Monday, November 28, 2016

The Dioscuri

image: Dioscuri from ancient red-figure kalix (link), modified and superimposed on Medusa nebula (link).

Now is a perfect time of year to observe the Twins of Gemini, and to contemplate the layers of meaning which the ancient Star Myths associated with the Twins may have been intended to convey for our understanding.

As the constellations associated with winter in the northern hemisphere begin to come into view during the hours after sunset -- including the magnificent constellation of Orion -- the Twins of Gemini can be observed nearly "straight out" from Orion's trailing shoulder (the easternmost shoulder of the massive figure of Orion).

Below is a depiction of the eastern horizon with the constellation of Orion rising, still in a horizontal position (the constellation rises in a horizontal attitude and then rotates into a vertical posture as the figure of Orion crosses the sky -- for some animation which illustrates this phenomenon, see this video discussing the relation of Orion to Osiris and to the Djed Column):

Note that the two bright stars which mark the heads of the Twins of Gemini are located straight out from Orion's lower shoulder (his trailing shoulder, marked by the orange giant star Betelgeuse). Until you are familiar with the constellation of Gemini, it can be easy to mistake the two brightest stars of the constellation Auriga the Charioteer for the heads of the Twins, because these are located almost the same distance out from Orion, but ahead of the Twins as they cross the sky (see arrows in the illustration above).

The easiest way to identify the constellation Auriga, so that you don't confuse its stars with the stars of Gemini, is to locate the "V-shaped" Hyades, which are located almost exactly halfway between Orion and the Pleiades (you can see the V-shape of the Hyades in the illustration above). If you find the Hyades in the night sky, you can draw an imaginary line out from either tip of the "V" of the Hyades, and find the tips of the horns of Taurus the Bull: the jawline of the lantern-jawed Charioteer of Auriga is just above the tips of the horns.

The diagram below reproduces the chart above, but this time the outlines of the constellations are included:

Can you see the two tips of the horns of Taurus, and how the jawline of Auriga the Charioteer (outlined in red, above) cuts down directly adjacent to the horns of the Bull? Following the "V" of the Hyades will help you to positively identify the outline of Auriga (who appears as a huge, disembodied head in the outlining system proposed by H. A. Rey). That way, you will not confuse Auriga's bright stars with the two brightest stars of Gemini, which make up the heads of the Twins.

The bright stars of the heads of the Twins are much closer to one another in the sky than are the bright stars of Auriga. The outlines of the two figures of the Twins are very linear in nature when you observe them in the sky, forming two parallel lines pointing towards the lower shoulder of Orion.

In ancient Greek mythology, the Twins were known as Kastor and Polydeukes (or Castor and Polydeuces); their names became Castor and Pollux in Latin. In the sky, the brightest stars of the constellation still bear these names: Castor being slightly ahead of Pollux but not as bright (in the illustration above, Castor is above Pollux as the constellation is rising out of the eastern horizon -- Castor is further to the west of Pollux and not quite as bright as its twin).

The Twins are actually figures of tremendous importance in ancient Greek myth, although their significance is sometimes not fully appreciated. The two were known as the Dioskouroi (or the Dioscuri), a name which signifies the youths (kouroi) of Zeus (Dios). You can see the linguistic relation between the name of Zeus and the word Dios -- in fact, the name of the god Dionysos or Dionysus signifies literally "Zeus (Dios) of Mount Nysa." 

The Dioscuri were in fact the twin sons of Zeus by the beautiful mortal woman Leda, whom Zeus seduced while in the form of a great swan (note that the constellation of the Swan is still visible in the night sky right now, flying away into the west even as the Twins are rising in the east). However, in many of the versions of the Dioscuri myth, only Polydeuces is actually the son of Zeus, while Castor is the son of Leda's husband Tyndareus, king of Sparta. 

Castor and Polydeuces are mentioned in many of the earliest Greek sources, including Hesiod. They were famous horsemen and tremendous boxers. The most famous aspect of their story, however, concerns the mortality of Castor and the decision by Polydeuces to give up his own full immortality in order to share it with his mortal brother -- thereby taking on an aspect of Castor's mortality himself.

