Chiron: Surrogate Childcare for Heroes

Chiron the centaur from Greek myths often took young Greeks under his guardianship and taught them how to be great heroes.

May 8, 2022By Bethany Williams, BA Classics and English, MA Literature
chiron achilles lyre.pg

 

What does it take to be a hero? Chiron seemed to have the answers! In Greek myth, many young boys were lucky enough to be sent to the wise centaur, Chiron, who would raise them to follow in the footsteps of other heroes. Not only was Chiron a teacher for these heroes, but he was also a parental figure. This duality in his occupation was indicated by his dual nature: the hybrid form of the centaur.

 

But what did Chiron teach? And who were the heroes under his care?

 

Chiron the Kourotrophos

batoni thetis entrusts achilles chiron
Thetis Entrusts Achilles to Chiron, by Pompeo Batoni, 1761, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The motif of the child being brought and handed over to Chiron is a popular one in Greek myth. This guardianship role was called the kourotrophos in ancient Greek, which means “child-rearer”. Often, these children would be brought to Chiron because their parents believed Chiron could teach children how to protect themselves and how to approach the world better than they themselves could. Ancient Greece was a dangerous place, but the education and care of Chiron could increase your chances.

 

centaur chiron infant achilles
The Centaur Chiron Receiving the Infant Achilles, by Antonio Balestra, c.1710-20, via the Royal Collection Trust; with The infant Achilles entrusted to Chiron, by Paul van Somer, 1707, via the British Museum

 

In some interpretations, Chiron has been seen as providing a “boarding school” for young princes and soon-to-be-heroes. Parents who had been taught by Chiron themselves would send their own sons to Chiron to have the same education. Peleus’ son Achilles was sent, and Jason’s son Medus was trained by Chiron, both parents having been taught themselves.

Are you enjoying this article?

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 

And so, Chiron became an exalted figure in Greek myth, and he would ardently raise these children, teaching them the skills to be great heroes in the future. A few of the students or children under his care were Achilles, Asclepius, Jason, Perseus, Actaeon, Meleager, and many more!

 

Chiron’s Teachings on Dual Natures

master ballet night costume chiron wedding
Costume for the Chiron Centaur in the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, by Master of the Ballet of the Night, 1654, via the Louvre

 

“Achilles and many other princes of the ancient world were sent to be brought up by Chiron, the centaur, so that he might train them his way…in making the teacher half beast and half man, […] a prince must know how to act according to the nature of both, […] he cannot survive otherwise.”
Machiavelli, Prince

 

As a centaur — half-man, half-horse —Chiron’s form symbolized his ability to balance both the ‘wildness’ and the ‘reason’ within humanity’s soul. For the children he reared, he taught them when to control their dangerous impulses, but also when they should listen to their inner natures. This duality was further emphasized by Chiron’s teaching of both the creative arts, such as medicine, philosophy, and music and practical lessons such as hunting and sword-fighting.

 

Chiron’s most popular topic was the heroic code, which covered honor, justice, and nobility, but he also imparted his skills of healing with medicinal herbs. As well as this, Chiron taught his charges how to play string instruments, and listen to their creativity. In ancient Greek culture, music was often aligned with the soul and associations of harmony. Part of their lessons involved looking at the stars and attempting to divine meanings from them. Chiron also trained his students how to hunt, and so he raised some of the best hunters and warriors in the Greek myths.

 

Chiron’s Charge: Achilles

batoni achilles chiron lyre
Achilles and the Centaur Chiron, by Pompeo Batoni, 1746, via the Web Gallery of Art

 

Achilles “best of the Achaeans” accredited a lot of his skills to Chiron’s care and teachings. In their relationship is the starkest impression of a parent and child relationship. When Achilles was a child, his mother Thetis, a minor goddess, brought him to Chiron and asked the centaur to take the boy into his care.

 

Achilles and Chiron became close friends, and ancient writers often write that Achilles referred to him as a “father of mine.” (Statius 2.102). While Chiron could often be a strict teacher, there was much love there and they would enjoy each other’s company. As a child, Achilles would cuddle with Chiron sometimes, which is a widely recognised parent-child activity.

 

“Night draws to slumber. The huge Centaur collapses on stone and Achilles fondly twines himself about his shoulders.”
(Statius 1.195–97)

 

In some versions of the myth, Achilles brought Patroclus with him to Chiron’s cave, and the two were raised together under Chiron’s care. Achilles and Patroclus later went on to fight in the Trojan War together, alongside many others who had been taught by Chiron.

