In Greek mythology, Chiron /ˈkaɪrən/ (also Cheiron or Kheiron; Greek: Χείρων “hand”) was held to be the superlative centaur among his brethren. Chiron was notable throughout Greek mythology for his kourotrophic (bringer up of boys) nature. His personal skills tend to match those of Apollo, his foster father (sometimes along with Artemis); medicine, music, archery, hunting, prophecy.
Like the satyrs, centaurs were notorious for being wild and lusty, overly indulgent drinkers and carousers, given to violence when intoxicated, and generally uncultured delinquents. Chiron, by contrast, was intelligent, civilized and kind, but he was not related directly to the other centaurs. He was known for his knowledge and skill with medicine. According to an archaic myth he was sired by Cronus when he had taken the form of a horse and impregnated the nymph Philyra.
Chiron’s lineage was different from other centaurs, who were born of sun and raincloud, rendered by Greeks of the Classic period as from the union of the king Ixion, consigned to a fiery wheel, and Nephele (“cloud”), which in the Olympian telling Zeus invented to look like Hera. Myths in the Olympian tradition attributed Chiron’s uniquely peaceful character and intelligence to teaching by Apollo and Artemis in his younger days.
Chiron lived predominantly on Mount Pelion; there he married the nymph Chariclo who bore him three daughters, Hippe (also known as Melanippe (also the name of her daughter), the “Black Mare” or Euippe, “truly a mare”), Endeis, and Ocyrhoe, and one son Carystus.
A great healer, astrologer, and respected oracle, Chiron was said to be the first among centaurs and highly revered as a teacher and tutor. Among his pupils were many culture heroes: Asclepius, Aristaeus, Ajax, Aeneas, Actaeon, Caeneus, Theseus, Achilles, Jason, Peleus, Telamon, Perseus, sometimes Heracles, Oileus, Phoenix, and in one Byzantine tradition, even Dionysus: according to Ptolemaeus Chennus of Alexandria, “Dionysius was loved by Chiron, from whom he learned chants and dances, the bacchic rites and initiations.”
There is also a persistent link with Peleus throughout Chiron’s myth. Chiron saved the life of Peleus when Acastus tried to kill him by taking his sword and leaving him out in the woods to be slaughtered by the centaurs. Chiron retrieved the sword for Peleus. Some sources speculate that Chiron was originally a Thessalian god, later subsumed into the Greek pantheon as a centaur. Chiron then explained to Peleus how to capture the nymph Thetis, leading to their marriage.
Although a centaur, Chiron’s physical appearance often differs somewhat from other centaurs, demonstrating his status and heritage. In traditional Greek representations of Chiron his front legs are human, rather than equine, this is in contrast to the traditional representation of centaurs,which have the entire lower body of a horse. This clearly sets Chiron apart from the other centaurs, making him easily identifiable. This difference may also have highlighted Chiron’s unique lineage, being the son of Cronus. Chiron is often depicted carrying a branch with dead hares he has caught hanging from it. Chiron is also often depicted wearing clothes, demonstrating he is more civilised and unlike a normal centaur (the only other occasional exceptions to this rule are the centaurs Nessus and Pholus).
The ‘Education of Achilles’ wall painting, from the basilica in Herculaneum (top right), is one of the most common Roman depictions of Chiron, as he teaches Achilles the lyre. In this version we see Chiron with a fully equine lower body; this is in contrast to the ancient Greek representations in which he has the front legs of a man. In addition to this reconfiguration, Chiron’s appearance is further altered with his ears. Whereas previously human, Chiron’s ears now match those of a satyr; folded over at the top. This rendering creates a more bestial version of Chiron, much more akin to a standard centaur. It may be possible that due to the rise of written sources, Roman artist were inspired by written descriptions of Chiron; simply using the word centaur, rather than having available traditional visual representations. This may then, not be a deliberate reworking of the Chiron myth on the part of the Romans, but simply a lost nuance of the character in its migration from Greece to Rome. As F. Kelsey writes; “The Chiron of our painting, […] has a body like that of the other centaurs, but the prominence of the human element in his nature is no less marked; he is the wise and gentle teacher, the instructor of an art” (1908, pp. 37). Interestingly, Chiron has retained an element of clothing and gained a laurel wreath, suggesting the artist wished to portray nobility, or even divinity, more consistent with the traditional view. It has also been suggested that this fresco is a reproduction of an actual statue in the Roman forum.
His nobility is further reflected in the story of his death, as Prometheus sacrificed his life, allowing mankind to obtain the use of fire. Being the son of Cronus, a Titan, he was immortal and so could not die. So it was left to Heracles to arrange a bargain with Zeus to exchange Chiron’s immortality for the life of Prometheus, who had been chained to a rock and left to die for his transgressions. Chiron had been poisoned with an arrow belonging to Heracles that had been treated with the blood of the Hydra, or, in other versions, poison that Chiron had given to the hero when he had been under the honorable centaur’s tutelage. According to a Scholium on Theocritus, this had taken place during the visit of Heracles to the cave of Pholus on Mount Pelion in Thessaly when he visited his friend during his fourth labour in defeating the Erymanthian Boar.
