Mysterious twins kept cropping up for me some time ago, I kept dreaming about twins, reading about twins…they seemed to be everywhere! When I dug a little deeper I realised that divine (or at least semi divine) twins are everywhere in the mythologies and traditions of many cultures.
Cain and Abel will be familiar to many I’m sure, as will Romulus and Remus, the famous brothers raised by wolves who founded Rome. Castor and Pollux, also known as the Dioscuri, were fathered by Zeus (or at least one was!) and are now immortalised in the stars in the constellation Gemini. Lesser known ‘Divine’ siblings include the twins of Macha, Fir and Fial from Irish culture and The Alcis from the Germanic who were a pair of ever youthful bright brother Gods honoured in forest groves. In India the Ashvins are honoured who are two twin Horsemen Gods comparable to the Asvienial in the Baltic lands.
See…twins are everywhere…!!!
I was however surprised to then discover that Kent, my home county, a tiny little corner of the British Isles, actually has its own set of divine brothers in Hengest and Horsa. Sadly, these are two names which are seldom spoken or heard of these days in Kent and certainly not referred to in any local school history lesson that I know of despite their importance to our local history.
Hengist and Horsa were Jutish brothers who aided the British King Vortigern in his fight against the Picts to the North. They were said to land in North Kent, Ebbsfleet to be precise, around 449CE and having succeeded in their mission, Votigern awarded them land and Hengist even managed to get his own daughter Roweena married off to Votigern and thus cementing Hengest’s place in Britain. Sadly this displeased the native British who rebelled against their King and the Saxon immigrants choosing instead to follow Votigern’s son Vortimer who lead them in Battle against the Saxon settlers. It was in the Battle of Aylesford where Horsa was slain yet the Saxons triumphed and claimed the Kingdom of Kent as their own. Thus began the Kings of Kent, said to be descended from the All Father- Wodan himself.
On the surface, the story of Hengest and Horsa sounds like just another piece of local history, they certainly existed and are well documented by Bede and in the Saxon Chronicles however when I started to compare attributes of Hengest and Horsa to those of other divine or semi divine siblings I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t more to these siblings than just history.
For a start they are directly descended from divinity. Their father was Wictgils, Son of Witta, Son of Wecta, Son of Wodan. All of these figures are mentioned in the Prose Edda (although the genealogical order differs between sources). Nevertheless, Hengest and Horsa definitely qualify as having divine heritage.
The connection with Horses seems to be highly significant. Hengest meaning ‘Stallion’, and Horsa supposedly meaning ‘Horse’ have been immortalised on our county flag, the white horse ‘Invictus’ meaning unconquered (ironic for Kent!). Compare them to other divine twins we see that Castor and Pollux had a close link with Horses (being patron Gods of Horseman) and were looking to marry the Leucippides (‘Daughters of the White Horse’), and the Ashvins and the Asvienial were also depicted as having horse heads. Twin horse images were often affixed to roof tops in the Baltic lands just as they were in Kent where they were known as ‘Hengest and Horsa’ and carved into the cross beams to protect stables and barns. Macha too was a Horse Goddess, her twins Fir and Fial often referred to as twin ‘colts’. Divine siblings, even twins, being so closely associated with horses has to be significant!
But why the Horse? I think there are a number of possible reasons. Firstly the Horse has long been associated with the fertility and sovereignty of the land. Let’s not forget many of these twin characters are Kings or leaders, which meant they would have been intrinsically linked to the fate of the people, even ‘married’ to the land itself, this union was often enacted between the King and a ‘Mare’ representing the eternal queen of the land.
Interestingly Dumezil’s Trifunctional Hypothesis suggests that Proto European society was divided into three groups corresponding to three distinct functions; the function of Sovereignty, the function of militia and warfare and the function of productivity and continuation. The Horse in fact seems to satisfy all three functions being an image associated with the sovereignty of the land, the military and battle, and the domestication of Horses to assist with farming is perhaps one possible reason why these magnificent beasts became so closely linked to the fertility and fecundity of the land. Also let’s not forget that there is a relationship between man and horse…a close physical connection in that horses can be ridden, this is unique among the domesticated animals in Europe and a relationship that requires skill and incredible trust. The Horse was also associated with The All Father, he himself riding his trusty steed Sleipnir, the same All Father our two Kentish brother Kings were descended from!
Another interesting commonality between the most of the stories is the death of one of the siblings. Cain killed Abel, it is said that Romulus killed Remus, Castor was killed in Battle as was Horsa yet despite that they are still always referred to as a pair…they come as a set with no hint of them being mentioned on their own, they do everything together, much like a rider and his well-trained horse! My own thoughts on this came to me when reading about Castor and Pollux in particular when upon Castor’s death, Pollux was given a choice to share his immortal life with Castor and they would both spend alternate days in Hades / The underworld and since then the pair also become associated with death and immortality. Perhaps Horsa serves the same purpose, to rule the ‘underworld’ as his brother rules above. It’s an interesting thought and in a very long and convoluted way it made me wonder about King Arthur and the Fisher King, perhaps they too are ‘twins’. The idea of dual faced or twin male Gods is by no means alien to many Traditional Witches I’m sure! What if Hengest and Horsa are another means of expressing those powers or light and dark, life and death, even horse and rider!?
If these tales teach us anything, at least on the surface, it’s that duality isn’t necessarily about Gender, in fact I would go as far as saying it’s got nothing to do with Gender and I fear this notion of things being male or female serves only to polarize more. The Alscis were ‘male’ but served by Priestesses and cross dressing men, potentially Hengest’s ‘Brother’ Horsa may actually not have been male…hell, he may not have even been human! Polarity can be the relationship between horse and rider when each responds in perfect harmony with the other, it is the relationship between man and beast, light and shade, life and death.
Whilst my contemplations on the significance of Hengest and Horsa will continue to lead me all over the place, one thing I am certain of is that these ‘brothers’ are a key part of Kentish lore and tradition. As expected most of the good stuff is buried deep beneath nearly 2000 years’ worth of Chinese whispers but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and it will take some time, years even, to fully assimilate and understand the relevance of these discoveries and how Hengest and Horsa will go on to influence my relationship with the powers and the land I call home.