More on Castor, Pollux
Last week, we talked about the science behind the two brightest stars in the constellation Gemini, the Twins. This week, I promised to discuss the ancient story told about Castor and Pollux. I do so with some trepidation.
At a program at Perkins, an otherwise pleasant Christian called me the “last Zeus worshipper in central Ohio.” I felt the sting of that complaint.
Just for the record, I’m not. However, I do feel that the old stories have something to teach us, not only about the ancient cultures, our intellectual and emotional forebears, that spawned them but also about ourselves. Thus, here goes:
It is unusual to have two stars of such similar brightness so close together in the sky, so the ancients named them after a pair of famous mythological twins. Most likely, the story existed long before its association with the two stars, by the way. Often the story seems attached to the stars artificially in part to help students of the sky to learn and remember the constellations. They certainly had that effect on me when I was a neophyte stargazer.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Here’s the story. Castor and Pollux were the twin sons of Leda, the queen of Sparta. Zeus, the head man on Olympus, appeared in Leda’s bedchamber in the form of a swan. Later that night, the king of Sparta also visited Leda (Leda really got around).
Nine months later, if you know what I mean and I think you do, Castor and Pollux were born. Castor was the son of the mortal king, and Pollux was the son of Zeus. Thus, the “twins” were about as different as they could be.
Castor a mortal man and Pollux an immortal god.
What made them special and got them their own hunk of sky was that they loved each other very deeply—but only in a clean, decent, brotherly sort of way, mind you.
Castor and Pollux were great heroes to the Greeks. Castor was known for his ability to train and ride horses. Pollux was a great boxer. Roman soldiers would swear oaths “by Gemini,” and that phrase survives, more or less, as the oath “by jiminy.” Does anybody still say that anymore?
Castor and Pollux participated in the attack against Athens to rescue their half sister, the beautiful Helen, who was kidnapped by Theseus.
They sailed with Jason and the Argonauts on their mission to steal the golden fleece. It is perhaps from this expedition that they became the patron gods of ancient sailors. Upon their death, Poseidon, the god of the sea, gave them control over the winds and the waves. Many ships have borne their names, and sailors looked to them for protection from the dangers of the sea.
Their greatest battle was their last. Castor and Pollux got in a scrape with their cousins, Idas and Lynceus. Because he was a god and a great fighter, Pollux killed Lynceus. But the mortal Castor was slain by Idas. Zeus intervened and killed Idas with a lightening bolt. (You’d think he could have done it a few minutes earlier and saved Castor’s life, but the gods were capricious, to say the least.)
Pollux was heartbroken. He told Zeus he could not walk the earth without the companionship of his brother. He offered to renounce his immortality to join Castor in the underworld, Hades. Zeus was so touched that he allowed Castor and Pollux to stay together. For all eternity they spend part of their time in Hades and part in Olympus.
Their dual status is symbolized by their presence in the sky as twin stars. In the winter months they stand high in the heavens, quite literally “heaven” to the Greeks. As the summer months approach, they sink below the horizon into the underworld.
Thus, they finally have become truly twins mortal yet both touched by the breath of immortality.
Tom Burns is director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory in Delaware. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.