Garner's Greek Mythology

EP 37: Centaurs - The Strange Horse-Men

December 19, 2021 Patrick Garner Season 2 Episode 37
Garner's Greek Mythology
EP 37: Centaurs - The Strange Horse-Men
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to Episode 37. Imagine beasts that are half-horse and half-man. They’re crude. Their weapons are broken branches and rocks. The ancient Greeks called them Centaurs.

But among them was a unique and sophisticated being. A centaur named Kheiron (pronounced Sheer-roan) was so wise and wily that gods and men asked him to teach their children. He raised Asklepios, Peleus, Jason and Achilles. He was friends with the hero Heracles.

Although immortal, after a long life he was wounded by a poisoned arrow. The pain was so severe that he chose to embrace death to escape the agony ...

Narrated by mythologist and best-selling author, Patrick Garner, Garner's Greek Mythology is unlike any other Greek history series.  Here these divine beings are viewed as if they were anything but mythical...

If you love this podcast, you'll also enjoy Garner's novel Homo Divinitas, now available as an audio book on Amazon.com and Audible.com.

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EPISODE 37: Centaurs - The Strange Horse-Men

CENTAURS ...  THEY WERE PART-MAN, PART-HORSE. IT'S AN ABSURD COMBINATION, YET STRANGELY SOMETHING WE CAN ALL VISUALIZE..

WITH THE TAIL, BODY & LEGS OF A HORSE, THEY LOOKED LIKE A MAN FROM THE WAIST UP ... SOMETIMES THEY'RE DEPICTED AS HAVING POINTED EARS LIKE A SATYR.

FOR EPISODE AFTER EPISODE I'VE AVOIDED FEATURING THESE SHAGGY BEASTS. YET, AVOIDING THEM HAS DONE NO GOOD.

FOR MONTHS IN THE BACK CORNERS OF MY MIND THEY'VE CAVORTED & DANCED ACROSS THE ANCIENT FIELDS OF NORTHERN GREECE. 

... THEY'RE DEMANDING THEIR OWN MOMENT OF RECOGNITION. YET HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE? 

THEY WOULD HAVE ROAMED THE RUGGED WILDERNESS OF GREECE THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO ... 

OF ALL THE GREEK MONSTERS & CONTORTED BEASTS THAT POPULATED ANCIENT GREECE, CENTAURS TO ME ARE THE SADDEST, THE COARSEST & LOUTISH OF ALL.

THIS EPISODE RIDES INTO THOSE WILD FIELDS, THOSE DENSE FORESTS IN SEARCH OF THESE UNTAMED, SAVAGE, HALF-HORSE BEINGS ...

BUT AS WE'LL SEE, NOT EVERY CENTAUR WAS A SAVAGE. ONE IN PARTICULAR WAS CLEVER, LEARNED & SO INSIGHTFUL THAT HE BECAME THE MENTOR TO MANY OF GREECE'S EARLIEST HEROES ...  

THIS IS EPISODE 37 OF GARNER'S GREEK MYTHOLOGY. WE HAVE LISTENERS FROM 150 COUNTRIES ... SO WELCOME TO EVERYONE, WHEREVER YOU ARE.

I'M YOUR HOST, MYTHOLOGIST & BEST-SELLING AUTHOR, PATRICK GARNER. 

THESE STORIES ABOUT THE GODS HAVE BEEN TOLD FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS. BUT NOW THERE ARE NEW STORIES THAT ARE AS COMPELLING.

IF YOU HAVEN'T ALREADY DONE SO, CHECK OUT MY BOOKS ABOUT THE GODS IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD. THEY'RE PART OF THE WINNOWING TRILOGY.

YOU CAN READ ABOUT THEM & ABOUT THIS PODCAST AT PATRICKGARNERBOOKS.COM. 

AND AS ALWAYS, THIS PODCAST FOCUSES ON ONE THING ... GREEK GODS, OF COURSE. THEY, LIKE YOU, ARE HERE, NOW ...

THE GREEKS CALLED THEM KEN-TAUR-OI, A WORD PARTLY DERIVED FROM TAURUS, THE GREEK WORD FOR BULL & ONE SUGGESTING STRENGTH.

THEY WERE CREATURES THAT LAY SOMEWHERE BETWEEN SAVAGES & HUMANS. THE GREEKS DESCRIBED THEM AS BEAST-LIKE, YET THEY HAD THE MINDS OF MEN.

