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:
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