Chiron: The Most Famous Centaur in Greek Mythology
In Greek mythology, one centaur was the wisest and most noble of his kind. Read on to learn about Chiron, the wise centaur who trained the Greek heroes!
Centaurs were generally not well-regarded figures in Greek mythology. They were coarse, wild, and lustful brutes who terrorized women and travelers.
One centaur, however, was shown much differently. Chiron was wise, kind, and civilized.
In fact, Chiron was so well-regarded that he was a mentor and foster father to many gods, heroes, and kings. Some of the most notable names in Greek mythology learned all they knew from the oldest of the centaurs.
So why was this half-horse man so much different than his peers? Chiron did not just have a different character, he was an entirely different kind of centaur than the others.
Chiron Was a Different Kind of Centaur
Chiron was the most famous centaur in Greek mythology. He was also very different from others of his kind.
The centaurs were largely portrayed as brutal, lustful creatures. Although they possessed great wisdom, they were more often shown abducting young women, threatening travelers, and drinking in excess.
Chiron, in contrast, as an intelligent and cultured centaur. He was regarded as one of the wisest creatures on earth and held in great esteem by both gods and men.
One of the reasons Chiron was so different from the other centaurs was that he was not directly related to them.
While the other centaurs were the sons of the cloud nymph Nephele and the wicked king Ixion, Chiron came from a noble line. He was the son of the Titan Cronos and an Oceanid named Philyra.
Chiron was born with a dual form because of the circumstances of his conception.
Cronus was married to his sister, Rhea, the mother of the Olympians. His tryst with Philyra was discovered by his wife and he quickly turned into a horse to try to avoid being caught cheating.
As a result, Chiron was born as a centaur. Despite his bestial appearance, he was a half-brother of Zeus and the other children of Cronos.
Even this appearance was different from the other centaurs.
Traditionally, centaurs were shown in Greek art with the torsos and heads of men atop the bodies of horses. They walked on four horse legs.
Chiron, however, was usually shown as slightly more human in appearance. Instead of the front legs of a horse, his front legs were those of a human.
Rather than a human torso resting on top of an equine body, Chiron therefore appeared to have a horse’s hindquarters extending out from an entirely human form. Making him even more human, his front half was usually dressed in long robes.
Although he was more noble than the younger centaurs that were born to Nephele, his mother still rejected him. She abandoned her child out of both disgust at his appearance and shame for her affair with Cronos.
After some time, Chiron was found by Apollo. The protector of boys took pity on the centaur whose mother had abandoned him and whose father was, by this time, imprisoned in Tartarus.
Apollo fostered Chiron and taught him how to be noble and civilized. The god instructed him in music, medicine, poetry, prophecy and law.
Apollo’s sister also had a hand in raising Chiron. She took him into the forest to teach him how to shoot a bow and hunt.
Their influence, combined with his more noble lineage, shaped Chiron’s character. While other centaurs were more brutal creatures, he was noted for his intelligence, kindness, and commitment to peace.
The Foster Father of the Gods
Chiron followed in Apollo’s footsteps as a foster father, teacher, and guardian to later boys. Many of Greece’s greatest heroes, and even some gods, were trained by Chiron.
Achilles, for example, was taken to Chiron by his father after Thetis left to rejoin the Neireids. Chiron took him in as a student and taught him everything he could, including how to heal wounds.
His father Peleus had actually been saved by Chiron. He had been captured by the other centaurs and would have been killed if Chiron had not intervened.
The wise centaur had, in fact, been responsible for arranging the marriage of Peleus and Thetis. He told the young king how to capture the Nereid after convincing Zeus to let them marry.
The ashen spear that Achilles carried into battle had been a wedding present to Peleus from the centaur.
Other heroes of the Trojan War also trained under Chiron. Ajax, Aeneas, Odysseus, and Diomedes all trained together. Achilles and Patroclus began their friendship when they were both students of Chiron.
The twins Castor and Pollux also spent time with Chiron. He taught them many of the skills that would make them famous for both their abilities in battle and their wisdom.
Many of the Argonauts were also his pupils, so when they passed by Chiron’s home they received a warm welcome. Their leader, Jason, had been taken in by Chiron as an infant after his father was deposed so the centaur approved of his quest.
Earlier heroes also learned from the centaur. Both Perseus and Theseus were said to have studied under him.