THERE'S SOME INTERESTING PHYSIOLOGY AT WORK HERE AS WELL: CENTAURS HAD THE LOWER BODY OF A HORSE & THE TRUNK & HEAD OF A HUMAN. 

YET WHEREVER YOU PUT THEM ON THE SPECTRUM BETWEEN BEAST & HUMAN, THEY WERE INFAMOUS FOR THEIR BAD BEHAVIOR WHEN THEY BEGAN TO DRINK WINE.

WE'VE SEEN PART-BEASTS & PART-HUMANS BEFORE. REMEMBER THE MINOTAUR? WE DISCUSSED HIM IN AN EPISODE FEATURING THESEUS ... 

UNLIKE THE CENTAURS, THE MINOTAUR'S LOWER HALF WAS HUMAN, WHILE HIS TRUNK & HEAD WAS THAT OF A HORNED-BULL.

HE WAS PARTICULARLY FEARED FOR HIS FOOD PREFERENCES WHICH FAVORED YOUNG BOYS & GIRLS BROUGHT TO HIS LAIR EACH YEAR AS TRIBUTE. 

OTHER HUMAN-LIKE CREATURES OF ANCIENT GREECE INCLUDED SATYRS THAT HAD A GOAT-LIKE REAR & WALKED UPRIGHT ON THEIR HIND LEGS.

UNLIKE THE CENTAURS, THEY PLAYED MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS & WERE DEVOTED TO THE WINE-GOD DIONYSUS. BUT LIKE THE CENTAURS, THE SATYRS ADORED WINE & WERE MOCKED BY THE GREEKS FOR THEIR CONSTANT DRUNKENNESS.

CENTAURS WERE NOT ALWAYS DRUNK, BUT THEY WERE RECLUSIVE. THEY FAVORED AREAS FAR FROM VILLAGES. 

THEIR WEAPONS WERE CRUDE — INSTEAD OF USING SWORDS OR BATTLE AXES, THEY SWUNG TREE BRANCHES & THREW ROCKS.

THEY WERE SCATTERED AROUND GREECE. ONE AREA WHERE THEY GATHERED WAS THE MOUNTAINOUS REGION OF THESSALY IN NORTHERN GREECE. HOMER CALLED THE AREA AEOLIA.

A SECOND PLACE WAS THE PELOPONNESE IN SOUTHERN GREECE. A THIRD LOCATION WAS ON THE ISLAND OF CYPRUS FAR ACROSS THE MEDITERRANEAN. THE FAR-FLUNG CENTAURS THERE WERE HORNED.

WHAT'S THEIR ORIGIN? WE HAVE TO FIRST BEGIN WITH THE CENTAUR KHEIRON. THE MOST FAMOUS OF THE CENTAURS, HE was an immortal son of the Titan KRONOS & THEREFORE a half-brother of Zeus

THE TALE OF KHEIRON'S CREATION WAS A BIT MESSY. Kronos WAS ALMOST CAUGHT BY HIS WIFE IN THE MIDDLE OF AN AFFAIR WITH A NYMPH. 

TO ESCAPE DETECTION he transformed himself into a horse. IT WORKED. HE FOOLED HIS WIFE & SHE MOVED ON. 

ONCE SHE WAS OUT OF SIGHT — & WITHOUT CHANGING BACK —  KRONOS CONSUMMATED THE AFFAIR. the resultING CHILD was this HORSE-MAN COMBINATION WHOM HE NAMED KHEIRON. 

WHEN KHEIRON WAS GROWN HE TOO TOOK UP WITH NYMPHS & HIS OFFSPRING WERE DAUGHTERS. ALL LOOKED LIKE THEIR MOTHERS IN APPEARANCE —  THAT IS, NONE WERE BORN AS CENTAURS.

THIS IS A GOOD POINT TO STOP & ASK: WERE ANY CENTAURS FEMALE? ARTISTS LATE IN THE LAST CENTURY B.C. DEPICTED SOME OF THEM AS JUST THAT. 

THIS WAS PROBABLY INVENTED. HESIOD & HOMER NEVER SPOKE OF ANYTHING OTHER THAN MALE CENTAURS.

