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. 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.
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.