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

 Odysseus and Diomedes

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 even more than other branches. The Spartan army carried the dόkana, symbol of the Twins, before them during war, and the Dioskouri were known to them as inventors of war dances. Their standard oath was “by the two gods,” referring to the Dioskouri. The Twins also aided the Romans in battle and were especially beloved by the cavalry. 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. They were said to have led the legions of the commonwealth in the battle of Lake Regillus and to have carried them to victory. A Horse Twin god like Aengus Og in Irish myth (as wee will see) 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 Vedic Horse Twins the Asvins in the Mahabharata, that is Nakula and Sahadeva, were known as highly skilled warriors as well. Hence Diomedes being one of the fiercest and bravest of the Greek 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 the famous prowess of Diomedes, is called “skillful in all forms of war” (sarvayuddhaviśārada, 7.165.7364), “fighting in a wondrous manner” (citrayodhin), but also “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 the Dagda or Elcmar out of Brugh na Boinne by means of the clever wording of an agreement. This is where Odysseus in particular comes in, and with this framework perhaps we can 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. 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. Meanwhile, Sthenelus and Diomedes go on one mission to steal the horses of Aeneas. And 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.  

Indeed, Odysseus and Diomedes are constantly together, doing numerous significant things together in the war, and we can consider this to be what is left to us of their “twinning” motif (it is not at all 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 has Diomedes' wise counsel (Sahadeva is similarly known as Yudhishthira's wise private counselor), 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 the Irish Aengus Og, his nickname mac oc 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 in the name of the Welsh Mabon (“young son”), and by the Asvins, who were known as the “sons of God” and associated with youthfulness and the power to regenerate 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 Twin incarnations in the Mahabharata are not particularly prominent either. As aforementioned, they disguise themselves as a horse keeper and a cattle herder, but in general they too are primarily characterized by a specific pattern of traits: their cunning, youth, beauty, counsel, skill in battle.

Diomedes also fulfills the important Horse Twin role of rescuer in one instance during the war when he bravely saves Nestor from Hector's attack. And as the Horse Twins are associated with sea voyages and sea rescues, Odysseus is closely identified with his own long sea voyage home. Paralleling the Horse Twins' attributes exactly, one of Odysseus' epithets is “master mariner,” while one of Diomedes' is “breaker of horses.” In the Iliad, Castor of the Dioscouri himself is also called “the horse breaker” (Iliad, 3.255). As the Horse Twins are also connected with oaths, 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 Vedic 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. Irish Aengus likewise is said to drink a drink of immortality at Goibniu's Feast and ascends to lordship of the great burial mound Brugh na Boinne when he is of age. 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, that he is positioned as lower than his divine opponents, 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. This episode may have a faint echo in the Kurukshetra War of the Mahabharata, for Nakula, the horse keeper brother, while being called a child, is at one heated moment during the war warned to fight only his equals in battle: “Do not, O son of Pandu, fight again with those amongst the Kurus that are possessed of greater might. O child, fight with them that are thy equals” (Karna Parva). 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 transforms into a swan at the end of his wooing story.  

For a counterpoint to this section see Nick Allen's “Why Did Odysseus Become a Horse?” and his argument that Odysseus also shares elements with the hero of the Mahabharata, Arjuna. It is of course possible for motifs to be split differently in the different branches, and overall we stand by the evidence we have laid out for Achilles as Arjuna and Odysseus as a Horse Twin. It is true, however, that Odysseus is likely the most mysterious and complex of all the Iliad heroes in terms of comparativism. As Gregory Nagy and others have suggested, the Odysseus of the Odyssey seems almost like a different character from Odysseus of the Iliad. Even Nick Allen points out that “If the careers of Odysseus and Arjuna are cognate at one point in their respective epics, it by no means follows that they will be cognate at other points” (Allen, “Why Did Odysseus Become a Horse?”). Thus we would suggest that the Odysseus of the Odyssey, newly taking on the central position of the epic narrative, has also taken on mythoi from the other now absent gods or heroes, such as the Thunderer, and that his alignment much more with the Horse Twin Hero Sahadeva in the Iliad, and not at all with the Thunderer there, should not be ignored. A final possibility must also be entertained for this complex figure. Odysseus is the great-grandson of the god Hermes. This god's cunning nature and association with thieves was concentrated in his son, Autolycus, who is also Odysseus' grandfather. Thus we can see Odysseus taking on many traits from this specific inheritance. This opens the possibility that Odysseus incarnates the god Hermes, who in a later section will be compared to the Vedic Gandharva. From this angle, Odysseus would not incarnate a Horse Twin, unless the cunning Horse Twin and cunning Hermes traits became combined in his mythos. Another explanation of Odysseus' Hermetic heritage, which incorporates the Horse Twin possibility, is also available: as we will see further on, the Welsh figure Pwyll is also likely the same as the Vedic Gandharva, and his son Pryderi is the primary Welsh Horse Twin. In this Welsh case, we would have the Gandharvic god as the recent ancestor of the Horse Twin, one god of cunning giving rise to another. As we have seen such a close connection between the Welsh tradition and the Iliad tradition, the possibility that Odysseus is a Horse Twin hero descended from a Gandharvic god should not be excluded, and the close linking in action of Diomedes and Odysseus should be remembered. 


The Horse Twins: (Odysseus and Diomedes, Nasatya and Dasra/Nakula and Sahadeva, Aengus, Mabon/Pryderi)

- 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 and breakers of horses

- One (or both) of them becomes an immortal

- Associated with sea voyages

- Rescuers

- Usually act together

- Associated with transformation into swans or similar birds

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