Myth of the Week: Centaurs

Monday, March 19th, 2012

If ancient Greek mythology had a consistent villain, it would definitely be centaurs.  With the exception of the wise and kind Chiron, these half-horse half-man creatures were depicted as  bestial, drunken, lecherous bullies strewing chaos and strife wherever they went.

The goddess Athena with a centaur

The origins of Centaurs (or Kentauroi) are obscure.  The most common story seems to involve the wicked king Ixion, who tried to rape the goddess Hera.  At the last minute, however, Zeus substituted a cloud/nymph (depending on the story) named Nephele.  She bore him a monstrous child, Kentaurus, who was either the first centaur, or who mated with horses and produced the first centaur.  Ixion, meanwhile, was bound to a flaming wheel, and banished to the pit of Tartarus to suffer alongside Tantalus and Sisyphus.

One of the most famous stories of centaur misbehavior is at the wedding of the Lapith king Perithoos, best friend of Theseus.  Perithoos invites the centaurs to the wedding, but after consuming alcohol, they become feral, attempting to carry off the bride and the other women.  A huge battle ensued, one that was quite popular in art—the Parthenon metopes (large marble friezes on the outside of the building) take this battle as their subject.  Such depictions with centaurs became so popular that they actually had their own name—“Centauromachies” (literally, centaur fights).

The fight between the Lapiths and the centaurs

A fascinating side-story about the Lapith/centaur battle involves the unusual hero Caeneus, who was born a beautiful woman, named Caenis.  She was raped by the god Poseidon, who after offered to grant her any wish.  She wished to be transformed into a man, to escape further persecution.  She–now he–became one of the greatest warriors of the Lapiths, and couldn’t be killed by normal means.  In order to defeat him, the centaurs were forced to pile giant fir trees and rocks on top of him, until he was literally forced into the earth by their weight.

Maybe the most famous centaur story is the one about Heracles and his wife Deianeira.  The two arrive at the river Evenus, where the centaur Nessus has set himself up as the ferryman.  Heracles boosts Deianeira only Nessus’ back, but rather than taking her over the river, the centaur starts to run off with her.  Heracles pulls out one of his hydra-poisoned arrows and shoots Nessus, who collapses, thankfully not on Deianeira.  He whispers to her his apologies and says that she should gather up a bit of his blood.  Then, if she ever doubts her husband’s faithfulness, she can give him some of it, and it will make him love her again.

A warrior conquering a centaur

Unfortunately, the next part of the myth doesn’t exactly cover Deianeira in glory.  Why she thinks it’s a good idea to listen to anything her would-be rapist would say is beyond me.  But she does indeed gather some of his blood—which by this point (unbeknownst to her, but knownst to Nessus) has mixed with the poison from the hydra-arrow.  And, of course, a little while later Deianeira does become jealous that Heracles isn’t paying enough attention to her, and does indeed slip him some of the blood.  The poison causes Heracles agony so extreme that all he wants is to die.  He builds himself his own funeral pyre (tough to the end), and climbs on it.  None of his friends will light it, except for the loyal Philoctetes.  Heracles is at last released from his pain, and Nessus, in death, has his revenge.

A vicious human/centaur fight

A final tale of centaur-menace concerns the swift-footed hero Atalanta.  She is hunting in the woods one day when she is accosted by two centaurs.  Single-handedly, she dispatches both of them, and later goes on to participate in the Calydonian Boar Hunt.   She’s definitely going to be an upcoming Myth of the Week.

Mosaic with two female centaurs (surrounding the goddess Venus)

Although I never think of centaurs as female, they did appear in some later art (see above).  In fact, they were renowned for their beauty.  Can I help it if I think of Leslie Knope’s centaur likeness in Parks and Recreation?  I don’t watch much TV so this doesn’t mean much, but that show is one of my absolute favorites.

I wish you all a very happy, sunny week.  I’m breaking out the shorts!

Chiron, the Master Teacher

While I was at the Open Book Cape Town Literary Festival, I was interviewed by the wonderful Clive Chandler, a Classics Professor at Cape Town University.  He asked if the character of Chiron in The Song of Achilles had been in any way inspired by my own teaching.

Chiron is a master teacher, so this was a lovely question to be asked.  But the truth is, Chiron came much more out of my experiences as a student.  I am fortunate to have had some truly terrific teachers in my life, who were instrumental in nurturing my enthusiasm for literature, Classics, and learning in general.  Chiron isn’t based on any of them (he’s very much his own person, er, horse-person), but he does share with them some of the qualities of excellent teaching: a passion for communicating knowledge, an emphasis on the individual student, and a deep-seated curiosity about the world.  And, like them, he believes in seizing the moment—in allowing student interest, or current events, to draw the class outside the lines of the lesson.

One of my favorite memories of this kind of teaching is from my high school Latin class.  We were translating the Aeneid, the section where Aeneas’ fleet reaches the Libyan shore.  Vergil takes his time describing the scene—the natural harbor, the overhanging cliffs, the dark groves.  It was beautiful writing, but dense, and the class was finding it dry.

“I don’t get it,” a student complained.  “He’s describing all this stuff, but I have no idea where it all goes.”

“Let’s draw it,” my teacher said.  “Volunteers?”  He opened a brand-new box of colored chalk, and offered it to us.  A few students bounded to the board and started sketching excitedly.  The rest of us scoured the text, offering suggestions (“The forests should be on top of the cliff!”), intent on making the image perfectly match Vergil’s words.  The ringing bell came as a shock.  Hadn’t we just started?

It was such a simple thing for my teacher to do, but utterly transformative.  He completely changed the energy of the class, and brought us back to the material with new, enthusiastic eyes.  That kind of flexibility is something I have striven to emulate in my own classroom.  Yes, it can lead to some unproductive digressions (“Who was that guy who got pantsed by Apollo?“) but those are more than made up for by the many times that it invigorates the class, and sparks new discussion.

Three cheers for Chiron and master teachers everywhere!

Myth of the Week: Chiron

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, 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 “”

Next week, we tackle Clytemnestra—scheming ax-murderer, or avenging matriarch?