Leda and Her Children

Leda was a daughter of Thestios king of Aitolia, and wife of Tyndareos, king of Sparta. She bore several children, of whom four are important in mythology, viz. Kastor, Polydeukes (Pollux in Latin), Klytaimestra, and Helen. In most accounts, though not in Homer, one at least of her sons was the child of Zeus; by all accounts Helen was his daughter. Beyond this, there is little agreement. Generally, Polydeukes is the son of Zeus, while his twin Kastor was begotten of Tyndareos. Helen in most accounts is hatched from an egg, laid either by Leda herself, whom Zeus visited in the form of a swan, or by Nemesis, in which case it was given to Leda to be hatched.

Variations are endless. In Homer for example, both the brothers are mortal; but in the Homeric hymn addressed to them, both are immortal. Kastor, Polydeukes, and Helen all three appear as fully human personages in epic, but all three were also worshipped as deities in Greek antiquity, the twin brothers (the Dioskuroi, i.e., ‘Sons of Zeus,’ as they are generally called after Homer’s time), being patrons of mariners, to whom they were said to appear in the form of what is now called St. Elmo’s fire, and also being important deities at Sparta; while Helen seems to be an ancient tree-goddess, with a ritual not unlike that connected with Erigone. Helen too on occasion appeared as St. Elmo’s fire, but unlike her brothers, she was a bad sign.

The Dioskuroi took part in sundry adventures, such as the Argonautic expedition; but the one important adventure of their own is that which resulted in the death of Kastor. Leukippos (White-horse-man, i.e., nobleman, person who can afford to keep fine horses for racing, etc.; a dozen mythological nobodies have the same name), a descendant of Perseus, had two daughters, Hilaeira and Phoibe, who were betrothed to the two sons of Aphareus, Leukippos’ brother. But Kastor and Polydeukes carried them off. Either for this reason, or as a result of a quarrel during a cattle-raid, the sons of Aphareus, Idas and Lynkeus, attacked them. The details of the ensuing fight are variously given; but the end of it was that both the sons of Aphareus, and also Kastor, were killed. Polydeukes, who had always lived in the closest of unity with his twin, now prayed Zeus to let him share his own immortality with Kastor. Zeus consented, and so the twins either live together, one day in heaven and another in the House of Hades, or else they take it in turns to be dead, one being always in the underworld, the other out of it.

Thought to portray one of the Dioskouroi abducting a
daughter of Leukippos, this stucco relief on the ceiling
of the subterranean Basilica di Porta Maggiore in Rome
belongs to a pre-Christian mystery religion for which
the building was constructed sometime during the first
century of the Roman Empire. Containing many such
well preserved ancient depictions of moments in ancient
myth, the temple was discovered in 1916.

Late writers identified the brothers with the constellation Gemini. The cult of the Twins was early brought to Rome, where Kastor is for some reason so much the more prominent that they are often spoken of loosely in Roman sources as the Castores. A minor adventure, alluded to in a fragment of Alkman, was a fight with the sons of Hippokoon, Herakles’ opponents.

Helen had a much more varied and adventurous career. Being by far the most beautiful of women, she was striven for by all manner of wooers. The first was Theseus, who carried her off to Aphidnai in Attica, when she was still but a child. Her brothers brought her back untouched, however, and captured Theseus’ mother Aithra (the Athenians explained lamely that the hero was away at the time), who was given to Helen as an attendant and accompanied her to Troy.

Later, she was formally wooed by all the principal men of Greece, including Menelaos (Agamemnon was already married to her sister Klytaim(n)estra, but appeared to press his brother’s claims). On the advice of Odysseus, who also was a suitor, but without much hope of success, Menelaos being the richest of them all, Helen was left free to choose whom she would, and the rest swore to respect her choice and stand by her husband in all need. She chose Menelaos, and for some years lived quietly with him, and bore a daughter Hermione.

Then Paris appeared on the scene, favoured by Aphrodite, and induced Helen to run away with him. Menelaos was absent and could not therefore interfere; but on his return, he and his brother roused all Greece (it is still remembered vaguely in Homer that Agamemnon was overlord of a great part of the country, in fact an emperor rather than a mere king), and a great expedition was raised against Troy.

Stesichoros, who according to tradition was struck blind for speaking unmannerly of Helen in one of his poems, told in his famous Palinode a tale, perhaps of his own invention, which fully vindicated her honour. Paris carried her off by force, but they got no farther than Egypt, whose just king Proteus (apparently a rationalization of the sea-god) kept her safely till her husband should claim her. Meanwhile a phantom of her accompanied Paris to Troy, to give occasion for the war, which Zeus had decided upon. When Menelaos, on his way from Troy, got to Egypt, this phantasm vanished, and the real Helen then accompanied him home.


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