PERHAPS THE INVENTION OF FEMALE CENTAURS WAS TO SOFTEN THEIR SAVAGE IMAGE, OR TO INTRODUCE A SALACIOUS COMPONENT ...

WE'VE NOW SEEN HOW KHEIRON CAME INTO BEING. BUT WHAT ABOUT The REST OF THE Kentauroi? 

THEY were spawned SIMILARLY BUT BY DIFFERENT PARENTS. THERE'S A STORY OF COURSE. LET'S LOOK AT HOW IT HAPPENED ... 

IN ITS EARLIEST DAYS THESSALY HAD A KING NAMED IXION. THE KING FELL IN LOVE WITH ZEUS' WIFE, HERA ... FURIOUS WITH IXION, ZEUS CREATED A cloud-nymph TO RESEMBLE HIS WIFE. 

king Ixion WAS COMPLETELY TRICKED BY ZEUS & violated THE NYMPH, BELIEVING SHE WAS HERA & THAT IT WAS HE WHO HAD FOOLED ZEUS. 

THE COUPLING MADE THE NYMPH PREGNANT. IN TIME She BORE A SON SHE NAMED CENTAUROS. HE WAS A NORMAL-LOOKING CHILD.

SHE deposited hIM on Mount Pelion. ONCE GROWN, HE, LIKE HIS FATHER, HAD A LUSTFUL EYE & TURNED IT TO THE NATIVE HORSES THERE.

THEIR OFFSPRING BECAME THE CENTAURS, TAKING THEIR NAME FROM CENTAUROS. 

THEIR PLACE OF BIRTH WAS FORTUITOUS, AS IT HAD BEEN CHOSEN BY KHEIRON AS HIS HOME.

There they were nursed by KHEIRON'S daughters UNTIL THEY GREW INTO WHAT BECAME THE FIRST TRIBE OF THE FEARSOME CENTAURS.

GETTING BACK TO KING IXION, ZEUS WASN'T ONE TO LET BYGONES BE BYGONES. IXION WAS EXPELLED FROM ZEUS' SIGHT & BLASTED WITH A THUNDERBOLT FOR TRYING TO SEDUCE HERA. 

hE LIVED, BUT BEFORE HE COULD ESCAPE, ZEUS ORDERED HERMES TO BIND THE KING TO A FIERY WHEEL WHERE HE SPINS ETERNALLY.

LET'S RETURN TO KHEIRON. REMEMBER THAT HE WAS THE SON OF KRONOS, ONE OF THE GREATEST TITANS. BUT HE WAS ALSO BY FAR The wisest of the Centaurs.

HIs name was derived from the Greek word kheir WHICH meant "skilled with the hands." kheir was also closely associated with thE GREEK WORD surgeon.

HE WAS A CELEBRATED TEACHER WHO MENTORED MANY OF THE GREATEST NAMES IN EARLY GREEK HISTORY.

OVER TIME HIS STUDENTS INCLUDED the FAMOUS physician ASKLEPIOS, the Argonauts Jason and Peleus, & GREECE'S MOST RENOWNED WARRIOR, Achilles.

KHEIRON WAS BELIEVED TO HAVE INVENTED MEDICINE. IN THE 1st CENTURY A.D., THE ROMAN WRITER PLINY THE ELDER SAID, "The science of herbs and drugs was discovered by KHEIRON, the son of Kronos."

A ROMAN HISTORIAN IN THE 2nd CENTURY A.D. WROTE, "KHEIRON, son of Kronos, first used herbs in the medical art of surgery."

AND HOMER HIMSELF ATTRIBUTED MEDICINE APPLIED DURING THE TROJAN WAR TO THE TEACHINGS OF "THE MOST RIGHTEOUS OF THE CENTAURS," KHEIRON.

KHEIRON TAUGHT ASKLEPIOS, GREECE'S FIRST PHYSICIAN, THE HEALING ARTS. ASKLEPIOS WAS APOLLO'S SON & WAS BROUGHT TO THE CENTAUR WITH THE REQUEST THAT HE RAISE HIM TO BECOME A HEALER.

MEDICINE WAS CLEARLY ONE OF KHEIRON'S SPECIALTIES, BUT HE HARDLY CONFINED HIMSELF TO TEACHING HERBS & SURGERY.

FOR INSTANCE, HE WAS ENTRUSTED WITH RAISING THE FAMOUS ADVENTURER JASON WHO WENT ON TO COMMAND THE ARGONAUTS.

