The birth of twins is a common theme in many myths, for the image of twins, especially twin brothers, is used to express the inevitable dual nature of things. Born of the same parents, twins indicate that in every entity there are opposites: light and dark, good and evil, the peaceful and the warlike, the thinker and the doer. People, relationships, and nature itself are full of contradictions and opposites; we all know this even if we forget it or choose to ignore it.

Jung noted that in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, Mary (symbolizing the Church), is referred to as the “holy dove which hath brought forth twin nestlings,” a reference to an old legend that Jesus had a twin brother named Judas Thomas (CW 5, par. 318n). The symbolic power of the twin image is so strong that even Christianity could not escape untouched by its duality.

Fratricide: The Ultimate Fragmentation

In most myths or stories of twins or same-gender siblings, the siblings usually find themselves in conflict with one another and must ultimately separate; but wholeness is not found unless they reconcile and experience unity again. Many times, one brother kills the other, but when this occurs, in Jungian terms it is always an act of fragmentation. You can probably think of many literary examples of divided twins or siblings: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus, Castor and Pollux, and Set and Osiris, among others.

Most people are probably familiar with the story of Cain and Abel, in which the brother whose altar offering was acceptable to God was slain by the brother whose offering was not. twins1 by you.In another tale of fratricide, twin brothers Romulus and Remus argued over which brother had the support of the local deities to rule the new city and give it his name. This pattern of conflict and jealousy leading to betrayal, injury, and even death is a familiar one.

According to the myth, each brother took up a position on a separate hill overlooking what is now Rome, and waited for a sign from the gods. A circle of six vultures flew over Remus, signifying that he should be king. When Remus reported this sign to Romulus, though, Romulus lied and said that he had seen the sign first. As they were arguing, the brothers looked up and saw 12 vultures flying above the hill they both stood on. Romulus claimed that he had seen his six first, and that Remus’s birds had flown to join his over the hill Romulus stood on to prove that Romulus should be founder and king of Rome.

The fact was that Remus had received the sign first. Because the lies of Romulus were convincing, however, Remus grudgingly conceded leadership. Romulus later had Remus killed because Remus’s resentment over being cheated had become so great. In Remus: A Roman Myth, Wiseman writes that Romulus overthrew Remus by cheating him “through haste and jealousy of his brother, and perhaps also by divine direction” (p. 8). As with the tales of Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau, contention over a spiritual blessing is one of the primary reasons for the conflict; a spiritual force greater than mere mortals (or even immortals) has a will and a hand in the situation, too. Each brother in these fratricidal tales wanted his offering or action to be the only “right” or acceptable choice before God; but only one brother—the one with the character of a Darth Vader—was willing to kill to get it.

The ancient Egyptian tale of brothers Set and Osiris is a final example of a myth that may be seen in Jungian terms as one about psychic fragmentation. Younger brother Osiris was the wise king and bringer of civilization who was happily married to his sister, Isis. Elder brother Set, envious of his younger brother, killed and dismembered him in a jealous rage. Isis reassembled Osiris’s corpse, which was embalmed by the gods and became a mummy reigning over the underworld as judge of the dead. Yet again, we see that jealousy and competition over some spiritual possession can cause deadly conflicts between siblings.

Twins as Symbols of Wholeness

The myth of Castor and Pollux is an example of the more rare twin tale in which brothers manage to maintain their unity. Twin sons born to the same mother but different fathers, one mortal and the other immortal, Castor and Pollux are known today as stars in the constellation Gemini—the Gemini twins. Castor, the mortal brother, receives a deadly wound one day, and Pollux (the immortal one) is able to trade half his immortality for his brother’s life. The brothers must then live the rest of their days by dividing their time between Mount Olympus (the home of the gods) and Hades, the underworld where the dead await judgment.

twins2 by you.


I’ve come to understand and find very valuable the idea that “everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as a whole” (Carl Jung). People manifest outwardly, through word and deed, what is already in their hearts.

From these myths of twins we can see that being cheated out of something valuable can cause serious consequences, even death, whether actual or metaphorical–the death of a relationship, death of a dream, death of a way of life, etc. In the myth of Castor and Pollux, on the other hand, we see that one of the greatest gifts one person can give another is to share the life that comes from that eternal well.

17 responses

  1. thanks so much for your excellent article on twins – it was a brilliant reference for a play I’m writing based on the Norwegian fairytale, Tatterhood. I don’t know if you’re interested in astrology, but Liz Greene (a psychological astrologer) has written at great length about twins in the Gemini section of her excellent book, The Astrology of Fate. Thanks again, Debra

  2. The thing about the Cain and Abel story that amazed me is that Cain was in direct communication with God, and God even counseled him about his hard feelings over the rejection of his offering, and yet Cain still had to act out his anger at the expense of his brother. God *talked to him*, and he still couldn’t do what was right!

