The Noble Centaur Kheiron
In my book Undying Glory, I talk of the centaurs as being chthonic creatures. There are two who stand above the rest: Pholos and Kheiron. While Pholos is noble, he is still earthly and mortal, while Kheiron is a a very special exception to the world of centaurs.
Centaurs are a remnant of a pre-Olympian Greek religion. They have the body of a horse, but the torso, arms and head of a man with pointed ears and other facial features that define them as being of the chthonic realm. These earthly daimons are nature spirits who represent the untamed animalistic side of both the wild and of men. This is reflected in their untameable nature that is exacerbated with wine and the temptation of women. Their instinct is base and they are driven by their emotions and desires.
Kheiron is not like other centaurs. First, he is immortal, which makes him a god. His attribute as a teacher of medicine and music, put him into the realm of Apollo.
Through the works of Hesiod and Pindar, we can make this connection more explicit, particularly with the legend of the birth of Asklepios, the healer god and son of Apollo. Apollo impregnated Koronis, who was then unfaithful to him with Ischys, the son of the centaur Elatos. The goddess Artemis then killed Koronis on behalf of her brother Apollo. As Koronis died, she gave birth to Asklepios who was then placed in the care of Kheiron by Apollo.
This legend hails from the region of Thessaly, where Kheiron’s home of Most Pelion is located. Elatos means “pine” and the northern pine trees meet the southern cypress trees on the mountain. The cypress is the tree of Apollo and in the god’s mythos, every eight years the Light Bringer visited the mountain in the form of a boy to become the “true Phoibos” once again. This meeting of north and south is also the meeting of the the darker aspect of Apollo with the lighter one. The centaur Elatos became the rival of Apollo in the mythological record, but the “strong pine” is essentially Kheiron. In this context he represents the dark/nocturnal side of Apollo, as the god is not only the deity of the light, but of the shadows cast by it.
In the Herakles mythos, the hero chases the centaurs, and particularly Elatos, to Mount Pelion, where accidentally wounds Kheiron with his poison arrow. The noble centaur is mortally wounded, but cannot die, making him the wounded divine physician, the role played by Asklepios, son of Apollo. Asklepios is killed by Zeus’ thunderbolt for bringing a man back from the dead. Here, both centaur and Apollo’s son are given the role of the dead healer god. In the ancient record, Asklepios and Apollo are essentially two sides of the same god. If Kheiron and Asklepios are interchangeable, then the centaur becomes the other side of Apollo.
Nocturnal God of Healing
The nocturnal nature of the healer Kheiron is clear from the remains of the temple of Zeus Akraios (Zeus of the Mountain Peaks and Sky) on Mount Pelion. The southern section of the temple is dedicated to Zeus and faces the sun as a diurnal portion of the sanctuary. On the northern side is the nocturnal Kheironion: the Cave of Kheiron. In the archaic mythos, Kheiron is a son of Kronos, which makes him a brother of Zeus. On Mount Pelion, he shared the world with the god of the daylight sky, ruling over the nocturnal world. Beneath the Kheironion is the valley of Pelethronion, which was known for its bounty of medicinal herbs, including the Kentaureion plant that cured snakebites. The centaur’s medicine could have cured the wound inflicted by Herakles’ poison arrow.
Kheiron must be regarded as the darker aspect of Apollo, a precursor to Asklepios. He is the healer who rules over the shadows of earth he shared with his brother Zeus. This is why he is noble and set above the other centaurs. He rose from the darkness of the ancient pre-Olympian religion and became a part of the pantheon as a “dead god” who did not die.