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My Favourite Planet > English > People > Dioskouroi

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Dioskouroi

Ancient Greek mythology, religion and art

The mythical twin heroes, Kastor (Κάστωρ, "beaver"; Latin, Castor) and Polydeukes (Πολυδεύκης, "much sweet wine"; Latin, Polydeuces or Pollux) were known as the Dioskouroi (Greek Διόσκουροι, "sons of Zeus"; Latin, Dioscuri).

The various versions of the myths concerning the twins are inconsistent and often vague. One twin was said to be the immortal son of the Aetolian princess Leda (Λήδα, daughter of King Thestius) and Zeus, who disguised himself as a swan to have sex with her. The other, conceived the same night, was the mortal son of Leda and her husband King Tyndareos of Sparta (Τυνδάρεως). However, which of the twins was immortal is not clear: it is generally thought that Polydeukes was the immortal son of Zeus, and Kastor the mortal son of Tyndareos.

According to one version of the myths, the coupling of Leda and Zeus as a swan produced two eggs, from which hatched one of the twins and Helen of Troy. At the same time Leda also give birth to the other twin and Clytemnestra, conceived by more conventional means with Tyndareos.

The Dioskouroi were also half-brothers of Timandra, Phoebe, Herakles, and Philonoe.

The twins were closely associated with horses, often depicted as mounted warriors or hunters (such cult images of mythical horsemen were widespread among ancient cultures) and particularly revered by cavalry soldiers.

They also appeared as warriors and hunters in several mythical tales, including the hunting of the Kalydonian Boar, the feud between Sparta and Athens following the abduction of Helen by Theseus, and the expedition of Jason and the Argonauts.

There were also tales of cattle theft (see photo below), abduction of women, rivalry, trickery and revenge involving the Dioskouroi and their cousins Lynkeus and Idas (the Apharidae, sons of Aphareus), twin brothers from Thebes. The growing emnity between the two sets of twins ended with Idas ambushing and killing Kastor, and Polydeukes killing Lynkeus.

According to other versions of the myths, both the Dioskouroi were killed in combat by Lynkeus and Idas during a siege of Sparta. In the Iliad by Homer, during the siege of Troy Helen asks why her brothers are not among the Greek besiegers (Achaeans) she can see from the walls of the city. Homer tells us that, unknown to her, both were already dead and buried:

"'I see, moreover, many other Achaeans whose names I could tell you, but there are two whom I can nowhere find, Castor, breaker of horses, and Pollux the mighty boxer; they are children of my mother, and own brothers to myself. Either they have not left Lacedaemon, or else, though they have brought their ships, they will not show themselves in battle for the shame and disgrace that I have brought upon them.'

She knew not that both these heroes were already lying under the earth in their own land of Lacedaemon."

Homer, Iliad, Book III.
Prose translation by Samuel Butler.

After Kastor' death, Polydeukes asked Zeus to allow his twin brother share his immortality so that they could remain together. Zeus transformed them both into the stars today known as the Gemini (Latin for twins) constellation, the heavenly twins. Some ancient authors wrote that they shared immortality in turns.

They are sometimes referred to as the Tyndaridae or Tyndarids (Τυνδαρίδαι, Tundaridai), a reference to their father/stepfather King Tyndareus of Sparta. The worship of the Dioskouroi appears to have had its origins and centre at Sparta (Lacedaemon), where they were associated with the Spartan tradition of dual kingship, and there were many sanctuaries dedicated to the twins around the Peloponnese. The cult spread throughout Greece, and they were also worshipped by the Etruscans (as Kastur and Pultuce), Romans and Gauls.

They were also known as Anakes (Ἄνακες, kings; also translated as "protectors", "guardians" and "on high"; Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 33. 1), their annual religious festival the Anakeia (Ἀνάκεια), and their temple the Anakeion (Ἀνάκειον).

There was an Anakeion beneath the Sanctuary of Aglauros on the east slope of the Athens Acropolis. Pausanias described a sculpture group dedicated to them there:

"The sanctuary of the Dioskouroi is ancient. They themselves are represented as standing, while their sons are seated on horses."

Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book 1, Chapter 18,
Section 1.

Pausanias also mentions that "at Kephale [in Attica] the chief cult is that of the Dioskouroi, for the inhabitants call them the Megaloi Theoi [Great Gods]".

Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book 1, Chapter 31,
Section 1.

