Divine twins

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The Divine Twins are youthful horsemen, either gods or demigods, who serve as rescuers and healers in Proto-Indo-European mythology.[1]

Like other figures found in Indo-European myths, the Divine Twins are not directly attested by archaeological or written materials, but scholars of comparative mythology and Indo-European studies generally agree on the motif they have reconstructed by way of the comparative method.[2][3]


Although the Proto-Indo-European name of the Divine Twins cannot be reconstructed with certainty based on the available linguistic evidence, the most frequent epithets associated with the two brothers in liturgic and poetic traditions are the "Youthful" and the "Sons" (or "Grandsons") of the Sky-God (Dyēus).[4][5][3]

Two well-accepted descendants of the Divine Twins, the Vedic Aśvins and the Lithuanian Ašvieniai, are linguistic cognates ultimately deriving from the Proto-Indo-European word for the horse, *h1éḱwos. They are related to Sanskrit áśva and Avestan aspā (both deriving from Indo-Iranian *aćua), and to Old Lithuanian ašva, which all share the meaning of "mare".[6][7]


Represented as young men rescuing mortals from peril in battle or at sea, the Divine Twins rode the steeds that pull the sun across the sky and were sometimes depicted as horses themselves.[8] They shared a sister, the Dawn (*H2éwsōs), also the daughter of the Sky-God (*Dyēus).[9] The two brothers are generally portrayed as healers and helpers, travelling in miraculous vehicles in order to save shipwrecked mortals.[1] They are often differentiated: one is represented as a physically strong and aggressive warrior, while the other is seen as a healer who rather gives attention to domestic duties, agrarian pursuits, or romantic adventures.[3]

In the Vedic, Greek and Baltic traditions, the Divine Twins similarly appear as the personifications of the morning and evening star.[1] They are depicted as the lovers or the companions of a solar female deity, preferably the Sun's daughter but sometimes also the Dawn. In the majority of stories where they appear, the Divine Twins rescue the Dawn from a watery peril, a theme that emerged from their role as the solar steeds.[10][3]

At night, the horses of the sun returned to the east in a golden boat, where they traversed the sea[a] to bring back the Sun into the sky each morning. During the day, they crossed the nocturnal sky in pursuit of their consort, the morning star. In what seems to be a later addition confined to Europe, they were said to take a rest at the end of the day on the "Isles of the Blessed", a land seating in the western sea which possessed magic apple orchards.[3] By the Bronze Age, the Divine Twins were also represented as the coachmen of the horse-driven solar chariots.[9]


Linguistic cognates[edit]

Pair of Roman statuettes (3rd century AD) depicting the Dioscuri as horsemen.

Three Indo-European traditions (Greek, Indic and Baltic) attest the mytheme of equestrian twins, all associated with the dawn or the sun's daughter. Although their names do not form a complete group of cognates, they nonetheless share a similar epithet leading to a possible ancestral name, either the sons or grandsons of the sky-god Dyēus.[5][3][4]

Possible reflexes[edit]

Since they cannot be linked together to a common linguistic origin, other reflexes found in the Indo-European myths are less secured, although their motifs can be compared to that of the Divine Twins.[16]


The Gaulish Divanno (de) and Dinomogetimarus are said to be protective deities and "the Gallic equivalents" of the Greek Dioskouroi.[17] They seem to be represented in monuments and reliefs in France flanked by horses,[18] which would make them comparable to Gaulish Martes and the Germanic Alcis.[19] Scholars suggest that the numerous Gallo-Roman dedicatory epigraphs to Castor and Pollux, more than any other region of the Roman Empire, attest a cult of the Dioskoroi.[20]

Greek historian Timaeus mentions that Atlantic Celts venerated the "Dioskouroi" above all other gods and that they [Dioskouroi] had visited them from across the Ocean.[16] Historian Diodorus Siculus, in the fourth book of Bibliotheca historica, writes that the Celts who dwelt along the ocean worshipped the Dioscuroi "more than the other gods".[21] The conjecture that it refers to the Gallic gods Divanno and Dinomogetimarus has no firm support.[22]

In one of the Irish myths involving Macha, she is forced to race against the horses of King of Ulster while in late pregnancy. As a talented rider, she wins the race but starts giving birth to Fír and Fial immediately after crossing the finish line. The archetype is also partly matched by figures such as the Gallic sun god Belenus, whose epithet Atepormaros meant "having good horses", Grannus, who is associated with the healing goddess Sirona (her name means "star"), Maponos ("Son of God"), considered in Irish mythology as the son of Dagda, associated with healing,[23][24]

The Welsh Brân and Manawydan may also be reflexes of the Divine Twins.[9]

Comparative mythologist Alexander Haggerty Krappe suggested that two heroes, Feradach and Foltlebar, brothers and sons of the king of Innia, are expression of the mytheme. These heroes help the expedition of the Fianna into Tir fa Thuinn (a realm on the other side of the sea), in a Orphean mission to rescue some of their members, in the tale The pursuit of the Gilla Decair and his horse. Both are expert navigators: one can build a ship and the other can follow the wild birds.[25]


Among the Naharvali, the Alcis were a pair of young brothers compared by Tacitus to Castor and Pollux.[16]

The Haddingjar were two brothers who appear in many versions of Germanic legends.

