Sunday, 5 September 2010

"Am I my brother's keeper?"

Throughout history, there have been famous sets of twins and near-twins. Many of these appear in various mythologies, and are therefore used to make various points. When telling a story - fictional or factual - it is always important to tell it in a way that makes your point or serves your purpose. For example, the story of Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 37-46) is tailored to show God's love for his people, and how He will help those who are faithful. To that end, some details are highlighted (Joseph's prayers, for instance), while others are sidelined (his actual journey to Egypt) or completely left out (no examples here, naturally). If we wanted to, we could take the same facts and turn the story into a warning about illegal immigrants.

So the fact that a story is true (and we could play the same games with any tale, right down to the present day) doesn't preclude it drawing on mythological archetypes. To that end, I'm going to examine four sets of mythological twins from different cultures, and see how similar they are to the scriptural twins Jacob and Esau.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu (Akkidan/Babylonian, c. 2500 BC)

The main characters of the Akkidan Epic of Gilgamesh are not, in fact, twins or even brothers. But they're close enough. The story goes that Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, was oppressing his people (and raping newly-married women), so the gods created Enkidu to be an equal to him. Enkidu is sent to Uruk and fights Gilgamesh in the street, and they become friends. As you would.

The two friends/brothers set out on a quest to become famous by killing a giant monster. They succeeded, and returned home to great renown. Unfortunately, Gilgamesh then ticked off the goddess Ishtar (by refusing her advances), which starts a series of events which ended with Enkidu cursing the gods, getting struck down with a wasting disease, and dying ignobly.

Gilgamesh mourned Enkidu, and went off on a quest to discover the secret of eternal life. He sought out Utnapishtim, the Akkidan equivalent of Noah, who was granted immortality after the great flood. Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh of a plant which grows on the sea-bed which could restore his youth. Gilgamesh managed to get hold of some of the plant, but proceeded to lose it when he put it down and a serpent took it.

Castor and Pollux (Greek/Roman)

These brothers are more accurately half-twins, the sons of Leda by her husband Tyndareus and by Zeus in the form of a swan, respectively. In Greek Pollux should technically be Polydeuces, but his Latin name is much better known. They are the Gemini twins, who eventually became the constellation. In life they were adventurers - they joined the crew of the Argo under Jason, and Pollux defeated King Amycus in a boxing match. Later in life they desired Phoebe and Hilaeira, the betrothed wives of their cousins Lynceus and Idas, so in true Greek style they abducted the women and took them to Sparta.

The four cousins pretended to get along after that, but they were always fighting. They went on a cattle-raid together, and Lynceus and Idas tricked Castor and Pollux out of their share of the cows. In revenge, Castor and Pollux later tried to steal their cousins' entire herds. Lynceus and Idas left their feast (and left Helen alone with Paris, thus causing the Trojan War) and fought their cousins. They were killed, but mortally wounded Castor in the process. Rather than watch his brother go down to the underworld, Pollux, as the son of Zeus, shared his immortality: each of the twins would spend half his time in the underworld, and half on Mount Olympus with the gods.

Romulus and Remus (Roman, c. 770 BC)

Romulus and Remus were the sons of Rhea Silvia by either her brother Amulicus, king of Alba Longa, or by the god Mars (Greek Ares). Either way, Amulicus wasn't too keen on there being other claimants to his throne, so he ordered the twins killed by exposure on a hilltop. They were suckled by a she-wolf, rescued by a shepherd, and raised as shepherds.

When they grew up they fought against the shepherds of Amulicus. Remus was taken captive, and Romulus raised an army to rescue him. In the fighting, Amulicus was killed, and the boys placed their grandfather back on his throne before leaving to found their own city. They proceeded to argue over which hill to centre it on. Romulus won the debate, but Remus kept trying to interfere with the construction, so Romulus had him killed.

In his life alone after the death of his brother, Romulus reigned over Roma and was responsible for the abduction of a large number of women from the neighbouring Sabine people. He also did a great many other things (he was a king, after all), but since Remus never really entered into things again, I won't delve into the subject.

Hunahpu and Xbalanque (Mayan Hero Twins)

The Maya Hero Twins were born (and, indeed, conceived) after their father's death, so were raised by their grandmother. They had a strong rivalry with their half-brothers, which resulted eventually in the older children being turned into monkeys. The twins were asked by a god to deal with the arrogant deity Seven Macaw and his two sons, who were claiming far more power than they actually had. They dealt with the three by using their wits more than their strength or any magical powers, and left the three gods dead.

The twins' father and uncle had been ball players. The noise of their playing had disturbed the Lords of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld, so the Lords had put them through a number of trials which led to their demise. The twins started to play ball on the same court, and were also summoned before the Lords of Xibalba, but using their wits and the help of a number of animals were able to pass most of the trials. In the last test, Hunahpu was decapitated by a killer bat, but Xbalanque devised a scheme to retrieve his head (which the Lords decided to use to play ball) and reattached it.

The Lords of Xibalba gave up on subtlety and simply burnt the boys to dust. When the ashes were dumped in a river, however, the two regenerated themselves and set themselves up as magicians in Xibalba. Unrecognised, they performed their tricks, such as burning houses down and raising them from the ashes, and were invited to entertain the Lords. After their grand finale, in which Xbalanque sacrificed Hunahpu and raised him from the dead, the two highest Lords asked for the same miracle to be performed on them. One Death and Seven Death were certainly sacrificed, but the twins did not bring them back. The Xibalbans were defeated, and the twins declared that they would no longer receive worship or sacrifices from the world above. Eventually, the twins ascended into the heavens, one becoming the sun, the other the moon.

