The Heroes of the Iliad as Indo-European Gods: A Mythological Rosetta Stone: Part 5 of 9

The Heroes of the Iliad as Indo-European Gods: A Mythological Rosetta Stone: Part 5 of 9


Odysseus – Nasatya

Diomedes – Dasra (The Horse Twins)

This pairing of heroes may seem surprising at first as their horse associations aren't blatantly obvious and they don't seem to be depicted as blood relatives. This is trivial however when the greater pattern is considered. Many a wrong identification of the Horse Twins has been made by thinking that “horse association” plus “twinning motif” equals Horse Twins, without understanding what these gods really were about. The Horse Twins were always known as warriors, but the Greeks and Romans emphasized the warrior aspect of the Dioskouri perhaps more than other branches had. A Horse Twin god like Aengus Og in Irish myth is more well-known for his association with love and wooing and youthfulness, but in more obscure epithets he is still called “of the battle squadrons” and “red armed” (Dindshenchas). The incarnations of the Asvins in the Mahabharata, Nakula and Sahadeva, were known as highly skilled warriors. The Greek and Roman soldiers in particular worshipped the Dioskouri, and they were seen as generals and ideal warriors while still having a closeness with the “human” level of normal people, gods of the “third function” as they are. Hence Diomedes being one of the fiercest and bravest of the warriors should come as no surprise. The fact that he is called the most feared warrior among the Achaeans shows just how high in reverence the Greeks held the Horse Twins and particularly how highly they rated their martial aspect. Nakula, paralleling Diomedes, is called “skillful in all forms of war” (sarvayuddhaviśārada, 7.165.7364), “fighting in a wondrous manner” (citrayodhin) and “the most beautiful of heroes” (darśanīyatamo nṛṇām, 2.75.2555).

However, along with this martial skill, the Horse Twins are known for their intelligence and particularly their cunning or trickery. They are always tricking someone out of something or going on covert missions or cattle raids. Aengus Og tricks his father the Dagda out of Brugh na Boinne by means of the clever wording of an agreement, while Midir, his sometimes brother and Horse Twin, uses a series of fidchell games the way a con artist does to finally get close to Etain and magically steal her away. This is where Odysseus in particular comes in, and with this framework we can at last understand the origin and significance of Odysseus' fabled cunning. Whenever a question of intelligence or stratagem arises, Odysseus is called on, and he becomes most famed of all for coming up with the Trojan Horse plot. Yet in the Iliad there are many other instances of Odysseus, almost always accompanied by Diomedes, performing some kind of covert mission. Sthenelus and Diomedes go on one mission to steal the horses of Aeneas. Diomedes, in a move highly reminiscent of Aengus tricking the Dagda out of Brugh na Boinne, tricks Glaucus into trading his gold armor for Diomedes' bronze, such a cunning trade thereafter being referred to as a Diomedian swap. Diomedes and Odysseus are sent on a night mission to gather Rhesus' horses. Diomedes and Odysseus may also have been sent on a peace mission to try to negotiate terms of truce after Paris was killed. Odysseus and Diomedes are sent on another mission to steal the Palladium statue, Troy being prophesied to be unconquerable while the statue remained within it. Odysseus and Diomedes also kill Palamedes together using trickery.

Indeed, Odysseus and Diomedes are constantly together, doing almost every significant thing together in the war, and we can consider this to be what is left to us of their “twinning” motif (it is not even rare for the Horse Twins to have separate parentage). As Achilles and Ajax trained together under the same teacher and were both connected to Heracles, so Odysseus and Diomedes were both said to have met and teamed up already on “several adventures” when in Aulis before the war and were the two favorites of their shared patron, Athena. They each share the traits of their patron goddess, each one marked by her wisdom and cunning, her courage and skill in battle, though to different degrees. While Odysseus is known as the craftiest Greek and the go-to strategist, Diomedes is repeatedly praised for his exceeding intelligence especially for his young age. And this combination of intelligence and great youthfulness is often repeated. Nestor commends his intelligence and says that no one of such young age had Diomedes' wise counsel, after which he reiterates, “thou art in sooth but young, thou mightest e'en be my son, my youngest born ” [italics mine](Iliad, Book IX, line 57). He is known as the youngest of the Achaeans and his youth is brought up repeatedly. This again parallels exactly with the Irish Aengus Og, his name meaning “the young son, ” who was said to be perpetually youthful, a god of youth, love and beauty, but also, as aforementioned, of cunning exchanges and “of the battle squadrons.” This is paralleled also by the Welsh Mabon (“young son”) and by the Asvins who were known as the “sons of God” and associated with youthfulness and myths of healing and the regeneration of youth.

