Twins in Greek mythology

Plato observed that myths take a formative role in our early engagement with narrative form: “At first we tell myths to children. This, as a general rule I suppose, is pseudos [‘false/fictional’], though there is truth in amongst it.”[1] In our reading of twins in myth we are reminded how often myths are told about children. We hear of and learn about myths first, argues Plato, and it so happens that myths often describe processes of cosmological nativity, origination, formation and genesis. Our ideas of what constitute a beginning are both formed by and obscured by the mythic, they tell us of beginnings which cannot be separated from ways of telling tales. They provide us our initiation into narrative but myths also condemn our exposure to new narratives to the mutating structures that so dominate the questionable and questioning beginnings that we inherit from myth. The telling of myth proves a form of induction into the world of stories and, with the truth of its pseudos, an induction into worlds of reason that are, among other things, produced by induction. Hence what Ken Dowden calls the “secular pseudo-historical [quality of] mythology”[2] and its entangled relationship with history.

The narrative conventions of the mythic, with its tendency towards fragmentation and elliptical mode of disclosure, are well suited to a consideration of beginnings. We seek the inaccessible zero of time, seen in parts and understood in parts. It is, therefore, significant that we find twins, those individuals both united and partitioned, in so many mythological stories. The first thing to note about the twins that we find in Greek mythology is that they are extremely numerous; we do not have to search for them, they are not rare. This might be surprising given the high mortality rate of multiple births in the ancient period,[3] yet twins often have great powers in Greek myth and have this power in great number. Not only are there many twins among the pantheon of Greek deities, structurally speaking the formation of this sacred group is accelerated by the birth of multiples, proliferating the number of possible stories and the possible interpretations of those stories. Associated with a range of different tales, from the tumultuous tragedies and passions of Artemis and Apollo to the heroic adventures of Heracles and his brother Iphicles, twins are not merely peripheral figures in the foundational tales of Greek mythology but take majority stakes in these sprawling yet fragmented adventures.

Though they are plentiful, Greek twins are of heterogeneous significance; they have many different kinds of relationships with humans and nonhumans, with their twin siblings, their parents and with other twin sets. There is no formula; there is no common narrative thread with which we might help us construct a generic conception of ‘twinship in ancient Greece’. We can contrast, on the one hand, tales of fraternal unity with stories of disharmony on the other. For instance, the story of Castor and Polydeuces, where one twin gives up his immortality to be with his mortal twin brother, can be grouped with the companionship and collaboration shown by Zethos and Amphion, who build the wall that fortifies Thebes. Zethos and Amphion are not alone in their cooperative acts of foundation. Apollodorus also dedicates two books of his Library to the foundational consequences of Agenor and Belos’s twinship. It is through these twins that the Greeks are said to have spread into northern Africa. Belos then had his own twin sons, Aigyptos and Danaos, said to be the founders of Egypt and the Danaoi, respectively. These are momentous and momentum-giving twins. However, and in sharp contrast, the warring brothers Acrisios and Proitos, the fratricidal Eteocles and Polyneices, the monstrous Erechteus and Boutes, and Otos and Ephialtes; all of these twinsets, prefiguring the fractious Hebrew story of Jacob and Esau or the fratricide of Romulus and Remus, show how twinship can be associated with destructive and murderous relations.

