Idea?

Castor and Pollux wanted to eat, so they decided to pair up with Idas and Lynceus, two Messenian brothers. Together, they went on a cattle raid in the Arcadia region in Greece. They agreed that Idas could divide the cattle that they were able to steal. But, Idas wasn’t as trustworthy as the Dioscuri imagined him to be

How Idas divided the cattle was as follows. He cut a cow in four pieces, proposing that one half of the loot was given to the person who first ate his share. The other half of the loot was given to the one who finished his share secondly.

Before Castor and Pollux were able to realize what the actual proposal was, Idas had swallowed his share and Lynceus had done the same. Indeed, they went to capture the cattle together but ended up with empty hands. 

Abduction, Marriage, and Death

It could potentially be interpreted as a retribution, but Castor and Pollux decided to marry two women that were promised to Idas and Lynceus. They were the two beautiful daughters of Leucippus and went by the name of Phoebe and Hilaeira. Idas and Lynceus obviously didn’t accept this, so they took arms and searched for Castor and Pollux to fight them. 

The two sets of brothers found each other and a fight broke out. In the battle, Castor killed Lynceus. His brother Idas became instantly depressed and forgot about the fight, or the brides for that matter. He took the dead body of Lynceus and started to create a monument for him. However, Castor wasn’t done. He intervened and tried to prevent the raising of the monument. 

Idas was furious, piercing the thigh of Castor with his own sword. Castor died, infuriating Pollux. Pollux rushed to the crime scene and killed Idas in a single fight. Only pollux would remain alive from the original gang that stole the cattle. As an immortal, this should come as no surprise.

But of course, Pollux couldn’t live without his brother. Since his father was a god, the immortal brother asked him if he could die too to be with Castor. Indeed, he wanted to give up his own immortality to be with his mortal brother.

But, Zeus offered him a different solution. He offered that the twins shared immortality, meaning that they would switch between the gods on mount Olympus and among the mortals in the underworld. So according to the myth, Pollux was giving half of his immortality to Castor.

Pollux, Castor, and the Constellation Gemini 

We have already touched upon their inseparability, but there is a deeper layer to it than discussed until now. This is all rooted in the way that Pollux acted after the death of Castor. Indeed, Pollux gave up part of his immortality and actually opted to live in the underworld because he was so close to his brother.

It is believed by some that as a reward for this superhuman love, Pollux and his brother were placed among the stars as the constellation Gemini. Therefore, the story of Castor and Pollux stays relevant to this day, most notably in their references to this Gemini constellation. 

The Gemini constellation consists of two rows of stars, with the two brightest stars at the top of each line. The bright stars represent the heads of Castor and Pollux. The two brothers are literally side by side, indicating their thorough interconnectedness. 

Yin and Yang, Castor and Pollux?

The two brothers as shown in the constellation Gemini is, thus, a big indicator of how inseparable they were. But, there are more references to their inseparability.

For starters, they are often referred to as the evening star and the morning star. The dusk and the dawn, the day and the night, or the sun and the moon are all seen as things that Castor and Pollux embody. Indeed, what is the day without a night? What is the sun without a moon? They are all necessarily dependent on each other. 

In the same sense, the twin stars that are known in the West as the constellation Gemini are seen in China as part of the Yin and the Yang. Especially the bright stars that are identified as the heads of Castor and Pollux are related to Yin and Yang. 

Although ancient China has many gods and goddesses, the concept of Yin and Yang is normally the first thing people think of when we talk about Chinese spirituality. This, too, might say something about the importance of the Dioscuri.

Between gods and man

The tale of Castor and Pollux stays relevant to this day, more often implicitly than it is explicit. Hopefully, you get the idea of the two twin brothers and what they represent. We could elaborate on a lot more, like their appearance or how they are used in popular culture. Still, the myth of the Dioscuri and their superhuman love is already something to get inspired by. 

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