According to most versions of the story of the Twins, Castor and Polydeuces were attacked by the two sons of the brother of Tyndareus, Idas (gigantic in stature) and Lynkeus (who could see in the dark, like a lynx) as part of a long-running feud over some cattle (and note the proximity of the Twins of Gemini to the constellation of Taurus the Bull, as well as to the hulking figure of Orion, who features as a giant in some myths).

As the prolific poet Pindar relates the story, in his tenth Nemean Ode (almost certainly written near the middle of the fifth century BC), Castor was mortally wounded by a huge block of stone hurled by Idas, but Polydeuces killed Lynkeus, and the god Zeus himself finished off Idas with a thunderbolt. Pindar continues:
Swiftly Polydeuces the son of Tyndareus went back to his mighty brother, and found him not yet dead, but shuddering with gasps of breath. Shedding warm tears amid groans, he spoke aloud: "Father, son of Cronus, what release will there be from sorrows? Order me to die too, along with him, lord. A man's honor is gone when he is deprived of friends; but few mortals are trustworthy in times of toil to share the hardship." So he spoke. And Zeus came face to face with him, and said these words: "You are my son. But Castor was begotten after your conception by the hero -- your mother's husband -- who came to her and sowed his mortal seed. But nevertheless I grant you your choice in this. If you wish to escape death and hated old age, and to dwell in Olympus yourself with me and with Athena and Ares of the dark spear, you can have this lot. But if you strive to save your brother, and intend to share everything equally with him, then you may breathe for half the time below the earth, and for half the time in the golden homes of heaven." When Zeus had spoken thus, Polydeuces did not have a second thought. He opened the eye, and then released the voice of the bronze-clad warrior, Castor. [translation by Diane Arnson Svarlien, as found on the Tufts University ancient text collection here]
Here we have an extremely powerful image: the divine twin who rescues the mortal twin, sharing his immortality with his mortal counterpart. I would argue that this exact pattern is found throughout the ancient Star Myths of the world, and that it is intended to illustrate for our deeper understanding the reality of our divine nature, even while encased in this mortal body, and the reality of the Higher Self (discussed in previous posts such as this one and this one).

In the above scene as dramatized in Pindar's ode, we see that Polydeuces could enjoy uninterrupted immortality in Olympus, but that he chooses to share his immortal nature with Castor, and in return Polydeuces himself must "breathe for half the time below the earth" -- in the realm of death, in fact. In most versions of the myth, the Twins then alternate between the realm of the gods and the tombs of Therapnai.

Again, I believe that this ancient myth, like so many other myths, is intended to dramatize to us the condition of the human soul -- which chooses to leave the realm of pure spirit to sojourn for a time within the "body of death" (as the apostle Paul calls our mortal condition, in the seventh chapter of the epistle to the Romans) -- and which may spend many lifetimes alternating between the realm of the gods and "this mortal coil" in which we all presently find ourselves.

The dramatic scene of the death of Castor, described by Pindar above (and described by many other ancient poets, both before and after Pindar), actually contains strong parallels with many other ancient Star Myths in which the divine twin grieves over the mortal condition of the mortal twin. 

We find the same pattern in the Gilgamesh cycle of ancient Mesopotamia, in which the semi-divine Gilgamesh laments over his twinned counterpart Enkidu. 

We find a similar scene in ancient Egypt, with the lamentations over the death of Osiris, the slain god -- and in the eastern Mediterranean lamentations over the death of Tammuz. 

We find the same pattern again in the Iliad, in which the semi-divine Achilles laments loudly over the death of Patroclus.

And we see a very similar pattern in the New Testament account of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to John.

That a profound mystery lies at the heart of the ancient myth of Castor and Polydeuces is evident from the fact that one of the most important of the ancient Mysteria or Mysteries (the significance of which is discussed at some length in my 2014 book The Undying Stars) was dedicated to the Great Gods or the Nameless Gods, who were referred to as the Kabeiroi and associated with the Dioscuri by at least some ancient sources (see Undying Stars, pages 210 and following). These Mysteries were extremely ancient, and appear to have been held in the same awesome regard as the Mysteries of Eleusis

It may be that the Mysteries of Samothrace somehow dramatized for the deeper understanding of their participants the very same message about our human condition that is conveyed by the overall myth of the Dioscuri themselves, and by the other Star Myths mentioned above.

