As regular readers know, one of my pleasures in writing these articles is tracing the long trip that myths and legends make to find a place in popular culture, and today, Oct 25th, gives yet another example of what cunning shape shifters the gods and heroes of ancient days were, and how many off then still linger in the shadows.
First, today is the feast of St Crispin and his twin brother Crispianus, whom Catholic lore tells us were twin brothers, born of a Roman family, who adopted Christianity, were throw out because of it, and lived in France, making shoes to support themselves while they preached, until they were martyred, although there are few details as to why and by who. They are quite similar to two British saints who share much of the same details, one of whom was Saint Hugh, who was hanged, and his bones taken by his friends and made into tools (early Christina martyr stories have a tendency to be weird and creepy), from whence comes the expressions “St Hughes’ bones” for a shoemakers equipment. As is usually the case with stories that have obvious gaps, and exist in several versions in different places, they are completely made up. But more on that further.
Of course, where most folk know St. Crispin, if they know him at all, is from Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, and the amazingly cool and oft repeated speech by Harry to his men at Agincourt. Shakespeare wrote in his play about 1599 scholars believe, nearly two hundred years after the famous battle, and it remains one of the most stirring and evocative portrayal of the bond among warriors, and “Band of Brothers” has had many cultural applications, from cable series’ to video games.
But back to our two brothers, patron saints of shoemakers, if they didn’t exist, where do the stories originate? With a set of brothers, indeed, but not with Christians; their tale begins with the Dioscuri, the twin sons of Zeus and Leda, Castor and Pollux.
Well, twins, but not exactly by the same dad…the story, like most long lived and well travelled myths, has a number of regional variances, but one goes that Leda was the mother of Castor by her mortal husband, and mother of the immortal Pollux (or Polydeuces) after being raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, a myth that inspired Renaissance art as well as the poem by Yeats. The boys became champion horsemen, sailors and fighters, especially boxing, and they sailed as part of the heroic crew of the Argo. When the mortal Castor dies, his brother could not bear to be parted from him, and asked Zeus to share his immortality, from then on the twins dwelt half their time in Hades. Zeus eventually made constellations out of them so they would always be remembered.
Castor and Pollux were especially significant to the Spartans, who claimed them as ancestors, and who may have adopted their unusual rule of having two kings at the same time, one to manage the army and the other to control domestic affairs, from the half-immortal twins. They Spartans also had a standard with two posts and a supporting crossbar to signify the Dioscuri that they carried into battle. Once in the realm of the gods, they were known to be helpful to mankind, and were called upon for favorable winds, and blessed travelers and sailors.
It is not hard to imagine the usual Catholic public relations machine going to work, transforming the pagan brothers into an acceptable Christian counterpart, but keeping much of the nature of the brothers devoted to each other, who looked out for travelers by making shoes. It is an amusing note to the story that, in his speech, Shakespeare’s Henry promises his men fame, fame that will never be forgotten. Somewhere, I hope the noble brothers are smiling, knowing they too have earned that brand of immortality.