According to the poet and collector of epigrams Meleager of Gadara (Μελέαγρος ὁ Γαδαρεύς, 1st century BC), the cyclamen (κυκλάμινος) was named after the Dioskouroi:

"... the Muses' cyclamen which takes its name from the twin sons of Zeus." [1]
 
References to the Dioskouroi
on My Favourite Planet
 
The Pedestal of Agrippa, on the Athens Acropolis:

Athens Acropolis gallery, page 9

Detail of one of the statues of the Dioskouroi in the Naples Archaeological Museum at My Favourite Planet

Detail of one of the Dioskouroi statues
in the Naples Archaeological Museum.

See photos below.
 
The Dioskouri on a Roman quinari coin from Akragas, Sicily at My Favourite Planet

The Dioskouri on a coin of the Roman
Republic from Akragas (Agrigento), Sicily.

Agrigento Regional Archaeological Museum.
 
One of the Dioskouri on the corner of a sarcophagus at My Favourite Planet

One of the Dioskouri on the
corner of a marble relief on
the "Sarcophagus of Meleagros".

From Dyrrachium (Durres, Albania). Roman
period, first half of the 2nd century AD.

The Dioskouri twins sit on horseback on
either side of a relief frieze depicting the
myth of the Kalydonian hero Meleagros.

Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
Inv. No. 2100 T. Cat. Mendel 4.
Relief of the Dioskouroi from the Sikyonian Treasury, Delphi, Greece at My Favourite Planet

An Archaic high relief depicting a scene from the myth of the Dioskouroi and the Apharidae.

Part of a poros (limestone) metope of the Sikyonian "monopteros", an open
Doric colonnade at the Treasury of the Sikyonians, Delphi. Circa 560 BC.

Delphi Archaeological Museum, Greece. Inv. No. 1322.

The five surviving metopes from the Sikyonian monopteros were excavated at Delphi in 1894, in and around the Sikyonian Treasury. [2]

The Kastor and Polydeukes are shown walking to the right, followed by their Theban cousin Idas (Ἴδας, one of the the Apharidae twins), leading cattle as booty from their raid on Arcadia. Around 20 centimetres of the left side of the relief are missing, and it is thought that Idas' twin brother Lynkeus (Λυνκεύς) followed him. Painted inscriptions (two barely visible, on the right) showed the names of the figures.

All three men are shown in profile, at the same size, identical in dress and pose, and walk in step with the left leg in front. Each is naked apart from a chlamys (short cloak), fastened at the right shoulder and open at the side, a thick belt and sandals. Each carries two spears in the left hand, resting on the leftt shoulder, and another two horizontally in the right hand.

The oxen, shown smaller in scale, walk behind the men in rows of three, with three sets of legs and three heads. The heads are shown one above the other, with those in the rear rows at the top. The heads in the two rear rows are in profile, while those in the front rows are turned to face the viewer frontally. Strangely, the horns and ears of the oxen are shown in front of the men's cloaks. The composition as a whole has surprising depth and a dynamic rhythm, and must have been even more impressive when it was first sculpted and painted.

The brightly painted metopes had an unusual width-to-height ratio of 3:2.

Approximate dimensions: height 58 cm, length 87 cm, depth 16 cm, depth of relief 8 cm.
 
Polydeukes and Orpheus on the Argo, Delphi Archaeological Museum at My Favourite Planet

Fragments of an Archaic high relief depicting the prow of the Argo ship. On the left,
Polydeukes (name inscribed), one of the Dioskouroi, disembarks from the ship on horseback.
On the right stand Orpheus (name inscribed) and an unidentified musician, both holding lyres.

Part of a poros metope of the Sikyonian "monopteros", Delphi. Circa 560 BC.

It is thought that the image of the ship occupied three
metopes along the short side of the monopteros.

Delphi Archaeological Museum, Greece.
Twin kouroi statues traditionally identified as Kleobis and Biton at My Favourite Planet

Twin marble kouroi statues originally identified as the brothers
Kleobis and Biton [3] of Argos, but now thought by some
scholars to depict the Dioskouroi. Circa 580 BC.

Delphi Archaeological Museum, Greece.
Statue A (right) Inv. No. 467, Statue B (left) Inv. No. 1524.

The two over life-size marble statues and part of one of the inscribed bases were excavated in 1893 and 1894 near the Athenian Treasury, Delphi. The second base was discovered in 1907 built into a wall of the Roman baths.

