In the Iliad, Homer calls Chiron the ‘wisest and justest of all the centaurs’.
Fated to be overthrown by one of his children, Cronus, the godhead of the Titans, devoured them all upon their birth. In desperation, his wife Rhea hid their sixth child, Zeus, on the island of Crete. As Cronus searched earth and sky for Zeus, he came upon the Oceanid Philyra, after whom he lusted. To hide from Rhea, he took the form of a stallion and mounted Philyra. In due course, Philyra gave birth, with great pain, to a child named Chiron, with the upper body of a man and lower body of a horse. Seized with shame and disgust at the sight of this monster, she abandoned him on Mount Pelion in Thessaly.
Fortunately, Chiron was found and reared by Apollo, who taught him the healing arts, music, and prophecy, while Apollo’s twin sister Artemis taught him archery and hunting. Chiron excelled in every field. It is sometimes said that he invented pharmacy, medicine, and surgery. Indeed, the name ‘Chiron’ means ‘hand’ [Greek, kheir] or ‘skilled with the hands’, and is related to our ‘surgeon’ [kheir + ergon, ‘handworker’].
For his learning and temperament, Chiron was highly sought after as a tutor. His pupils included many of the greatest heroes, including Perseus, Theseus, Jason, the Telamonian Ajax (Ajax the Great), Patroclus, and, of course, Achilles. Chiron had a special bond with Achilles, having advised Peleus, his father, how to win over his mother Thetis.
Wounded in the thigh by one of Paris’ arrows, Eurypylus, leader of the Thessalians in the Trojan War, cried out to Patroclus:
I want you to cut out this arrow from my thigh, wash off the blood with warm water and spread soothing ointment on the wound. They say you have some excellent prescriptions that you learnt from Achilles, who was taught by Chiron…
While pregnant by Apollo, the Thessalian princess Coronis let herself be seduced by the mortal Ischys. For this, Artemis killed Coronis and her family with her arrows. But, by performing the first caesarean section, Apollo rescued their unborn child from the funeral pyre and gave it to Chiron to be raised. That child was Asclepius, god of medicine.
Whereas the centaurs were notorious for being violent and lustful, Chiron, the foster child of Apollo, was all culture and civilization. Unlike the other centaurs, he was often depicted clothed rather than naked, and with human rather than equine legs. As half-brother to Zeus, he came from a completely different line from the other centaurs, who were born of Ixion and Nephele.
During his fourth labour to capture the Erymanthian boar, Herakles [Hercules] visited the centaur Pholus in his cave. When Pholus opened a bottle of wine given by Dionysus, the fragrant nose attracted the other centaurs and drove them into a frenzy. Herakles defended the cave by raining arrows dipped in the blood of the Lernaean hydra, which he had killed on his second labour. One of the arrows hit Chiron, who, although friends with Herakles, got caught in the mêlée.
For all his knowledge and skill Chiron could not heal his festering wound, which became unbearably painful. But being the immortal son of Cronus, neither could he die. In the end, he or Herakles struck a bargain with Zeus, whereby he would exchange his immortality for the freedom of Prometheus, who had been bound for all eternity to a rock for stealing fire from the gods and delivering it to humankind. Every day, an eagle pecked out Prometheus’ immortal liver, only for it to grow back overnight.
After Chiron’s death, Zeus at long last freed Prometheus, and fixed Chiron in the firmament as the constellation Sagittarius or Centaurus.
Interpretation of the myth
Chiron is twice-wounded, once at birth, and again towards the end of his life.
The first wound is a deep emotional wound that comes from being a child of rape who is rejected by both of his parents. He is quite literally a monster, and now also an orphan and an outcast.
Being half-man, half-animal, Chiron embodies the conflict in all of us between the animal instincts and reason or divinity, between the Dionysian wildness of the other centaurs and the Apollonian light and order of his foster father. Yet, he falls firmly on the Apollonian side, and in many respects outshines even the god of light, mastering and even furthering knowledge and the arts [Greek, episteme and techne] in an attempt to compensate for his early rejection and prove, both to himself and to others, that he is worthy of love and acceptance.
A similar pattern can be discerned in that other rejected god, Hephaestus, cast out of Olympus by his mother Hera on account of his deformity. Despite this, or, rather, because of this, Hephaestus as the blacksmith of the gods spends his life creating objects of great beauty and utility, such as Helios’ chariot, Hermes’ winged helmet and sandals, and Achilles’ armour. Hephaestus even gets the girl, marrying Aphrodite, goddess of love.
Chiron turns in particular to the healing arts as a means of healing himself, and not only himself but others too. He spreads the light, giving to others that which he himself most needs or needed. Rather than allowing the original wound to fester, he finds within it a source of motivation, even of inspiration, that leads him to great insight and achievement. This in turn invites, or rather imposes, a sense of purpose and service or duty that ennobles and enriches his life in ways that the other centaurs could not even begin to imagine.
In the words of the Persian poet and mystic Rumi (d. 1273):
Your doctor must have a broken leg to doctor Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested. Whoever sees clearly what's diseased in himself Begins to gallop on the Way ... Don't turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That's where the light enters you.
In The Meaning of Madness, I argue that mental disorders in particular are not just problems. If successfully navigated, they can also present opportunities. Simple awareness of this can empower people to heal themselves and, much more than that, to grow, and live, through their experiences.
Chiron’s second wound is caused by the superego, represented by Herakles, battling against the id, represented by the centaurs riled up by the Dionysian wine. Instead of reconciling himself with the dark side, Herakles desperately fights against it, potentially hurting himself and others in the process—as he does his friend Chiron.
Chiron’s stoical decision to die in the face of unbearable and incurable pain, especially in light of his immortality, raises profound, and surprisingly modern, ethical questions about euthanasia and the desirability of immortality, questions that have never been more pertinent than today.
Chiron is a rare if not unique instance of a god who dies, and, more than that, chooses to die (unlike, say, Jesus). But even in dying, he gives himself up to another. Just like he sublimed his life into wisdom, art, and love, so he sublimed his death into an act of service and sacrifice.
And it is fitting that Chiron’s sacrifice is to a god so similar to himself: a great friend of humankind, and wounded for it, wounded, like we all are, for bridging the divide between the mortal and the divine. This is the second wound, the wound in our mortal body, the wound that will not heal.
And so the story of Chiron is the story of how we might be able to cope with the psychological distress and ineluctable physical defeat that is part and parcel of the human condition.
Here is how Rumi ended his poem:
Don't turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That's where the light enters you. And don’t believe for a moment that you’re healing yourself.