Known as the Dioscuri (sons of Zeus), Castor and Polydeuces grew up to be great horsemen and bold adventurers, taking part in the boar hunt at Calydon and sailing with Jason from Iolcus to find the Golden Fleece. But they were best known for the aftermath of their destructive desire for two sisters, Phoebe and Hilaeira (great-grand-daughters of Perseus), who had been promised to the Dioscuri’s cousins, the Thebans Lynceus and Idas.
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When they discovered that their betrothed had been abducted to Sparta, where each had borne a son, Lynceus and Idas retaliated: to redeem their honour they would take their cousins’ livestock. Feigning friendship, they joined the Dioscuri in a cattle raid, then, after unfairly beating them in a speed-eating contest, claimed all the booty. The quarrel intensified. After stealing back their cattle and rustling their rivals’ herd, Castor and Polydeuces hid in ambush in a hollow oak tree. But lynxeyed Lynceus spotted them from Mount Taygetus, and Idas aimed his spear unerringly. Castor was killed and, as Polydeuces leapt out to deal Lynceus a death-blow, Zeus blasted Idas with a thunderbolt. Grief-stricken, Polydeuces prayed that Zeus might let him die with Castor but, being immortal, this was impossible. Instead, Zeus told him:
‘If you really want to champion your brother and share all equally with him, you may draw breath for half your time beneath the earth, and half in the golden halls of heaven. ’ When he heard this, Polydeuces did not hesitate: he opened bronze-clad Castor’s eyes, and then set free his voice.
So, on alternate days each brother lived as a sky-god, while on the other he was honoured as a god of the underworld in his tomb-shrine at Therapne, one of the most sacred sites in Sparta. Mounted on snow-white stallions, their heads encased in egg-shell helmets, the Dioscuri were protectors of sailors, manifesting themselves as St Elmo’s fire. Alcaeus of Lesbos celebrated them in a hymn:
Leave the Peloponnese and come to me here, Castor and Polydeuces, brave sons of Zeus and Leda! Come with benevolence! You gallop on swift horses across the wide earth and the sea, snatching men from tearful death, leaping on prows of well-benched ships, a blazing light running high up masts and rigging, bringing brightness in the dark night of despair.
At Sparta the Dioscuri were worshipped in the form of two upright wooden beams, joined by two cross-bars. They were both loved and feared. In historical times, disguised as travellers, they were believed to have tested the owner of the house where they had lived, asking him to let them spend the night in their old room The owner refused, explaining that his young daughter was asleep there. Pausanias records: ‘In the morning effigies of the Dioscuri were discovered in the room, but the girl and all her servants had vanished.’ Today we remember them as the Heavenly Twins, the brightest stars in the constellation Gemini, set there by Zeus as their memorial.