The Dioscuri and Art of Memory

The Dioscuri

Originally uploaded by anselm23

The Art of Memory was supposedly invented by Simonides, an ancient Greek poet. He recited the hymn in honor of the Tyndaridae, or Sons of Zeus, also known as the Dioscuri. Today is their feast day in the ancient Roman calendar: a day in honor of the half-mortal, half-divine sons of Thunder.

They were so important in the ancient Mediterranean that the Sons of Thunder make an appearance among the Apostles of Jesus. Don’t believe me? Look it up: Mark 3:17… the Sons of Zebedee receive the attribution of the Dioscuri from Jesus himself… replacing a pagan pair of healing and learning forces with a Judaeo-Christian one.

The story about Simonides is that he gave a speech at a dinner party in honor of the Dioscuri. The irked host of the dinner told Simonides not to expect payment for the poem, since it was about mythical beings and not the host… at that moment, Simonides was summoned to the house doorway by a servant, since there were two important guests waiting to speak with him. However, when Simonides went to the door, no one was there. Just as he was about to reenter the house there was a great earthquake. The house was knocked down and all were killed, but Simonides made a name (and a fortune) identifying the bodies in the ruins, based on where in the ruins the body was found.

Effective tactic.

Anyway, The Dioscuri are the Sons of Zeus, and I’ve depicted them here as a bookish sort and a warrior sort. In various versions of this picture, I reverse them, but usually Castor has the book and Pollux has the sword. I show them as Memory (Castor) and Pollux (Will), because in some ways, with Helen and her sister Clytemnestra, the four children of Leda and Zeus represent the four powers of the Sphinx:

  • Memory
  • Imagination
  • Will
  • Silence

    It’s not a perfect fit, of course. And Helen and Clytemnestra are depicted in Greek myth as some of the worst women possible — adulterer and husband-murderer. Not… how you say… role models? It’s not a perfect match by any means.

    But it’s a useful comparison, nonetheless, and today it served as a great picture for talking about how memory works, and how to use the powers of one’s own memory, and one’s will, to store and retrieve information.

    Once again, the Sons of Zeus help reinvigorate the Art of Memory in the modern world.

    Via Flickr:
    I didn’t get their Latin name right, but I got their portraits into my students notebooks on the correct day. Here they are, the Dioscuri or Sons of Zeus, with my semiprivate attributes of Memory and Willpower.

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