The Anglo-Saxon Hengist and Horsa are said to have come by the sea in response to a plea from the beleaguered British king Vortigern. Descendants of Odin, their names mean 'Stallion' and 'Horse', respectively.[16]

The myth of the Icelandic settlers Ingólfr Arnarson and Hjörleifr Hróðmarsson, which appears in the legendary account of the settlement of Iceland, may contain several motifs of the Indo-European twin mytheme (being founders and brothers), also paralleling Hengist and Horsa.[26][27]

Another founding pair of twins in Germanic tradition is brothers Dan and Angul (Angel), described in the Gesta Danorum by scholar Saxo Grammaticus.[28]


Amphion and Zethus, another pair of twins fathered by Zeus and Antiope, are portrayed as the legendary founders of Thebes. They are called "Dioskouroi, riders of white horses" (λευκόπωλοι) by Euripedes in his play The Phoenician Women (the same epithet is used in Heracles and in the lost play Antiope). In keeping with the theme of distinction between the twins, Amphion was said to be the more contemplative, sensitive one, whereas Zethus was more masculine and tied to physical pursuits, like hunting and cattle-breeding.[29][30][31]

The mother of Romulus and Remus, Rhea Sylwia, placed them in a basket before her death, which she put in the river to protect them from murder, before they were found by the she-wolf who raised them.[32] The Palici, a pair of Sicilian twin deities fathered by Zeus in one account, may also be a reflex of the original mytheme.[33]

Greek rhetorician and grammar Athenaeus of Naucratis, in his work Deipnosophistae, Book II, cited that poet Ibycus, in his Melodies, described twins Eurytus and Cteatus as "λευκίππους κόρους" ("white-horsed youths") and said they were born from a silver egg,[34][35] a story that recalls the myth of Greek divine twins Castor and Pollux and their mother Leda. This pair of twins was said to have been fathered by sea god Poseidon and a human mother, Molione.


A copy of the twin statue from the island of Fischerinsel

Ūsiņš or Ūsinis, a Baltic god mentioned in the dainas, associated with horses[36][37] and the light and sun,[38] and possibly one of the sons of Dievs, may also be a reflex.[39][40][41]

The Polish deities Lel and Polel, first mentioned by Maciej Miechowita in 1519, are presented as the equivalents of Castor and Pollux, the sons of the goddess Łada (counterpart of the Greek Leda) and an unknown male god. An idol was found in 1969 on the Fischerinsel island, where the cult centres of the Slavic tribe of Veleti was located, depicting two male figures joined with their heads. Scholars believe it may represent Lel and Polel. Lelek means "strong youth" in Russian dialect.[42]

During childbirth, the mother of the Polish hero twins Waligóra (pl) ("Mountain Beater") and Wyrwidąb (pl) ("Oak Tearer") died in the forest, where wild animals took care of them.[43] Waligóra was raised of by a she-wolf and Wyrwidąb by a she-bear, who fed them with their own milk. Together, they defeated the dragon who tormented the kingdom, for which the grateful king gave each of them half of the kingdom and one of his two daughters as a wife. The sons of Krak: Krak II and Lech II also appear in Polish legends as the killers of the Wawel dragon.[44]


Another possible reflex may be found in Nakula and Sahadeva. Mothered by Princess Madri, who summoned the Aśvins themselves in a prayer to beget her sons (thus them being called Ashvineya (आश्विनेय)), the twins are two of the five Pandava brothers, married to the same woman, Draupadi. In the Mahabharata epic, Nakula is described in terms of his exceptional beauty, warriorship and martial prowess, while Sahadeva is depicted as patient, wise, intelligent and a "learned man". Nakula takes great interest in Virata's horses, and his brother Sahadeva become Virata's cowherd.[45][46][47][48] Scholarship also points out that the Vedic Ashvins had an Avestic counterpart called Aspinas.[49][50][51]


The Armenian Sanasar and Baldasar appear as twins in the epic tradition; Sanasar finds a "fiery horse", is more warlike than his brother, and becomes the progenitor of a dynasty of heroes.[52][53] Scholar Armen Petrosyan also sees possible reflexes of the divine twins in other pairs of heroic brothers in Armenian epic tradition.[54]


In mythology and religion[edit]

The mytheme of the Divine Twins was widely popular in the Indo-European traditions, and evidence for their worship can be found from Scandinavia to the Near East as early as the Bronze Age. The motif was also adopted in non-Indo-European cultures, as attested by the Etruscan Tinas Clenar, the "sons of Jupiter".[55] There might also have been a worship of twin deities in Myceanean times, based on the presence of myths and stories about pairs of brothers or male twins in Attica and Boeotia.[56]

