Thursday, December 18, 2014

TFBT: Centaurs

This is a continuation of the series of papers generated by the continuing conversations of WilliamMoulton2 and Maya M.  This paper discusses the apotheosis of Heracles. 

After Heracles was poisoned with a vest dipped in hydra venom, what saved him from the fate of Chiron?  

 Let’s start with your theory about a plot against the centaurs. You know if you consider the centaurs just another tribe among the many early tribal people (Graves said a mountain tribe) they suffered a surprising number of death via Heracles arrows. Another big slayer of our four-footed cousins was Theseus the wanna-be and famous imitator of Heracles.   [i]You know H&T were monster slayers. Their job was to slay monsters, tame the wilderness, chase away chaos and creepy things in the woods in order that you and I might create the “polis” . Maybe the centaurs are monsters.   

As to why Heracles didn’t suffer the same fate as Chiron when the Hydra’s venom poisoned his flesh… well this is tacky, but Chiron was a wimp! Admittedly both ditched their mortal bodies in favor of a more “heavenly” one. Heracles didn’t have much choice since he’d ripped off large portions of his skin in attempting to remove the vest. Chiron on the other hand got shot, but come on so did Hades and Hera.[ii] Hera whined about it when playing the pity card (unsuccessfully) and stoic Hades never would have mentioned it.[iii]    Those sources that mention Chiron's death attribute it to a poisoned Heracles' arrow which either directly killed him or made him suffer so much that he chose death himself. (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca) Maybe we were too harsh on poor Chiron.   

Apparently, centaurs, all centaurs, were considered monsters in Greek mythology, and monsters were scheduled to be exterminated by heroes. The two Centaurs for which it was impossible to invent any credible justification to be killed - Pholus and Chiron, were finished off by Heracles, a hero known for "accidentally" causing someone's death about once per month. Poor luck? [iv]Aeschylus seems to share the opinion that Chiron's death is a result of Olympian plan, and adds an additional layer of scheming. At the end of the Prometheus Bound, angry Zeus pledges that he will release Prometheus "only when another immortal offers himself to die". Some scholars see here a metaphor for "never", similar to our expressions "when pattens produce blossoms", "in the cuckoo's summer" (i.e. when the cuckoo sings at summertime) and "at willow's Friday" (i.e. when Palm Sunday happens to be on Friday). There seemed no hope of finding  an ancient source supporting the  hypothesis that the "accidental" killing of Pholus and wounding of Chiron was a result of divine plot, but here it is, in Diodorus Siculus: "Pholus the Centaur, from whom the neighboring mountain came to be called Pholo√™, and receiving Heracles with the courtesies due to a guest he opened for him a jar of wine which had been buried in the earth. This jar, the writers of myths relate, had of old been left with a certain Centaur by Dionysus, who had given him orders only to open it when Heracles should come to that place. And so, four generation after that time, when Heracles was being entertained as a guest, Pholus recalled the orders of Dionysus..."  He fulfilled the orders, and the gates of Hell opened. 

 Let's see when centaurs appear in other myths:
- The wedding of Hippodamia and the battle of Lapiths with the Centaurs.  The Centaur-leader  Eurytion, in a drunken state, outrage the bride her groom Peirithos and best man Theseus respond.  Homer (Iliad 1:268) says that the Centaurs were "destroyed" in the battle. says that these Centaurs and the Lapiths' adversaries were different tribes, residing resp. in Peloponnese and on Mount Pelion. Chiron saves Peleus from other Centaurs preparing to kill him and gives him back his sword. Homer already states that Peirithos, the king of the Lapiths, chased his enemies away from Mount Pelion.  This, however, could be earlier than the battle of Heracles.
- Nessus carries Deianira and is killed by Heracles.
- Chiron, after bringing up many heroes and hosting Peleus' wedding, dies as a result of Heracles' poisoned arrow. However, his death comes many years after the injury (his last student Achilles is not even born by the time of the injury). The death of the only immortal Centaur makes us speculate that all his mortal fellow tribesmen may have already gone. And this is close to the "end of time" of mythology. As far as I know, no one hero returning from the Trojan War has encountered a Centaur. Not even Odysseus, who claims to have had business with all other fabulous creatures.   