As the following analysis will demonstrate, we cannot simply divide the twins of Greek myth in two according to moral judgments on of their behaviour, whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘strong’ or ‘weak’, ‘sacred’ or ‘human’. Such judgments obscure how the category of ‘twin’ must account for the collective behaviour of twin and co-twin, giving an early indication of the aggregating quality of twins to stand for and before one another, to take metonymic relations with each other and with others conceived and born in tandem. Thus, the twins of ancient Greece cannot be easily separated, not just because they do not at times find concordance with the wonder-provoking intimacies associated with contemporary twins but because they are not easily isolated from gods born as singletons.  Veronique Dasen has also argued that the variety found in ancient Greek myth surrounding the behaviour of twins means that generalisations are difficult to uphold. Considering the spectrum of destinies given to mythological twins, Dasen suggests there is a “complex range of twin relations, from intimate union and concord to rivalry and deadly hate.”[4] However, a further distinction can be added to this particularly active spectrum of mythic twin relations, there are also many twins that have little or no impact on the greater tale of Greek origins. These are twins that are not given a transformative position within the social, geographic or political development of the ancient world; they do not go to war with one another nor are they bonded together by unusual feelings of fraternal devotion. Among the Inachoi, two sets of twins – Antileon and Hippeus (L 2.8.1), Eurysthenes and Procles (L 2.8.2)  – have only their parentage and twinship noted. And, though they are the children of Heracles, Antileon and Hippeus do not reflect the importance of their father nor his heroic twinship. Again, this frustrates any attempt at a simple or generalised role for twins in Greek myth and is an instructive middle term between the violently murderous and the actively collaborative positions suggested above. As phenomena of number with numerous consequences, twins and the roles they play lose any straightforward significance in their varied abundance. They are agents in stories and yet, when compared, do not have a common or expected role. In contrast to the positivity frequently attributed to twins in modern and contemporary periods, their meaning in ancient times, as a group of individuals whose importance must viewed in relation to another, is rather more ambiguous.


Fig. 1.1 – Apollo Plays his Kithara Between Artemis and Leto.
Attic Black-Figure Amphora, ca. 550 BC. British Museum, London

Despite there being little opportunity to reach a uniform opinion about twins in ancient Greece, some of the most celebrated Greek gods are twins. The stories associated with them encourage reflection upon the importance of and qualities attached to twinship, as well as the possible relations that may exist between twins and the generation of mythic narratives. Among the Titan twins, Artemis and Apollo loom over many of the others for their influence, their popularity and for their diverse use and interpretation. Since they are a pair whose complex family drama stretches its influence far beyond their immediate relations, the circumstances of their paternity and birth are worth examining closely. Especially in ancient stories that form the basis of many a recursive tale of human becoming, the birth of Artemis and Apollo have the indelible duality of a story already in two.

The first mixed-sex twins mentioned in Apollodorus’s cosmogony were born to Leto and Zeus. After being chased all over the earth by Hera, Leto’s labour is particularly complicated and prolonged. Apollodorus tells of how Leto, knowing that she was close to giving birth, “arrived at Delos, where she gave birth first to Artemis, and then, with the aid of Artemis as a midwife to Apollo” (L 1.4.1). They are portrayed in the image above, depicted on a Tyrrhenian amphora of the mid sixth century BC. Apollo stands between his sister and his mother. Other vases of this period also show mother and twins together in this way.[5] Among the gods these twins have few equals and, though there is little textual evidence to support a physical likeness between them, they are equally holy. Unlike Heracles and Iphicles, Apollo and Artemis are not strongly asymmetric in their powers or their capacity to inspire worship. In T.H. Carpenter view their association in the hunt binds them together, “it is as a bow-bearing hunter of men and monsters that Apollo is twin of Artemis”[6]. Nevertheless, they are separately worshiped and have differing characters and passions – viewed as a chaste hunter and midwife, Artemis differs to her brother who is typically associated with prophesy, medicine and music. This asymmetric balance of talents and powers evolved so that, by the fifth century BC, Apollo was worshiped as a sun god while his sister was revered as a moon goddess.[7] Such differences are ones of type rather than kind, supported by episodes, such as killing the giant Tityus or fighting the Gigantomachy, in which that actively collaborate with one another.

