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Theocritus- Idyll XXII- About the Dioscuri


From Christie’s catalog.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is Theocritus’ ‘Idyll XXII’ about the Dioscuri. Translated by J. M. Edmonds, J M. Loeb Classical Library Volume 28. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 1912.

THEOCRITUS was a Greek bucolic poet who flourished in Syracuse, Cos and Alexandria in the C3rd B,C. His surviving work can mostly be found within an old compendium of 30 poems known as the ‘Idylls of Theocritus’,’ From J.M. Edmonds introduction.



This hymn to Castor and Polydeuces consists, first, of a prelude common to both, and secondly, of two main parts concerned one with Polydeuces and the other with Castor. The first of these, in a combination of the Epic style with the dialogue, tells how Polydeuces fought fisticuffs with Amycus on his way to Colchis, and the second how, when the brothers carried off the daughters of Leucippus, Castor fought Lynceus with spear and sword.

[1] Our song is of the sons of Leda and the Aegis-Bearer, Castor to wit and with him Polydeuces, that dire wielder of the fist and of the wrist-harness of the leathern thong. Twice is our song and thrice of the boys of Thestius’ daughter, the two Spartan brethren which wont to save both men that are come upon the brink and horses that are beset in the bloody press; aye, and ships also, that because they sail in despite of rise or set of the stars do fall upon evil gales, which, or fore or aft or where they list, upraise a great surge, and both hurl it into the hold and rive with it their timbers whether on this side or on that. Then hang sail and shroud by the board; and night comes, and with it a great storm from the sky, and the broad sea rattles and plashes with the battery blast and of the irresistible hail. But for all that, ye, even ye, do draw both ship and despairing shipmen from out the hell; the winds abate, the sea puts on a shining calm, the clouds run asunder this way and that way; till out come the Bears peeping, and betwixt the Asses lo! that Manger so dim, which betokens all fair for voyaging on the sea. O helpers twain of men, O friends both of mortals, O horseman harpers, O boxer bards, whether of Castor first or Polydeuces shall I sing? Be my song of both, and yet the beginning of it of Polydeuces.

[27] The Together-coming Rocks were safely passed and the baleful mouth of the snowy Pontic entered, and Argo with the dear children of the Gods aboard her had made the country of the Bebrycians. Down the ladders on either side went crowding the men of Jason’s ship, and soon as they were out upon the soft deep sand of that lee shore, set to making them greenbeds and rubbing fire-sticks for fire. Then when Castor of the nimble coursers and Polydeuces ruddy as the wine together wandering afield from the rest, for to see the wild woodland of all manner of trees among the hills. Now beneath a certain slabby rock they did find a freshet brimming ever with water pure and clear. The pebbles at the bottom of it were like to silver and crystal, and long and tall there grew beside it, as well firs and poplars and planes and spiry cypresses, as all fragrant flowers which abound in the meadows of outgoing spring to be loved and laboured of the shag bee. In that place there sat taking the air a man both huge and terrible. His ears were crushed shapeless by the hard fist, and his giant breast and great broad back were orbed with iron flesh like a sledge-wrought effigy; moreover the sinews upon his brawny arms upstood beside the shoulder like the boulder-stones some torrent hath rolled and rounded in his swirling eddies; and, to end all, over his neck and about his back there was hung by the claws a swinging lion-skin.

[53] First spoke the champion Polydeuces. ‘Whoever you may be, Sir,’ says he, ‘I bid you good morrow. Pray tell me what people possesseth this country.’

[55] Is it good-morrow, quotha, when I see strangers before me?

[56] Be of good cheer. Trust me, we be no evil men nor come we of evil stock.

[57] Of right good cheer am I, and knew it or ever I learnt it of you.

[58] Pray are you a man o’ the wilds, a churl come what may, a mere piece of disdain?

[59] I am what you see; and that’s no goer upon other’s ground, when all’s said.

[60] Come you upon my ground and welcome; you shall not go away empty.

[61] I’ll none of your welcomes and you shall none of mine.

[62] Lord, man! would you have me denied even a drink of this water?

[63] That shall you know when there comes you the parching languor o’ thirst on the lips.

[64] Would you silver or aught else for price? Say what you’ll take.

[65] Up hands fight me man against man.