Common Themes

There are, of course, a lot of themes in each of the myths described above, but there are some which are common to all. For example:

  • Death: Each set of twins has a connection with death. Hunahpu was raised to life again by Xbalanque, Castor was given partial immortality by Pollux, and Gilgamesh went to seek his own immortality after Enkidu died. Romulus is the only one to have permanently killed his brother, but Xbalanque did sacrifice Hunahpu. In some versions of the myth, Enkidu is said to have had a vision of the underworld, and both the Mayan and Greek twins visited the underworld in some fashion.
  • Women: Other than the Mayan twins, each pair has some connection with the rape (literal or figurative) of women. Enkidu was created to put an end to Gilgamesh's actions, while both Romulus, Castor and Pollux all kidnapped their wives.
  • Family: The Greek, Roman and Mayan myths all include strife between close relatives. The cousins of Castor and Pollux, the half-brothers of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, and of course the troubles between Romulus and Remus, all are part of this theme. In fact, the only pair who weren't born together - Gilgamesh and Enkidu - became friends through fighting each other.
  • Victory: Specifically, victory over those in power. The Akkidan and Mayan twins are all tied to the defeat of gods - Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven and snub Ishtar, while Hunahpu and Xbalanque are pretty much the last thing a Mayan god wants to see. Romulus and Remus took down their uncle/father. Even Pollux defeated a king hand-to-hand.
  • Inequality: The pairs of twins are not equal. Enkidu is a wild man while Gilgamesh is a king, and it's Enkidu who dies while Gilgamesh seeks immortality. Castor was mortal, Pollux immortal. Romulus always led the way (note how it was Remus who was captured, Romulus who rescued him), and of course eventually became king. Hunahpu was always the one killed, while Xbalanque brought him back.
Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25-33)

Jacob and Esau, born to Isaac and Rebekah, quarrelled from the very first. They struggled in Rebekah's womb, and when they were born, Jacob grasped at Esau's heel on the way out. Esau became a hunter, while Jacob was "a plain man, dwelling in tents". The first recorded event in their lives is when Jacob convinced Esau to sell him his birthright in exchange for some food. Later Jacob was guided by his mother in receiving his father's first blessing, which ought to have been Esau's, and Esau planned to kill him.

Esau took local wives, Hittite women. Jacob, however, was sent to his uncle's house and told to marry one of his cousins (at which point Esau, hearing how upset his father was with his choice of wives, took another who was a daughter of Ishmael). Jacob ended up being Laban's servant for fourteen years and received not one, but two wives, Leah and Rachel. These sisters fought for Jacob's attentions and the chance to bear his sons, and both gave him their handmaids to be his wives and bear proxy children for them.

When most of Jacob's twelve children had been born, he left his father-in-law's house and started back for Isaac's lands. Along the way he stole Laban's best cattle through a trick (along with his household gods) and fled the scene. When Laban caught up with him he demanded to know why he had "... carried away my daughters, as captives taken with the sword?". Laban still laid claim to pretty much everything Jacob had taken (daughters, children, slaves, cattle), but apparently forgave him anyway and sent him on his way in friendship.

Jacob heard that Esau was coming to meet him and was afraid, so he sent a gift of livestock to his brother. That night he wrestled with God or an angel all night and held him captive until he received a blessing and a new name - Israel. The next day he prepared for Esau's coming, placing his wives and children in the forefront of his party. Esau, however, wasn't angry - he ran to Jacob and embraced him, and the brothers were reconciled.


Now it's time to analyse how well the Biblical brothers fit the mythic archetypes. Remember, this isn't claiming that anything in their story is made up - rather that the facts we are given were chosen to fill a specific purpose and tell a specific story. The similarities and differences with our mythological twins can help us realise what that story might be.
  • Death: Jacob and Esau have no real links to death.
  • Women: Both Jacob and Esau marry, but Jacob is by far the most connected to the myths. The key is Laban's accusation that he had carried away his daughters like captives. I'm sure Laban said a lot of things at that meeting, but one of the few highlighted is a direct match for our mythological twins.
  • Family: Jacob didn't really get on with his relatives. He squabbled with both his uncle Laban and his brother Esau. He doesn't actually kill anyone, but like the Maya Hero Twins, tricks them into letting him get away with things.
  • Victory: Jacob achieves at least two major victories over those in power over him. First, he robs his father-in-law, whose subject he has been for twenty years. Then he wrestles with a divine messenger and actually appears to win, or at least not lose. Like the Roman and Mayan twins, he is the victor over those in power.
  • Inequality: Rather surprisingly, Jacob is the Biblical twin with less power. Although he is set up to be the greater of the two - he is the civilised, settled man, unlike his hunter brother, and is actually prophesied to rule over Esau - he nevertheless has to constantly work around Esau. His birthright and blessing he steals, and it's Jacob who is sent away when Esau gets angry, and Jacob who keeps giving his brother gifts.

One very important way in which Jacob and Esau differ from their mythological counterparts is that they almost never work together. Three of the four matches above are actually Jacob alone, rather than the twins. However, it seems at least plausible that the Genesis account was sculpted in such a way that it highlighted these similarities and differences, linking Jacob - and thus the people of Israel - to the archetypical twins of mythology.