While they were at supper, Heracles asked for some wine to accompany his meal. Pholus, who ate his food raw, was taken aback. He had been given a vessel of sacred wine by Dionysus sometime earlier, to be kept in trust for the rest of the centaurs until the right time for its opening. At Heracles’ prompting, Pholus was forced to produce the vessel of sacred wine. The hero, gasping for wine, grabbed it from him and forced it open. Thereupon the vapours of the sacred wine wafted out of the cave and intoxicated the wild centaurs, led by Nessus, who had gathered outside. They attacked the cave with stones and fir trees. Heracles was forced to shoot many arrows (poisoned with the blood of the Hydra) to drive them back. During this assault, Chiron was hit in the thigh by one of the poisoned arrows.
After the centaurs had fled, Pholus emerged from the cave to observe the destruction. Being of a philosophical frame of mind, he pulled one of the arrows from the body of a dead centaur and wondered how such a little thing as an arrow could have caused so much death and destruction. In that instant, he let slip the arrow from his hand and it dropped and hit him in the hoof, killing him instantly. This, however, is open to controversy, because Pholus shared the “civilized centaur” form with Chiron in some art images, and thus would have been immortal.
Ironically, Chiron, the master of the healing arts, could not heal himself, so he willingly gave up his immortality. He was honoured with a place in the sky, identified by the Greeks as the constellation Centaurus.
In Ovid’s poem Fasti Ovid has the hero Hercules visiting Chiron’s home on Pelion while Achilles, still a child is there. While Chiron is examining Hercules’ weapons, one of the arrows dipped in Lernaean hydra venom falls on Chiron’s left foot and poisons him. Chiron then tries to use herbs to heal himself, but fails. After nine days, with a weeping Achilles looking on, Chiron passes into the stars.
“While the old man fingers the foul, poisoned shafts,
An arrow slips out and stabs his left foot.
Chiron groaned and hauled the iron from his flesh” (5.397-99)
Among the students of Chiron are:
Achilles – When Achilles’ mother Thetis left home and returned to the Nereids, Peleus brought his son Achilles to Chiron, who received him as a disciple, and fed him on the innards of lions and wild swine, and the marrow of she-wolves.
Actaeon – Actaeon, who was bred by Chiron to be a hunter, is famous for his terrible death for he in the shape of a deer was devoured by his own dogs. The dogs, ignorant of what they had done, came to the cave of Chiron seeking their master, and the Centaur fashioned an image of Actaeon in order to soothe their grief.
Aristaeus – The Muses were, according to some, those who taught Aristaeus the arts of healing and of prophecy. Aristaeus discovered honey and the olive. After the death of his son Actaeon he migrated to Sardinia.
Asclepius – The great healing power of Asclepius is based on Chiron’s teaching. Artemis killed Asclepius’ mother Coronis, on Apollo’s orders, while still pregnant but snatched the child from the pyre, bringing him to Chiron who reared him and taught him the arts of healing and hunting.
Jason – In an early tradition, Aeson gave his son Jason to the Centaur Chiron to rear at the time when he was deposed by King Pelias. Jason is the captain of the Argonauts.
Medus – Medus, who some call Polyxenus and others Medeus, is the man after whom the country Media was called. He was the son of Medea by Aegeus. Med[e]us died in a military campaign against the Indians.
Patroclus – Patroclus’ father left him in Chiron’s cave, to study, side by side with Achilles, the chords of the harp, and learn to hurl spears and mount and ride upon the back of genial Chiron.
Peleus – Peleus, father of Achilles, was once rescued by Chiron: Acastus, son of Pelias, purified Peleus for having killed (undesignedly) his father-in-law Eurytion. However, Acastus’ wife, Astydameia, fell in love with Peleus, and as he refused her she intrigued against him, telling Acastus that Peleus had attempted to rape her. Acastus would not kill the man he had purified, but took him to hunt on Mount Pelion. When Peleus had fallen asleep, Acastus deserted him, hiding his sword. On arising and looking for his sword, Peleus was caught by the centaurs and would have perished, if he had not been saved by Chiron, who also restored him his sword after having sought and found it. Chiron arranged the marriage of Peleus with Thetis, bringing Achilles up for her. He also told Peleus how to conquer the Nereid Thetis who, changing her form, could prevent him from catching her. In other legends, it was Proteus who helped Peleus. When Peleus married Thetis, he received from Chiron an ashen spear, which Achilles took to the war at Troy. This spear is the same with which Achilles healed Telephus by scraping off the rust.
The Precepts of Chiron
A didactic poem, Precepts of Chiron, part of the traditional education of Achilles, was considered to be among Hesiod’s works by some of the later Greeks, for example, the Romanized Greek traveller of the 2nd century CE, Pausanias, who noted a list of Hesiod’s works that were shown to him, engraved on an ancient and worn leaden tablet, by the tenders of the shrine at Helicon in Boeotia. But another, quite different tradition was upheld of Hesiod’s works, Pausanias notes, which included the Precepts of Chiron. Apparently it was among works from Acharnae written in heroic hexameters and attached to the famous name of Hesiod, for Pausanias adds “Those who hold this view also say that Hesiod was taught soothsaying by the Acharnians.” Though it has been lost, fragments in heroic hexameters that survive in quotations are considered to belong to it.
