John McDonald

The Oath of Tyndareus and the Nuptials of Nahid: Equine Elements of Marriage by Choice in Greek and Persian Epic Tradition

In one of the chapters of her study of the Shahnameh, Holly, the scholarly mentor who has shown me more vibrantly than anyone else how to infuse even greater vitality into the already lively corpus of Classical Persian literature by approaching it from a comparative perspective, investigates by means of Indo-European methodology the dynamics that characterize the relationship between Lohrasp and his son Goshtasp in Ferdowsi’s poem. Her analysis emphasizes the hereditary component of the narratives concerning this pair and reveals some of the substantial affinities that they possess with certain other mythical dyads, typically brotherly twins, whose composition has likewise been impacted by traditions of Indo-European ancestry, including the Dioskouroi.[1] It is in the spirit of Holly’s admirable insights that this little offering of mine endeavors make a modest additional advance in the examination of the extent to which the family of Lohrasp and the Dioskouroi share a common genealogy.[2]

One of the narratives in which both Goshtasp and his brother Zarir, with whose Avestan onomastic and behavioral equivalent Zairivairi Goshtasp’s Avestan correspondent Vishtaspa is already associated, are involved is that of Goshtasp’s marriage to Nahid, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor, and of the preceding and subsequent events that lead to and develop after the wedding of Goshtasp and Nahid. This wedding is remarkable on account of the fact that Nahid is granted by her father the freedom to choose her own husband, whose success she communicates by bestowing a garland of flowers on him.

It is no coincidence that other epic traditions owing something to Indo-European lore also feature weddings of the exceptional bridal self-choice variety.[3] So in the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit textual sister of the Shahnameh in many respects, several princesses are given paternal permission select their own husbands, and in the myth of the Trojan War, the Greek sibling of the parallel series of events that unfold over the course of the Shahnameh and the Mahabharata, the Spartan king Tyndareus allows his daughter Helen, sister of the aforementioned Dioskouroi, to do the same; like Nahid, she does so by decorating Menelaus with a garland.[4] In fact Stephanie Jamison has shown in great detail that the matrimonial mythologies of multiple women who figure in the tale of Troy have been formulated with an eye to Indo-European storytelling and marital law,[5] a pattern that lends further support to the tactic of inspecting any of the individual instances in question through an Indo-European lens.

One of the princesses of the Mahabharata to obtain her husband by means of a svayamvara, the Sanskrit term for a bridal self-choice, is Draupadi, who chooses Arjuna, one of the five semi-divine Pandava brothers, but who on account of a flippant joke and a careless reaction to that jest which, although excusable, results in drastic polyandrous consequences, ends up with all five of the Pandavas as simultaneous husbands.[6] Two of the additional four husbands whom Draupadi accidentally gains are the twin brothers Nakula and Sahadeva, the sons and demigod equivalents of their two divine fathers, the twin Ashvins, who are none other than the Indic congeners of the similarly semi-divine twin Dioskouroi and of both the father-son Dioscuric pair Lohrasp and Goshtasp studied by Holly and, as this essay shall aim to further demonstrate, of Lohrasp’s two sons Goshtasp and Zarir.[7]

Although the wedlock of Draupadi with Nakula and Sahadeva is accidental as far as the synchronic logic of the Mahabharata is concerned, their union is entirely deliberate from a diachronic perspective, for it resonates with, indeed quasi-reenacts the consonantly bigamous marriage of the goddess Surya, Draupadi’s divine counterpart, to Nakula and Sahadeva’s fathers the Ashvins, which the Rig Veda indicates was also the result of a svayamvara.[8] Indic, Iranian and Greek myth, therefore, have all three of them inherited variations on a triad consisting of two brothers and a female figure who selects her own husband(s).[9]

