“another young man, his (the king’s) twin or supposed twin – a convenient ancient Irish term is ‘tanist’ – then became the Queen’s lover, to be duly scarified at mid-winter and as a reward, reincarnated in an oracular serpent” Robert Graves
Robert Graves wrote amongst many other things the encyclopedic “The Greek Myths”. This massive and ambitious work catalogued all the conflicting accounts of fabled Ancient Greece and sorted them into very readable chapters named for an epic or mythological character. After a very enjoyable telling of tales there would be voluminous footnotes interpreting the tales followed by references used. A premise to his interpretation is that prior to the arrival of the Indo-Europeans to the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea there was a rather universal indigenous society. Graves envisioned a matriarchal society both matrilineal and matrilocal.
The “king” came to power by wedding a beautiful prince. Think of all those traveling heroes throughout myth and legend who slay some beast and marry to the local princess.1 The “king” is always from elsewhere because the local community intends to kill him and fertilize the field with this blood. Think of Demeter and Iasion wedded in a thrice-plowed field where soon after he was slain. This is Frazier’s “sacrificial king”. This is the founding father in Greek myth that travels to a distant land and marries the eponymous nymph. In time he will be the beast slain by the newer arriving hero or the beast that slays the newly arrived hero. This newly arrived hero slain by the beast; the man sacrificed in place of the king, Graves call the Tanist. Adonis for examples was killed by a boar or Ares disguised as a boar. The Boar with his crescent-shaped tusks and lunar aspect, this Tanist came to represent came to represent the matriarchal need to overthrow Indo-European dominance, as the darker aspects of Gaia time and time again tried to over throw heavenly Zeus.
Graves further supposes that sometimes this fight to the death between the sacrificial king and his tanist became a mock-battle, a wrestling match, a chariot race and that in fact it was “the surrogate boy-king, or interrex,” who died, and whose blood was used for the sprinkling ceremony. Oenomaus (p 31) and Evenus (p246) slew many of the local princess’ suitors in a chariot race. Hippolytus lost his race with the local king (p356). Diomedes and Glaucus seemed to have dispensed with the race and just thrown their “tanists” to the horses.
There are a surprising large number of “twins” in Greek mythology.2 In Graves theory they twins present the sacred king and his tanist. To avoid death and conflict one option is reign for alternate years; like Polyneices and Eteocles attempted to do at Thebes. “The yoking of a lion and a wild boar to the same chariot is the theme of a Theban myth, where the original meaning has been equally obscured.” The Lion after the Sphinx was the emblem of Thebes’ king and boar the emblem of his tanist. “and the oracle seems to have proposed a peaceful settlement of the traditional rivalry between the sacred king and his tanist. “
And sometimes the sacred king reigned, with a tanist; like in the dual kingship of Sparta. (Amphion/Zethus p256, Procles/Eurysthenes p206) In order to allow the sacred king precedence over his tanist, he was usually described as the son of a god or goddess. “the tanist was not regarded as immortal, nor granted the same posthumous status as his twin. Theseus must originally have had a twin, since his mother lay with both a god and a mortal on the same night. .. He was allowed an honorary twin, Peirithous who, being mortal, could not escape from Tartarus. Patroclus… may have once been… Achilles’s twin” and tanist.
In summary Graves presupposes the existence in prehistoric times of a sacred role in society called the Tanist; his man could be the sacrificial king’s heir or victim, best friend or eternal foe and his Other .
1. Theseus/Minotaur/Adriane, Jason/Colchian dragon/Medea, Perseus/sea monster/Andromache, Bellephron/Chimera/Philonoe, Orion/wild beasts/Merope, Oedipus/Sphinx/Jocasta references from Robert Graves “The Greek Myths” 1988, Volume 1 unless otherwise stated.
2. Aeolus/Boeotus p159, Butes/Erechtcheus p168, Calais/Zetes p171, Pelias/Neleus p221, Proteus/Acrisius p237, Eteocles/Polynieces v2 p15, Agenor/Belus p200, Aegyptus/Danaus p200, Autolycus/Philammon p216, Castor/Polydeuces p246, Idas/Lynceus p246, Heracles/Iphicles p250, Amphion/Zethus p256, Agamedes/Trophonius p288. All references from Robert Graves “The Greek Myths” 1988, Volume 1 unless otherwise stated.