Fall 2012

Two by Two

A timeline of twins

William Viney

Twins have cut a naturally anomalous figure in the field of human understanding. Though we expect to meet twins and some of us even end up expecting twins, the meanings attached to them vary greatly across time and space. Whether they’re monozygotic, dizygotic, or conjoined twins, people who have been born together have been attributed with qualities of startling similitude, divine communion, demonic mediation, anarchic monstrosity, and scientific promise. A history of twins, then, must also include the parallel tale of these exceptional gifts, whether real or imagined—this panoply of extreme fears, common superstitions, and strange delights.

Cesare da Sesto, Leda and the Swan, ca. 1510.

As cross-cultural figures in mythological thinking and now unique participants in the scientific classification of our bodies and behaviors, twins and the idea of twinning litter the history of human self-regard. Twins, neither one nor simply two, enjoy a semantic mobility that has absorbed them into countless debates regarding the tractability of human nature. These dubiously double figures and the precise nature of their relation—whether physical, behavioral, linguistic, or mathematical—has forced twins into these debates as convenient object lessons. But their anomalous natures mean that they are also structuring forces in these debates, proscribing the horizons of possibility. Writing the history of twins is therefore to write against the grain of a history dominated by the acts of great individuals.

Every culture bears twins and almost every culture entertains myths about twins. Greek myth is particularly twinly—from the day and night of Apollo and Artemis to the “twincest” of Byblis and Caunus to the killing of the monstrously conjoined Eurytos and Cteatos by another twin, Hercules. Mythological twins are often born through the union of god and mortal, redistributing the sacred and profane, the human and the animal. Both in the Greek tradition and globally, where foundational twin myths can be found in extraordinary number, twins frequently gain the favor of gods or are considered gods in their own right.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, ca. 1624.

1836 BC
In cultures of primogeniture, multiple births can lead to violence and dispute between twin siblings. In the Judaic tradition, a dispute between twins founds a nation. Rebekah is told, “Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen 25: 22–23).1 Jacob and Esau’s birthright, or bekhorah, is a central source of their dispute and, after trading, deceiving, and dodging, Jacob receives the favor of Isaac and YHWH. His name is changed to Israel by an angel and the struggle for Jewish nationhood is forever tied to these quarrelling two.

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