 

delacroix education achilles chiron
The Education of Achilles, by Eugène Delacroix, 1862, via the J Paul Getty Museum

 

In the Achilleid, Achilles describes to his friends how Chiron trained him and raised him. He looks fondly on the memories, “So much do I remember, friends, of the training of my earliest years, and sweet is their remembrance.”

 

Ancient writers frequently created a cheerful picture of the education of Achilles, set in the wild with nature all around, with flowing rivers and flowers blossoming. While hero training could be tough, Chiron fostered a happy atmosphere.

 

Philostratus in his Imagines, writes his description of an artwork in which he saw Chiron educating Achilles: “Chiron is teaching Achilleus to ride horseback and to use him exactly as a horse, and he measures his gait to what the boy can endure, and turning around he smiles at the boy when he laughs aloud with enjoyment.” 

 

Application of Skill

regnault achilles chiron education
The Education of Achilles by the Centaur Chiron, by Jean Baptiste Regnault, 1782, via the Louvre

 

Once these lessons were taught, a student could choose to apply them to whichever practice they chose. Chiron’s lessons were not usually about warfare but focused on hunting skills and survival, this included archery and sword-fighting. However, the skill of the hunt also enhanced their skills during wartime.

 

“Now he instructs me to span huge dykes by leaping, now 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.”
(Statius, Achilleid)

 

champaigne chiron weapons lesson
Chiron the Centaur gives a weapons lesson (to Achilles), by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne, 1666-69, via the Louvre

 

If Chiron’s students forgot or chose to ignore what Chiron had taught them, this would often lead to their demise. In the case of Achilles, his rage overtook his reason, and so he perished in battle after a violent and murderous rampage. After their death, these Greek heroes could become examples of those who ignored their teacher’s words, but also show the potential for their great skill. Other warriors whom Chiron raised include the mighty Ajax, who was deemed one of the strongest men alive in his time, the famous twins, Castor and Pollux, the swift Diomedes, and countless others.

 

To the Limits and the Hunt

ioannis chiron archery achilles
Chiron and Achilles (Chiron teaching archery), by Doukas Ioannis, c.1873, via National Gallery

 

When under his tutelage, Chiron encouraged his charges to be pushed to their limits. It was in this way that those under his care could become their best selves.

 

“Chiron himself, while yet he was swift of foot, chased me at full gallop with headlong speed o’er all the plains, and when I was exhausted by roaming over the meads he praised me joyously and hoisted me upon his back.”
(Statius, Achilleid)

 

The hero Protesilaus was taught archery by Chiron, and with his guidance, Protesilaus became the best archer in the Greek army. Meleager and Actaeon were likewise taught archery and hunting skills.

 

cesari diana actaeon dogs detail
Diana and Actaeon (detail), by Giuseppe Cesari, 1603-6, via Szépmûvészeti Museum, Budapest

 

In a version of the myth of Actaeon, he became so devoted to the hunt that he desired to be wedded to the Goddess of the Hunt, Artemis, although she had rejected male companionship for eternity. One day while hunting, he spotted her bathing in a stream. In a rage, Artemis transformed him into a stag, and his own hunting dogs tore him apart. The aftermath of the myth relates that when the dogs began to grieve their master’s disappearance, Chiron created a statue of Actaeon, to comfort the dogs.

 

Medicinal Arts

zompini chiron teaching magic medicine print
Print of Chiron teaching medicinal and magic arts, by Gaetano Zompini, 1758, via the British Museum

 

“Also did he teach me of juices and the grasses that succour disease, what remedy will staunch too fast a flow of blood, what will lull to sleep, what will close gaping wounds; what plague should be checked by the knife, what will yield to herbs.
(Statius, Achilleid)

 

One of Chiron’s many skills was herbal medicine, and after passing on his knowledge to Asclepius, the student began to surpass the teacher. Asclepius was the son of Apollo, who was the God of Healing, and so he perhaps had some biological inclination towards the art. Apollo gave Asclepius to Chiron as soon as he was born, so Chiron was very much a father figure for Asclepius.

 

Asclepius was taught by Chiron alongside his half-brother Aristaeus. Aristaeus later became the God of Beekeeping, a skill he immensely enjoyed while in Chiron’s care. Asclepius, however, enthusiastically poured himself into his studies of medicine.