The hunter Actaeon had learned to shoot from Chiron. After his death, his dogs were so confused that they returned to the centaur, who fashioned a wooden statue of their master to console them.
Heracles and Chiron formed a close bond during the hero’s childhood. Under the care of the centaur, Heracles was spared the wrath of Hera during his youth.
As an infant, Dionysus lived wild with the nymphs who nursed him. They later turned him over to Chiron so he could learn the skills and wisdom he would need to become a great god.
Chiron was so revered as a teacher that the educational system in some Greek cities was said to be based on his precepts. Concepts like not beginning formal education until age seven and hearing both sides of a dispute before making a decision were said to have originated with the wise centaur.
One of the most acclaimed students of Chiron was the son of his own foster father. Apollo’s son Asclepius would learn from both the god and the centaur to become the world’s first physician.
Chiron and the Invention of Medicine
According to many accounts, Chiron was the first practitioner of medicine. Some claim he learned healing from his father, but more often Apollo was credited with instructing him.
“In Homer skill in treating the wounded and persons in need of medicine goes back as far as the third generation of pupil and master. Thus Patroclus, son of Menoetius, is taught the healing art by Achilles, and Achilles, son of Peleus, is taught by Chiron, son of Cronus. And heroes and children of the gods learnt about the nature of roots, the use of different herbs, the concocting of drugs, spells to reduce inflammations, the way to staunch blood, and everything else that they knew.
-Aelian, On Animals 2. 18 (trans. Scholfield)
The gods, however, had innate healing powers. These could not be properly taught because not everyone had the ability to use them.
As a son of Cronos, Chiron had some of these abilities. He wanted to expand on them and, more importantly, make healing accessible to those without divine heritage.
Chiron became the first to study illness and the treatments. He experimented with herbs, tools, and potions to create the first medicines.
This knowledge proved to be valuable to the young men he instructed. Because most were warriors, they could carry these skills into the field to benefit both themselves and their companions.
Achilles, for example, was able to heal Telephus’ lance wound using techniques he learned from the centaur.
The greatest student of Chiron in medicine, however, was Asclepius.
While the centaur’s other protegees used what he had taught them,Asclepius continued to experiment and study the natural world. He actively sought out herbs and techniques that even Chiron and Apollo had no knowledge of.
Chiron was a skilled healer, but Asclepius became the first true physician. He pioneered surgery, bone-setting, and more complex medicines.
Asclepius could also spread what he had learned to more people. Unlike Chiron, he traveled around the world to teach people his new techniques and benefit all people, not just those favored by the gods.
Asclepius became the patron god of medicine. His sons continued his work, many of them taking time to study under Chiron before expanding their knowledge alongside their father.
The Centaur’s Children
Chiron was not only a foster father. He also had children of his own.
The centaur married a nymph named Charlico. Unlike other centaurs, he was content with his wife and raised a family in happiness.
The family made their home on Mount Pelian. There, Chiron instructed both his own children and those he had taken in.
Most accounts claimed that Chiron and Charlico had three daughters and one son together. They were:
- Hippe – Chiron’s oldest daughter was seduced by Aeolus and gave birth to a daughter, Melanippe. She was too ashamed to tell her father, so Artemis took pity on her and turned her into the constellation Equus Primus.
- Endeis – She married King Aeacus of Aegina and had two sons, Peleus and Telamon. Peleus was later saved by his grandfather and married Thetis, becoming the father of Achilles.
- Ocyrhoe – Chiron’s youngest daughter was his best student of prophecy. She was turned into a horse, losing her ability to speak, because she revealed to Chiron exactly what his fate would be.
- Carystus – The centaur’s only son grew up to be a wise and cultured king. His son and grandson studied under Apollo and also became renowned for their musical skills, wisdom, and kindness.
Chiron’s children were also tied to the other centaurs.
When Nephele gave birth to the centaurs, no one knew what to do with them. As daughters of a centaur themselves, Chiron’s daughters offered to foster Nephele’s children.
Thus, while Chiron was not directly related to the other centaurs, he was connected to them because of their upbringing. Although his daughters could not teach them kindness and manners, many of the centaurs learned prophecy, music, and rudimentary medicine from them.
The Death of Chiron
The centaur’s death came about because of his friendship with Heracles.
