Exhibit of the month
Homeric Hymn to the Dioscuroi (XXXIII)
“… deliverers of men on earth
and of swift-going ships when stormy gales rage
over the ruthless sea. Then the shipmen
call upon the sons of great Zeus
with vows of white lambs, going to the forepart of the prow;
but the strong wind and the waves of the sea
lay the ship under water,
until suddenly these two are seen darting through the air on tawny wings.
Forthwith they allay the blasts of the cruel winds
and still the waves upon the surface of the white sea:
fair signs are they and deliverance from toil. And when the shipmen see them, they are glad and have rest from their pain and labour.”
Anonymous. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Homeric Hymns. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
Votive relief with the Dioscuroi and a seaman on a ship
National Archaeological Museum
Sculpture Collection, inv. no 1409
Provenance: Piraeus, purchased in 1881 for the Museum housed at the Varvakeio High School
Dimensions: Height: 0.34 m, Width: 0.45 m.
Date: Late 4th – early 3rd c. BC.
Display location: Room 27.
The marble relief depicts the Dioscuroi with their horses on a seashore, and also the smaller figure of a seaman standing on the prow of a ship. One of the Dioscuroi is portrayed on horseback, clad in short chiton and chlamys that falls over his back as well as the horse’s body. The second is shown on foot before his horse which is depicted in the background. He is also dressed in short chiton and chlamys that covers his left arm. The horses are shown in profile standing calmly, raising their left forelegs. The Dioscuros on foot looks fondly at the seaman extending his left arm towards the mariner who stands naked on the prow of a ship, tilting his head and raising his right arm to his forehead in a posture of worship. The deity points with his right hand at the ship while the seaman expresses his gratitude as he is about to disembark.
The absence of an inscription on the relief prevents the determination of the purpose for its dedication. It possibly served as votive offered by a seaman extending his appreciation to the Dioscuroi for his safe return to the harbour, or as a dedication in the hope of a good journey. Votive offerings presented by seamen to the Dioscuroi are frequent, since the twin gods were worshiped as protectors of sea voyages. Consequently, their names, Castor and Polydeuces, were often given to ships. The harbour of Piraeus, where this relief comes from, would have been a suitable place for its dedication, although there is no evidence of a sanctuary dedicated to the Dioscuroi in the area.
The Dioscuroi were twin sons of Zeus and Leda and brothers of Helen of Troy. Already since the Archaic period they were depicted with horses, a tradition that continued until the end of antiquity and denoted their noble ancestry, but also their inner nature, since, originally, they took the form of horses. They are frequently depicted wearing pilos, a conical cap that has been construed as a broken shell split in two, thus recalling the magic egg from which they were born. According to a variation of the myth, only Polydeuces was son of Zeus, whereas Castor was son of Tyndareus, husband of Leda and king of Sparta. Mourning over the death of his brother, Polydeuces asked his father to share immortality with the mortal Castor. Hence, the two heroes spent “alternately” one day in Hades and one day on Mount Olympus.
The Dioscuroi appear in various myths, such as the Calydonian Boar Hunt and the Argonaut Expedition. Their earthly life was closely associated with that of Helen of Troy, whom they rescued on various occasions during the early years of her life. For instance, when she was abducted by Theseus, the Dioscuroi invaded Attica in order to liberate her. Following their victory, they put Menestheus on the throne who, in exchange, established their cult in Attica. After their death Zeus turned them into the Gemini constellation. As heavenly gods the Dioscuroi were associated with many legends and a large number of miraculous interventions in the life of mortals known as “epiphanies”. Flying through the air, either riding on their winged white horses or being winged themselves, the Dioscuroi appeared every time they were invoked, being “saviours and protectors” of every person who was at risk or in need, in sickness, at war and mainly in danger at sea.
The Dioscuroi intervened instantly as soon as seamen that felt threatened with wreck sacrificed white sheep and implored the gods; hence, the storm ceased and the tempest was calmed down. Similarly, the gods appeared in the “theoxenia” festival in which they were received as guests. Prominence to the heavenly and particularly the stellar elements of their nature was given mainly from the 5th century BC onwards in reference to their attribute as protectors against the perils of the sea. It is characteristic that since the 5th century BC the Dioscuroi were confused with the Cabeiri, the Great Gods of Samothrace and patrons of navigation that were the main saviours at sea, and that these relations became particularly clear in the Hellenistic period.
Dr Evridiki Leka
On the relief:
Ι. Ν. Σβορώνος, Το εν Αθήναις Εθνικόν Μουσείο (Αθήνα 1910) 357-358, no 107, pl. 33.4.
Π. Καστριώτης, Γλυπτά του Εθνικού Μουσείου. Κατάλογος Περιγραφικός (Αθήνα 1908) 248.
V. Stais, Marbres et bronzes du Musee National (Αθήνα 1910) 242, 243 (figs).
F. T. van Straten, Gifts for the Gods, in H. S. Versnel (ed.), Faith, Hope and Worship: Aspects of Religious Mentality in the Ancient World (Leiden 1981) 97, fig. 39.
LIMC III (1986) s.v. Dioskouroi, 577 no 121 (A. Hermary).
N. Kaltsas, National Archaeological Museum. The Sculpture (Athens – Los Angeles 2002) 277 no 580.
S. Albersmeier (ed.), Heroes. Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece, Exhibition Catalogue (Baltimore 2009) 252-253, cat. no 65 (A. Kokkinou).
M.-X. Garezou et al (eds), Nautilus: Navigating Greece, Exhibition Catalogue (Athens 2014) 272-273, cat. no. 92 (E. Vlachogianni).
M. Lagogianni-Georgakarakos (ed.) Odysseys, Exhibition Catalogue (Athens 2016) 289, cat. no 36 (E. Vlachogianni).
On the Dioscuroi:
RE V.1 (1903) 1087-1123 s.v. Dioskuren (E. Bethe) L. R. Farnell, Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality (Oxford 1921) 175-228.
F. Chapouthier, Les Dioskures au service d’une Deesse (1938).
W. Burkert, Greek Religion (1985) 212-213.
LIMC III (1986) 567-593 s.v. Dioskouroi (A. Hermary).
Ελληνική μυθολογία, ed. Εκδοτική Αθηνών (1986) vol. 3, Ήρωες, 214-218.
E. Kearns, The Heroes of Attica, BICS Supplement 57 (London 1989).
H.A. Shapiro, Art and Cult under the Tyrants in Athens (Mainz 1989).
D. W. Frauenfelder, The Spartan Dioskuri: Their origin and development in the Hellenic world (1994).
H.A. Shapiro, Cult Warfare. The Dioskouroi between Sparta and Athens, in R. Hagg (ed.), Ancient Greek Hero Cult (Stockholm 1999) 99-107.
E. Kohne, Die Dioskuren in der griechischen Kunst von der Archaik bis zum Ende des 5. Jahrhunderts v. Chr., Antiquitates b. 15 (Hamburg 1998).
R. Parker, Polytheism and Society at Athens (Oxford 2005).