One significant example of collaboration is seen when Niobe (wife to Amphion who, with his twin Zethos, founded Thebes) boasts that she is more blessed with her six children than Leto, who added no further children following the birth of her twins. Defending their mother’s honour Artemis and Apollo kill all of Amphion and Niobe’s children. Homer has the twins in act in tandem – Niobe has equal number of boys and girls, Apollo kills the boys and Artemis kills the girls (Il, 24.602–20). Balance and symmetry is implied here but this unity can also be found during less momentous episodes. Rarely do gods simply spend time with one another unless, as we have just seen, they are joined by a common adventure or are fulfilling a duty. When Apollodorus relates Heracles’s labours, however, he includes a curious detail. The heroic twin Heracles passes through Arcadia carrying the Cerynitian hind to Mycenae, there he comes across “Artemis in the company of Apollo”. He must then plead his cause with Artemis as she protests against him taking a sacred animal that belongs to her (L 2.5.3). The twins are in the woods. But why is Apollo, entirely peripheral to the action described, mentioned in this story? He has no role other than being a silent witness to his sister’s indignation. As well as providing another instance – akin to the inactive Antileon and Hippeus, Eurysthenes and Procles – of how agency and action might inadvertently dominate our understanding of twins, details like these seem to corroborate the idea that Apollo is “perhaps the most touchingly human and the most terrifyingly sublime of all the Greek gods.”[8] Companionship; the human qualities given to Apollo, evolved over centuries of adaptation and worship, are certainly encouraged in the brotherly manner in which he interacts with his sister. Not only is Apollo sometimes considered the most human and the most awe inspiring of gods, he is also said to be “the most characteristically Greek god in the whole pantheon—a gloriously conceived anthropomorphic figure”.[9] It is this humane, anthropotheic resonance that makes Apollo and Artemis not just popular twins but twins that stand before others as representative of what it might mean to be twins – as companionable siblings, with behavioural differences that come into relation with one another in moments of high drama or quiet repose.

 ImageFig. 1.2. The Dioscuri on Horseback, Amaphora Attributed to the
Edinburgh Painter, ca. 500BC. British Museum, London.

Apollo and Artemis are relative equals in both senses of the term, relative equals in their prominence in Greek mythology and relatives that are strongly equated with one another in the stories in which they participate. In Laconian and Trojan mythology, twins Castor and Polydeuces, and Helen and Clytemnestra, present a different kind of challenge. Pairs and couples figure strongly in a story where brothers, sisters and cousins and parents are paired in various ways across many different accounts.[10]  Twins pile upon other twins: Castor and Polydeuces take Phoebe and Hillara and come into deadly conflict with their cousins Idas and Lynceus. Castor and Polydeuces are consistently considered twins, the twinship of Phebe, Hilaria, Idas and Lyceus varies according to source. In some accounts, Castor and Polydeuces are actually fraternal quadruplets, joined by Helen (later of Troy) and Clytemnestra as two sets of mixed-sex fraternal twins. The phenomena of twinship is integral to any reading of this story, providing dynamic yet changeable bonds between what might otherwise be a static set of partners. In addition, the different kinds of twinning that different versions of the story present – same sex fraternal and two mixed fraternal sets – makes it possible for the story to upset the strong gender divisions that exist across the group and allows us to consider the relations between Polydeuces and Helen, Castor and Clytemnestra, not just as siblings but as twin siblings that are distinct for the complexity of their paternity.

Apollodorus privileges their collective twinship as the product of three parents, a mix of the human and divine:

Taking the form of a swan, Zeus had intercourse with Leda, as did Tyndareus on the same night, and she bore Polydeuces and Helen to Zeus, and Castor [and Clytemnestra – ed] to Tyndareus. According to some, however, Helen was a daughter of Zeus by Nemesis, for when Nemesis tried to avoid intercourse with Zeus by changing herself into a goose, Zeus in turn took the form of a swan and had intercourse with her. As the fruit of their intercourse, she laid an egg, which was discovered in the woods by a shepherd, who took it to Leda and presented it to her. She placed it in a chest and kept it safe, and when in due time Helen hatched out, Leda brought her up as her own daughter (L 3.11.7).

