Chiron, the Noble Elder Centaur of Greek Mythology
Greek mythology is full of weird and wonderful creatures. While the most famous were those sent to hinder the ancient Greek heroes, Greek mythology was also full of helpful creatures. Perhaps the most famous of all was Chiron the centaur, half-man and half-horse. Chiron was a wise creature, responsible for teaching several important Greek heroes.
Who Was Chiron?
Chiron was considered the wisest of all the centaurs. Centaurs, like satyrs, generally had a bad reputation. They were considered to be wild, overly lustful, drunkards, who became violent when intoxicated. In general, they were thought to lack culture. Chiron was the opposite. He was intelligent, civilized, and kind. This was perhaps partly due to his parentage; he was not directly related to other centaurs.
Chiron was an expert in medicine and was credited with the discovery of botany, pharmacy, and medicine. Chiron would go on to teach young Greek heroes all the skills he had been taught by his foster father, Apollo.
Most centaurs were born from Ixion, king of an ancient Greek tribe, and Nephele, a cloud nymph. Chiron, on the other hand, was sired by Cronos, father of Zeus, and the nymph Philyra. According to an ancient myth, Cronus was having sex with Philyra when his wife, Rhea, caught him. This prompted him to shapeshift into the shape of a horse mid-coitus to escape. His transformation at the moment of climax resulted in the birth of Chiron.
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The parents of Chiron were the god Cronus and the nymph Philyra. 16th century oil painting by Parmigianino (Public Domain)
Chiron went on to marry a nymph named Chariclo. They had three daughters, Hippe, Endeis, and Ocyhoe, as well as one son, Carystus. In addition to these children, Chiron and his wife would go on to foster several mortals who would grow into heroes.
Philyra was ashamed of how her child had been conceived and disgusted at Chiron’s animalistic appearance. Soon after his birth, Chiron was abandoned and left to die by his mother. Luckily for him, he was found by Apollo, who chose to take the orphan in. Apollo taught the young centaur the art of the lyre, archery, medicine, and prophecy.
Apollo then introduced Chiron to his sister, Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. Artemis taught him how to wield a bow and hunt with it. The fact that Chiron grew up to be so well-balanced, peaceful, kind, and intelligent was attributed to the way he was raised by the two siblings.
Chiron’s unique character meant he soon became the first among the centaurs. Besides his role as leader of the centaurs, he also became revered as a teacher and tutor of men.
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Chiron the Teacher, 1873 drawing (Public Domain)
Chiron and Peleus
In Greek mythology, Peleus was a great hero and the king of Pythia. He was married to Thetis, and their child Achilles would become the most famous of Greek heroes. Peleus and Chiron were closely linked, as Chiron was his grandfather. Peleus was the son of Chiron’s daughter Endeis and Aeacus, king of Aegina.
Peleus was once staying in the ancient city of Iolcus. While there, Astydameia, the wife of King Acastus, attempted to seduce him. Being an honorable man, and no fool, Peleus turned her down. This turned out to be a mistake.
The spurned Astydameia went to her husband and told him Peleus had attempted to rape her. The king wanted Peleus dead, but had a problem. To kill a guest was one of the worst crimes in ancient Greece; to do so would bring down the wrath of the furies, or Erinyes. Seeking a loophole, King Acastus began looking for a way to blame someone else for the death of his guest.
Acastus decided to take Peleus hunting on Mount Pelion, a normal activity for a host and his guest. On the first night, while Peleus slept, Acastus stole Peleus’ sword and hid it. He then slipped away into the night and went home. He planned on the savage centaurs who lived on the mountain finding Peleus and killing him.
Of course, if you plan on having centaurs kill a man, that man probably shouldn’t be the grandson of the centaur’s leader. It was Chiron who found Peleus. Chiron rearmed the young man and invited him into his home.
Peleus later returned to Iolcus and pillaged it. He killed the king and dismembered Astydameia, marching his army between her severed limbs. The kingdom fell without its king and queen, and was ultimately claimed by Thessalus, son of the hero Jason.
Chiron was also responsible for the marriage of Peleus and his wife, Thetis. Peleus was in love with Thetis, who was a Nereid, a minor sea goddess. The problem was Thetis had no interest in marrying a mere mortal, however great his reputation was. As a Nereid, Thetis could shapeshift to escape the man’s advances.
Peleus went to the wisest creature he knew, Chiron. Chiron told Peleus how he could capture and tie up Thetis in such a way as to prevent her from changing and escaping. Peleus managed to capture Thetis, and she eventually relented, agreeing to marry him.
Peleus wrestling Thetis (who shapeshifts in fire and big cat), between Chiron and a Nereid. Greek amphora, circa 510 BC (Public Domain)
Chiron attended their wedding, and his gift to the two was a special spear. The shaft was made from ash and had been polished by Athena herself. The metal point had been forged by Hephaestus, armorer to the gods. This spear would later be handed down to the couple’s child, the mighty Achilles.
Chiron, Peleus, and infant Achilles (Public Domain)
Chiron the Teacher
Chiron's biggest impact on Greek mythology was probably the number of young heroes who gravitated towards him for lessons. Chiron was responsible for raising and teaching many Greek heroes who would use those skills during their adventures.
It is perhaps no wonder that Achilles ended up being taught by Chiron, considering Peleus and Chiron’s relationship. There are two versions of how Chiron came to raise his great-grandson Achilles. In one, it was Thetis who brought Achilles to the centaur. She was caught trying to make Achilles immortal, and was forced to flee the royal palace. In another, it was Peleus who took his son to the centaur, so that he might learn from his former master.