 

“Long ago he [Kheiron (Chiron)] nursed gentle Asklepios (Asclepius), that craftsman of new health for weary limbs and banisher of pain, the godlike healer of mortal sickness.”
(Pindar Ode 3)

 

Asclepius became so proficient that he began to revive the dead. When the King of the Gods, Zeus, deemed that the world was too unbalanced with people roaming around who should be dead, he struck Asclepius with a lightning bolt, and he died. Chiron was then warned of teaching students to be too skilled in their professions after that. In other versions, Asclepius was struck dead but deified at the same time. In Greece today, there are temple ruins to Asclepius where people traveled to be healed.

 

Music and the Lyre

barry education achilles lyre chiron
The Education of Achilles (the lyre), by James Barry, c.1772, via Google Arts & Culture

 

“That the expression seen in the eye of Kheiron (Chiron) is gentle is the result of his justice, but the lyre also does its part, through whose music he has become cultured; but now there is also something of cozening in his look, no doubt because Kheiron knows that this soothes children and nurtures them better than milk.”
(Philostratus Imagines 2.2)

 

Chiron very much enjoyed the music of the lyre, and would teach those entrusted to him how to play the instrument. The lyre was a string instrument, which was shaped like a U with a cross bar and many strings. It looked like a mini harp, and was a favourite of the gods in Greek myth. Of Chiron’s students, Achilles appreciated the music lessons, and continued to play the instrument for the rest of his life. In the Iliad, he plays music and sings to his friends during their war campaigns.

 

“They found Achilles playing on a lyre, fair, of cunning workmanship, and its cross-bar was of silver. […] he was now diverting himself with it (the lyre) and singing the glories of heroes. Patroklos alone sat facing him, in silence, waiting till he should cease singing.
(Iliad, Book 9)

 

Chiron’s Death 

gheyn sagittarius chiron
The Constellation Sagittarius, by Jacques de Gheyn II, 1600-21, via the British Museum

 

Chiron was initially an immortal being and so he could potentially be a teacher and carer forever. However, the time eventually came in Greek myth for Chiron to pass on and rise to the stars.

 

There are different variations in the Greek myths which relay the death of Chiron. In one myth, Heracles accidentally shot Chiron with poisoned arrows whilst defending himself from an angry herd of centaurs. Despite Chiron’s skill with medicine, he could not heal himself. In one myth, Achilles is by his side as he dies. Ovid in his Fasti creates a heart-rending version of the event, Live, I beg you; don’t leave me, dear father!” (5.412). After nine days, Chiron finally succumbed to the poison and died.

 

In another version, Chiron was in agony because of the poison, but could not die because he was an immortal. Chiron then asked Zeus to take his immortality, and in exchange release Prometheus from chains. (Prometheus was the god of forethought and he was being punished eternally for giving humans fire).

 

Zeus agreed to his request, and so Chiron was allowed to die. In a show of appreciation for Chiron, his care and kindness for heroes, his important teachings, and his friendship with the gods, Zeus created a constellation to represent him forever in the stars: Sagittarius.

 

Chiron’s Legacy in Greek Myths

testa education achilles lyre hunting
(Achilles) Education (depicting lessons of music and hunting), by Pietro Testa, 1897, via the Louvre

 

“Zeus had loved his old friend, and lifted him up, and set him among the stars as the constellation Sagittarius. Here, in the Zodiac, now above, now below the horizon, [Chiron] assists in the regulation of our destinies, though in this latter time few living mortals cast their eyes respectfully toward Heaven, and fewer still sit as students to the stars.”
(author John Updike)

 

Chiron’s ever-presence in the stars shows his influence and legacy. His caring nature and kindness towards children, and his consideration for their rounded education remains a concept valued by many today. Chiron taught students to balance their natures with reason, and to appreciate the creative arts with survival skills. Without Chiron, there would be fewer — or should we dare say scarcely any — heroes.



Author Image

By Bethany WilliamsBA Classics and English, MA LiteratureBethany is a Masters student, currently studying the adaptation of Greek myth in modern literature. She is a graduate of Classics and English (BA), during which she studied Ancient Greek language, classical reception within its own time and throughout history, as well as Greek and Roman history. Apart from her studies, she has an appreciation for art, philosophy, and travel. She may be based in England, but her heart is in Greece.