In this account, which admits the differing opinions offered by other writers, Polydeuces and Helen as one pair, Castor and Clytemnestra as another are given different fathers. In an elaborate attempt to keep Helen connected to Polydeuces and Castor, another account introduces her as a sister to Polydeuces by Nemesis. The effect is to make twining doubly multiple; an unusual show of fertility with an equally unusual disaggregating effect upon paternity. Heteropaternal superfecundation, in which two are born to one mother and to different fathers, is common in other mammals and occurs in humans infrequently. However, it is common enough for Aristotle to have described cases where a woman had intercourse with different partners in quick succession, leading her to conceive two children in the same pregnancy.[11] It is important to note how Aristotle’s consideration of superfecundation relates to twins in the abstract, in anecdote and in myth, implying an implicit rhetorical relationship between idea, specific historical narrative and mythological trope. Having discussed the theory of superfecundated twinning which“brings forth the two children like actual twins” he notes how the same happened “according to the legend, in the case of Iphicles and Hercules.”[12] He goes on to describe a case where the first twin looked like one father and the second twin looked like the other father. In keeping with mythological precedents, Dasen points out that all the examples of superfecundation in Aristotle’s writings are cases of adultery and this might explain why dizygotic twinning roused the suspicion of adultery in the ancient period.[13]

The parentage of Polydeuces and Castor is significant for the ebb and flow in their unity. While they are frequently represented in similar poses and wearing similar clothing  (see. Fig. 1.2), textual accounts stress their differing vocations. Homer uses the epithets “Castor breaker of horses and the hardy boxer Polydeueces” (Il 3.283) while Apollodorus’s also makes clear that they have different fathers and different vocations, “Castor devoted himself to the arts of war, and Polydeuces to boxing” (L 3.12.2). Nevertheless, their heroic characters mean that the pair take a collective name which relates directly to their paternity, “Dioscuri” (L 3.12.2). The word is formed from dios meaning ‘god’ and couros meaning ‘male youth’; the twins are literally ‘sons of god’. It is through their combative adventurousness that the one thing that divides them – their differing fathers and, thus, mortality – is elided.

No such common, binding qualities are given to Helen and Clytemnestra, whose twinship has less textual support. Their separate stories, though parallel for their association with the death of men, do not support a close sense of unity and they did not enjoy the huge popularity of the Dioscuri during among the Romans.[14] Pindar, writing in the late 4th and 5th centuries BC and therefore a much earlier source than Apollodorus, makes no mention of Helen and Clytemnestra in connection to the Dioscuri. He does give further consideration to what constitutes their bond and by extension their twinship. When Polydeuces is taken to heaven and Castor is dead, Zeus explains to Polydeuces the true difference between the brothers:

‘You are my son,
But this man was begotten of mortal seed
By his hero father,
Who drew after me to your mother. (Odes, Nemean x.v. 81–84).

Yet, in choosing to join Castor in death, Polydeuces accepts absolute similitude with his brother. That is, in choosing to be with Castor, Polydeuces trades a fraternal relationship with one that is identical:

[…] if you fight for your brother,
And are minded to share with him in all things alike,
You may live half beneath the earth,
And half in the sky’s golden palaces.’
He spoke, and Polydeukes set,
No double counsel in his heart,
But freed the eye and then the voice
Of bronze belted Kastor. (Odes, Nemean x.v. 85–91).

Polydeuces and Castor are superabundated twins – twins with different fathers, one a god and the other a human. Yet Polydeuces’s decision not to be separated from his brother collapses their integral, physical and spiritual differences so they share “all things alike”. Tellingly, Polydeuces, a name that literally means ‘many doubles’ is resolutely at one in his decision-making in Pindar’s account; at the moment he gives up his distinctive and unadulterated sacred qualities and embraces human togetherness he is without “double counsel”. Here we also have an important source for the twin’s cosmological status as the ‘Gemini’ or ‘heavenly twins’, placed in “the sky’s golden palaces”. Although the Gemini constellation is made of many stars rather than two, and the two stars called ‘Castor’ and ‘Pollux’ are in fact mane light years from one another, their visual proximity in the night sky has meant that  ‘heavenly’ Castor and Polydeuces are considered twins of unity, similitude and companionship.

