Dioscuri (Castor & Pollux)

Category: Gods > Terrestrial Gods


  1. Introduction
  2. A votive relief, depicting a ‘hosting of the gods’ (theoxénia)
  3. The name ‘Dioscuri’ (and ‘Castores’)
  4. The identity of Castor and Pollux
  5. Appearances of the Dioscuri in history
  6. The stars that appear to sailors
  7. The Dioscuri in the heavens
  8. Details of worship

1 Introduction


  • “The brothers of Helen.
  • “Zethos and Amphion, the so-called Leukópōloi.
  • “Also stars that appear to sailors.
  • “And a sign in sacrificial (divination).”

(Hesychius, Lexicon s.v. Διόσκουροι.)

The last of these meanings, which presumably refers to a certain sign observed in animal livers during sacrificial divination, is obscure to me, but the others are all quite clear:

  1. In the vast majority of cases, when ancient Greek authors refer to the Dioscuri, they mean the brothers of Helen, namely the twins Castor and Pollux, prominent heroes of myth, and widely worshipped gods, especially by sailors and ships’ pilots (Maximus of Tyre, Oration 9.7; Dio Chrysostom, Oration 64.8), as well as in war, but also in other contexts.
  2. On occasion, they mean other pairs or triads of young heroes or gods (although Zethos and Amphion in particular only receive this appellation here and in John Malalas, Chronography, p. 234, as far as I could find out).
  3. They also knew of certain phenomena, “the stars that are called Dioscuri” (identified with St. Elmo’s fire by moderns), that appeared to sailors, and which some believed were Castor and Pollux themselves, come to rescue the ship from a storm.

Homeric Hymn 33 brings out this connection especially clearly:

“Sing about the quick-glancing Dioscuri, Muses,
The Tyndarids, the splendid children of Leda of the beautiful ankles,
Horse-taming Castor and blameless Pollux,
The children she bore under the peak of the great mountain, Taÿgetus,
(5) After she mingled in love with black-clouded Kronion,¹
As saviors of humankind that dwells upon the Earth,
And of their swift ships, when wintery storms bear down
Over the implacable Sea. Then, those who are onboard
Call upon the sons of great Zeus in prayer
With (sacrifice) of white lambs, and go to the furthest part
Of the stern – still, the great wind and the wave of the Sea
Lay the ship underwater – but suddenly they appear,
Darting through the air on fast-beating wings,²
And at once they still the gales of baleful winds,
And level the waves of white brine in the Sea.
They are good signs against trouble for sailors,
And those who see them rejoice, freed from wearysome trouble.
Be glad, Tyndarids, who mount the fast horses!
But I shall remember you – and also another song.”³

1: Zeus, the son of Kronos.
2: Certain gods, and especially daemons, are often depicted with wings; this is where the Christian iconography of winged angels derives.
3: The Homeric Hymns are meant to be used as proems for other poetry, like the hymns to the Muses at the beginning of Hesiod’s works.

As Sextus Empiricus says, in a philosophical rather than mythical mode (Against the Natural Philosophers 1.86): “If there are various living beings on the Earth and in the Sea, consisting of much dense substance but also participating in a psychic and perceptive power, it is all the more plausible that there exist certain ensouled and rational living beings in the air, which has a more pure and unalloyed nature compared to earth and water. And it is consistent with this that there are certain good daemons, the Dioscuri, saviors of the ‘well-decked ships’.”

Other explanations for these “stars” in a natural-philosophical mode, as given by Aëtius (quoted in Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 15.49.1), are the following:

  • “Xenophanes (believed) that the (Dioscuri) which appear on ships (shaped) like stars are clouds made to shine through a certain motion.
  • “Metrodorus, that they are flashes which appear to the eyes of the beholders out of fear and consternation.”

However as I will show later (gods willing), there are also a significant number of ancient reports of the Dioscuri appearing in the distinct shape of young men, often on horseback (see the image in section 2), on land as well as at sea, so that Xenophanes’ explanation and the modern identification with St. Elmo’s fire only goes so far (whereas Metrodorus’ theory, although equally reductionist, could perhaps be broadened to apply to these cases too).

It is further said that the Dioscuri constitute the zodiac sign, Gemini (‘Twins’), although this constellation is also assigned to other deities.

2 A votive relief, depicting a ‘hosting of the gods’ (theoxénia)

Votive relief for the “Great Gods”, i.e., Dioscuri (Wikimedia Commons)

This relief, dedicated by “Dana Atthoneiteia to the Great Gods”, shows the Dioscuri riding in the sky, over a winged Victory (as it seems), and below a Sun driving a four-horse chariot.

Below are the worshippers, holding an unidentifiable object into the air, casting some kind of offering (frankincense? a libation of wine?) onto an altar to be consumed by fire, and having placed three cakes or loaves on an offering table.

The empty couch rising above the offering table is meant as a locus for the presence of the gods, not unlike a cult statue. In an actual ritual, this presence is of course unseen, but through the artist’s imagination, the gods’ forms have been made manifest for us.

