Sunday, August 19, 2012
The ancient Greeks had many gods, demigods, and heroes. The sheer numbers are confusing and the fact that the same god could go by different names or was assigned different attributes in different cities makes the study of ancient Greek religion particularly complex. I readily admit my own discomfort with polytheism generally and with the religion of the ancient Greeks in particular. Greek gods could be petty, selfish, immoral, arbitrary, cruel, fickle, dishonest, and everything else that humans can be. Rather than serving as moral arbiters much less as examples of virtue, their very immorality often seemed to constitute an excuse for immoral behavior. In all this chaos and depravity, however, one story stands out as touchingly uncharacteristic – and tellingly it is the story of two Spartan princes particularly honored and revered in Sparta.
According to ancient Greek mythology, the Divine Twins, the Dioskouroi, were the brothers of Helen. More precisely, Polydeukes was Helen’s full-brother, likewise fathered by Zeus on her mother Leda, while Kastor was her half-brother, the son of Leda by her (mortal) husband Tyndareus, the king of Sparta. Raised at the Spartan court as twin sons of the king, the Dioskouroi lived the ideal lives of aristocratic youth in the age of heroes. They had great adventures, sailing with Jason on the Argo, hunting boar with Herakles, rescuing their sister from the Athenian king Theseus, who had abducted her – and then robbing two sisters from a neighboring kingdom for their own wives. Nothing about these adventures suggestions anything particularly virtuous or morally exemplary. They were, it seemed, just hot-blooded young Greek heroes.
And then, in a fight over stolen cattle, Kastor was killed. According to the myth, both brothers would have been killed, if Polydeukes hadn’t been immortal. Because, however, Polydeukes is a demi-God, he lives on after his mortal end. He goes to his father’s home on Mount Olympus, while Kastor goes into the cold, dark grave, a prisoner of grim Hades, destined never to see the light of day or breathe fresh air or enjoy any pleasures of the senses ever again.
According the myth, Polydeukes was so distraught by his brother’s fate that he was unable to enjoy his own immortality. Seeing his son’s misery, Zeus took pity on him and allowed the twins to switch places on an alternating basis. Every other day, Polydeukes took his brother’s place in hell, so that Kastor could escape the grave.
There is, I think, something wonderfully Spartan about this tale. It includes both the love of life, which – contrary to popular opinion – was characteristic of ancient Sparta (see Loving Life in Lacedaemon and Nothingin Excess), and the spirit of self-sacrifice that we associate with Leonidas.