HESIOD, HOMER'S CONTEMPORARY, wrote of THE HERO, "Jason, shepherd of the people, whom Kheiron brought up in woody Pelion.”

AS GREAT AS KHEIRON'S ACHIEVEMENTS HAD BEEN UP TO THAT POINT, THEY PALED IN COMPARISON TO HIS SUCCESS IN RAISING THE WARRIOR ACHILLES.

THE YOUNG BOY WAS BROUGHT TO KHEIRON BY HIS FATHER, PELEUS, AT THE AGE OF SIX. PELEUS WAS KING OF PHTHIA & THE HUSBAND OF THE SEA-NYMPH, THETIS.

THETIS, FREQUENTLY SUBJECT TO BOUTS OF DEPRESSION, ABANDONED HER CHILD ... PELEUS, IN DESPERATION, ENTRUSTED THE BOY ACHILLES TO KHEIRON.

ACHILLES PROVED TO BE AN EXCEPTIONAL STUDENT. AS SOON AS HE COULD WALK HE COULD OUTRUN RABBITS. 

BEFORE HE REACHED PUBERTY HE FOUGHT LIONS & BEARS, ALWAYS WINNING. THE TALES OF HIS ACHIEVEMENTS RAPIDLY SPREAD THROUGHOUT GREECE.

AND KHEIRON, IN TURN, PROVED TO BE AN OUTSTANDING TEACHER, PARTICULARLY IN TRAINING THE BOY TO USE SWORDS & SPEARS ...

SPEARS ... that REMINDS ME: LET'S LEAP BRIEFLY FROM ANCIENT GREECE TO 5th CENTURY ENGLAND. 

THERE, THE FUTURE KING ARTHUR PERFORMED A MIRACULOUS FEAT TO PROVE HE WAS WORTHY OF BECOMING KING.

ALMOST 2,000 YEARS EARLIER, ACHILLES HAD DONE SOMETHING SIMILAR. IT'S LIKELY THAT KING ARTHUR'S FEAT WAS NO MORE THAN A MYTH STOLEN DIRECTLY FROM THE GREEKS.

THE ENGLISH LEGEND IS THAT, AS A YOUNG MAN, ARTHUR DREW OUT A MIGHTY SWORD EMBEDDED IN AN ANVIL. 

NOBLES & WARRIORS FROM ALL OVER THE LAND HAD TRIED & FAILED. ARTHUR DID SO EASILY.

THE WIZARD MERLIN HAD STATED THAT NONE BUT THE FUTURE KING WOULD BE ABLE TO EXTRACT THE SWORD. 

ARTHUR DID SO, STUNNING ALL WHO WATCHED, & WAS IMMEDIATELY APPOINTED KING. 

WHEN ACHILLES' FATHER, KING PELEUS DIED, HE LEFT A MIGHTY SPEAR LEANING AGAINST A WALL OF THE THRONE ROOM.

NO ONE HAD THE STRENGTH TO LIFT IT, LET ALONE WIELD IT AGAINST AN ENEMY. ACHILLES THOUGH, WHILE STILL IN HIS TEENS, STRODE INTO HIS FATHER'S CHAMBERS, EASILY LIFTING IT OVER HIS HEAD & HURLED THE IMMENSE WEAPON 100s OF FEET ...

HIS FATHER'S MILITARY LEADERS FELL TO THEIR KNEES. SUCH PROOF OF STRENGTH ALLOWED ACHILLES TO INSTANTLY TAKE COMMAND.

HE HAD BEEN TRAINED WELL. THE ROMAN WRITER SENECA SAID THAT KHEIRON "... Whetted the boy's mighty passions by songs of war."

BY THE TIME OF THE TROJAN WAR, ACHILLES — ALWAYS GIVING THE OLD CENTAUR CREDIT — WAS ACKNOWLEDGED AS THE GREATEST WARRIOR THAT GREECE HAD EVER PRODUCED.

HIS COMPANIONS IN TROY WOULD BE ODYSSEUS, AGAMEMNON & PATROCLUS. HIS FAVORED WEAPON WOULD BE HIS FATHER'S MIGHTY SPEAR.

REGARDLESS OF KHEIRON'S SKILLS, HE WAS AN OUTLIER AMONG THE CENTAURS. NONE OF THE OTHERS WERE HIS EQUAL IN STRENGTH OR INTELLECT.