The ritual being depicted in the relief is not an ordinary animal sacrifice, as it would be performed to any given god. The use of a klínē or reclining couch tells us as much, since this was not the typical seat for a god, but rather that of a human participant in a banquet. But it seems to have been common in the worship of the Dioscuri – e.g., Diodorus Siculus tells of a “couch for the Dioscuri laid out on a ship” (Library of History 8.32.3). Rather than receiving sacrifical smoke from afar, it seems that the Dioscuri were understood to recline at the dinner table with their worshippers. (Even if there was also an altar, as in the relief.)

An offering made in this manner was called by variations on the term “hosting” (xenismós; Scholia on Pindar’s Olympian Odes 3.72), or “hostings of the gods (theoxénia), because it seems that at these occasions they host the gods” (ibid. 3.1) or “they imagined they were hosting the Dioscuri” (ibid. 3.67). “The festivals of theoxénia […] are held at certain predetermined days, as if the gods themselves were living in the cities” (ibid. 3.1).

But the gods were “hosted” not only at fixed dates, but also as occasion prompted, as in the example from Diodorus, where the purpose seems to have been to pray for good sailing, or else to thank the Dioscuri for victory in battle, as in the following anecdote (if only by pretense):

“After Jason had won a war, he told his mother that the Dioscuri had been most manifest as helpers in battle, and on this account, he had vowed to host the gods once he had won; and that he had invited the generals, commanders and captains of the army, and all of his officers. She believed this, and so sent him every adornment she had in terms of drinking-cups, mixing-bowls, tables, silver- and goldware. And once he had come into possession of that property, he gave his mercenaries their pay” (Polyaenus, Stratagems 6.1.3).

Since these occasions relate to the two contexts in which the Dioscuri were most frequently seen to manifest themselves, namely to save seafarers and aid in battle, it seems that there is a connection between the fact that their presence is so immediate, and the manner in which they are celebrated as present among their worshippers. This is driven home by a story of a more literal hosting, in which the Dioscuri visited a man called Phormion as anonymous strangers.

Plutarch only alludes to the story, mentioning that “Phormion believed he hosted the Dioscuri” (That it is impossible to live pleasantly in accord with Epicurus 1103b). In context, one would reasonably expect this to have been a positive experience, but a longer version in Pausanias turns out to be rather horrifying, more a ghost tale than a story of divine blessing:

“There is a house (in Amyclae) where they say that the children of Tyndareus first lived, but in later times, the Spartan Phormion came to own it. To him came the Dioscuri in the shape of human strangers.¹ They said they had come from Cyrene, and asked him to let them stay, requesting the room which they had liked most when they had been among humans.² At which he told them to take any other room they liked, but that he would not give them this one, because his daughter, who was still a virgin, happened to live there. On the next day, the girl and all the attendants of the child had disappeared, and (only) statues of the Dioscuri, a table, and silphium³ placed upon it were found in the room” (Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.16.2–3.16.3).

Perhaps, however, Plutarch was thinking of a different version, such as that told in the Suda, where, “when (Phormion) was holding theoxénia, the Dioscuri summoned him to Cyrene, and (its ruler) Battus; and he woke up holding a stem of silphium” (Suda s.v. Φορμίων; this story is manifestly influenced by the proverbial expression “silphium of Battus”, but a connection to Cyrene is evident in both versions).

1: The same word xénos is used for ‘stranger, guest, host’, as the guest–host relationship is understood as reciprocal.
2: They apparently do not share the rationale with Phormion.
3: From this we might deduce that silphium was an offering to the Dioscuri, but (a) this is not entirely clear, as the story is meant to be unsettling rather than entirely clear, and (b) even if it were otherwise, silphium is thought to be extinct.

As a final note on the theoxénia, I want to quote two passages from Athenaeus, which give us an idea of what an affordable hosting of the Dioscuri might entail:

“The poet who wrote the (play) Beggars that is ascribed to Chionides says that the Athenians, when they would lay out a meal for the Dioscuri in the town hall (prytaneum), set ‘cheese, light pastry, ripe olives and leek’ on the table, as a reminiscence of ancient fare” (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 4.14).

“Bacchylides mentions Boeotian cups in the following lines, where he addresses the Dioscuri, calling them to the hosting (xénia): ‘There are no bodies of cattle here, nor gold, nor crimson carpets, but there is well-disposed humor, a pleasing Muse and sweet wine in Boeotian cups’” (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 11.101).

For the most part, at least, the offerings were simply laid out, and presumably removed at the end of the meal, and not fed into an altar flame, as was the more general custom.

3 The name ‘Dioscuri’ (and ‘Castores’)

The Dioscuri are, literally, the ‘sons of Zeus’, Diòs koûroi in Greek.¹ The phrase was drawn together into one word, Dióskouroi or Dióskoroi, and sometimes used in the dual form, Dioskórō (meaning specifically ‘the two sons of Zeus’).

The modern English form Dioscuri is a Latin adaptation of Dióskouroi, although in antiquity, this Latinization (Dioscūrī) was not actually in use. We have only a very few instances where the Greek word is given a Latin spelling, without adapting it to Latin grammar, as Dioscoroe.

