Monday, October 31st, 2011
Thank you to all of you who got in touch with favorite characters—it was such a treat to be on the receiving end of so much mythological enthusiasm! I decided to go with the very first reader suggestion I received, a character who also happens to be near and dear to my heart—that wise teacher of heroes, the centaur Chiron.
A quick caveat: by definition, myths have nearly endless variations. My aim is not to cover them all, simply to provide an introduction to a beloved story, and highlight the parts that I find most interesting. If you want something more exhaustive, there are many, many terrific resources for myths, both online and in print. My “Find Out More” page has a few ideas for getting started.
Chiron (also spelled Kheiron or Cheiron), was born under unusual circumstances. His father, the titan Kronos, was coupling with the nymph Philyra when Rhea, Kronos’ wife, suddenly appeared. Kronos turned himself into a stallion to escape her notice, and nine months later, Philyra gave birth to a half-horse baby, whom she reared (or abandoned, depending on the myth) on Mount Pelion.
Chiron grew up to be just, kind and wise in many arts, including medicine, gymnastics, prophecy, hunting and music. Because of this, he was much sought after as a tutor of heroes, and his charges eventually included Peleus, Jason, Aesclepius and, of course, Achilles.
Homer calls Chiron the “wisest and most just of all Centaurs.” Generally, Centaurs were known as being brutish, lustful and violent, eating their meat raw, living outside the bounds of civilization, and pillaging whenever they got the chance. In order to distinguish Chiron from his barbaric cousins, vase painters often depicted him as having a full man’s body with only two horse feet behind (see thumbnail below, courtesy of theoi.org, or click here for the larger image).
The Centaur Chiron, with Achilles
One of the most fascinating myths about Chiron involves Heracles and Prometheus. While visiting the centaur, Heracles accidentally pricked Chiron with one of his arrows poisoned with the blood of the Hydra. The poison’s virulence made the wound incurable, despite Chiron’s skill in healing, and the centaur was doomed to an eternity of agony. So Chiron went to Zeus and offered to give up his immortality in exchange for the freedom of Prometheus. The king of the gods agreed, Prometheus was freed, and Chiron’s soul was placed among the stars, where he became the constellation Sagittarius.
This story is interesting to me for a lot of reasons. I have always had a soft spot for Prometheus, the creator of humans who defied Zeus to bring them fire and other comforts. As punishment, Zeus chained him to the Caucasus mountains and sent eagles every day to rip out his liver, which, being immortal, grew back every night. It feels beautifully fitting to me that Chiron would choose to give up his life for him—the only other god who shows himself a consistent and selfless friend to mortals.
The story is also interesting because of Chiron’s ability to forfeit his immortality. As far as I know (and if you have other information, please share!), this is one of the only examples of a god dying in Greco-Roman mythology. The next closest example I can think of is Pollux giving up half of his immortality to his human brother Castor, so that they can live six months on earth together, and six months in the underworld. But more on them down the line!
A few last thoughts on Chiron. His name comes from the Greek “cheir” meaning hand, a reference to his skill at surgery (itself from the Greek “cheirurgos,” literally “hand-worker”). He was a popular figure in ancient literature, and also pops up in a number of modern works. John Updike’s “The Centaur” is based on the life of Chiron, and Chiron also features in Elizabeth Cook’s novel “Achilles.” He is a character in the Percy Jackson series, and I like to think that the Classics-loving J. K. Rowling was inspired by Chiron in her portrait of the wise centaurs (Firenze especially) in the “Harry Potter” series. He also plays an important role in my own novel, “The Song of Achilles.”
Want more? Click here to go to Chiron’s page on “theoi.org.”
Next week, we tackle Clytemnestra—scheming ax-murderer, or avenging matriarch?