THE DIOSKOUROI (Dioscuri) were twin demi-god protectors of sailors and patrons of horsemen and races.
Their cult was traditionally based in the city of Sparta but soon spread to other parts of the Peloponnese and beyond.
In classical sculpture the Dioskouroi were depicted as a pair of naked youths, wearing traveller's capes and egg-shaped caps, and with a horse or horse's head by their side. In their Olympian guise they were depicted crowned with olive-wreaths and holding an upturned Olympic torch.
CLASSICAL LITERATURE QUOTES
Suidas s.v. Dioskouroi (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek lexicon C10th A.D.) :
"Dioskouroi : Kastor and Polydeukes. Aelian : ‘And there were also two statues of the Dioskouroi, large youths, with no beard on their cheeks, similar in appearance, each of them wearing a military cloak over their shoulders; they held spears upright beside them, on which they were leaning, one of them on his right hand, the other on his left.’"
CULT IN ATTICA (SOUTHERN GREECE)
I. ATHENS (ATHENAI) Main City of Attica (Attika)
Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 18. 1 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"The sanctuary of the Dioskouroi [at Athens] is ancient. They themselves are represented as standing, while their sons are seated on horses."
Plutarch, Life of Theseus 33. 1 (trans. Perrin) (Greek historian C1st to C2nd A.D.) :
"They [the Dioskouroi] also obtained honors [in Athens] like those paid to gods, and were addressed as Anakes, either on account of their ‘stopping’ hostilities [i.e. after invading the country to recover Helene from Theseus], or because of their ‘diligent’ care that no one should be injured, although there was such a large army within the city for the phrase anakos ekhein is used of such as ‘care for’, or ‘guard anything’, and perhaps it is for this reason that kings are called Anaktes. There are also those who say that the Tyndaridai [Dioskouroi] were called ‘Anakes’ because of the appearance of their twin stars in the heavens, since the Athenians use anekas and anekathen for ano and anothen, signifying ‘above’ or ‘on high.’"
Plutarch, Life of Lysander 12. 1 :
"There were some who declared that the Dioskouroi appeared as twin stars on either side of Lysander's [historical Athenian statesman] ship just as he was sailing out of the harbor against the enemy, and shone out over the rudder-sweeps."
Suidas s.v. Anakeion (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek lexicon C10th A.D.) :
"Anakeion : The temple of the Dioskouroi."
II. CEPHALE (KEPHALE) Village in Attica
Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 31. 1 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"At Kephale [in Attika] the chief cult is that of the Dioskouroi, for the inhabitants call them the Megaloi Theoi (Great Gods)."
CULT IN SICYONIA (SOUTHERN GREECE)
I. SICYON (SIKYON) Main Town of Sicyonia (Sikyonia)
Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 7. 5 :
"On the modern citadel [of Sikyon] is a sanctuary of Tykhe, and after it one of the Dioskouroi."
CULT IN THE ARGOLIS (SOUTHERN GREECE)
I. ARGOS Main City of Argolis
Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 22. 5 :
"[At Argos there is] temple of the Dioskouroi. The images represent the Dioskouroi themselves and their sons, Anaxis and Mnasinous, and with them are their mothers, Hilaeira and Phoibe [the Leukippides]. They are of ebony wood, and were made by Dipoinos and Skyllis. The horses, too, are mostly of ebony, but there is a little ivory also in their construction."
II. Near LERNA Village in Argolis
Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 35. 6 :
"About eight stades to the left [of Lerna, Argos] from the Erasionos River is a sanctuary of the Lords Dioskouroi. Their wooden images have been made similar to those in the city."
