Helen and the Twins

Since the sun is now in Gemini [1], it’s as good a time as any (and better than some) to discuss the mythology associated with the constellation. The twins represented in Gemini are known in Greek as the Dioscuri, Castor and Polydeuces. The Latin name for the latter is Pollux, and the two brightest stars in the constellation bear these names. One odd thing about the brothers is that, while they’re twins, they’re often regarded as having different fathers. The ancient Greeks had some odd ideas about genetics, especially when the gods were involved. In this case, it was the master womanizer himself, Zeus. The King of Olympus was visiting Earth in the form of a swan, and was saved from a pursuing eagle by Leda, wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta. This was all part of a seduction attempt by Zeus, and Leda ended up having sex with the swan. Why? I don’t know, but this odd copulation method resulted in her laying two eggs.

One egg contained the Dioscuri, Polydeuces being the immortal son of Zeus and Castor the mortal son of Tyndareus. From the other hatched Helen, a celebrity in her own right.

The Dioscuri had many adventures throughout their earthly life, one of the first being the rescue of their sister. Theseus decided that, being a demigod himself, he should marry the daughter of a god, and carried off the young Helen. Castor and Polydeuces invaded Athens to retrieve her, also capturing Theseus’ mother Aethra and placing Menestheus on the throne in the process. This led to Aethra becoming Helen’s maid. Other adventures included raiding cattle in Arcadia, joining Jason on his campaign in Aeaea, and helping Peleus to attack Ioclus. In their ordinary lives, Castor was a horseman and Polydeuces a boxer, the skills of the latter enabling him to kill King Amycus of the Bebryces in a boxing match.

The twins apparently only considered carrying off a woman to be a bad thing in the case of their own sister, though, because they obtained their own wives in this manner, forcibly carrying off the daughters of Leucippus.

As these women had originally been betrothed to Idas and Lenceus, nephews of Leucippus and cousins of the Dioscuri, this was a contributing factor in the rivalry between these pairs of cousins. It was in a fight between these rivals that Idas killed Castor with a spear. Out of brotherly love, Polydeuces asked Zeus to let him share his immortality with his brother, so the two of them now spend alternate days in Olympus and Hades. They’re credited with producing what’s now known as St. Elmo’s Fire, and aiding the Romans in their battle against the Latin League at Lake Regillus.

The other sibling, Helen, came to be regarded as the most beautiful woman in the world, with a face that launched a thousand ships. I don’t think the hyper-masculine and homoerotic Sparta is typically known for its hot chicks, but I guess Helen is the exception. The Romans actually made Helen a warrior in her own right, telling of how she practiced fighting while naked in the gymnasium. This was a common practice for Spartan girls in later times, but not back in the Mycenaean era. Anyway, numerous suitors came to vie for Helen’s hand in marriage, and in order to avoid rivalry between them, Tyndareus took Odysseus’ advice in making the other suitors make a pact to defend the chosen suitor against his enemies. Tyndareus chose Menelaus, so when Paris of Troy abducted Helen, claiming that he she was his reward for choosing Aphrodite as the winner of Eris’ crooked beauty contest, the other former suitors joined him in attacking Troy. Different sources portray Helen’s sojourn in Troy differently, some making her pine for her old home and others showing her as willingly becoming Paris’ wife. When the Greeks had finally conquered Troy, Menelaus decided he should slay his unfaithful wife, but the sight of her beauty made him go back on this decision. Good thing she retained her looks during the ten years of the war. Not much is said of Helen after this, some stories saying she died shortly after this, and others that she returned to Menelaus’ household and lived there for a while. I have to suspect their relationship was never all that pleasant after this, however. Some say Helen, being a daughter of Zeus, went to live in Olympus after this, but others say that she ended up in the Elysian Fields of Hades. It’s sometimes thought that, in the afterlife, Helen married Achilles.

As Helen is considered to be the epitome of female beauty, it’s interesting to see how she’s been portrayed in art. Here’s an early depiction of Helen on an urn that can now be seen at the Louvre, which really makes her look rather plain by modern standards:

John Gibson’s marble bust of Helen, from the earlier part of the nineteenth century:

In 1863, Dante Gabriel Rossetti portrayed Helen with curly red hair and the scowl typical of women in his paintings:

Frederic Lord Leighton produced this version of Helen with short hair during the nineteenth century:

In 1867, Anthony Frederick Sandys drew Helen in much the same vein as Rossetti, making her a grumpy redhead:

Sir Edward Poynter’s 1881 portrayal gives her what I might consider a more mature beauty:

This one is the 1885 work of Gustave Moreau, who appears to have wanted to return Helen to her ancient Greek roots:

One of my personal favorite Helens is by Evelyn de Morgan from 1898. She kept the curly red hair that earlier artists had used, and also gave her a very attractive (and probably totally period-inappropriate) pink dress:

Moving on the the twentieth century, Franz von Stuck’s 1925 picture makes her a thin and apparently thoughtful redhead:

Illustrator Howard David Johnson gives Helen curly brown hair, and shows her reclining:

Artist Ren Wicks, known for his postage stamps, posters, magazine work, and women on fighter planes, gave us this pin-up of Helen in 1966:

Here’s Diane Kruger portraying Helen in the reportedly lousy (I haven’t actually seen it) 2004 film Troy:

And here’s another pin-up-style drawing, this time by Delilah J. Crowe:

[1] Actually, based on what Wikipedia says, the constellations of the zodiac no longer coincide with the astrological signs, and the sun won’t be in Gemini for about another month. Close enough for pseudo-science, though.

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8 Responses to Helen and the Twins

  1. vilajunkie says:

    No Clytemnestra, the mortal twin of Helen who murdered her own husband and his lover and made love to her cousin?

    • Nathan says:

      Was Clytemnestra also a twin? The picture of Leda shows her hatching from the same egg as Helen, but most of what I read suggests she was born in the normal way.

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