After the Bronze Age: The Twins by Hilda Ellis Davidson (1969)

Source: ‘Part II: After the Bronze Age,’ Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age, 1969, pp. 176-179.

The symbol of two male figures side by side, sometimes holding axes and apparently associated with the sun, was clearly important in the Bronze Age, and Sprockhoff (1954, pp. 87-90) has shown  how the motif of twins has influenced ornament on the metalwork of the period. The conception of the Dioskoroi, the twin youths associated with the sky-god, is found widely throughout the Mediterranean world. Their cult was important in Sparta, while in Rome they were known as Castor and Pollux, helpers of travellers and sailors. Twin youths also appear in the symbolism of the cult of Mithras, where carvings depict them standing beside the god with torches, one torch pointing upwards and the other downwards, to represent the rising and setting sun. the popularity of this cult in the Roman period in Germany may have revived the symbolism of twin figures in the north. According to Tacitus, however, twin gods known as the Alcis were worshipped along the northern coasts in the first century A.D., and scholars have sought for traces of this cult in northern mythology in the literary sources, so far without much success.

Fig. 83. Chariot of the Sun

Archaeological evidence is more promising. There were two sets of twins on the runic horn from Gallehus, dated at about A.D. 500 (Fig. 83). One pair, very lightly clad, wore horned helmets and held respectively a rod and a ring, and a rod and sickle. The other pair was dressed as warriors, with swords and shields, and both pairs seemed to be dancing. This suggests a link with warrior pairs on helmet plates of the Vendel period, and on the helmet from Sutton Hoo (Fig. 84). The twin warriors on the Sutton Hoo helmet have their inside arms crossing and the hands holding daggers, while in their outside hands they hold pairs of crossed spears. This arrangement resembles that of the Bronze Age pair from Grevens Vænge, who also wore horned helmets and carried axes in their outside hands (Davidson, 1967, p. 60). Remains of helmet plates from Valsgärde and Old Uppsala show pairs of figures apparently similar to those from Sutton Hoo.


Fig. 84 Pair of Dancing Warriors from the Sutton Hoo helmet
Fig. 84 Pair of Dancing Warriors from the Sutton Hoo helmet

It has already been suggested (p. 148 above) that these dancing men in horned helmets, the ends of the horns curving to resemble eagles’ beaks, were associated in the seventh century with the cult of Odin. it seems probable that they were part of the symbolism strengthening his association with the sky, while at the same time they were in keeping with his character as leader of hosts and god of battles. This may offer a clue to the identity of the Alcis in the later pagan period: they may have merged into the figures of the Einherjar, special champions of the god Odin, who were to fight for him in his last great battle.

Helmet Plate from Valsgärde grave VII
Helmet Plate from Valsgärde grave VII.

Professor Karl Schneider claims to find traces of the cult of the twin gods on the sixth-century solidi with runic inscriptions, used as amulets, two of which have been found at Harlingen and Schwindorf, while a third, of unknown provenance, is in the British Museum (Berghaus/Schneider, pp. 58-71). He interprets the short runic inscriptions as invocations for help to a male figure on the reverse side of the solidus, and takes this to be one of the Alcis, the divine brothers who gave help and protection to those who called on them. He suggests that these brothers may be identified with Freyr and Balder, two gods whose name in each case means ‘Lord’, which is a title of the divine twins in the Greek and Indian traditions. Both these gods had ships and horses, and their names are used in poetic descriptions of warriors in skaldic verse. He sees also the myth of the death of Balder, slain by his brother, as a possible survival from the cult of the twin gods, one of whom became a slayer of the other, as in the case of the Roman twins Romulus and Remus. It is interesting also to note, in view of Professor Schneider’s emphasis on twin horses and twin swans as symbols of the divine pair, that pairs of horses and birds are found on stones of the sixth century in Gotland (pp. 167, above).

Gold Coin from Harlingen, Frisia. The runic inscription reads hama, ie a man's name.
Gold Coin from Harlingen, Frisia. The runic inscription reads hama, ie a man’s name.

Search for the twins elsewhere in the literary sources reveals some points of interest (Turville-Petre, pp. 273 ff.). Pairs of brother kings are mentioned more than once in the early history of Sweden, used by Snorri in Ynglinga Saga, and sometimes one kills the other. There is the tradition of two Swedish royal brothers, one of whom killed the other, in Beowulf, to which Schneider (p. 68) has linked the story of Balder’s death. Two warriors with ‘horse’ names, Hengst and Horsa, were remembered as leaders of the Saxon invaders of Kent in the fifth century A.D. There are memories also in Scandinavian poetry of two chariots crossing the heavens (p. 171 above). There are also signs of pairing among the gods, since we have place-names formed from the two names Ullr and Ullin, and Odin himself has a mysterious double, Mit-Odin. What might be a last memory of twin deities, now grown grey and vanquished by the Christian kings of Norway, occurs in Flateyjarbók (vol. I, p. 112), when Olaf the Holy saw a tall man in a rowing-boat, and challenged him. The man spoke a verse in which he lamented that ‘my bold, grey-haired brother, mighty in courage’ was no longer with him; he refused to give his name or yield to the king, and disappeared beneath the waves. By the late Viking Age, however, the conception of twin youths, sons of the supreme sky-god, seems to have virtually faded, and there is little sign of it in Snorri’s Prose Edda.


The association of twin youths with the sun in folk customs surviving into the nineteenth century may nevertheless be noted in some parts of Europe (Frazer, 1913, pp. 274, 279, 281, 285). In 1868 a traveller in Mecklenburg watched the kindling of the need-fire, and was told by an old woman that the boys who kindled it must be two brothers, or at least should have the same Christian name. The same tradition is recorded in western Bohemia, while in Bulgaria two young men ‘whose names must not be spoken’ marched in front of the flocks and herds which were to be driven through the flames, and afterwards stripped themselves naked and kindled the new fire in a wood. Again in Austrian Silesia the tree which was used for the fire had to be cut down by twin brothers. In Serbia there was quite a different rite: a naked boy and girl lit the fire by rubbing rollers of wood together. It is as though two separate conceptions, first of twin male deities connected with the sky and secondly of the divine marriage of god and goddess, are thus preserved in these local ceremonies connected with the kindling of the new flame, a rite of very great significance in the ancient pagan religion.


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