Statue A (right in the photo above) is almost complete, and the soles of the feet on one of the bases allowed archaeologists to match them. Statue B (left) is more fragmentary and has been restored; the lower legs and part of the base are modern additions. Both statues and bases are badly weathered, but the figures still have a remarkable intensity and presence, despite - or maybe because of - their exaggerated anatomies.

The base of Statue A (Base B) is inscribed with the artist's signature [ΠΟΛΥ]ΜΕΔΕΣ ΕΠΟΙΗΣΕΗ ΑΡΓΕΙΟΣ ([Poly]medes of Argos made me; there are a number of varying readings of this signature, see photo below), and it is probable that both statues were made by the same sculptor. Another inscribed line and the inscription on the base of Statue B (Base A) are illegible. The perhaps optimistic reading of letters on Base A as part of the name Biton remains a subject of scholarly debate.

The identification of the statues as depictions of the Argive heroes Kleobis and Biton appears to rest on the signature by an Argive sculptor and the questionable reading of Biton's name on Base A, tied to a mention of statues of the brothers by Herodotus [3]. It should be noted that Herodotus was relating a story said to have been told by the Athenian statesman Solon to King Croesus of Lydia (it is doubted that these two men ever met); he did not write that he had seen these statues himself or that they still existed in his day.

The theory that the statues were among several dedications to the Dioskouri in Delphi has also yet to be proved, and also rests on conjectural readings of the inscriptions. As in the case of many ancient Greek sculptures, especially Archaic kouroi and kore, without recognizable attributes asscociated with particular deities and other figures, positive identification remains elusive.

Statue A: height 216 cm; head height 30 cm; base height 19 cm, width 38 cm, length 70 cm.
Statue B: restored height 218 cm.
 
The back of the head of statue A, Delphi at My Favourite Planet

The back of the head of statue A.



Other kouros statues
on My Favourite Planet:


The colossal "Isches Kouros" from Samos,
"The Ram-Carrier of Thasos"
and smaller kouroi from Samos:

Samos photo gallery pages 4-5

A bronze kouros statuette in the Daedalic
style in the Delphi Archaeological Museum:

Daidalos page, MFP People
The inscription on the base of Statue A, Delphi, with the signature of Polymedes of Argos at My Favourite Planet

The inscription on the base of Statue A, with the signature of the sculptor Polymedes of Argos.
Colossal statues of Castor and Pollux in Naples at My Favourite Planet

Colossal marble statues of Castor and Pollux, the Dioskouroi.

2nd century AD, based on Greek models of the 5th century BC, particularly the Doryphoros
(spear carrier) of Polykleitos. Found at Baiae, in the Bay of Naples, in the area of the baths,
near the "Tempio di Venere".

The twins are usually represented nude; each wears a chlamys riding cloak and pilos
(πῖλος) conical cap. They are also nearly always shown with horses, here reduced to heads
which double as supports for the marble figures. Both figures hold swords in their left hands.

National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Inv. No. 131209 and 230872.
The statue of Castor in the Naples Archaeological Museum at My Favourite Planet   The statue of Pollux in Naples at My Favourite Planet
The statues of Castor and Pollux in the Naples Archaeological Museum.

There appears to be no indication of which twin is which. Traces of
dark red colour can be seen on the hair of the statue on the left.
Votive relief of Castor and Pollux, the Dioskouroi, and the River Strymon from Amphipolis at My Favourite Planet

Inscribed votive relief of Castor and Pollux, the Dioskouroi, and the personification
of the River Strymon (the lower part of the reclining figure can be seen, right).
From Amphipolis, Macedonia, Greece. 2nd century AD.

Amphipolis Archaeological Museum. Inv. No. Λ 673.
Votive relief of the Dioskouroi from Thasos at My Favourite Planet

Inscribed votive relief of the Dioskouroi from the cemeteries of Thasos, Greece. Late Hellenistic period.

Thasos Archaeological Museum.
Marble relief of the Dioscuri among Roman gods at My Favourite Planet

Inscribed marble votive relief showing the Roman deities Jupiter and
Juno Dolicheni with Isis, Serapis, the Dioscuri, Sol (Sun) and Luna (Moon).

Carrara marble. From Aventino, Rome. Circa 250 AD.

