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The Centaur Chiron in Greek Mythology

Updated on May 30, 2015
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Chiron the Centaur

The centaurs are some of the most recognisable creatures of Greek mythology, although in recent years JK Rowling has reinvented them for her Harry Potter series of books.

Similarities though exist between the fictional centaurs of Ancient Greece, and those of the modern days. In Greek mythology, the majority of centaurs were violent and drunkards, similar to the majority who lived in Rowling’s Forbidden Forest; but there was one centaur who stood out from the majority, for JK Rowling this was Firenze, for the Ancient Greeks, it was Chiron.

Wellcome Images CC-BY-4.0
Wellcome Images CC-BY-4.0 | Source

The Birth of Chiron

In Greek mythology, Chiron was highly regarded as the most cultured of all of the centaurs; this regard perhaps representative of the fact that Chiron had different parentage to other centaurs.

Most centaurs were said to have been born of a relationship between Ixion, King of the Lapiths, and the cloud nymph, Nephele; Zeus having created Nephele in the image of Hera, to test the resolve of Ixion.

Chiron though, had different parents, and was born from a brief relationship between Kronos, the supreme Titan, and the Oceanid nymph, Philyra. When Kronos slept with Philyra, upon Mount Pelion, the god transformed himself into a horse, and so, when Chiron was born, he was half-humanoid and half-horse.

Philyra was sad to be so upset by the looks of the child that she rejected Chiron, and the Oceanid had the gods transform her into a Linden Tree.

Chiron on Mount Pelion

Despite being abandoned by his mother, Chiron prospered on Mount Pelion, and grew up to be a wise and intelligent centaur. This maturing was no doubt helped by the fact that the Olympian gods, Apollo and Artemis, were looking after him, and also teaching him.

Chiron would marry a nymph called Chariclo, and become father to four children; three daughters, Hippe, Endeis and Ocyrhoe, and a son, Carystus.

Ocyrhoe was famously turned into a horse by the gods, when she unwisely used her gift of prophecy to tell her father his ultimate fate.

The teachings of Apollo and Artemis ensured that Chiron was well versed in prophecy, astrological knowledge, healing and medicine, (indeed, Chiron was said to have invented medicine by some), and soon Chiron was passing on his knowledge to others.

Chiron Raises Asclepius

Hendrik Goltzius Workshop PD-life-100
Hendrik Goltzius Workshop PD-life-100 | Source

Chiron and Achilles

Chiron and Achilles. Lithograph after J.B. Regnault CC-BY-4.0
Chiron and Achilles. Lithograph after J.B. Regnault CC-BY-4.0 | Source

Students of Chiron

Over the years, Chiron would pass on his knowledge to many of the most famous mortals of Greek mythology; although the list of famous students that Chiron trained varies from source to source.

Asclepius – Asclepius was the son of Apollo, rescued from a funeral pyre by his father, and placed in the hands of Chiron. The centaur would train Asclepius in the ways of medicine and healing, but the student would outdo the teacher.

Achilles – Peleus would present his son Achilles to Chiron for training, and the centaur helped to train him in the ways of the warrior. Companions of Achilles during the Trojan War, Patroclus and Phoenix were also said to have been trained by the centaur, as was another hero Ajax the Greater.

Jason – Jason as a child was rescued from the wrath of Pelias by his mother, Alcimede, who sent Jason to Chiron for tutelage. The knowledge of Chiron would help the hero in his quest for the Golden Fleece.

Actaeon - Actaeon was a Theban hero trained by Chiron to be a great hunter. One day he accidentally saw Artemis bathing naked, and the goddess turned him into a stag, which Actaeon’s own dogs then tore to pieces.

Other mortals occasionally named as being tutored by Chiron include Theseus, the Greek hero, Heracles, the demi-god son of Zeus, Medus, the son of Medea, and Oileus, one of the heroes onboard the Argo.

The Education of Achilles

Bénigne Gagneraux (1756–1795) PD-art-100
Bénigne Gagneraux (1756–1795) PD-art-100 | Source

Chiron's Links to Peleus

It has already been mentioned how Peleus’ son Achilles was trained by Chiron, but there were previous links between the centaur and Peleus.

Chiron first encountered Peleus on Mount Pelion, when Acastus, abandoned Peleus on Mount Pelion hiding Peleus’ sword whilst the hero slept. Acastus believed that the dangers associated with Mount Pelion would kill Peleus; Acastus wrongfully thinking that Peleus had attempted to rape Astydamia, Acastus’ wife.

Peleus might well have been killed by the centaurs of Mount Pelion, but Chiron came along, restored the sword to Peleus, and then prevented the other centaurs from harming the hero. Peleus was then welcomed into Chiron’s cave home.

It was to Chiron that Peleus would turn when he discovered his wife Thetis dipping his newborn son into ambrosia and fire; Peleus asking Chiron and Chariclo to raise Achilles. In some versions of the myth it had been Chiron who had helped Peleus to make Thetis his wife.

Heracles Slays the Centaurs

Charles Le Brun PD-art-100
Charles Le Brun PD-art-100 | Source

The Death of Chiron

In Greek mythology, Chiron was considered to be immortal, so how did Chiron die? The stories of Ancient Greece do tell of the centaur’s death; although, the timeline of these ancient sources is confusing at best.

One day Heracles would turn up on Mount Pelion to visit Pholus, another wise centaur, who had offered the hero hospitality during one of his Labours. Pholus had welcomed Heracles into his cave, and food had been served, Pholus had then opened a special bottle of wine to wash down the food.

The wine had been a present from Dionysus, and when opened, the aroma of the wine drifted over Mount Pelion, attracting all of the other centaurs. These centaurs tried to enter Pholus’ home, and Heracles was forced to drive them off, and used his bow and arrows to do just that. The arrows were dipped in the blood of the Lernaean Hydra, and many centaurs were killed.

Chiron had been attracted to the cave of Pholus by the commotion rather than the wine, but when Heracles loosed off his arrows, one went through a centaur and struck Chiron.

Whilst the blood of the Hydra was deadly it could not kill the immortal Chiron, and instead the centaur was wracked with intense pain; and even his own medicinal skills could not cure Chiron.

To get rid of the pain, Heracles and Chiron concocted a plan, and Heracles went to Zeus to offer up the immortality of Chiron in exchange for the release of Prometheus from his eternal punishment.

There was of course no logical reason why Zeus would want Chiron’s immortality, nor why he would want to release Prometheus, but the proposition was being present by his favourite mortal son, and so Zeus agreed to the request. Allowing Chiron to die and releasing him from his pain. Chiron was then placed amongst the stars, as the Sagittarius constellation, making him eternal once again; Chiron and astrology are therefore often linked.

There is of course a problem with the time line of events, for Heracles was supposed to have lived in the generation before Achilles, and so for the stories to follow. Zeus must have agreed to the request of Heracles years after it was presented to him, leaving Chiron with pain for many years, all through the years of raising Achilles.


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