Castor Master of Horses & Pollux of the Fighting Fists
One of my favorite things about Homer is when you read something on the page, something thousands of years old, and then it shows up in real life. For example, just last week I was reading about Helen and Priam hanging out on the parapets of Troy. And then, lo and behold, my brother has a telescope. Who’s with me?
You see, my brother just turned thirty.1 Now apart from being a rather talented musician and a really good music teacher, he is also totally into astronomy.2 None of which has anything to do with him being thirty, except that as a function of celebrating, we3 were over at his apartment for dessert. And after they had enjoyed their ice cream cake and I had enjoyed my Jack Daniels4 he decided to set up the ‘scope for some amateur astronomy.
Now you’d think you wouldn’t be able to see much of a night sky in New York City. And you’d be right. But there are ways around this.5 In any case, he’s got this fancy electronic mount which can track celestial bodies.6 But in order to get it working, he’s got to first align it to a known entity. In this case, the mounts on-board computer suggested the star called Pollux. Now my brother just sort of looked up and pointed in a general direction, because he knows about this stuff. But it took me a second to find it. But I did find it. Right next to its twin, Castor.
Well now he was talking my language.7 So I said, “Oh! Kastor and Polydeuces!,” using the proper Greek names. He mumbled some sort of agreement while he fiddled with his instrument.8 “The Dioskoroi,” I said. He nodded that nod which means, “fine smarty-pants, whatever.” “Dude,” I persisted. “The Dioskoroi. Kastor and Polydeuces. The brothers of Helen of Troy.” Nothing. “Well?,” I asked. “What do you call the constellation then. He answered in a tone that implied the answer was obvious: “Gemini.”9
οἱ δ᾽ ὡϲ οὖν Ἑλένην ἐπὶ πύργον ἰουϲαν…
Ὥϲ ἄρ᾽ ἔφαν, Πρίαμοϲ δ᾽ Ἑλένην ἐκαλέϲϲατο φωνῆι…
And they saw Helen moving upon the tower…and after they had spoken amongst themselves, Priam called to her… (Iliad, 3.154, 161)
So there stood two figures upon one of the towers of windy Troy, looking out upon the field of battle. And to Priam, there were many glorious figures to behold, though he knew none of them by name. But to Helen, each one was known, each had his own attributes which made him wondrous and unique. And each time Priam would point to one, and ask, “who is that?,” Helen would name him and say some words about him. The stars of the Greek army. There was her husband, whom she’d left, Menelaos. There was his brother, the mighty king of men, Agamemnon. Crafty Odysseus, stout Aias and the Kretan Idomeneus. But as they surveyed the field, two were conspicuous to Helen by their absence.
δοιὼ δ᾽ οὐ δύναμι ἰδέειν κοϲμήτορε λαῶν
Κάϲτορά θ᾽ ἱππόδαμον καὶ πὺξ ἀγαθὸν Πολθδευκεα
αὐτοκασιγνήτω, τώ μοι μία γείνατο μήτηρ.
ἢ οὐχ ἑϲπέϲθεν Λακεδαίμονοϲ ἐξ ἐρατεινηῆϲ,
ἢ δεύρω μὲν ἕποντο νέεϲ᾽ ἔνι ποντοπόροιϲι,
νῦν αὖτ᾽ οὐκ ἐθέλουϲι μάχην καταδύμεναι ἀνδρῶν,
αἴϲχεα δειδιότεϲ καὶ ὀνείδεα πόλλ᾽ ἅ μοί εϲτιν.
But I am not able to see the two captains, said Helen,
Kastor, master of horses and the fist-fighter Polydeuces
my own two brothers, who were born to my own mother.
Either they did follow the others from lovely Lakedaimon
or else they came here in their seafaring ships,
but now do not wish to come down to the battlefield
fearing the shame and the many reproaches they will have on my account.
So there I was, clueless but in awe. Pointing now to one bright star, now to another, asking its name. And there was my brother, knowing all of them. Three thousand years ago, two figures stood upon a parapet of a great city, surveying a field of stars, gazing at them in awe. One teaching the other about them. And here we were, upon the 28th floor balcony in a great city, doing very much the same. But though faithless Helen could find all but her two brothers, there, conspicuous before us, were those very twins.
And connecting these two tales was blind Homer, who never saw a single star, and yet knew them all.
- Happy Birthday! [↩]
- Follow him on Twitter @UrbanAstroNYC. And check out his blogue at UrbanAstro.org [↩]
- The family [↩]
- I’m lactose intolerant. [↩]
- Check out this article (pp.44-9) he wrote on the subject. [↩]
- And possibly naked neighbors. If they move slowly enough. [↩]
- Ancient Greek. [↩]
- Minds out of the gutter, people! [↩]
- Bloody Romans. [↩]