[66] Fisticuffs is ‘t? or feet and all? mind you, I have a good eye.1

[67] Fists be it, and you may do all your best and cunningest.

[68] But who is he for whom I am to bind thong to arm?

[69] You see him nigh; the man that shall fight you may be called a woman, but ‘faith, shall not deserve the name.

[70] And pray is there a prize we may contend for in this our match?

[71] Whethersoever shall win shall have the other to his possession.

[72] But such be the mellays of the red-crested game-cock.

[73] Whether we be like cock or lion there shall be no fight betwixt us on any other stake.

[75] With these words Amycus took and blared upon his hollow shell, and quickly in answer to his call came the thick-haired Bebrycians and gathered themselves together beneath the shady platens. And in like manner all the heroes of the ship of Magnesia were fetched by Castor the peerless man-o’-war. And so the twain braced their hands with the leathern coils and twined the long straps about their arms, and forth and entered the ring breathing slaughter each against the other.

[83] Now was there much ado which should have the sunshine at his back; but he cunning of my Polydeuces outwent the mighty man, and those beams did fall full in Amycus his face. So goes master Amycus in high dudgeon forward with many outs and levellings o’s fists. But the child of Tyndareüs was ready, and catched him a blow on the point o’ the chin; the which did the more prick him on and make him to betumble his fighting, so that he went in head-down and full-tilt. At that the Bebrycians holla’d him on, and they of the other part cried cheerily unto the stalwart Polydeuces for fear this Tityus of a man should haply overpeise him and so bear him down in that narrow room. But the son of Zeus stood up to him first on this side and then on that, and touched him left and right and left again; and for all his puissance the child of Poseidon was stayed in ‘s onset, insomuch that he stood all drunken with his drubbing and spit out the crimson blood. Whereat all the mighty men gave joyful tongue together by reason of the grievous bruises he had both by cheek and jowl; for his eyes were all-to-straitened with the puffing of their sockets. Next did my lord maze his man awhile with sundry feints and divers passes all about, and then, as soon as he had him all abroad, let drive at him to the bone, and laid him flatlong amid the springing flowers.

[107] His rising was the renewing of the fray, and a bitter one; aye, now were those swingeing iron gloves to fight unto death. The high lord of Bebrycia, he was all for the chest and none for the head; but as for the never-to-be-beaten Polydeuces, he was for pounding and braying the face with ugly shameful blows: and lo! the flesh of the one began to shrink with the sweating, and eftsoons was a great man made little; but even as the other’s labour increased, so waxed his limbs ever more full and round and his colour ever better.

[115] Now Muse, I pray thee tell – for thou knowest it – how the child of Zeus destroyed that glutton; and he that plays thy interpreter will say what thou willest and even as thou choosest.

[118] Then did Amycus, as who should achieve some great thing, come from his ward and with his left hand grasp Polydeuces’ left, and going in with the other, drive the flat of his hand2 from his right flank. And had the blow come home, he had wrought harm to the king of Amyclae. But lo! my lord slips his head aside and the same moment struck out forth-right from the shoulder and smote him under the left temple; and from that gaping temple the red blood came spirting. Then his left hand did beat him in the mouth, so that the rows of teeth in ‘t crackled again; aye, and an ever livelier patter o’ the fists did maul the face of him till his visage was all one mash. Then down went he in a heap and lay like to swoon upon the ground; and up with both his hands for to cry the battle off, because he was nigh unto death. But thou, good boxer Polydeuces, for all thy victory didst nothing presumptuous. Only wouldst thou have him swear a great oath by the name of his father Poseidon in the sea, that he would nevermore do annoyance unto strangers.

[135] The tale of thy praise, great Lord, is told; and now of thee, good my Castor, will I sing, Castor the Tyndarid, lord of coursers, wielder of spears, knight of the corselet of brass.