CULT IN LACEDAEMONIA (SOUTHERN GREECE)
Pausanias, Description of Greece 4. 16. 9 :
"[The historical Messenian leader Aristomenes] was making an attack by night on Sparta itself, but was deterred by the appearance of [the Spartan demigods] Helene and of the Dioskouroi."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 4. 26. 6 :
"But do thou restore to the Messenians their fatherland and cities, for now the wrath of the Dioskouroi against them hath ceased."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 4. 27. 1 - 3 :
"The wrath of the [god Dioskouroi] sons of Tyndareus against the Messenians began before the [historical] battle in Stenykleros, and arose, I think, for the following reason. Panromos and Gonippos of Andania, young men in the bloom of youth, were close friends in all things, and marched together into battle and on raids into Lakonia. The Lakedaimonians were keeping a feast of the Dioskouroi in camp and had turned to drinking and sports after the midday meal, when Gonippos and Panormos appeared to them, riding on the finest horses and dressed in white tunics and scarlet cloaks, with caps on their heads and spears in their hands. When the Lakedaimonians saw them they bowed down and prayed, thinking that the Dioskouroi themselves had come to their sacrifice. When once they had come among them, the youths rode right through them, striking with their spears, and when many had been killed, returned to Andania, having outraged the sacrifice to the Dioskouroi. It was this, in my view, that roused the Dioskouroi to their hatred of the Messenians. But now, as the dream declared to Epaminondas, the Dioskouroi no longer opposed the return of the Messenians."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 4. 27. 6 :
"When all was readiness [at the historical founding of Messene], victims being provided by the Arkadians, . . . the Messenians [sacrificed] to Zeus of Ithome and the Dioskouroi, and their priests to the Great Goddesses and Kaukon. And together they summoned heroes to return and dwell with them."
I. SPARTA Main City of Lacedaemonia (Lakedaimonia)
Pindar, Nemean Ode 10. 51 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.) :
"The two brothers [the Dioskouroi], at the games of Sparta's wide-built city, joint partons with Hermes and with Herakles the presidency share."
Plato, Laws 796b (trans. Lamb) (Greek philosopher C4th B.C.) :
"Nor should we omit such mimic dances as are fitting for use by our choirs,--for instance, the sword-dance of the Kouretes here in Krete, and that of the Dioskouroi in Lakedaimon; and at Athens, too, our Virgin-Lady [Athena] gladdened by the pastime of the dance deemed it not seemly to sport with empty hands, but rather to tread the measure vested in full panoply. These examples it would well become the boys and girls to copy . . . alike for service in war and for use at festivals." [N.B. The armed warrior dance was a feature of cults of the Kouretes, Dioskouroi and Athena.]
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 13. 1 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"The tomb of Kastor [at Sparta, Lakedaimon], and over the tomb there has been made a sanctuary, for they say that it was not before the fortieth year after the fight with Idas and Lynkeus that divine honours were paid to the sons of Tyndareus."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 13. 6 :
"[At Sparta, Lakedaimon] is an altar of Zeus Amboulios (Counsellor), Athene Amboulias, also of the Dioskouroi, likewise surnamed Amboulion."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 14. 6 :
"[At Sparta, Lakedaimon] are sanctuaries of the Dioskouroi, of the Kharites, of Eileithyia."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 14. 7 :
"At the beginning of the race course [at Sparta, Lakedaimon] are the Dioskouoi Apheterioi (Starters)."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 16. 3 :
"[At Sparta, Lakedaimon] is built a house, said to have been occupied originally by the sons of Tyndareus, but afterwards it was acquired by Phormion, a Spartan. To him came the Dioskouroi in the likeness of strangers. They said that they had come from Kyrene, and asked to lodge with him, requesting to have the chamber which had pleased them most when they dwelt among men. He replied they might lodge in any other part of the house they wished, but that they could not have the chamber. For it so happened that his maiden daughter was living in it. By the next day this maiden and all her girlish apparel had disappeared, an in the room were found images of the Dioskouroi, a table, and silphium upon it."
II. Near THERAPNE Village in Lacedaemonia
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 20. 2 :
"Not far from Therapne [in Lakedaimonia] is what is called Phoibaion, in which is a temple of the Dioskouroi. Here the youths sacrifice to Enyalios."
III. BRASIAE (BRASIAI) Village in Lacedaemonia
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 24. 5 :
"There is a small promontory at Brasiai [in Lakedaimonia], which projects gently into the sea; on it stand bronze figures, not more than a foot high, with caps on their heads. I am not sure whether they consider them to be Dioskouroi or Korybantes. They are three in number; a statue of Athene makes a fourth."