During the hero’s fourth labor, the hunt for the Erymanthian Boar, he was attacked by the centaurs not far from Mount Pelion. They fled from his arrows and ran to Chiron for help.
Not seeing his former mentor in the crown, Heracles shot another arrow. It embedded itself in the centaur’s knee.
Heracles had dipped his arrows in the venom of the Lernean Hydra. The wound festered and caused Chiron excruciating pain.
None of his medicines or salves did anything to cure the horrible venom. But because Chiron was immortal, the poisoned arrow did not kill him either.
Chiron suffered for many years. The pain was so excruciating that he hoped to someday die, although he believed it would be impossible.
Eventually, an opportunity for relief came in the source of another immortal who had been subjected to painful torture.
During his adventures, Heracles had come across Prometheus. The Titan had been chained to a mountainside for thousands of years as punishment for giving fire to mankind.
Seeing the Caucasian Eagle rip out the Titan’s liver, Heracles took pity on Prometheus. He shot down the eagle and vowed to intercede on the Titan’s behalf.
Heracles was true to his word. When he finished his twelve labors, he appealed to his father to release Prometheus from his torment.
Zeus claimed, however, that the Titan’s life was forfeit because of his crimes. For Prometheus to get his life back, Heracles would have to sacrifice his own.
When Chiron heard this, he offered his own life instead. This would not only save both Heracles and Prometheus, it would also put an end to the pain caused by the Hydra’s venom.
The Centaur in the Stars
Chiron died willingly and for a noble cause. He became the only immortal to give up his life for the good of others.
Prometheus was freed and Zeus finally forgave him for the crime of stealing fire for mankind.
Beyond that, Chiron’s sacrifice also spared Heracles from an early death. The hero would go on to have many more adventures and father several children before earning his own immortality.
Chiron had also done all of this knowing what his fate would be.
His daughter had revealed to him years before that he would be wounded with one of Heracles’s poisoned arrows. He knew how much pain he would endure and that his friendship with Heracles would eventually lead to his death.
Despite this, Chiron had never made any effort to avoid this fate. He had willingly embraced it because he knew it would save both Heracles and Prometheus.
To honor the centaur’s bravery and nobility, Zeus placed his image in the stars.
The constellation Centaurus was created in the image of Chiron. His self-sacrifice was memorialized for eternity even though his life had ended.
Centaurus is still one of the recognized constellations in Western astronomy. Although it is sometimes confused with Sagittarius, it shows the centaur as a more peaceful figure rather than drawing a bow.
Chiron: The Noble Centaur
Chiron was the oldest of the centaurs in Greek mythology. He was also much different than others of his kind.
He was a son of Cronos, making him a half-brother of Zeus and the Olympians. His more noble lineage was reflected in both his image and his personality.
Chiron was noted for being wise, kind, and cultured. He married, had a family, and built a home. This set him apart from the brutish, lustful younger centaurs.
This was in part because he had been raised by Apollo and Artemis. They taught him their skills and values, including music, medicine, prophecy, and archery.
Chiron went on to teach these skills to many students of his own. He became a mentor and foster father to many notable heroes and even gods.
Peleus and his son Achilles were both closely linked to Chiron. The centaur had arranged the marriage of Peleus, who was also his grandson, and taught Achilles as a young man.
Many of the heroes of the Trojan War were students alongside Achilles. The Argonauts were welcomed on their journey because many of them, including Jason, had studied with the centaur as well.
Apollo’s son Asclepius was a devoted student of the centaur’s medical arts. He expanded on them, becoming the first physician and eventually a god.
Dionysus was also said to have been fostered for a time by Chiron.
Arguably his most famous student, however, was Heracles. The hero maintained a long friendship with Chiron.
This relationship ultimately led to the centaur giving up his immortality.
Having been wounded by one of Heracles’ arrows, which was imbued with the Lernean Hydra’s venom, Chiron suffered immense pain. As an immortal, however, he could not die.
When Heracles bargained for Prometheus’s freedom, Zeus agreed to spare the Titan only if the hero gave his own life. Chiron offered to take his place instead, giving up his own immortality so Heracles could eventually become a god.
In honor of this noble sacrifice, Chiron’s image was placed in the stars. The constellation Centaurus honored his kindness and selflessness in the face of a terrible fate.