    And then not only are Cain and Abel never reunited, but Cain was separated from God. And then there’s Seth. I wonder how that all works symbolically?

    • Funny you should ask about how it all works out symbolically. I’m going to head there even though I’m not sure exactly where I’m heading (sounds so promising, doesn’t it?). I’ve read some about brothers divided by murderous rage (or murder!) and there is a lot of symbolism in there.

      If memory serves me at all, I think it has to do with cutting parts of ourselves off from the other parts: the part not pleasing to God from the parts that are pleasing and so on. But what bout Seth? What about God? What what what?

  3. Hind’s Feet, the pain one feels from family of origin losses is long-lasting and goes very deep. We rightly feel the need for an avenger, and really only someone as big as God can seem to fill the void left by the absence of loving parents.

    • It is amazing how deep it goes, to alter even one’s personality.

      I feel divided most of the time, like good and evil at war. I love the verse about wanting to do the right thing but doing the bad thing even though you don’t want to.

      I also feel divided in my feelings about my parents. On one hand my mom wasn’t a mean witch all of the time and there are times that I have fond memories, but when she was angry she put the M in mean and didn’t do a half assed job of it. I’m sure I was naughty and probably deserved to be disciplined like all children, but they way she did it most of the time was not right and she won’t admit it. Neither will her husband admit either one of them was wrong in how they punished me. He admits and has fully apologized for his abuse but not for his punishings. My mother has tried to apologize but adds big buts in there… that’s not an apology.

  4. I want to put this in light of your Vasty Deep section, a reminder (and prophecy?) of something I suspect you wrote about before you were wronged… a prophetic reminder that God knows and he is the avenger!! You listed my favourite verse to pray when my “enemies” try to hurt me:

    “My perception of this change in my life reminds me of a beautiful passage in the Bible that talks about being brought forth into a “broad place” after being in a place of terrible restriction and deprivation. In the second book of Samuel, in the Old Testament, there’s an account of King David’s song to the Lord on the day he was delivered from the hands of all his enemies, including King Saul. David wrote:

    For the waves of death encompassed me; The torrents of destruction overwhelmed me; The cords of Sheol surrounded me; The snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the LORD,Yes, I cried to my God; And from His temple He heard my voice, And my cry for help came into His ears.

    He sent from on high, He took me; He drew me out of many waters. He delivered me from my strong enemy, From those who hated me, for they were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity, But the LORD was my support. He also brought me forth into a broad place; He rescued me, because He delighted in me. (2 Sam 22:5-7, 17-18 NAS)

    I see many things in this passage that speak to me: fear of death, big waves and torrents that threaten to destroy; Sheol, a place of suffering and purging; traps and enemies, no peace and no rest. Calamity. I see,too, that people are always people: they confront when support is needed. They lecture or judge, or roll their eyes with impatient disgust. But the LORD was my support. This is true.”

    • Interesting comment; I love those verses. The writer is in such distress; he’s powerless to really do anything against his enemy, so cries out to God. If taken allegorically, it’s very much about what it feels like to be on the waves of one’s emotions when under attack, isn’t it?

      • It really does. I’ve been put in powerless situations my whole life but it wasn’t until after my son was born that I found those verses and decided to pray them because I had no words my self and God was there. He led me through and did not let my enemies triumph, they lost. God even punished them Himself. I hope they know that their punishment was from God for what they did to me.

      • I’m in suspense about how God is working in the situation with your fake, christian “friends”.

  5. “The brothers must then live the rest of their days by dividing their time between Mount Olympus (the home of the gods) and Hades, the underworld where the dead await judgment.”

    As a Gemini, I smiled to myself when I read that.

    • I’m not even a Gemini, and it made me smile!

      What interested me most about this myth was that it’s one of the relatively few in which the brothers manage to arrive at what we’d call a “win-win solution.” They end up having to satisfy their immortal and mortal sides equally and bear equal responsibility for each part; and neither brother wins at the other one’s expense (as with the other myths and accounts mentioned).

  6. I’ve always been fascinated by identical twins and their relationships with each other and their genetics. If one is genius the other is but one is always more outgoing than the other.

      • I think a mutual friend of ours told me you have twins. You are definitely blessed 🙂

        I wonder if it’s when the first split happens that makes them opposites of eachother? Like magnets, the opposite polls attract to make the magnet complete.

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