HE WAS A CONSUMMATE WARRIOR, ABLE TO TEACH JASON & ACHILLES BRAVERY, SWORDSMANSHIP & SPEAR THROWING.

HIS SOPHISTICATION WAS SINGULAR. THE OTHER CENTAURS HARDLY COMPARED ... WITH THEIR TREE LIMBS & ROCKS AS WEAPONS, THEY WERE NEVER A MATCH FOR KHEIRON. 

IN FACT, THEIR CLUMSINESS & LOUTISH BEHAVIOR EVENTUALLY BROUGHT THEIR RUIN. PLUTARCH, WRITING IN THE 2nd CENTURY A.D. DESCRIBED THEIR UNDOING.

A LOCAL KING WAS ABOUT TO BE MARRIED & INVITED THESEUS, A HERO KNOWN AS WIDELY AS ACHILLES, TO THE WEDDING FEAST.

PLUTARCH EXPLAINS THAT THE KING ALSO "... invited the Centaurs to the wedding feast. And they became sodden with insolence & wine, & laid hands upon the women...”

IT GETS WORSE. THE CENTAURS GRABBED THE WOMEN BY THE HAIR, TRYING TO DRAG THEM OFF INTO THE FIELDS.

AS PLUTARCH NOTES, THE MEN IN THE KING'S PARTY, INCLUDING THESEUS, "... took vengeance upon them. Some of them they slew upon the spot, the rest they afterwards overcame in war & expelled from the country, Theseus fighting with them throughout.”

SOME ACCOUNTS CLAIM THE CENTAURS WERE ALMOST WIPED OUT. BUT OLD KHEIRON HAD NOT ATTENDED THE PARTY & HIS END CAME ABOUT DIFFERENTLY.

THE IMMORTAL KHEIRON HAD REMAINED ON MOUNT Pelion, AVOIDING THE WEDDING FEAST. BUT SOON, WOUNDED CENTAURS DRAGGED THEMSELVES HOME.

THEY WERE PURSUED BY THESEUS. IN ADDITION, GREECE'S GREATEST HERO, HERACLES, JOINED THEM, UNAWARE THAT HIS DEAR FRIEND KHEIRON WAS HIDING NEARBY.

ONE OF HERACLES' ARROWS HIT THE OLD CENTAUR. THE ARROW'S TIP HAD BEEN DIPPED IN HYDRA-VENOM & THERE WAS NO ANTIDOTE.

AFTER THE BATTLE, HERACLES FOUND THE FAMOUS CENTAUR WRITHING IN AGONY. HE TRIED CURING HIM WITH PRAYERS, HERBS & POTIONS. 

BUT NOTHING WORKED ... KHEIRON'S PAIN ONLY WORSENED. HE COULD NOT DIE — HE WAS, AFTER ALL, IMMORTAL. 

BUT HIS PAIN WAS UNBEARABLE. FINALLY, TO ESCAPE THE AGONY, HE BRAVELY SURRENDERED HIS DIVINITY & EMBRACED DEATH ...

IN GRATITUDE FOR HIS SERVICES, ZEUS placed THE CENTAUR among the stars as the constellation Centaurus ...

AND IN THE MEMORY OF MEN, KHEIRON LIVED ON. HE WAS DEPICTED ON POTTERY & IN PLAYS, & SCULPTED BY NUMEROUS GREEK & ROMAN ARTISTS. 

AS TIME PASSED HE BECAME MORE & MORE CELEBRATED. 

HOMER & HESIOD MEMORIALIZED HIM IN THEIR TALES AS A FIERCE, SHAGGY HALF-HORSE WHO TAUGHT MEN BRAVERY, THE FUNDAMENTALS OF MEDICINE & THE PRINCIPLES OF WAR.

THAT HE CAME TO AN END AS A BRIGHT CONSTELLATION IN THE ANCIENT GREEK NIGHT SKY WAS FITTING: 

THERE, KHEIRON COULD CONTINUE TO DAZZLE ALL WHO LOOK OVERHEAD ...

JOIN ME ... FOR THE NEXT EPISODE OF GARNER'S GREEK MYTHOLOGY

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AND THANKS FOR LISTENING ... THIS IS YOUR HOST, PATRICK GARNER ...