Most notably, this form is used by Cicero, when he writes that “the name Dioscoroe is used in various ways by the Greeks; the first (group of Dioscoroe) are three, who are called Anactes (‘Kings’) in Athens, namely Tritopatreus, Eubuleus and Dionysus, who were the sons of the most ancient Jupiter and Proserpine. The second were the sons of the third Jupiter and of Leda, namely Castor and Pollux; the third are called Alco, Melampus and [unintelligible] by some, the sons of Atreus born of Pelope” (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 3.53).

The third group is totally obscure, although Alco (gr. Álkōn) appears as a name for one of the Cabiri, and another Alco is mentioned in loose connection with the Dioscuri by Pausanias (Description of Greece 3.14.7). The first group is better known as the Tritopatores (or, as Cicero says, the Anactes).

In the vast majority of cases, however, the name Dioscuri refers to the second group, Castor and Pollux (as in Homeric Hymn 33), although there are a few exceptions or ambiguities.² It is from the name of one of the brothers that the usual Latin term for the two of them is derived: they are called the Castorēs or ‘Castors’ (or sometimes Pollūcēs, ‘Polluxes’).

1: Not all ancients accepted this etymology: “Dioscuri: those who are give heed to Zeus, because they call ‘attending’ korêin. Or because they are the koûroi, that is the sons, of Zeus” (Etymologicum Magnum s.v. Διόσκουροι; the entry also includes a long discussion of whether the words are just ‘juxtaposed’ or ‘composed’ into a single one, opting for the latter). In the Etymologicum Gudianum, the words neōkóros (‘temple-warden’) and sēkokóros (‘stable-keeper’) are given as parallels for the first etymology. However, if this etymology were actually correct, the word would be *Diokóroi, not Dióskoroi.
2: Pausanias mentions three statues who might be Dioscuri or Corybantes (Description of Greece 3.24.5); the “child Kings” (gr. Ánaktes paîdes) who may be the Dioscuri, Curetes or Cabiri (ibid. 10.38.7): and certain altars for “the Heroes” who might be either Dioscuri or “local heroes” (ibid. 10.33.6). He also mentions worship of the Dioscuri under the name of “the Great Gods” (ibid. 1.31.1, 8.21.4), and of “Kings” (ibid. 2.36.6).

4 The identity of Castor and Pollux

In Greek, the Dioscuri are called Kástōr and Polydeúkēs. Because their worship was adopted by the Romans at a very early date, when less allowances were made to the peculiarities of the Greek language, only one name, Castōr, was adopted unchanged, while the other was simplified to Pollūx. In English, it is generally the Latin forms that are used, although some prefer to use Polydeuces, or even Kastor and Polydeukes. I will follow the generally prevailing norm here.

But enough about names now! Let us look at the myths. The poets are in general agreement that the Dioscuri were born of Leda, but the identity of their father is more ambiguous. Their name suggests that it was Zeus (as with their sister Helen, the daughter of Zeus and Leda); but they are also called the Tyndarids, the ‘sons of Tyndareus’, who was Leda’s husband and the king of Sparta. […]

[Lactantius Placidus, Proclus, Pausanias, Phlegon (?), Photius 190.152b, scholia on Lycophron and Pindar and Homer, Philo of Byblos, Orphic Hymn, Servius, etc.]

5 Appearances of the Dioscuri in history

This section is concerned with apparitions or appearances of the Dioscuri that have been reported in history. Whether they were actually seen, and whether such visions are “genuine” is immaterial here; as a matter of social reality, their apparitions were evidently commonplace, and that is what concerns us.

[„Double Vision: Epiphanies of the Dioscuri in Classical Antiquity“, Simonides, Pausanias (4.16.5, 4.16.9, 4.27.2), Roman stories (Plutarch), Arrhian, Polyaenus, Valerius Maximus, etc.]

6 The stars that appear to sailors

[Seneca, Natural Investigations 1.1.9-13, Hor. Carm. 1.3.2, Stat. Silv. 3.2.8ff, sidera navibus
Lucian, Navigium 9? Maximus 9.7. (Polyaenus 2.31.4.) duoin asterwn epifaneian twn dioskourwn.
oi lakedaimonioi asteres
Econtra Castorum sidera (Lact. Plac.)

7 The Dioscuri in the heavens

[Stars: Aratus scholia, Eratosthenes, Antonius Diogenes, Eustathius?, Liber memorialis, etc.]
[Philo, Iamblichus, Lydus, Damascius]

8 Details of worship

[Work in Progress: anak-, etc. Diodorus Siclus 4.43.2.
stefanousqai tw kalamw; nai tw siw; qeokritos en tw eis dioskourous; oaths.
Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica

[Other sources: Pseudacro: geminusque pollux / Castorem et Pollucem dicit / et irato Castore et Polluce amisit oculos || Porphyrio: Saepe autem dictum est, stellas Castoris ac Pollucis nauigantibus spem meliorem ostendere. / Constat autem hodieque inter nautas Castoris et Pollucis stellas plerumque nauibus infestas esse. || Cicero]

Status: work in progress.