IV. PEPHNOS Island near Thalamae in Lacedaemonia
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 26. 3 :
"A small island no larger than a big rock, also called Pephnos [lies on the coast of Lakedaimon]. The people of Thalamai say that the Dioskouroi were born here. I know that Alkman too says this in a song: but they do not say that they remained to be brought up in Pephnos, but that it was Hermes who took them to Pellana. In this little island there are bronze statues of the Dioskouroi, a foot high, in the open air. The sea will not move them, though in the winter-time it washes over the rock, which is wonderful."
V. LAS Village in Lacedaemonia
Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 5. 3 :
"As for Las, the story goes, the Dioskouroi once captured it by siege, and it was from this fact that they got the appellation Lapersai. And Sophokles says, ‘by the two Lapersai, I swear, by Eurotas third, by the gods in Argos and about Sparta.’"
CULT IN ELIS (SOUTHERN GREECE)
I. OLYMPIA Village & Sanctuary in Elis
Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 15. 5 :
"At the starting-point for the chariot-race [at Olympia], just about opposite the middle of it, there are in the open altars of Poseidon Hippios (Of the Horses) and Hera Hippia (Of the Horses), and near the pillar an altar of the Dioskouroi."
CULT IN ARCADIA (SOUTHERN GREECE)
I. MANTINEIA Town in Arcadia (Arkadia)
Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 9. 2 :
"[At Mantineia, Arkadia] there is also a sanctuary of the Dioskouroi, and in another place one of Demeter and Kore."
II. CLEITOR (KLEITOR) Village in Arcadia
Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 21. 4 :
"Kleitor [in Arkadia] has also . . . a sanctuary of the Dioskouroi, under the name of the Megaloi Theoi (Great Gods). There are also images of them in bronze."
CULT IN OZOLIAN LOCRIS (CENTRAL GREECE)
I. AMPHISSA Main Town of Locris (Lokris)
Pausanias, Description of Greece 10. 38. 7 :
"The Amphisians [of Lokris] also celebrate mysteries in honour of the Boy Kings (Anaktes Paides), as they are called. Their accounts as to who of the gods the Boy Kings are do not agree; some say they are the Dioskouroi, and others, who pretend to have fuller knowledge, hold them to be the Kabeiroi."
CULT IN BITHYNIA (ASIA MINOR)
I. ACHERUSIAN CAPE (AKHEROUSION) Cape in Bithynia
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 2. 805 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.) :
"I [Lykos king of the Mariandyni] propose to build high up on the Akherousian Cape [on the southern shore of the Black Sea] a great temple to the [Dioskouroi] sons of Tyndareos for sailors out at sea to mark and reverence; and then I will dedicate to them, as gods, some rich acres of the fertile plain outside the town."
CULT IN LOCRI (SOUTHERN ITALY)
I. SAGRA R. River in Locri (Lokroi)
Strabo, Geography 6. 1. 10 (trans. Jones) (Greek geographer C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"After Lokroi [in Italia] comes the Sagra, a river which has a feminine name. On its banks are the altars of the Dioskouroi."
CULT IN BRUTTIUM (SOUTHERN ITALY)
I. DIOSCURI (DIOSKOUROI) Island near Lacinium in Bruttium
Pliny the Elder, Natural History 3. 97 (trans. Rackham) (Roman encyclopedia C1st A.D.) :
"[In the Adriatic Sea] ten miles out [from the promontory of Lacinium in southern Italy] lies the Island of the Dioscuri and another called Calypso's Island, which is thought to be Homer's island of Ogygia."
CULT IN LATIUM (CENTRAL ITALY)
I. ROME Imperial Capital
Strabo, Geography 5. 3. 5 :
"[Alexandros the Great] sent in complaints [to the Romans] . . . that he did not deem it right for men [the Romans] to be sending out bands of pirates . . . or to build in their Forum a temple in honour of the Dioskouroi, and to worship them, whom all call Soteroi (Saviours), and yet at the same time send to Greece people who would plunder the native land of the Dioskouroi. And the Romans put a stop to such practices."
Ovid, Fasti 1. 705 ff (trans.Boyle) (Roman poetry C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"January 27 Comitialis. The sixth day before the next Kalends [1st of the month] a temple was dedicated to Ledaean gods [the Dioskouroi sons of Leda]. Brothers from a family of gods [Tiberius Caesar and Drusus] founded it for the brothers gods near Juturna's pool."