The common thread in the fragments, which may reflect in some degree the Acharnian image of Chiron and his teaching, is that it is expository rather than narrative, and suggests that, rather than recounting the inspiring events of archaic times as men like Nestor or Glaucus might do, Chiron taught the primeval ways of mankind, the gods and nature, beginning with the caution “First, whenever you come to your house, offer good sacrifices to the eternal gods”. Chiron in the Precepts considered that no child should have a literary education until he had reached the age of seven. A fragment associated with the Precepts concerns the span of life of the nymphs, in the form of an ancient number puzzle:
A chattering crow lives out nine generations of aged men, but a stag’s life is four times a crow’s, and a raven’s life makes three stags old, while the phoenix outlives nine ravens, but we, the rich-haired Nymphs, daughters of Zeus the aegis-holder, outlive ten phoenixes.”
In human terms, Chiron advises, “Decide no suit, until you have heard both sides speak”.
The Alexandrian critic Aristophanes of Byzantium (late 3rd-early 2nd century BCE) was the first to deny that the Precepts of Chiron was the work of Hesiod.
The ‘Achilleid’ was to be an epic poem on the life of Achilles, however its author, Statius, died during the writing of the second book, late in the first century AD during the reign of the Emperor Domitian. The Achilleid shows the relationship between Chiron and his charge, Achilles. During Book One, the close relationship between Chiron and Achilles is made clear when Thetis spends the evening with them in Chiron’s cave on Mount Pelion, before leaving with Achilles. Chiron is shown in a paternal capacity, rather than that of merely a teacher, and is depicted as far from animal, “Night draws to slumber. The huge Centaur collapses on stone and Achilles fondly twines himself about his shoulders, though his mother is there,preferring the familiar bosom.” (1.195-97). Here, Statius is showing a loving relationship between the two characters, which the traditional view of Chiron never explored. Later, when describing what he ate when growing up, Achilles refers to Chiron as a parent; “thus that father of mine used to feed me” (2.102), the Latin used here is ‘pater’ so we may judge this an accurate translation. This further demonstrates the nature of the loving relationship between Chiron and Achilles. Statius here may be continuing a theme started by Ovid in ‘Fasti’ several years earlier.
In Fasti, on Chiron’s death, Achilles says “’Live, I beg you; don’t leave me, dear father [pater]!’”(5.412), this would suggest that in Rome the reconfiguration of Chiron’s myth was as a loving and loved foster parent, rather than simply teacher. Chiron’s relationship with his pupil is used to demonstrate a Roman longing for the father, son, relationship. In addition to Chiron’s loving characteristics developed in Book One, Book Two of the Achilleid has Achilles described his heroic education under Chiron. Achilles describes many tasks Chiron would make him perform,including standing in fast flowing rivers; “I stood, but the angry river and the mist of his broad rush took me back. He bore down on me with savage threats and scolded to shame me. I did not leave till ordered” (2.146-150). There is a clear contrast here in the hardship and insults Chiron is directing at his pupil compared to his previous kindness. However, this duality can be seen as a demonstration of a traditional Roman education, especially a noble one; learning both military and refined arts. Centaurs in antiquity were often remembered for their battle with the Lapiths.
Statius deliberately disassociates Chiron from this story with his description of Chiron’s cave on Pelion, “Here are no darts that have tasted human blood, no ash trees fractured in festive combats, nor mixing bowls shattered upon kindred foes” (1.111-15). Instead of combat, the emphasis is that Chiron’s weapons are only used for hunting and there are no signs of savage behaviour. In addition to Achilles’ descriptions of the physical lessons Chiron gives him he also refers to a more cultured education, “He fixed in my mind the precepts of sacred justice” (2.163-4). Statius creates an image of Chiron that is not only a loving father, but a strict and wise teacher, disassociated with the bestial aspects of centaurs.
Chiron appears in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. He leads the centaurs in Hell’s Circle of Violence where they fire their arrows at any of the damned that try to escape from the Phlegethon. Although Chiron has been relegated to the status of a guardian of Hell, he is able to retain an element of his previous wisdom. On entering the area Dante and Virgil are called to by Nessus, but Virgil refuses to speak to him, saying that they will only speak with Chiron and identifying him to Dante; “The middle one (eyes fixed upon his chest) is Chiron the Great. He nurtured Achilles” (12.70-1).
John Updike’s novel The Centaur is an expansion and interpretation of the story of Chiron, set in the context of 20th-century small-town America. Chiron is portrayed as a teacher, George Caldwell, who is completely unsuited to teaching in a modern setting. The novel jumps between human and centaur representations on Chiron/Caldwell, depending on the situation. Chiron is portrayed as extremely unhappy in a modern setting, dreaming of his mythical past.