Achilles was then raised by Chiron and his wife. Chiron taught him all he knew, as well as feeding him the innards of lions, bears, and boars, so that he would grow up big and strong. In some versions of the tale, Chiron also renamed his young ward. It was said that the young hero was originally named Ligyron, but Chiron changed it to Achilles.
The centaur Chiron instructed several Greek heroes, including his great-grandson Achilles. The Education of Achilles, 1861 oil painting by Auguste-Clément Chrétien (Public Domain)
Aristaeus was a minor god, born of Apollo and Cyrene, the huntress. Apollo took Aristaeus to his adopted son, Chiron. Chiron raised and taught the young god Aristaeus, who went on to be a rustic god, a god of arts such as bee-keeping and cheese making.
Actaeon was the son of Aristaeus, and one of the centaur's more tragic pupils. Chiron taught the young Actaeon to be a master hunter. Later in life, Actaeon was hunting in the woods when he came across Artemis bathing. Enraged that the mortal had seen her virgin body naked, Artemis turned the hunter into a stag.
Sadly, Actaeon’s hunting dogs did not recognize their master in his new form and devoured him. They then returned home to Chiron’s dwelling to look for their owner. The dogs were so distraught at the loss of their master that Chiron created an image of him to soothe the suffering dogs.
The grisly death of Actaeon, one of Chiron’s students (Japiot / CC BY SA 3.0)
Asclepius was the Greek god of doctors. At this point, it should be easy to guess where he gained his skills. Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a mortal named Coronis. Foolishly, Coronis cheated on Apollo with another mortal, Ischys. Ischys was then killed by Apollo, and Coronis was killed by Artemis.
Coronis was placed on a funeral pyre to be burnt, but before the flames could embrace her, Apollo rescued Asclepius from her womb. He then took the infant to Chiron to be raised. Chiron taught the boy the art of medicine and healing.
Asclepius became the greatest of all Greeks, and it was said that he eventually surpassed his master. This became his undoing. Asclepius became such a skilled surgeon that it was said he could even resurrect the dead. Zeus could not abide this and killed him.
1st century AD fresco from Pompeii. Left to right: Apollo, Chiron, and Asclepius. (Public Domain)
The Death of Chiron
As the son of the Titan Cronus, it should have been impossible for Chiron to die. Yet he did, and it was all due to Heracles, son of Zeus.
Heracles’s fourth labor was to kill the Erymanthian boar. During this labor, he visited the cave of another wise centaur, Pholus. While Pholus, Heracles, and Chiron were dining, Heracles requested some wine with his food.
Mid-17th century bronze figure of Hercules and the Erymanthian boar. This fight would lead to the eventual death of Chiron (Public Domain)
Pholus did not really drink, and the only wine he had in his cave was a sacred wine left by the god Dionysus, who had instructed him not to open it until the right time came. Heracles refused to take no for an answer and forced the centaur to bring out the wine. Heracles then grabbed the wine away from the centaur and forced the jar open.
The smell of the sacred wine intoxicated the nearby centaurs who were waiting outside. They were driven into a frenzy and attacked the cave. Heracles was forced to take up his bow and repel the attack. Arrows rained down inside and outside the cave. In the chaos, Chiron was struck in the thigh by one of Heracles’s arrows.
A mere arrow wound should not have been a problem for an immortal like Chiron, but tragically these arrows had been tipped in hydra blood. Hydra blood was toxic enough to kill any mortal instantly. As an immortal, Chiron was left in agonizing pain. Even his mighty healing powers could not reduce the agony.
Chiron went to his half-brother, Zeus, and asked him to remove his immortality, so that he might die and escape the pain. Zeus, who respected his brother, agreed and allowed Chiron to die. He then placed him among the stars as the constellation Centaurus.
A slightly different version of the tale had Heracles approach his father Zeus and ask him to allow Chiron to die. In this version, Heracles struck a deal with his father, where Chiron died and in return, Prometheus, who Zeus had imprisoned and tortured for eternity, was released.
Since Zeus loved Chiron and hated Prometheus, it’s unclear what Zeus got from this deal. Perhaps Zeus allowed Heracles to release Prometheus to assuage his son's guilt at having essentially killed the beloved Chiron.
There are very few, if any, characters in Greek mythology as noble as Chiron. Chiron was in the unique position of being universally loved by both gods and mortals alike. Unlike most Greek gods and heroes, Chiron was never shown to have a fatal flaw. He was a kind, intelligent, wise creature, who sought only to help others.
Chiron’s noble nature was reflected in his death. Unlike many of his students, Chiron died a noble death, choosing to die in dignity rather than living in pain. Even Zeus, perhaps the most temperamental of gods, respected him enough to grant his final wish.
Chiron’s depiction as a wise and noble teacher reflects the great esteem Greek society had for teachers and those who imparted knowledge responsibly. The fact that Chiron was killed not due to any fault of his own but due to the ignorance of the young and head-strong Heracles is telling. Even in death, Chiron was able to teach one final lesson.
Top Image: Chiron is described as the wisest and noblest of the centaurs. After being taught archery by Apollo, he mentored many Greek heroes. Source: pict rider / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
Chiron. April 9, 2021. GreekMythology.com. Available at: https://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Creatures/Chiron/chiron.html
Chiron in Greek Mythology. n.d. GreekLegendandMyths.com Available at: https://www.greeklegendsandmyths.com/chiron.html
Smith, W. 1890. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. William Smith, LLD. William Wayte. G. E. Marindin. Albemarle Street, London. Available at: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a1999.04.0063