[137] The twin children of Zeus were up and away with the daughters twain of Leucippus, and the two sons of Aphareus were hotfoot upon their track, Lynceus to wit and doughty Idas, the bridegrooms that were to be. But when they were got to the grave of Aphareus dead, they lighted all from their chariots together and made at once another in the accoutrement of spear and shield. Then up spake Lynceus and cried aloud from beneath his casque, saying: ‘Sirs, why so desirous of battle? How come you so unkind concerning other men’s brides? and wherefore these naked weapons in your hands? These daughters of Leucippus were plighted to us, to us long ere you came; we have his oath to it. But as for you, you have prevailed on him unseemly for other men’s wives with cattle and mules and what not; ye be stealing bridal with a gift. Yet time and again, god wot, albeit I am no man of many words, I have myself spoke to your face and said: “It ill becometh princes, good friends, to go a-wooing such as be betrothed already. Sparta is wide, and so is Elis o’ the coursers; wide likewise the sheep-walks of Arcady and the holds of Achaea; Messenè also and Argos and all the seaboard of Sisyphus3: there’s ten thousand maidens do well in them at the houses of their fathers, wanting nothing in beauty or in parts, of the which you may take whomso you will to your wives. For many there be would fain be made wife’s father unto a good man and true, and you are men of mark among all heroes, you and your fathers and all your fathers’ blood of yore. Nay then, my friends, suffer us to bring this marriage to fulfilment, and we’ll all devise other espousal for you.” Such was my often rede, but the wind’s breath was ever away with it unto the wet sea-wave, and no favour followed upon my words; for ye hard men both and relentless. Yet even at this hour I pray you give heed, seeing ye be our kin by the father.’

(The beginning of Castor’s reply is lost)

‘. . . But and if your heart would have war, if kindred strife must needs break forth and hate make an end in blood, then shall Idas and my doughty Polydeuces stand aside from the abhorred fray, and let you and me, Lynceus, that are the younger men, fight this matter out. So shall we leave our fathers the less sorrow, seeing one is enough dead of one household, and the two that be left shall glad all their friends as bridegrooms instead of men slain, and their wedding-song shall be of these maidens. And in such sort, I ween, a great strife is like to end in but little loss.’

[181] So he spake and, it seems, god was not to make his speaking vain. For the two that were the elder did off their armour and laid it upon the ground; but Lynceus, he stepped forth with his stout lance a-quiver hard beneath the target’s rim, and Castor, he levelled the point of his spear even in the same manner as Lynceus, the plumes nodding the while upon either’s crest. First made they play with the tilting of the lance, if haply they might spy a naked spot; but or ever one of them was wounded the lance-point stuck fast in the trusty buckler and was knapped in twain. Then drew they sword to make havoc of each other; for there was no surcease of battle. Many a time did Castor prick the broad buckler or horse-haired casque; many a time did the quick-eyed Lynceus come at the other’s targe or graze with the blade his scarlet crest. But soon, Lynceus making at his left knee, Castor back with his left foot and had off his fingers, so that his falchion dropped to the ground and he went scurrying towards his father’s grave, where stout Idas lay watching the kindred fray. Howbeit the son of Tyndareüs was after him in a trice and drave his good sword clean through flank and navel, so that he bowels were presently scattered upon his face, and lo! there sped down upon his eyelids profoundest sleep.

[205] But neither was the other of Laocoösa’s children to be seen of his mother a wedded man at the hearth of his fathers. For Idas of Messenè, he up with the standing stone from the grave of Aphareus and would have hurled it upon the slayer of his brother, but Zeus was Castor’s defence, and made the wrought marble to fall from his enemy’s hands; for the consumed him with the flame of his levin-bolt. Ah! ‘tis no child’s-play to fight with the sons of Tyndareus; they prevail even as he that begat them prevaileth.

[214] Fare you well, ye children of Leda; we pray you may ever send our hymns a goodly fame. For all singers are dear unto the sons of Tyndareus and unto Helen and unto other the heroes who were Menelaüs’ helpfellows at the sacking of Troy. Your renown, O ye princes, is the work of the singer of Chios, when he sang of Priam’s town and of the Achaean ships, of Trojan frays and of that tower of the war-cry Achilles; and here do I also bring your souls such offerings of propitiation as the melodious Muses do provide and my household is able to afford. And of all a god’s prerogatives song is the fairest.

Landscape with the Dioscuri
Perhaps painted by Jean Lemaire’s brother Pierre

1. “A good eye” : reading and meaning doubtful.
2. “The flat of the hand” : or ‘his great fist.’
3. “The seaboard of Sisyphus” : the district of Corinth.

Source: 🌿 🌿🌿
Theocritus- Idyll XXII- About the Dioscuri

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