The Divine Twins Pt. 1 – An example of Indo-European mythology

In this section, my aim is to demonstrate how archaeology and Indo-European languages can be combined to explore one of the most interesting myths attributed to the Indo-Europeans.

The Divine Twins are a well-known myth (I summarized it below). I am using the term Indo-European mythology, because IE scholars are fairly certain that the twins were part of the late Indo-European pantheon already, and not “invented” later on. There is a large amount of evidence pointing to an inherited myth of the twins. This evidence is not only linguistic, but also material evidence for their importance to various cultures of the speakers of Indo-European languages. I return to this shortly.

The twins’ main role is usually to pull the chariot of the sun (sun maiden, daughter of the sun) in the form of two horses. They pull her over the sky in daylight, and at sunset, when they reach the end of the world and with it the dark waters of the night, they enter a crisis, in which the sun maiden gets pulled under water by dragons or snakes and drawn away. Her brothers, following a reoccurring shape shifter image, turn into two ships and rescue her from the Nether, bringing her up again on the other side of the world, and return with her as the sunrise – a clockwise circle (cf. Nash Briggs 2009; Kristiansen 2010; Nikolaev 2012).

The sun at the end of the daily journey


The Divine Twins are the sons of the sky-father[1] and (usually) the brothers of the sun maiden. They draw her chariot as twin horses and come to her rescue – they help the sun to rise. Usually, one of them is divine and the other one mortal. They were also seen as symbols of fertility and good health.

Reconstructing Indo-European mythology is generally problematic. We don’t have many inherited words, like for example the name of the sky god, so we can only compare individual myths in old poetry and the traits of the gods and people described. But if we take a cross-disciplinary approach, we can gain more knowledge. I will begin with problem of dating the myth.


[1] The sky father: *di̯ēu̯s ph2tēr, in Greek Zeus Patēr, Vedic Dyáuṣ Pitāṛ


Dating the myth

We cannot say with any certainty how old this myth is, although we know that wheeled vehicles were not found before 4000 BC, so the myth must have been introduced to Proto-Indo-European after Anatolian had split off (see for example under Indo-European Languages). Since Indo-Iranian shares this myth with Greek and Baltic, and there are parallels to such twins in Germanic and Celtic, the myth would have been introduced after Tocharian split off at the latest (in its form with a wagon being pulled over the sky). Negative evidence does not tell us much, especially since we don’t have as many sources in Tocharian as in the other languages, so we cannot assume the presence of the twins in Tocharian.

Mayrhofer (1996, II Band, p.39) refers under the entry nāsatya to a Mittani (sic!) document mentioning DINGIR.MEŠna-ša-at-ti-i̯a-an-na, which could mean that a form of the Divine Twins was indirectly known to the Hittites. But since the word is clearly taken over from Indic, it only means that the word was known (which also means it is a very old word, since it was taken into Hittite), but not that the Hittites have known the concept behind it to its full extent. There is at least a wandering Sun-God in Hittite, who comes out of the water and rises into the sky, as well as there is a sun-god of the Underworld (Gurney 1954, p.139 f.). This means even though the concept of the wagon in the sky might not have been known in early Proto-Indo-European, the sun-cult and the emphasis on the sun rising from water already existed.

For more about the dating of this myth, see West 2007, p. 210 f.


The Protagonists


1. The Divine Twins

We cannot trace their names back to Proto-Indo-European, and not always do they even have individual names.

In Sanskrit, they are the Aśvins – the owners of horses, or the dívó nápātā, or nāsatya. They do not have individual names, as far as we know. These are some of their epithets, telling us more about their appearance and affiliations:

  • Aśvinau: always written in a form of the dual.
  • Dívó Nápātā means “grandchildren of the god” but is probably better translated as “descendants” or “offsprings” (Euler 1987, p. 46). In Latin directly as Iouis Nepotes (West 2007, p. 187)
  • Nāsatya: What exactly this means is not clear. Wackernagel & Debrunner (1954, p.939) refer to the root nas-, which might be derived from *nasati– “rescue”. Also, Mayrhofer (1996, II Band, p.39) refers to Indo-Iranian *nāsati̯a– belonging to nas-, maybe as the vṛddhi to nas– + -atí-.
  • Yúvānā – the youthful ones. (West 2007, p. 187)
  • One of them is said to be Divó … putráḥ and the other one to be the son of Súmakha-, “good warrior” (West 2007, p. 187). See also Latin (below), and their relation to Mars.