The most prevalent functions associated with the twins in later myths are magic healers and physicians, sailors and saviours at sea, warriors and providers of divine aid in battle, controllers of weather and keepers of the wind, assistants at birth with a connection to fertility, divinities of dance, protectors of the oath, and founders of cities, sometimes related to swans.[3][57] Scholarship suggests that the mytheme of twins has echoes in the medieval legend of Amicus and Amelius;[58] and in Belarrussian folklore, with Saints George and Nicholas, who are paired up together, are associated with horses, and have a dual nature as healers.[59] and in the worship of saint brothers Boris and Gleb.[60][61]

Literary approaches to the mytheme of the Indo-European Divine Twins can be found in Zeus, a Study in Ancient Religion (1925), by Arthur Bernard Cook. The British scholar posits that some versions of The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird, collected from Greek and Albanian sources, contain some remnants of Helen and her brothers, the Dioskouroi, in the characters of the wonder-children (triplets or two male/one female siblings) with astronomical motifs on their bodies.[62] The idea is reiterated in Angelo de Gubernatis's Zoological Mythology, Vol. 1.[63] The Italian scholar analyses the twins in a variant of The Boys with the Golden Stars format as the "Açvinau" (Asvins) of Vedic lore.[64]

In architecture[edit]

Ašvieniai, commonly called the little horses, on the rooftop of a house in Nida, Lithuania

Ašvieniai, depicted as žirgeliai or little horses, are common motifs on Lithuanian rooftops,[65][66][67] placed for protection of the house.[68] Similar motifs can also be found on beehives, harnesses, bed frames, and other household objects.[69]

A similar imagery appears in the decoration of Fachhallenhaus, a type of Low German house: the point of the gables consists of carved wooden boards in the shape of (stylised) horses' heads, often serving to protect the edges of the roof from the wind. The horses' heads are attributed to the symbol of the Saxons, the Saxon Steed. Its distribution as decoration on roof ridges is also reflected in the coats of arms of several north Germany towns and villages. These crossed horseheads are said to be "an old pagan symbol".[70] This symbol, also named "Gable Cross" (de), was possibly associated with legendary founders Hengist and Horsa, since it was called Hengst und Hors.[71]



  1. ^ The northern Black Sea or the Sea of Azov.[11]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Davidson, Olga M. (1987). "Aspects of Dioscurism in Iranian kingship: The case of Lohrasp and Goshtasp in the Shāhnāme of Ferdowsi". Edebiyāt. 1: 103–115.
  • Derksen, Rick (2015). Etymological Dictionary of the Baltic Inherited Lexicon. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-27898-1.
  • Frame, Douglas (2007). "Hippota Nestor". Greek Mythology and Poetics. Harvard University.
  • Frame, Douglas. "Achilles and Patroclus as Indo-European Twins: Homer's Take". Greek Mythology and Poetics. Harvard University.
  • Goetinck, Glenys, "The divine twins and mediaeval Welsh literature", in: Hily, Gaël, Patrice Lajoye, and Joël Hascoët (eds.), Deuogdonion: mélanges offerts en l'honneur du professeur Claude Sterckx, Publication du CRBC Rennes 2, Rennes: Tir, 2010. 259–276.
  • Joseph, Brian D. (1983). "Old English Hengest as an Indo-European Twin Hero". The Mankind Quarterly. 24: 105–115.
  • Nagy, Gregory. "Achilles and Patroklos as models for the twinning of identity". Greek Mythology and Poetics. Harvard University.
  • Nagy, Gregory (1990). "Patroklos "Concepts of afterlife, and the Indic triple fire" and "Phaethon, Sappho's Phaon, and the White Rock of Leukas: 'Reading' the symbols of Greek lyric"". Greek Mythology and Poetics. Harvard University.
  • Nikolaev, Alexander (2012). "Avestan Haēcat̰.aspa-, Rigveda 4.43, and the Myth of the Divine Twins". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 132 (4): 567–575. doi:10.7817/jameroriesoci.132.4.0567. ISSN 0003-0279. JSTOR 10.7817/jameroriesoci.132.4.0567.
  • Ward, Donald (1968). The Divine Twins: An Indo-European myth in Germanic tradition. University of California Press.
  • Walker, Henry John. The Twin Horse Gods: The Dioskouroi in Mythologies of the Ancient World. London: I.B. Tauris, 2015, 271 pp.
  • Walker, Henry John. The Greek Aśvins. In: Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. Vol. 88 (2007), pp. 99–118.
  • Wikander, S. Nakula et Sahadeva. Orientalia Suecana 6 (1957). pp. 66–96.
  • Alberro, Manuel. Las tres funciones dumezilianas y el mito de los mellizos divinos de la tradición indoeuropea en el Compendio Historial de Diego Rodríguez Almela. En la España Medieval (27). 2004. pp. 317–337. ISSN 0214-3038
  • Kruta, Venceslas. "«Têtes jumelées» et jumeaux divins: essai d'iconographie celtique". In: Études Celtiques, vol. 42, 2016. pp. 33–57. [DOI: https://doi.org/10.3406/ecelt.2016.2468] ; [www.persee.fr/doc/ecelt_0373-1928_2016_num_42_1_2468]
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