The correspondences between the family of Lohrasp, the Dioskouroi and both the Ashvins and their twin sons are many, detailed and deeply synthetic. One general but pervasive aspect shared by all of these figures is a persistent association with horses.[10] In the case of Lohr-asp, Gosht-asp and the Ashv-ins, this association manifests itself, inter alia, in the linguistic composition of their names, the terminal segment of the names of both of the Iranian characters and the initial segment of the collective name for the Indic pair being the inherited word for this animal. In addition to these etymological manifestations of their equine inclinations, horses routinely figure in the mythology of the Ashvins and their sons and that of the Dioskouroi,[11] Goshtasp is a skilled polo player, and the injured legs of one of the horses of Vishtaspa, Goshtasp’s already mentioned Avestan homologue, is healed by Zoroaster in a manner reminiscent of Wodan’s healing of the leg of Balder’s horse in the Meresburg Charms, the content and phraseology of which text exhibits an inherited tradition of formular incantation that is also intoned in the Atharva Veda,[12] where it occurs in combination with reference to an Rbhu; elsewhere, the Rbhus are similarly said to be not healers of horses but rather fabricators of them, a creative act that I shall resume below.

So the comparison is actually more precise than just two brothers and a female figure who selects her own husband(s): the brothers in question are consistently hippophilic. More to the point, as far as this essay is concerned, these brothers are consistently attached to the bridal self-choices of the matching females to whom they are connected: Zarir plays a role in the prelude to and aftermath of his brother Goshtasp’s marriage to Nahid, Surya chooses the Ashvins as her two husbands and Draupadi gets the Ashvins’ sons Nakula and Sahadeva as two of hers, and the Dioskouroi are vigorously involved in Helen’s Spartan wedding, at which she selects Menelaus but during which the Dioskouroi aggressively advise her to select another suitor, the specifics of which scenario might be hereditary, in light of the fact that the Ashvins, apparently before Surya chose them as her husbands and in connection with that decision of hers or according to an alternate tradition of Surya’s spousal mythology, were tasked with the role of wooing Surya on behalf of the god Soma.[13]

The fact that the pairs of males linked to the females under scrutiny are characteristically combined with horses results in an indirect concatenation between this animal and the bridal self-choices of these females. The females themselves, moreover, are sometimes directly connected to horses, as well as indirectly connected to them in ways that go beyond their relationships to our dyads of equine males. Helen, for instance, is brought into (in)famous juxtaposition with the Trojan Horse in the narrative of her ritualesque triple circumambulation of it, in which moment she knew or at least wondered about the Greek soldiers concealed inside of it and either sought to conceal their presence (the account of the ghost of Deiphobus and Helen’s autobiography) or attempted to expose them by imitating the voices of Greek warriors’ wives (Menelaus’ passive-aggressively retaliatory version).[14]

My understanding that this episode is relevant to the study of the common heritage of Helen and Nahid’s bridal self-choices is supported by the fact that several scholars of comparative Indo-European mythology have perceived hereditary elements in the mythology of the Trojan horse. Françoise Bader has observed that ἱπποτέκτων, the compound with which Lykophron describes Epeios, the architect of the Trojan Horse, in whose name Bruce Lincoln perceives the reflection of an aspect of Indo-European equine ideology,[15] is a univerbated etymological match for the syntagms that narrate the event of the previously referenced Vedic Rbhus’ creation of one and then two horses (áśvam atakṣata; tatakṣúr…áśvā).[16]

Furthermore, there has been an effort to conceive of the Trojan Horse, which is, after all, claimed to be an offering from the Greeks to Athena, and which is struck with a spear by the priest Laocoon (albeit without ritual motivation according to the synchronic shape of the narrative), as a sort of sacrificial victim; Timaeus was already thinking along these lines in the 3rd century B.C. when he connected the Trojan Horse with the Roman horse sacrifice of the Equus October, in which the victim was likewise speared.[17] The Equus October has been argued by modern scholars of the history of religion to constitute the Roman reflex of an Indo-European tradition of horse sacrifice reflected most amply in the Indic Ashvamedha, a lengthy and elaborate ritual demonstration of kingly sovereignty culminating in the slaughter of a horse in which the queen played a significant role.[18] Horse sacrifice of any kind, regal or otherwise, is rare in ancient Greece, but some residue of this royal ritual and its salient reginal feature arguably resides in Helen’s curious interactions with the Trojan Horse, which might be said to have been feigned by the Greeks to function in part as an acknowledgement of Trojan political supremacy.[19]