In Greek, their parallels are Castor & Pollux (gr. Κάστωρ & Πολυδεύκης), the Dioskuroi (Διόσκουροι). They are twin-halfbrothers. Their mother was Leda, but they had two different fathers, Castor thus being mortal (his father was the king of Sparta, Tyndareos) and Pollux was divine, his father being Zeus (IE *di̯ēu̯s). They are often portrayed together with horses and are the patrons of sailors (here is the connection to ships and the sea). They were sailors on the Argo, and their sister was Helen of Troy. Helen was not a sun maiden but was rescued by her brothers, when she was abducted by Theseus. They are pictured in the star constellation of the Gemini (cf. West 2007 and Mallory & Adams 1997).

Epithets (West 2007, p. 187 f.):

  • Διόσκουροι “Sons of Zeus”
  • Τυνδαρίδαι – this is understood to mean “sons of Tyndareos”, the husband of Leda.
  • ἱππόδαμος (Castor) ”horse-taming”
  • ταχέων ἐπιβήτορες ἴππων – ”riders on swift steeds”

Baltic: In Lithuanian mythology, they are called Ašvieniai (OLith. ašva “horse”), also called Diẽvo Sunẽliai (sons of god), and draw the carriage of Saulė, the Sun goddess, through the sky. Their Latvian equivalent are the Dieva Dēli (sons of god) (cf. West 2007 and Mallory & Adams 1997).

In Latin, we find Romulus and Remus. They were the sons of Mars, abandoned by the Tiber to die (by the wrath of their mothers’ husband). The river god saved them, and they were nursed by a she-wolf. Later on, they founded the city of Rome, but following a dispute between them, Remus was killed by Romulus. In that way, they were sons of a god, but not immortal.

In Germanic (Anglo-Saxon), their equivalents are Hengist “stallion” and Horsa “horse”, again a pair of horse-associated brothers, the leaders of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England, and descendants of Odin (West 2007, p. 190). One of the brothers dies later on, while the other one lives on and plays an important role in his peoples’ future in Kent.

Another pair of brothers are the Alcis, of who Tacitus reports in his Germania that the Nahanarvali worshipped them as two gods, in a sacred grove. He identified them with the Roman Castor and Pollux (West 2007, p. 190).

In Celtic, as usual, things are complicated. Here, the Divine Twins are associated with the horse goddess (Gaul.) Epona“divine mare” (in Welsh Rhiannon, in Irish Macha). In the Mabinogi, Rhiannon has a son, Pryderi, who vanishes and is raised by foster parents together with a colt born on the same night (who apparently is Mabon, “divine son”). Also in the Mabinogi, the two brothers are dealt with under the name as Children of Llyr. These are Bran “crow”, Manawydan and their sister Branwen “white crow”. In another tale, Manawydan and Pryderi are partners and Rhiannon their consort (and not their mother). When Rhiannon and Pryderi are abducted, Manawydan rescues them. Macha is forced to race against the horses of the Ulster king, wins, but gives as a consequence to the race prematurely birth to twins. The place of the race is called Emain Macha “Twins of Macha”. In Irish, the equivalents are Bodb “crow”, Manannān mac Lir and Oengus Mac ind Ōg “the young son” (cf. Mallory & Adams 1997, p. 161-165)

One more pair can be mentioned, since twins also can be found in Christianity: The twins Cosmas and Damianus have, amongst other small churches, their main “cult place” very close to Castor’s temple in Rome and are responsible for treatment and healing of sickness and illness. Hampl (1987, p.52) mentions them as an example of Christianity taking in pre-Christian myths.


2. The Sister

Uṣas, as she is called in Vedic mythology, is the Dawn, and the sister of the Divine Twins. She drives the sun wagon. Her name is based on a verbal root *h2us- / *h2eus- “glow, flame”, extended by the suffix *-ós-. From this derive also av. ušah-, gr. ἀως, αὔως, ἠώς, ἔως, lat. aurora (*ausōs-ā), lith. Aušrà, OCS za ustra “in the morning”, Welsh gwawr (West 2007, p. 217).

She is the daughter of the sky-god, the duhitā… Diváḥ (paralleled by lith. Diẽvo dukrýtė. She is associated with brightness, shining, gleaming, sometimes with giving birth (West 2007, p. 219). She is very beautiful and not shy to show off her beauty. She is dressed in silk or bright shining garments. She is seductive, erotic, enticing.

Epithets (West 2007, p. 217 ff.):

  • ἠριγένεια ”early-born”
  • ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς ”rose-fingered Dawn” in Homer.
  • suaṇgurí-” with good fingers”

In Anglo-Saxon she became Eostre, giving the celebration of Easter its name (West 2007, p. 217). Her equivalent in Lithuanian is Saulė, in Latvian Saule, goddess of life, fertility and health.

Find pt. 2 here


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