While, as mentioned, Odysseus and Diomedes' horse associations are not blatant, they are not absent either. Two of their missions involve the capture of horses, and one of them leaves Diomedes the owner of Aeneas' famed horses, the second fastest after Achilles' divine ones. The name “Horse Twins” for the Asvins meant primarily that they owned horses (Aśvínā - “Horse-Possessors”), as when they go into exile Nakula and Sahadeva take on the disguises of a higher class horse owner and a lower class cattle keeper, the lower class brother being the more crafty of the two (“they are opposed to each other as “warrior horseman” to “intelligent cattleman”” says the scholar Douglas Frame), which seems also to parallel the kind of distinction we see between Diomedes, owning the second-finest horses, and Odysseus being the craftiest man of all, though sometimes cowardly, and described as somewhat shorter (shorter by a head than Agamemnon (3.195), who is shorter than the others) and having less nobility in his form and the way he carries himself than Diomedes. At one point Odysseus' surprising speaking ability is described, but is contrasted to his graceless demeanor: “There was no play nor graceful movement of his sceptre; he kept it straight and stiff like a man unpractised in oratory—one might have taken him for a mere churl or simpleton,” after which his words come pouring out “like winter snow before the wind....and no man thought further of what he looked like" (Iliad, Book 3, line 215). Odysseus' most famous stratagem even takes the form of a horse – the Trojan Horse – and he and Diomedes lead this mission from within the wooden representation of their divine form. Diomedes is also said to have had a white horse sacrificed to him in the worship of the Heneti. The horse associations of the incarnations of the Horse Twins in the Mahabharata are not prominent either. As mentioned, they disguise themselves as a horse keeper and a cattle herder, but in general they are primarily characterized by their cunning, youth, beauty, skill in battle.

Diomedes also fulfills the Horse Twin role of rescuer in one instance during the war when he bravely saves Nestor from Hector's attack. And like the Horse Twins, Odysseus is closely associated with a sea voyage. As the Horse Twins are also connected with oaths, second in this only to Mitra, it is fitting that the central Oath of Tyndareus, which Menelaus enforces, is thought up by Odysseus.

The Horse Twins were somewhat of divine climbers – while the Asvins, for example, were initially excluded from the higher pantheon of gods, they eventually attained recognition and immortality when they were admitted into the Soma sacrifice. Aengus likewise is said to drink the Ale of Immortality at Goibniu's Feast. This divine climbing aspect may be reflected in Diomedes' well-known clashing with the immortal gods on the battlefield. This bold vying demonstrates both his closeness with the world of mortals but also his ambition to put himself on a level with the highest immortals. Diomedes wounds two immortals in one day, becoming the only human ever to do so. Numerous tales tell that in the end Diomedes, just like the Asvins, had a “mysterious apotheosis,” or even was given immortality by the goddess Athena (Pindar) and became worshipped as a god. One tradition even says that he lives with the Dioscouri in heaven as an immortal god, suggesting that the Greeks sensed or knew the deep connection between them.

Lastly, just as Aengus Og is said to be accompanied by birds that fly over his head, so Diomedes is said to have birds that follow him and his soldiers, birds which “used to be his companions” (Virgil, Aeneid XI.246–247). One of the islands named for him is said to be known for its mysterious birds (Aelian). Another legend states that the albatross sang for him when he died, and others say that when he died his companions “were changed into birds resembling swans…They are called the birds of Diomedes” (Bibliotheca Classica, John Lempriere). The Irish Aengus and Midir transform into swans at the end of both of their wooing stories.

The Horse Twins:

-Skilled warriors and generals

-Cunning strategists, wise counselors

-One or both of them is known for his youth

-Vie to become like the immortal gods

-Birds fly over the head of one of them

-Horse associations, owners of horses

-One (or both) of them becomes a god

-Associated with sea voyages


-Usually act together

-Associated with transformation into swans

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