The Roman cult of Jupiter Dolichenus was often associated with those of other deities. In this relief,
Jupiter (standing on a bull) and Juno (on a doe) Dolicheni are depicted with four other divine
couples related to the celestial and cosmic sphere. The bust of Sol (Sun, top left) wears a radiant
crown, and behind Luna (Moon, top right) is a crescent. Castor and Pollux stand with horses and
spears in the centre of the top row of figures. Below them stand the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis.

Centrale Montemartini, Capitoline Museums, Rome. Inv. No. 9750.
Colossal statues of Castor and Pollux on the Capitoline Hill, Rome at My Favourite Planet

Colossal marble statues of Castor and Pollux with horses on the balustrade
around the Piazza del Campidoglio, the square of the Capitoline Hill, Rome.
They originally stood at a temple to Castor and Pollux in Monte Cenci.

The balustrade, designed by Michelangelo, is decorated with several sculptures, previously including two other statues of Castor and Pollux which are now in front of the Palazzo del Quirinale.

"The two Colossal Statues of the Dioscuri were discovered under Pius IV, apparently during the construction of the synagogue in the Ghetto *; and for a time lay, unrestored, behind the Balustrade. Some years later they were restored by the sculptor Valsoldo, and in 1583 they were erected on the Balustrade, at the head of La Cordonnata , or grand staircase ascending from the Piazza Aracoeli to the Capitol Square.

The figures are recognizable as the Dioscuri mainly by the pileus on their heads and by the horses which stand beside them. The horses are represented on a small scale in conformity with the principle of ancient art which emphasized the principal figures even at the cost of truth to nature. Each of the youths held his horse with one hand by the bridle, which was presumably added in bronze, while with his other he grasped a wooden or bronze spear. The execution is purely decorative in style and quite insignificant. In antiquity the two statues were probably placed as the ideal watchers of some monumental entrance."

* "Rom. Mittheilungen, VI, p. 33, According to the inscription on the back of the base of the figure to the right (as we look from the Piazza Aracoeli), both statues were found among the ruins of the Theatre of Pompey. The above statement, however, given on the authority of Flaminio Vacca (Berichte der pliilolog.-histor. Klasse der Sachs. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, 1881, p. 70, No. 52), seems more worthy of credence, as Vacca writes as an eye-witness of the discovery."

Wolfgang Helbig (1839-1915), Guide to the public collections of classical antiquities in Rome, Volume I, pages 287-288. Karl Baedeker, Leipzig, 1895.
 
A marble figure of one of the Dioskouroi from the Octagon, Thessaloniki at My Favourite Planet

A marble figure of one of the Dioskouroi on the Capital
of a pseudopilaster from the Octagon, Thessaloniki.

Imperial workshop, Thessaloniki. Early 4th century AD.

Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum.
The Dioskouroi, Orestes and Elektra on a red-figure lekanis, Paestum at My Favourite Planet

The lid of a Paestan red-figure lekanis [4] depicting a scene from the myth of
Orestes and Electra: the Dioskouroi appear at the tomb of Agamemnon.

Attributed to the Floreale Painter, circa 330 BC. Excavated in 1954
at Tomb 5 in the necropolis at Laghetto, just outside Paestum.

National Archaeological Museum of Paestum, Campania, Italy.

In Greek mythology and literature, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, was murdered on his return from the Trojan War by his wife Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Orestes and Electra, the children of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, avenged their father by killing their mother. The cycle of revenge and murder was mentioned in the poetry of Homer and Pindar and was the subject of plays by the Athenian tragedians Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. At the end of Euripides' Electra (Ἠλέκτρα, written around 410-413 BC), the deified Dioskouroi appear and tell Orestes and Electra that their mother's punishment was just, but they must nevertheless atone for their matricide and purge their souls.

At the front of this lekanis lid, as it appears in the photo above, Electra sits mourning her father on his tomb. She is veiled and holds what appears to be a vase, perhaps Agamemnon's funerary urn. What appear to be two white teardrops can be seen in front of her face, but the paint on the vase is too worn to be certain. The Dioskouroi twins approach her from either side (see detail below; unfortunately the lekanis is displayed at the corner of a glass case, and its position and reflections made it it impossible ot take a photo of both twins). Each is naked apart from a pylos (conical cap), chlamys (short cloak) and boots, and each holds a spear and another object which is offered to Electra. It is uncertain what the twin on the left is holding, but his brother to the right of Electra offers a golden wreath.

On other vases depicting this subject, two similar figures, dressed in the same way, have been identified as Orestes and Pylades, his cousin who, according to some versions of the story, assisted in the killing of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus.
 