If a sacrificial substratum to Helen’s moment with the Trojan Horse is arguable, a conspicuous event attached to her Spartan wedding explicitly constitutes a hippomorphic ritual. Apparently fearing conflict among the many suitors for his daughter, Tyndareus required all of those who sought to be considered for marriage to Helen to swear an oath to lend their aid to the man whom Helen would select in the event that his union with Helen was ever jeopardized. Prior to the swearing of the oath, Tyndareus conducted a horse sacrifice and had the suitors each stand on a segment of the slaughtered horse while they swore the oath.[20]

Although Lysistrata’s companions propose a similar sacrifice, this might be just an Aristophanic joke;[21] in any event, Tyndareus’ ritual has the air of something special about it. The myth of the so-called Oath of Tyndareus might therefore have been sculpted with reference to the tradition of sovereign horse sacrifice that the Greeks would have inherited from their cultural ancestors. That Tyndareus’ horse sacrifice is essentially associated with the promise to protect the marriage of the future king of Sparta, the ultimate goal of which could be said to be the maintenance of the stability of his rule, and the fact that this sacrifice is also essentially linked to the prospective monarch’s wedding of the future queen of Sparta yields a doubly iterated combination of elements reminiscent of those of the Ashvamedha, in which the queen is similarly a major player in the consolidation of the king’s sovereignty as achieved by means of the ritual slaughter of a horse.[22]

Nothing quite so arrestingly equine figures in the wedding of Nahid and Goshtasp, but remember that the terminal segment of the latter’s name is the Iranian reflex of the inherited horse word, and Goshtasp’s polo abilities emerge during this episode. As we have seen to be the case with our Greek comparandum, moreover, this bride herself is also indirectly linked to this animal beyond her imminent union with her horsey bridegroom. Although Goshtasp calls his wife Katayun, Ferdowsi tells us that her proper name was Nahid, the Classical Persian equivalent of the name of the Avestan goddess Anahita.[23] In some respects, Anahita’s Greek counterpart is Artemis,[24] but as we have seen, when it comes to the marital mythology of Anahita’s Classical Persian equivalent, we are rather dealing with a narrative that is a match for the biography of Helen, which should raise eyebrows, given the instances in which Artemis and Helen intersect. The Aban Yasht describes Anahita riding in a horse-drawn chariot and tells us that Kaui Usan, desirous of sovereign power, sacrificed to her a hundred stallions, a thousand oxen, and ten thousand sheep.[25]

When we consider Anahita’s connection to horses in general and to an animal sacrifice including equine victims that aims to effect the receipt of sovereignty in particular, it becomes clear that the name of Goshtasp’s wife is profoundly meaningful.[26] Although Nahid herself is never brought into direct juxtaposition with the animal, the fact that the Proto-Iranian precursor of both Nahid and Anahita must have been substantially joined to horses and specifically to sacrificial horses almost allows us to imagine lurking loosely in the background of the nuptials of Goshtasp and Nahid a ghostly and slightly whimsical horse sacrifice that echoes the soberingly concrete one enacted by Helen’s father and suitors, including the man who is not only about to become a groom in the matrimonial sense of the word, but who in the context of the oath, to try for a dark joke at the expense of the victim, might also be conceived of as something of a morbid groom of the equine variety.

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[1] Davidson 2013: 126–37.

[2] For an Irish comparandum to the mythology of Goshtasp see Meulder 2007.

[3] For a brief introduction to Indo-European epic tradition see Katz 2005. On the subject of marriage in Indo-European law and lore in general see Dumézil 1979.

[4] Hyginus Fabulae 78. The comparison is made by West 2007: 434.

[5] Helen: Jamison 2001: 313–14; Penelope: Jamison 1999; Nausicaa: Jamison 1997. According to Jamison, Helen’s very name might mean “Chooser,” an etymology that has been accepted by some and called into question by others; see, for example, Janda 2014: 103 and Pinault 2015. Multiple marriages of Helen are studied from an Indo-European perspective by Meulder 2001, and Jamison 1994 convincingly argues for the Indo-European ancestry of precise details of Helen’s eventual rescue following her abduction by and illegal marriage to Paris. Edmunds 2016 promotes this work of Jamison’s. In light of the fact that the wedding of Nahid and Goshtasp corresponds to that of Helen and Menelaus, one could consider the possibility that the episode of the abduction of Goshtasp’s daughters and their subsequent rescue might be cognate with that of Helen’s similar experience.

[6] An old but still good cross-cultural discussion of bridal self-choices is Cowell 1859.

