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Gemini Mythology

The constellation of Gemini represents the twins Castor and Pollux (or Polydeuces) in Greek mythology. The brothers were also known as the Dioscuri, which means “sons of Zeus.” In most versions of the myth, however, only Pollux was Zeus’ son, and Castor was the son of the mortal King Tyndareus of Sparta.

The twins’ mother, Spartan Queen Leda, was raped by Zeus, who visited the queen in the form of a swan, associated with the constellation Cygnus (the Swan), and she became pregnant with Polydeuces and Helen (who would become the famous Helen of Troy). Leda later also became pregnant with Castor and Clytemnestra (who would later marry Agamemnon and eventually murder him and be killed by her own son Orestes). Castor and Clytemnestra were fathered by Tyndareus and, unlike Zeus’ children, they were mortal.

Old woodcarving of Gemini - the twins

The twins were young, handsome, and adventurous. They took part in many adventures together and were well known for their livelihood and curiosity, growing up together and were very close. Castor was an excellent horseman and proficient at fencing – he is said to have taught Heracles himself to fence – and Pollux was famed for his boxing skills. The two were part of the Argonauts’ expedition to get the Golden Fleece. Pollux’s boxing skills came in handy when Amycus, a son of Poseidon who ruled Asia Minor, refused to let the Argonauts leave until one of them fought him in a boxing match. Pollux accepted the challenge and easily won.

The twins came to the crew’s rescue on a number of occasions. They have been known as the patron saints of sailors and were said to have been given the power to rescue sailors who were shipwrecked by the sea god Poseidon himself, who also gave them two white horses, which the twins often rode.

The Dioscuri are associated with St. Elmo’s Fire, an electrical phenomenon that occurs during thunderstorms when a coronal discharge from a pointed object in a strong electric field creates luminous plasma. The phenomenon is named after another patron saint of sailors, St. Erasmus of Formiae. St. Elmo’s fire would appear to sailors as a glowing ball of light during thunderstorms and they considered it as a sign that their guardian saint was with them.

Castor and Pollux eventually clashed with Idas and Lynceus, who were also twins and former Argonauts, over two women, Phoebe and Hilaria. The other two brothers were engaged to them, and Castor and Polydeuces carried the women off. Idas and Lynceus pursued them and in the end, there was a fight between the four. Lynceus stabbed Castor with a sword and when Pollux saw this, he killed Lynceus. When Idas saw his brother die, he attacked Pollux, but Zeus intervened and sent a thunderbolt that saved his son.

Where Gemini mythology comes into play is when Castor, being mortal, finally dies. Having spent their whole lives together, Pollux is distraught. He doesn’t want to live without his twin brother, but since he is immortal, there is nothing he can do. He begs his father, Zeus, for help.

Zeus decides that rather than killing Pollux so he can be with Castor, he makes Castor immortal also, and the two of them get to live together forever as the constellation Gemini.

Perhaps the reason that this story is rarely contested is that two of the actual stars in the constellation of Gemini are named “Castor” and “Pollux”. This is a rare case where astronomy and mythology actually agree, and thus, Gemini mythology is born. The two brightest stars in the constellation, Alpha and Beta Geminorum, mark the twins’ heads.

Not everyone identified the constellation as Castor and Pollux in ancient times. Hyginus and Ptolemy associated the two stars with Apollo and Heracles, who were half-brothers and both sons of Zeus.

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