One of the Dioskouroi with Elektra at My Favourite Planet

One of the Dioskouroi with Elektra on the lid of the Lekanis in Paestum.
Detail of a black-figure column krater with two youths flanked by their horses and dogs at My Favourite Planet

Detail of a black-figure column krater (bowl for mixing wine and water)
with two youths flanked by their horses and dogs.

From Vulci. Made in southern Italy, around 540 BC.
Attributed to the Inscriptions Painter (Chalcidian Group).

The figures have not been identified. Perhaps the Dioskouroi or two other heroes.

British Museum. GR 1843.11-3.38 (Vase B 15). Canino Collection.
 
Dioskouroi Notes, references and links  

1. Meleager of Gadara on the etymology of cyclamen

William Roger Paton (1857-1921), translator, The Greek anthology Volume I (of five), Book IV, The poems of the different anthologies, 1. "The Stephanus of Meleager" ("The introduction to Melager's Garland"), page 113. William Heinemann, London; G.P. Putnam's sons, New York, 1916. At archive.org.

2. Metopes of the Sikyonian monopteros, Delphi

The five surviving metopes (mostly fragments), in the order they are exhibited in the Delphi museum (left to right):

1. A figure on the back of a large ram, possibly Helle or Phrixos riding the Golden Ram in the myth of the Golden Fleece.

2. A large boar, probably the Kalydonian Boar, below which is a relatively tiny dog;

3. A woman on a bull, probably Europa on Zeus;

4. Idas following Kastor and Polydeukes (names inscribed) with cattle;

5. The ship Argo with two musicians, Orpheus (inscribed) on the right, the other unidentifiable, and the Dioskouroi on horseback on either side (Polydeukes inscribed, on the left);
 

3. Kleobis and Biton

Kleobis (Κλέοβις) and Biton (Βίτων) were two legendary or mythical brothers from Argos whose story was mentioned by Herodotus. The strong young men died after pulling their mother's ox cart to a festival at the temple of Hera in Argos, and according to Herodotus, "the Argives made and dedicated at Delphi statues of them as being the best of men". (Histories, Book 1, chapter 31)

Pausanias mentioned a relief depicting the brothers pulling their mother's wagon, opposite the sanctuary of Nemean Zeus at Delphi (Description of Greece, Book 2, chapter 20, section 3). The scene is also known from a relief on altar now in the Baths of Diocletian, Rome (see photo, right).

The kouros statues were discovered during the massive excavations at Delphi, directed by Jean Théophile Homolle (1848-1925), director of the French Archaeological School at Athens (l’École française d’archéologie d’Athènes) 1890-1903. When the first statue was unearthed it was recognized as one of the earliest large-scale Archaic kouroi. However, the subsequent discovery of its twin caused considerable confusion, followed by a great deal of speculation. It was apparently Homolle who, recalling the passage from Herodotus, identified the figures as Kleobis and Biton. An early reading of the inscriptions on the bases ([κλεοβις και βι]τον | ταν ματαρα ...) appeared to confirm the identification, which was generally accepted.

The inscriptions have since been reexamined and discussed by several scholars. Two of the most recent studies by Claude Vatin (1981) and Paul Fauré (1985), independently concluded that the statues were dedications to the Dioskouroi. Their conclusions are discussed in an article by David Sansone, who argues that even if Vatin and Fauré are correct in claiming that the inscriptions mention the Dioskouroi, wanakes (kings, from ϝάναξ, an early form of ἄναξ; the name by which the Dioskouroi were worshipped in Argos) and even Polydeukes, the statues may still be depictions of Kleobis and Biton dedicated to the Heavenly Twins.

David Sansone, Cleobis and Biton in Delphi. Nikephoros 4 (1991), pages 121-132. At academia.edu.

4. Lekanis

A lekanis (plural lekanides) is a type of shallow ceramic bowl with a lid, two horizontal handles and a wide foot. They are thought to have been given as wedding gifts, and to have been used by women for storing jewellery, cosmetics and other objects. A lekane (plural lekanai) is similar but has no lid and is often undecorated.
 
Relief of Kleobis and Biton on an altar in Rome

Relief on a Roman marble altar depicting
Kleobis and Biton pulling their mother's
wagon, here in the form of a chariot.

Roman Imperial period.

Terme di Diocleziano,
Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome.

Photo: Jastrow, wikimedia.
Photos and articles © David John
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