In fact, as we have seen in previous discussions of the concept of the "divine twin" and the Higher Self, the story of "Doubting Thomas" in the New Testament also involves a twin: Thomas is known as Didymos or "the twin," even though none of the canonical texts tell us the identity of his counterpart twin. 

However, as discussed in the previous post entitled "The Gospel of Thomas and the Divine Twin," the Nag Hammadi library discovered in the twentieth century contains a the text known as The Book of Thomas the Contender, in which we find out the identity of the twin counterpart of Thomas: according to that text, it is Jesus himself! Again, I would argue that this corresponds almost exactly to the ancient pattern found in the myth of Castor and Polydeuces, in which the divine twin rescues the mortal twin -- and that it is intended as a powerful illustration of our actual condition in this mortal life.

And note that in the story of Castor and Polydeuces, it is not just the divine twin who condescends to take on mortality in order to rescue the mortal twin: the mortal Castor is raised from death to share in the immortality of the divine Polydeuces. In other words, the myth illustrates that, even in our seemingly mortal condition here in "the underworld" of this life, we actually have a divine nature as well. Castor, although mortal, becomes a divine figure.

A similar illustration of a mortal who becomes divine is provided in the Odyssey, in the figure of the goddess Leucothea, who was once a mortal woman named Ino (see this previous post discussing the important figure of Leucothea). And in the New Testament account of the miraculous descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, the image of flames coming down and resting above the heads of the congregants is one that is also found in ancient Greek myths involving the Dioscuri, as discussed in this previous post.

As the Dioscuri, Castor and Polydeuces (or Castor and Pollux) became the gods who were called upon by all travelers, horsemen,  sailors, and athletes in the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome. They were also the special gods of Sparta, to whom the Spartans most commonly swore oaths, and upon whom the Spartan practice of always having two kings was said to have been based. 

However, like the many other twins who appear in the ancient Star Myths given to humanity, I believe that Castor and Polydeuces are in fact best understood not as two different individuals but as a picture of our own twinned nature. We each embody both Castor and Polydeuces -- just as we each embody both Ino and Leucothea, or Patroclus and Achilles, or Enkidu and Gilgamesh. They are depicted as two different persons because in this strange mortal condition, we find ourselves (like Polydeuces) having taken on a mortal nature, and we are now have two very different "selves."

We tend to temporarily forget, and become estranged from, our Higher Self -- but we are supposed to remember that other nature and become more integrated with that Higher Self during this life. In fact, that may be one of the important things that we are here to accomplish -- and one of the important purposes of the ancient myths may have been to convey this truth to our knowledge and understanding.

In fact, as the insightful Robert Taylor pointed out in the nineteenth century, the apostle who called himself "Paul" was previously known (according to the story presented in the New Testament book of Acts) as "Saul" -- and both of these names seem to have celestial import (see Devil's Pulpit, page 102). 

The sound that makes up the name "Saul," of course, is found in the world sol, which signifies the sun. And the sound that makes up the name "Paul," Taylor notes, is found in the name of the god Apollo -- and also in the name of the god Pollux or Polydeuces. Both Saul and Paul, Taylor notes, "are one and the same persons" -- but, like Castor and Polydeuces, who alternated between the realm of death and the realm of the gods, the transformation of Saul-Paul dramatizes the same powerful teaching.

The Dioscuri, then, are figures of tremendous importance, capable of imparting a message with deep layers of ancient wisdom for our benefit in this life.

If at all possible, you may wish to try to go out into the night sky over the coming weeks and months to gaze upon the stars of Gemini directly and in person. And as you do so, think back across the millennia to a time when men and women understood the Dioscuri as standing always ready to appear and to give succor to those tossed upon the stormy sea of this life.