Friday, January 27, 2017

The Wild, Unruly Centaur

Having covered a couple of mythological creatures I thought that this week I would grapple with the mighty Centaur of legend. This fearsome hybrid of human and horse is a figure that crops up in many surprising locations. Having carved a lot of Pictish designs I've come across a couple in Scotland, and they appear to have featured on early Christian crosses throughout the lands of the Britons, even after the Saxon invasions and well into Norman occupancy. Indeed Centaurs appear in several medieval bestiaries from the 13th and 14th centuries. 

So who were these creatures that left such an indelible mark on the folk-consciousness of the people? Well, every schoolchild knows a centaur is a mighty creature with the body of a horse and upper torso of a human. They are great archers and two feature in the heavens as the constellations Sagittarius and Centaurus. 

To some medieval minds the Centaurs were once a race of peoples, sometimes known as the Sagittarri* who battled horned savages in the lands of India. This was said to symbolise the battle of the soul and flesh - but these are corruptions of earlier myths. And there is a certain Centaur who  often makes an appearance in several medieval texts. As  you can see in the picture below  he is often posed holding certain herbs. These herbs connect him directly with Grecian myth  and reveal him as Chiron. But to tell the tale of Chiron we must first reveal the story of the Centaurs. 

From a Medieval manuscript in which Artemis hands herbs to Chiron.

There are a couple of origin tales, that vary slightly. One of these tells of the Thessalian king Ixion and how he coveted the goddess Hera. This made hoary old Zeus really jealous, so to trap the king Zeus created a facsimile of Hera from  clouds. Enticed by the double Ixion's love was revealed and Zeus punished Ixion. However the cloud being was left to exist and was named Nepele. She bore a son called Centaurus and he liked horses... a lot! It was he who mated with the mares of Thessaly and thus brought the centaurs into being. On the whole the centaurs were savage and dangerous, they lived in the wild places and ate raw flesh. 

Chiron and Polus were different from their brethren. They were humane teachers and ever so wise. Chiron lived on Mount Pelion (in Thessaly) and taught the likes of Jason, Achilles and Asclepius. 

Now the wild and unruly Centaurs had a bone of contention with a neighbouring tribe called the Lapith's. When Ixion's son, Pirithous became king of the Lapiths the centaurs decided that they had a stake in the kingdom, for they were kind of related. After some negotiation Pirithous believed he'd settled the dispute. In time he was to marry a princess called Hippoameia and he was so jubilant he even invited the centaurs. Bad move, for the centaurs, unused to civilised ways, drank too much wine and went mental. They became  a wee bit bawdy and pawed some of the Lapith women. A violent battle broke out and despite many casualties the Lapiths were the victors that day. The surviving centaurs fled to the Peloponnese, where they had the misfortune to run into Heracles, who was hunting the Erymanthian boar. He'd been visiting Polus and drinking wine, the odour of which enticed the centaurs into their camp. After the centaurs failed to steal the brew Heracles got the better of them, slaying many and chasing those remaining to the south of the peninsula. 

The Centaurs battle the Lapiths. From the Temple of Apollo at Bassai, now in the British Museum.

Those few remaining sought refuge with Chiron, whose kindness was well renowned. But the mighty hero barged in, casting arrows at the Centaurs. It was one of these that passed through a centaur called Elatus to strike Chiron. Polus, having followed Heracles, plucked up the arrow, marvelling how such a small weapon could slay such a large being as Chiron. Dropping the arrow it fell on his foot, nicking his skin. Heracles' arrows were coated in the poisonous blood of the hydra, and it was this that slew the kinder centaurs. Legend has it that some centaurs survived, fleeing to Mount Malea or Eleusis (where Poseidon gave them a mountain refuge). 

From a medieval bestiary, 13th c. AD.
Chiron holds a herb identified as Centaurium
(compare with the Pictish piece below).

It is also said that Chiron did not die from Hercules’ arrow, for the wise old Centaur used the herb known as greater Centaury - renowned as a  cure for wounds. Indeed this is how the herb gets its name.  In some of these illustrations Chiron holds  a plant of the genus Artemisia (plants of this species include common wormwood, tarragon and mugwort), given to him by the goddess Artemis (also known as Diana). Absinth (the real stuff not the fake spirit sold under its name) is made from common absinth. 

Common Wormwood 

To me centaurs show how myths can be sustained through the ages, and also how other myths might develop, based around a central concept. Although I love the idea of mythological beasties being real (c'mon, who doesn't?) there is something that smacks of the memory of a real event - possibly early encounters in Thessaly between agrarian peoples and savage horsemen, pouring down from the steppes, or even a band of drunken Celts on their way to Galatia. Whatever the true origins that these images found their way into dark-age Pictish society points to the resilience, power and our fascination with myth. 

Pictish Carving from Aberlemno,
Angus in Scotland, 5-6th c. AD

Sagittarri - the only ref I can find relating to Sagittarian peoples is the Sagittarri who were units of archers in the Imperial Roman army. After a biting defeat at the hands of the Parthians in the 2nd Century BC the Romans adopted mounted units of archers into their ranks. 

ref: - A Modern Herbal - Mrs. M.Grieve
Early Christian Symbolism in Britain - J. Romilly Allen 
The illustrated Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology   - Michael Stapleton

Cassell dictionary of Classical Mythology - Jennifer R March