It is clear from these notices that already from the early Archaic Age onwards the Centaurs were continually marginalized.  (J.N. Bremmer in Laura Feldt (Ed.), Wilderness in Mythology and Religion). "...Centaurs were no longer perceived as more or less human opponents but more and more as monsters that had to be eradicated, even the more civilized ones. The annihilation of the Centaurs shows that, in the rationalizing fifth century BC, the ideas of the Greeks about their mountains had considerably changed. They may have remained dangerous territory, but the mountains were no longer inhabited by creatures symbolizing their 'wild' nature."
There is a theory that as time progressed depictions of the Gigantomachy and Centauromachy began to represent more and more in the minds of the Greeks the war against "Barbarians". Initially those battles represent the gods and heroes respectively defeating chaos and ordering the world. Once that's done you've got to defeat those rowdy Persians.

[i] Oddly, Heracles and Theseus were a few of the heroes not raised by Chiron.
[ii] Slater (1968) 347-50
[iii] Iliad 5.392-94
[iv] (Maya M.  “You mentioned once that you don't believe Dionysus passed by Ariadne just by chance. I'd propose "Bill's Law": In myth, there is no such thing as coincidence. “  WilliamMoulton2 “Thank you, but Bill’s Law of Coincidence is Myth is nothing more than Maya’s Law of Scholium as Saviors”.)


  1. The Greeks, however, never went too far in dehumanizing their human enemies. Homer's legacy of regarding everyone as just human was apparently lasting. I don't know of any Greek work of literature or art demonizing Persians like the recent movie "300" did.
    Compare this to the view of the Persians in question:

    "These "Turanians" of Aniran, apparently the traditional enemies of the Avestan (i.e. Persian)-speaking peoples, appear in Zoroastrian cosmogony and cosmology as the noxious folk of the sixteen lands created by Angra Mainyu" (i.e. the Satan).

  2. Maya,

    Excellent point. Even in the tragedies, the poets went to great links to make the most ferocious characters sympathetic to some degree. If they demonized anyone it was the gods.

    I wonder when society started demonizing "the other". I recall when my son started playing sports in school, he referred to the visiting team as "the enemy". I pointed out they were his friends, who'd be best be nice to or they would not come back and play us.

  3. It is funny how the emotions and language initially developed for warfare are used and vented in sport.
    As for demonization of "the others" - it is natural. Members of social species not only live together in groups, but are known for their hostility to other groups of the same species. In his Shadows of forgotten ancestors, Sagan describes how monkeys and apes regularly patrol the borders of their group's area and, if one of the neighboring groups fails to patrol its area, our groups expands its area at the expense of the weak or pacifist neighbors, driving them to extinction.
    As soon as humans developed consciousness, they apparently felt a bit uneasy about slaughtering other human tribes and started demonizing the victims in order to feel better. It requires special effort to admit, as Homer did, that the human beings we are exterminating are no worse than us.

  4. I always thought our demonization of wolves, was because the competed with us for game. Sort of like the demonization of sea lions where I live; they compete with my neighbor/fishermen for salmon.

  5. Your world seems almost legendary to me!
    I think you are right. For the wolves, there are additional reasons - they kill and snatch livestock and, when numerous and hungry, attack even humans.
    Stefan Stambolov, one of the first Prime Ministers in Bulgaria's modern history (mandate 1887-1894), once complained in his diary about the lack of patriotism in Bulgarian doctors. The occasion: a murder had happened in the village of Svoge (, 30 km from the capital Sofia. Svoge had no physician, let alone a forensic expert. So the authorities tried to send doctors from Sofia, but nobody accepted the mission. It was winter, and the doctors said, "Unthinkable! We'll never get to Svoge alive. We'll freeze, and if we don't, we'll be eaten by wolves."

  6. Maya,
    The disadvantage of living in a legendary world is the monsters. Fall before this a man in the town of Hoonah was attacked by a sow brown bear and her yearling cub. It was right in downtown hookah right after dinner. His neighbors saved him. Twelve months earlier one of our contractors was taking groceries out to a camp of tree thinners. His open boat broke down right before dark. He paddled to shore, ate a cold dinner, was attacked, chased, killed, eaten and his remains cached for later. The only officially recorded victim to be killed by a pack of wolves was about five years ago. We need a few demigods around here.


  7. Do people there wish the large predators exterminated?

  8. Maya,

    I think everyone in Southeast Alaska likes bears. But we are vengeful when they kill one of us.