By Henry John Walker
I.B. Tauris (2015) h/b 271pp £62 (ISBN 9781784530037)
The inside cover blurb states that, despite their popularity in the ancient world, no dedicated study of the Dioskouroi has been published for over a hundred years. W.’s book remedies this in spades. From early India through the whole Greek world to Italy, he documents every story told about these two unusual gods, drawing on inscriptions and vase paintings, etc., as well as texts. The result is a fascinating read, including many details likely to be unfamiliar to most readers (did you know, for example, that the story of their birth from Leda’s egg was only a late, Hellenistic, invention?).
The bit least familiar to most classicists, unless they are also Sanskrit scholars, is their appearance in the Rig Veda from Bronze Age India. There they are called the Ashvins, and have the same essential characteristics that describe the Greek Dioskouroi: they are two young men, probably twins, they are associated with horses, they have a beautiful divine sister or wife (or both), they are close to and loved by the common people and will often come riding to their rescue when called on in moments of danger (whence they are also known as ‘the saviours’), and, probably for this very reason, are looked down on by the other gods, who have to be forced into accepting them; after the class system has solidified into rigid castes in later India, they disappear from the record. The early Greeks got into a muddle whether they were divine or human heroes (see especially the very odd account of their afterlife in Odyssey XI), but from the sixth century on they are clearly divine. W. goes into some detail over their association with the Spartan system of training the young men (and women, through their female counterparts the Leucippides, or White Horse Girls), and ranges over myth variants from other parts of Greece which may be less well known (such as the Athenian story of Helen’s abduction by Theseus). W. ends with an account of how they migrated up from Greek colonies in South Italy, through Etruria and Latium, until they became the Roman Gemini or Castores, still with the same essential characteristics.
We are increasingly aware these days of the early interconnections between the Mediterranean and ‘farther East’, but it is still hard to make sense of what is still a scrappy collection of stories and other bits of evidence, even when there is a discernible underlying theme. There is always a temptation to build a narrative in which one puts too much faith, however good it looks as a hypothesis. W. rightly castigates some earlier scholars for doing just that, but he is, perhaps, a little bit guilty of it himself. In his conclusion, he portrays the Ashvins/Dioskouroi as essentially belonging to the oppressed common people (for example, only the lower classes actually ride on horseback), sneered at and suppressed by the ruling warlords and priestly castes. It seems a credible hypothesis, but no more than that, and it doesn’t explain everything: for example, why do there have to be two of them?
That said, the book is full of enjoyable detail. There is a full bibliography and very comprehensive references and notes. In some places, readers’ knowledge is perhaps too much taken for granted; in particular, a timeline chart showing the relative approximate dates of the Indian, Greek and other sources would have been helpful, especially for non-Sanskrit experts; this reviewer had to visit Wikipedia a few times to bone up on the Rig Veda.