[7] A classic study of Nakula and Sahadeva’s Dioscuric aspects is Wikander 1957. As for the Ashvins, they have a reduced and demonized Iranian equivalent in Nanghaithiya. For a study of Zoroastrian demons see Moazami 2014. Dumézil 1994: 150–52, 158–65 already presents Goshtasp and Zarir as incarnations of the Indo-European tradition of a Dioscuric dyad.

[8] Jamison 2001.

[9] Wikander 1950: 318 similarly portrays Nahid, her husband Goshtasp and her father-in-law Lohrasp as a version of this trio.

[10] Equine lore recounted by cultures of Indo-European heritage in general owes much to inherited traditions. See Gaitzsch 2011. For a recent study of horses in Greek tradition with a recurring eye to inherited material see Platte 2017. As in other instances, what is synchronically odd about Greek horse lore can sometimes be explained by means of an Indo-European approach. For an Indo-Greek interpretation of Odysseus’ transformation into a horse see Allen 1995.

[11] Frame 1978 and 2009 study the Dioskouroi and related Greek dyads, including the consistent equine aspect of these pairs, from a comparative perspective, as does Walker 2015. Ward 1968 is a pan-Indo-European study of Dioscuric pairs focused on Germanic traditions; Goetinck 1994 and 2010 investigate Welsh manifestations of this tradition. For a recent discussion of the Indo-Iranian figures in question see Nikolaev 2012.

[12] Kuhn 1864: 49–74, 113–57.

[13] Hirschberger 2004: 135.

[14] Aeneid 6, Odyssey 4.

[15] Louden 1996.

[16] Bader 1999 and 2000. The cow that the Rbhus construct has also been built with reference to a hereditary narrative; see McDonald 2015.

[17] Polybius 12.4b-c.

[18] For a comparatively oriented discussion of the Ashvamedha see Zaroff 2005. A classic study of Indo-European horse sacrifice is Puhvel 1970. Pinault 2007 and 2010 alternately correct and expand on some of the earlier scholarship. Ólafsson 1995 and Fickett-Wilbar 2012 examine Irish comparanda.

[19] See Rose 2006 and Sterckx 2013.

[20] Pausanias 3.20.9.

[21] See the remarks of Sommerstein and Bayliss 2013: 153.

[22] That Helen’s interactions with the Trojan Horse and the horse sacrifice that accompanies the Oath of Tyndareus are expressions of the combination with horses that appears to have been characteristic of one of Helen’s Indo-European antecedents is further indicated in the fact that another Indic sister of Helen, Saranyu, who is absconded from her husband and replaced with a replica much in the same way as Helen, in the non-Homeric version of her mythology, is taken from Paris in Egypt and replaced with a duplicate made of cloud, flees from her husband in the form of a horse and gives birth to the thoroughly equine twin Ashvins, the aforementioned Indic equivalents of Helen’s twin brothers the Dioskouroi who are likewise extensively associated with horses. On this topic see Dexter 1990, Grottanelli 1986 and Jackson 2006.

[23] Anahita is also arguably involved in the version of this narrative told by Chares of Mytilene and preserved by Athenaeus, in which the brothers Hystaspes (Goshtasp) and Zariadres (Zarir), who is selected by the princess Odatis at her bridal self-choice, are said to be the sons of Aphrodite, an interpretation Graeca of Anahita. See Boyce 1955: 470–1. For a cross-cultural study of this version of the tale see Treloar 1985.

[24] See Sansalvador 2016.

[25] For the specifically one hundred stallions as a hereditary detail see Oettinger 2008: 410. For a remark on equine victims in pre-Zarathustran Iranian religion see De Jong 2002: 143. As Holly, referencing the work of Wikander, notes (Davidson 2013: 130–1), the Aban Yasht tells us that Auruuataspa, Lohrasp’s Avestan equivalent, also worships Anahita, so that from a pan-Iranian perspective, Lohrasp, through his Avestan namesake, becomes associated with Nahid beyond her marriage to his son.

[26] That Goshtasp’s wife is meaningfully related to her Avestan namesake might also be said to be indicated in the fact that an episode of the Shahnameh in which Goshtasp crosses a sea arguably reflects an event that is characteristic of the mythology of Anahita. See Skjærvø 2013.