The Marriage of the Aśvins

I’ve been working on a new idea concerning the Aśvins that I recently discussed at the Center. The Aśvins are the Indian divine twins usually thought to be cognate with the Greek Dioskouroi (both are pairs of horsemen descended from gods who are themselves cognate, i.e Zeus and Dyaus). There are a number of famous myths dealing with the Aśvins, e.g. their unusual birth, their exclusion from the sacrificial ritual, their role in multiple famous rescues. One of the most intriguing elements of their mythology, however, is their marriage to Sūryā, daughter of the sun, to whom they are both married. Interesting as their marriage is the details of it are not well attested and one of the most famous accounts of it (RV.X.85) contradicts most of the others in calling them groomsmen rather than grooms.

What is most interesting about their marriage is that even from the scant evidence that we have for it, it appears to belong to class of marriages that is well attested in Indian literature and is known as a svayaṃvara. The svayaṃvara, or self choice (svayam – one’s own, vara – choice), is a ceremony in which numerous men sue for the right to marry a particular woman. Shmidt published a summary of the evidence that we have for the ritual in “Some Women’s Rites and Rights in the Vedas.” There are multiple varieties of this ceremony but the most famous in the one in which the men compete in some sort of contest. The Aśvins’ marriage to Sūryā may not be well described in our sources but even so it is very likely that their marriage was one of these contest-based svayaṃvaras since numerous passages mention that they attained their bride through the speed of their chariot. The fact that that is a svayaṃvara has, in fact, been argued already, notably by Stephanie Jamison.

What I am interested in is looking at the relatively poorly attested svayaṃvara of the Aśvins in relation to much better attested svayaṃvaras in Indian epic and in Greek myth, where it survives as well (presumably the mythic tradition was inherited from the speakers of Proto-Indo-European, the shared ancestors of the Greeks and the Indians). Other rituals make it clear that some of the common elements of these myths are rigging of the contest and the surprise victory of unexpected participants of lower social class, or seemingly lower social class. I’m curious if this can explain or fill in some of the gaps in some of our sources for the marriage of the Aśvins. I’m curious if verses that call the Aśvins the groomsmen can be understood in light of these comparanda, by assuming that they didn’t come to the wedding contest as participants at all, but instead that they were surprise competitors, like Odysseus in the bow contest.

I am also interested in this because of the marriage contest of this variety that was held for Hippodameia, and first described in Pindar’s Olympian 1. This and the contest of the Aśvins are both conducted with chariots, while other contests of this variety take several different forms: running contests, bow contests, etc. I am hopeful that this investigation into the relationship of the Aśvins’ marriage to these others will reveal interesting things about the mythology of chariots in Greece and, hopefully, the history of chariots in wider IE traditions.

Schmidt, Hanns-Peter. 1987. Some Women’s Rites and Rights in the Veda. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

Jamison, Stephanie. 2001. The Rigvedic Svayamvara? Formulaic Evidence. In Vidyarnavavandanam: Essays in Honour of Asko Parpola, edited by K. Karttunen and. P. Koskikallio. Helsinki: Finnish Oriental Society.
———. 2003. Vedic vrā: Evidence for the Svayaṃvara in the Rig Veda? In Paitimana: Essays in Iranian, Indo-European, and Indian Studies in Honor of Hanns-Peter Schmidt, edited by S. Adhami. Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers.