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The Education of Achilles by Chiron, by Pompeo Batoni, 1746
Click here to view a larger version of the painting.

Chiron and the Education of Achilles

Batoni's painting shows the mythological centaur Chiron teaching Achilles, whom he raised and mentored from infancy. Beyond that the story gets complicated.

King of the Centaurs

To understand what Chiron represents you must recognize that Greek mythology is not just a set of stories, it's a cosmology that describes the origins and the details of humans and their character. The stories are interconnected because the elements of human thought, character, and culture are interconnected, and Chiron is one of the most interconnected characters of all.

He was born from the unwilling union of the mortal sea nymph Philyra with Cronus, father of Zeus and the Greek primordial god of time. His centaur form, with a human head and torso and the body of a horse, derived from his mother's attempt to escape rape by his father by shifting into a mare. In this origin he was different, and his legacy was opposite in the extreme, from all the other centaurs who were famous for depravity and barbarism.

Chiron was immediately rejected by both his parents and taken into the care of the sun-god Apollo, the god of prophecy and oracles, healing, plague and disease, music, song and poetry, archery, and the protection of the young. Apollo passed these skills on to Chiron who consequently came to embody the integration of human culture and intellect with our bestial instincts and brute force.

Chiron was the Greeks' original teacher and raised many of the Greeks' most famous heroes including Jason (who, barely out of his teens, led the Argonauts to recover the Golden Fleece), Asclepius (god of medicine), Aristaios (god of shepherds, cheese-making, bee-keeping, olive growing, medicinal herbs and the Etesian winds), Theseus (to become the king of Athens), Ajax (to become king of Salamis), both Peleus and his son Achilles (hero of the Trojan war).

Chiron was honored by all, something uncommon in Greek mythology, so it was ironic that his demise came accidentally when he was grazed by a poisoned arrow shot by his friend Hercules. Because he was immortal the magic poison caused him endless, debilitating torment but could not kill him. From this Chiron is recognized as the original wounded healer, an archetype central to the work of therapists, counselors, prophets, and shaman.

Hercules eventually secured a divine bargain in which Chiron's immortality was forfeit to secure the liberation of Prometheus, who was more-or-less Chiron's cousin, thereby granting Chiron his wish to die and consigning his spirit to the underworld. Yet even that was not to last as his universal esteem led his half-brother Zeus to intervene one last time by raising him to the celestial realm in the form of the constellation Sagittarius (sagitta is Latin for “arrow”), thereby restoring to him an immortality of sorts. In this way Chiron ultimately found his cure beyond death and, in both myth and astrology, he lies as a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Approach to Education

While Chiron appears throughout Greek mythology to raise and mentor those destined to be gods and heroes we don't known much about his personality or educational philosophy. As this is a book about learning these are the things we are most interested in: just how does one learn to be a mythical hero? Luckily Odysseus asked this same question of Achilles when he met him later in his life, and this is what he answered:

“Then he taught me to go with him through pathless deserts, dragging me on with mighty stride, and to laugh at sight of the wild beasts, nor tremble at the shattering of rocks by rushing torrents or at the silence of the lonely forest. Already at that time weapons were in my hand and quivers on my shoulders, the love of steel grew apace within me, and my skin was hardened by much sun and frost; nor were my limbs weakened by soft couches, but I shared the hard rock with my master's mighty frame.

“Scarce had my youth turned the wheel of twice six years, when already he made me outpace the swift hinds and Lapith steeds and running overtake the flung dart; often Chiron himself, while yet he was swift of foot, chased me at full gallop with headlong speed o'er the plains, and when I was exhausted by roaming over the meads he praised me joyously and hoisted me upon his back. Often too in the first freezing of the streams he would bid me go upon them with light step nor break the ice.

“These were my boyhood's glories . . . Never would he suffer me to follow unwarlike does through the pathless glens of Ossa, or lay low timid lynxes with my spear, but only to drive angry bears from their resting-places, and boars with lightning thrust; or if anywhere a mighty tiger lurked or a lioness with her cubs in some secret lair upon the mountain-side, he himself, seated in his vast cave, awaited my exploits, if perchance I should return bespattered with dark blood; nor did he admit me to his embrace before he had scanned my weapons.

“And already I was being prepared for the armed tumults of neighboring folk, and no fashion of savage warfare passed me by . . . Scarce could I recount all my doings, successful though they were; now he instructs me to climb and grasp the airy mountain-peak, with what stride to run upon the level, how to catch flung stones in mimic battle on my shielded arm, to pass through burning houses, and to check flying four-horse teams on foot.

“Spercheus, I remember, was flowing with rapid current, fed full with constant rains and melted snows and carrying on its flood boulders and living trees, when the sent me in, there where the waves rolled fiercest, and bade me stand against them and hurl back the swelling billows that he himself could scarce have borne, though he stood to face them with so many a limb. I stove to stand, but the violence of the stream and the dizzy panic of the broad spate forced me to give ground; he loomed o'er me from above and fiercely threatened, and flung taunts to shame me. Nor did I depart till he gave me word, so far did the lofty love of fame constrain me, and my toils were not too hard with such a witness.

“For to fling the Oebalian quoit far out of sight into the clouds, or to practice the holds of the sleek-wrestling bout, and to scatter blows with the boxing-gloves were sport and rest to me: nor labored I more therein than when I struck with my quill the sounding strings, or told the wondrous fame of heroes of old.

“Also did he teach me of juices and the grasses that succor disease, what remedy will staunch to fast a flow of blood, what will lull to sleep, what will close gaping wounds; what plague should be checked with a knife, what will yield to herbs; and he implanted deep within my heart the precepts of divine justice, whereby he was wont to give revered laws to the tribes that dwell on Pelion, and tame his own twy-formed folk [the Kentauroi]. So much do I remember, friends, of the training of my earliest years, and sweet is their remembrance."

from Achilleid book 2. p.96ff (Latin Epic ca. 1st century AD), by Pablius Papinius Statius

 

Links

http://chandra.harvard.edu/photo/constellations/sagittarius.html
http://www.theoi.com/Georgikos/KentaurosKheiron.html
http://iconics.cehd.umn.edu/Lecture_Hall/chiron.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiron
http://intraspec.ca/chiron.php

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