Cicero, De Natura Deorum 2. 2 (trans. Rackham) (Roman rhetorician C1st B.C.) :
"The gods often manifest their power in bodily presence. For instance in the Latin War, at the critical battle of Lake Regillus between the dictator Aulus Postumius and Octavius Mamilius of Tusculum, Castor and Pollux [Polydeukes] were seen fighting on horseback in our ranks. And in more modern history likewise these sons of Tyndareus brought the news of the defeat of Perses. What happened was that Publius Vatinius, the grandfather of our young contemporary, was returning to Rome by night from Reate, of which he was governor, when he was informed by two young warriors on white horses that King Perses had that very day been taken prisoner."
Cicero, De Natura Deorum 3. 5 :
"‘Then do you really think that the beings whom you call the sons of Tyndareus, that is mortal men of mortal parentage, and whom Homer, who lived not long after their period, states to have been buried at Sparta, came riding on white hacks with no retainers, and met Vatinius, and selected a rough countryman like him to whom to bring the news of a great national victory, instead of Marcus Cato, who was the chief senator at the time? Well then, do you also believe that the mark in the rock resembling a hoof print, to be seen at the present day on the shore of Lake Regillus, was made by Castor's horse? Would you not prefer to believe the perfectly credible doctrine that the souls of famous men, like the sons of Tyndareus you speak of, are divine and live for ever, rather than that men who had been once for all burnt on a funeral pyre were able to ride on horseback and fight in a battle? Or if you maintain that this was possible, then you have got to explain how it was possible, and not merely bring forward old wives' tales.’
‘Do you really think they are old wives' tales?' rejoined Lucilius. ‘Are you not aware of the temple in the forum dedicated to Castor and Pollux by Aulus Postumius, or of the resolution of the senate concerning Batinius?’"
CULT TITLES & EPITHETS
The Dioskouroi had a number of cult titles:--
Starters (of horse-race)
Of Las (Laconia)
Their Athenian temple was known as the Anakeion (Shrine of the Kings):--
Shrine of the Kings
AMBU′LIA, AMBU′LII, and AMBU′LIUS (Amboulia, Amboulioi, and Amboulios), surnames under which the Spartans worshipped Athena, the Dioscuri, and Zeus. (Paus. iii. 13. § 4.) The meaning of the name is uncertain, but it has been supposed to be derived from anaballô, and to designate those divinities as the delayers of death.
ANAX (Anax). A surname or epithet of the gods in general, characterizing them as the rulers of the world ; but the plural forms, Anakes, or Anaktes, or Anakes paides, were used to designate the Dioscuri. (Paus. ii. 22. § 7, x. 38. § 3; Cic. de Nat. Deor. iii. 31; Aelian. V. H. v. 4; Plut. Thes. 33.) In the second of the passages of Pausanias here referred to, in which he speaks of a temple of the Anakes paides at Amphissa, he states, that it was a doubtful point whether they were the Dioscuri, the Curetes, or the Cabeiri; and from this circumstance a connexion between Amphissa and Samothrace has been inferred. (Comp. Eustath. ad Hom. pp. 182, 1598.) Some critics identify the Anaces with the Enakim of the Hebrews.
LAPERSAE (Lapersai or Lapersioi), a surname of the Dioscuri, which they derived from the Attic demus of Lapersae (Tzetz. ad Lycoph. 511, 1369), or, according to others, from a mountain in Laconia. (Steph. Byz. s. v. Lapersa; Eustath. ad Hom. pp. 230, 295.)
Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
- Pindar, Odes - Greek Lyric C5th B.C.
- Plato, Laws - Greek Philosophy C4th B.C.
- Apollonius Rhodius, The Argonautica - Greek Epic C3rd B.C.
- Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History - Greek History C1st B.C.
- Strabo, Geography - Greek Geography C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece - Greek Travelogue C2nd A.D.
- Plutarch, Lives - Greek Historian C1st - 2nd A.D.
- Ovid, Fasti - Latin Poetry C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Cicero, De Natura Deorum - Latin Rhetoric C1st B.C.
- Pliny the Elder, Natural History - Latin Encyclopedia C1st A.D.
- Suidas, The Suda - Byzantine Greek Lexicon C10th A.D.