As two children born on the same day to the same mother, twins have a unique sense of identity They have more in common with one another than any two ordinary people, especially if they are identical twins. Yet twins are also separate beings who may be very different in character. Myths about twins—as partners, rivals, opposites, or halves of a whole—are rooted in this basic mystery of sameness and difference. Twins appear in the myths and legends of many cultures, but they are especially important in African and Native American mythology. In some traditions, two children may be considered twins if they are born to two sisters at the same time.
Mythical Twins. The mythology of ancient Egypt includes examples of twinship operating in different ways. According to one version of the Egyptian creation myth, the earth god Geb and the
*See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
sky goddess Nut were twins and also lovers, locked together in a tight embrace. The great god Ra* separated them with air, leaving Nut arched across the heavens above Geb. Nut and Geb are complementary symbols—meaning that the two complete each other, forming a whole.
Similar myths from around the world associate twins with complementary features of the natural world, such as male and female, day and night, and sun and moon. The Xingu people of Brazil, for example, have stories about the twin brothers Kuat and Iae, who forced the vulture king Urubutsin to give light to the dark world. Kuat occupied the sun, Iae the moon. Their wakefulness keeps light in the world except for a brief time each month when they both sleep and the world experiences dark nights.
Twins can also be rivals. Egyptian mythology explores this aspect of twinship in the stories about the gods Osiris* and Set, twin sons of Nut and Geb. Set was so determined to be born first that he tore his way out of his mother's womb before he was fully formed. He hated his brother Osiris and eventually killed him. In the mythology of ancient Persia*, some accounts of Ahriman, the spirit of evil, say that he too was a twin who forced his way out of the womb so that he could be born first. Ahriman and his twin and enemy Ahura Mazda, the spirit of good, are symbols of opposing moral forces in a dualistic universe.
Twins often appear as partners or companions who share a bond deeper than ordinary friendship or even brotherly affection. This aspect of twinship is illustrated in the myth of Castor and Pollux (called Polydeuces by the Greeks). Some versions of their story say that although they were born to the same mother, they had different fathers. Pollux, son of Zeus*, was immortal; Castor, son of a human, was not. When his beloved brother was killed, Pollux gave up half of his immortality to restore Castor to life. As a result, each twin could live forever, but they had to divide their time between Mount Olympus and the underworld. The Greeks identified Castor and Pollux with a constellation, or star group, known as Gemini, the Twins.
Aborigines of Australia also associated this constellation with twins. According to a myth told in central Australia, twin lizards created trees, plants, and animals to fill the land. Their most heroic deed was to save a group of women from a moon spirit who wanted to mate with them. The women went into the sky as the cluster of stars now called the Pleiades, while the lizard twins became Gemini.
dualistic consisting of two equal and opposing forces
immortal able to live forever
underworld land of the dead
Because twinship is a rare and special state, some cultures said that certain gods and heroes were twins. In Greek mythology, notable sets of twins included the deities Apollo* and Artemis* and two remarkable sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra, who were also the sisters of Castor and Pollux. Some myths of community origins featured royal or even semidivine twins. The Greeks said that Amphion and Zethus, twin sons of Zeus*, had founded the city of Thebes, while the Romans claimed that the founders of their city were the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, sons of Mars*.
Twinship in African Mythology. The idea of twinship is fundamental to the cosmologies and creation myths of some West African peoples. To the Dogon of Mali, twinship represents completeness and perfection. The symbol of this wholeness is the deity Nummo, who is really a set of twins, male and female. The act of creating the other gods and the world required the sacrifice of one part of Nummo. From that time on, all beings were either male or female, lacking Nummo's divine completeness.
The supreme creator deity of the Fon people of Benin is Mawu-Lisa, a being both male and female who is sometimes described as a pair of twins. Mawu is the moon and the female element of the deity, while Lisa is the sun and the male part. They gave birth to all of the other gods, who also were born as pairs of twins.
Among the Yoruba people of Nigeria, twins are called ibejis after Ibeji, the patron deity of twins. People believe that, depending on how they are treated, twins can bring either fortune or misfortune to their families and communities. For this reason, twins receive special attention. One myth links the origin of twins with monkeys. According to this story, monkeys destroyed a farmer's crops, so he began killing all the monkeys he could find. When the farmer's wife became pregnant, the monkeys sent two spirits into her womb. They were born as the first human twins. To keep these children from dying, the farmer had to stop killing monkeys.
Twinship in Native American Mythology. The role of twinship in Native American mythology is complex. Some pairs of twins combine heroism with the mischievous behavior of tricksters. Occasionally, twins represent opposing forces of good and evil. The Huron people of northeastern North America tell of Ioskeha and Tawiskara, twins who dueled to rule the world. The evil Tawiskara, who fought his way out of the womb, used a twig as his weapon against his brother, while Ioskeha used the horn of a stag. Ioskeha, a positive creative force, won the conflict. In the same way, Gluskap, the creator god and culture hero of many northeastern myths, had to defeat Malsum, his evil twin, who was the source of all harmful things and the ruler of demons. In Iroquois mythology, Good Mind helps his grandmother, the Woman Who Fell From the Sky, place useful and beautiful items on the earth. His twin, Warty One, creates unpleasant things, such as mosquitoes and thorny bushes.
Rather than enemies, twins in Native American mythology are often partners in a task or a quest. In myths from the Pacific Northwest, the twins Enumclaw and Kapoonis sought to obtain power over fire and rock from the spirits. Their activities became so threatening that the sky god made them into spirits themselves. Enumclaw ruled lightning, and Kapoonis controlled thunder.
The Stupid Twin
Many myths of the Melanesian islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean tell of twin brothers who are rivals or enemies. Often one twin is wise and the other foolish, as in the case of To Kabinana and To Karvuvu. The stupidity of To Karvuvu has led to unpleasant or dangerous things. For example, he created the shark, thinking it would help him catch more fish. Instead, the shark ate the fish—and people. When To Karvuvu's mother shed her old, wrinkled skin and became young, he wept because he could not recognize her. To calm him she put on her old skin again. Ever since that time, people have had to grow old and die.
cosmology set of ideas about the origin, history, and structure of the universe
patron special guardian, protector, or supporter
trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
culture hero mythical figure who gives people the tools of civilization, such as language and fire
Hunahpú and Xbalanqúe, Hero Twins of Mayan mythology, descended into the underworld to restore their father to life. They then escaped from the lords of the underworld by outwitting them. Masewi and Oyoyewi, culture heroes in the myths of the
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Acoma Indians of the American Southwest, made a journey to their father, the sun. The theme of twins in search of their father also appears in the myth of Ariconte and Tamendonare of the Tupinamba people of Brazil. Setting out on a quest to learn their father's identity, these twin sons faced many dangerous trials. Each twin died once, only to be brought back to life by his brother. In the end, they learned that they had different fathers, one immortal and one mortal. Because the twins did not know which of them had the immortal father, they protected one another forever.
Navajo myths tell of Monster Slayer (Naayéé'neizghání) and his twin brother Child of Water (To bájísh chini). Their father carried the sun across the sky and was too busy to pay attention to his sons. One day the twins went in search of him. After enduring a series of ordeals, they at last found their father, and he equipped them to roam the world fighting monsters.