As we have already noted, Heracles’s twin brother, Iphicles, is typically described as human. The contrast between the brothers is made apparent when the infant Heracles fights the serpent while his brother flees (L 2.4.8). The Dioscuri are similarly mixed, with Polydeuces often described as immortal while Castor, his twin brother, is mortally human. Although twins in Greek myth are a heterogeneous group whose meaning is dispersed across different iterations of the idea of twinning, their strong association with or status as gods means that the phenomena of twinning provides an important way that human stories can be interpenetrated by non-human agents. Sacredly conceived, the close association between gods, humans and twining, means that a lasting legacy of the Greek tradition is the positive conception of twinship in general. The power of the gods, especially their power to passionately and generatively intervene in the world, comes to be expressed in their twin-making fecundity. Zeus fathers at least three sets of twins and Poseidon has four. Apollo has the unusual power to create twins among other species. His punishment for having killed the Cyclopes that forged Zeus’s thunderbolt is a year’s service with Admentos. Appollodorus writes that he “went to Admentos, son of Pheres, at Pherae, and served him as a herdsman, causing all his cows to deliver twins at every birth” (L 3.10.4). It is not clear whether we are to take these abundant twins as a direct consequence of Apollo’s distinctly twined nature or as the consequence of the disruptive notion of a god serving men and animals. Even though the exact nature of Apollo’s twinship and animal reproduction is left uncertain, we have an explicit case of a godly twin with the power to make more twins. The figure of the twin, frequently of sacred birth and of sacrosanct strength, becomes closely allied with the magical and divine. If we seek the correlation between the biological and mythological in these stories we find the natural and the sacred firmly entwined. In stories where sacred twins are born with mortals, the divine take on human frailties, and sacred siblings anthropomorphise to accommodate one another. Multiple births provide an important means by which the sacred and the human coalesce.

These stories of mythological twinning may have formed an important means by which the human and the sacred realms were imagined to mingle, placing twins as transitional figures that mediate the otherworldly nature of mythic tales and the human realities of those that consumed, retold and adapted these stories. Many of these stories feature twins that are on the move, taking flight, actually flying, in the stars. Whether grounded or airborne, the sacred aspect of twins is a recurring feature of many different myth-making traditions. I have described some of the more interesting cases from the Greek tradition and now intend to move on to African, North American and other myths, to return to consider the idea of myth more generally.

[1] Plato, Republic, 377c.

[2] Ken Dowden, The Uses of Greek Mythology (London: Routledge, 1992), 22.

[3] Infant mortality among multiple births was three times that of singleton births. See Véronique Dasen, Jumeaux, Jumelles dans l’Antiquitè Grecque et Romaine (Akanthus: Zurich, 2005).

[4] Véronique Dasen, Jumeaux, 284.

[5] See T. H. Carpenter, ‘The Terrible Twins in Sixth Century Attic Art’, Apollo, Origins and Influences, ed. Jon Solomon (Tuscon: U of Arizona P, 1994), 61 – 79

[6] Carpenter, ‘The Terrible Twins in Sixth Century Attic Art’, 79.

[7] See Sarah Iles Johnston, Hekate Soteira: A Study of Hekate’s Roles in the Chaldean Oracles and Related Literature (Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press: 1990), p. 31 footnote 8.

[8] Mark P. O. Morford and Robert J. Lenardon, Classical Mythology, 6th ed., (New York: Longman, 1999), 172.

[9] Morford and Lenardon, Classical Mythology, 181.

[10] See Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth: A Guide to the Literary and Artistic Sources (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993), 318–28.

[11] Aristotle, History of Animals, 7.4.585

[12] Ibid.

[13] Veronique Dasen, ‘Multiple Births In Graeco-Roman Antiquity’, Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 16, 1 (1997): 50

[14] See Edward Champlin, ‘Tiberius and the Heavenly Twins’, Journal of Roman Studies 101 (2011): 73–99.


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