One of the more pervasive, yet perplexing of the elements of the Indo-European mythology must surely be the Heroic Horse-Twins. Whether the Asvins / Nasatyas / Divo Napata of the Vedas, the Dioscuri of the Greeks (Castor & Pollux / Polydeuces), the Asvieniai / Dievo Suneliai of the Lithuianians, or Hengist and Horsa of the Nordic/Germanic texts .. there They are. They are evident in almost all of our cultures – even if, as in the case of the Celtic instances, we only really know of some these there because of Classical sources insistently stating their more northerly neighbours held the Dioskouroi [‘Boys/Sons of Dyaus/Zeus’] in such high regard.
Yet Who are They? Well, the clues are – as ever – to be found within the names.
Divo Napata / Divah Kumarau, Dioscuri / Dioskouroi, and Dievo Suneliai are all virtually self-explanatory. The Sons/Boys of the Sky Father. Various other descriptive elements pertaining to parentage [e.g. the lesser-known RigVedic attestations for the Asvins as Sons of Rudra; and prominent mention for Vivasvant], including the admittedly somewhat more drawn-out descent for Hengist and Horsa from Odin/Woden (as great […] great grandsons thereof in the euhemerized accounts that we are left with), are much the same. And further go to reiterate that Odin-Rudra is the Sky Father, in case there were any lingering doubt upon that score.
‘Ashwin’ / ‘Asvin’ derives from Sanskrit ‘Asva’, meaning ‘Horse’. This therefore gives the meaning of ‘Possessors of Horse’, ‘Horsemen’, ‘Cavalier’. ‘Nasatya’ is more complex, and has defied easy etymological trace with precision. It has come to mean ‘Helpful’, ‘Friendly’; likely shares some coterminity with ‘Nasate’ [‘Join’/’Approach’] – hence why I have chosen to figuratively render it as ‘Ally’. This is, after all, a pretty defining feature of the pan-Indo-European mythology of these figures, as we shall soon see.
However, the likely Proto-Indo-European root for ‘Nasatya’ goes down a related trajectory of meaning – ‘Nes’, meaning ‘To Return’ (particularly to one’s Home, a safe place of refuge – hence ‘Save’) or perhaps ‘Heal’ (also a returning to a state of … the latter of which certainly also accords with what the Asvins do, via Their mastery of medicines and empowering elixir preparation. It would also, somewhat, accord with the mention given for Pollux saving Castor from death via a divine empowerment in Greek mythology – which does, after all, restore His Brother to Divinity among the Heavens. A ‘Homecoming’ of a sort.
The Proto-Germanic ‘Nozijana’ provides an eloquent explication of the concept-field around the Nasatyas – it refers to the provision of refreshment, relief, revitalization; the ignition or tending to a fire [which has obvious sacral implications given the central role of a ‘living flame’ in Indo-European piety, and especially the preparation of the various empowerments, or even simply the bringing together of Our People(s) around a Hearth, particularly in Alliance and mutual support], and very interestingly for reasons that shall become clearer when we shall come to Castor & Pollux (one of whom is prominently identified as a horse-trainer), a third definition of the keeping or breeding, the husbandry of animals. ‘Nozijana’, it will absolutely not surprise you to learn, is derived from the same Proto-Indo-European ‘Nes’ particle as ‘Nasatya’.
In any case, the mode in which these Two provide this Help to the Indo-Aryans is extolled most aptly in RV I 181 4 – wherein some suggest a juxtaposition of sorts is made between a ‘conquering’/’victorious’ Twin Who may have a more overtly ‘martial’ characterization, and His Brother Who bestows a more metaphysical, sacral benefit. Although the preceding half of RV 181 4 is at pains to stress the ‘unity of essence’ between the Two, and while one ‘facing’ of the Twins may emphasize the vitality of the warrior whilst the other empowers the sagaciousness of the seer, in truth both are capable across the spectrum of capacities. Indeed, if we consider the situation of the preparation of Indra’s Vajra for use against the fiend Namuci, wherein Saraswati and the Asvins must metaphysically generate the weapon for Indra so that it might bypass Namuci’s especial protections – the application of wisdom and cunning to facilitate martial conduct means that there has never been a hard and fast distinction between the two spheres for the Indo-European.
The recent Jamison/Brereton Oxford translation of the RigVeda renders RV I 181 4 thus:
“Born (one) here, (one) there, the two have always bellowed together with
(one) flawless body but with their own (multiple) names. [ / ]
One of you is lauded as the victorious patron of the good battler, the
other as the son of heaven dispensing a good portion.”
There is a potential issue with this translation in that it appears to be making use of a somewhat controversial rendering for ‘Sumakhasya’ as ‘warrior’ – when more usually, it would be interpreted as something along the lines of ‘great sacrificer’, or ‘very enthusiastic/exuberant/joyous’, with the English ‘to be festive’ (in the sense of both a ‘festive occasion’, such as a positive rite and banquet or feast, but also the appropriate demeanour for a cheerful key participant in same) providing a comparison for the bridging between these two latter renderings. I suspect that this has been done by Jamison & Brereton in order to underscore the ‘differential’ between the ‘Victorious/Conquering’ [‘Jisnu’] Twin, and His Brother … although such a distinction is largely illusory. In the opening lines of the Hymnal in question, Both Twins are directly hailed as carrying out the role of a Priest, and it is also possible to translate the term (‘Surih’) being used as the title for this ‘Conquering’ Twin as a Sage or a Sacrificer as well as a ‘Lord’ (the English ‘Magister’ or in a more archaic era, ‘Master’, would be a good comparative – as it encompasses not only the sense of having ‘authority’, but also can mean that one has intellectual command of a subject (e.g. having a masters degree) and/or is a teacher and guide to others (hence the old Grammar school custom of teachers being referred to as ‘Masters’ – hence ‘Headmaster’ for principal); meanwhile ‘Magister’ has taken on connotations additional as a cultic or otherwise metaphysically powerful leadership figure). The term utilized to characterize the other Twin, the ‘Son of Heaven’, on the other hand (SuBhaga), while it does indeed refer to the “dispensing [of] a good portion” (although can also refer to being ‘beautifully countenanced’, ‘fortunate’, inter alia), which is what we should perhaps expect from a more ‘priestly’ sort (in which case, what is bestowed is the positive outcomes/proceedings of the sacrifice) … also has martial connotation. ‘Bhaga’, as in ‘Lord’, as in ‘Distributor of the [War-]Booty’.
This is no accident. In both cases, the delicate interplay of the Sanskrit is intentionally double-meaninged so as to reinforce that each Twin has both warlike and sacral competencies – indeed, to underscore that fundamentally, these are not different let alone dissonant areas of Aryan endeavour.
Certainly, these are both spheres wherein wisdom, cunning, and intellect are made major use of; and in which men often petition for Divine guidance, counsel, empowerment, and aid.
For reasons of brevity (intended, if not necessarily realized), I have chosen to end the first part there, leaving several elements to the Vedic Horse-Twins (for now) unexamined.
Nevertheless, the Asvins form an admirable explication of just Who and What the Indo-European Heroic Horse-Twins are about; and have excellently set us up for the examination of our next two instances of the typology (and thus, the next pieces in this series): Hengist & Horsa, the Germanic Twins; and Castor & Pollux, the Greek Dioscuri.