I’ve been mulling Greek mythology as it has come down through my European ancestors and been rendered into my English tongue. Mostly, it seems that people haven’t changed much, even when they’re mythical. One of the most intriguing mythical figures I know of is Chiron, the centaur.
Chiron was the first of the centaurs, and of them, the only immortal. That devouring titan Kronos was into a nymph named Philyra, but Kronos’ wife (and sister) Rhea wandered by when he was in flagrante delicto. Not wishing to upset his wife or stop what he was doing, he changed into a horse in midstream (as it were) the better to hide in plain sight. Legend is silent on what Rhea did, possibly just figuring those nymphs were a funny lot, but Philyra bore a child with a novel equine aftereffect, and was so repulsed at the sight that she disowned him on the spot and begged her other uncle, Zeus, to make her into a linden tree (…why?). Since she subsequently had other children with Kronos, I assume the transformation was temporary.
Kronos and Philyre’s ongoing affair resulted in at least two other children: the twins Bythos and Aphros, who were like tritons, men to the waist and fish below, only they had horse’s hooves in place of men’s hands. Obviously, something was trying to tell their progenitors to stop horsing around.
Rejected by his mother, abandoned by his father, Chiron could have fallen into misery and loss, as many do, but with a huge dash of luck, he made it through. I can’t find anything in the mythology about how he survived his infancy, let alone how he grew up. When another nymph spawned a herd of half-human, half-horse beings (…why??), Chiron and his wife and daughters took them in, adopted them, and raised them as their own, so it’s probable he was fostered by someone conscientious and kind. His family likewise fostered and reared any number of heroes, including Jason (of the Argonauts), Achilles (of the Trojan War) and Aesclepios (who gave his name to the physician’s staff of office.)
This second generation of centaurs were quite different from their divine foster-father: where Chiron combined human understanding with animal knowing, they combined human desires with animal spirits — and let brains go hang.
Chiron, a loving, generous, brilliant individual, was what biologists call sui generis — he invented himself. He grew up to become a musician, a brilliant and knowledgeable healer, a hunter, a gymnast (among people who valued physical skill), a prophet, and a martial artist so gifted and so clear that gods and heroes came to him for training.
He was accidentally wounded by a poisoned arrow belonging to a friend, amidst a silly brawl his rambunctious semi-equine foster-children started, over wine. I find those details very telling: the youngsters got out of hand, someone got careless, people died — and in this mess of love and greed and chaos, his whole life changed completely, his old way of being pulled apart in one ridiculous moment.
The pain of the wound never left him; some say it killed him by sepsis in a matter of days, others that it lingered on for years. It tortured him beyond bearing, but by and large he learned to bear it, becoming more and more of a recluse as the pain crept into his mind and disrupted his ability to manage himself. Once a teacher and musician who thrived on company, he withdrew from the world in obstinate self-involvement — or, speaking from the other side, in obstinate refusal to inflict the results of his condition on others. As an immortal, he had no choice but to survive; he didn’t have to like it.
When the chance came to give his own immortality to his friend (some say it was to save Prometheus, some say Prometheus persuaded the gods to give the immortality to Hercules), he didn’t hesitate: he surrendered his life and escaped the pain and the silent, hidden destruction at last. Zeus placed him in the heavens as Sagittarius, whence he could visit Earth in spirit — unlike going to Hades, which is strictly a one-way trip.
The kicker: his name, “chiron” or “kheiron”, means “hand”, signifying “handy”, and also serving as the root of the Greek word for “surgeon.”
He is recognized in the constellation Sagittarius, and more recently in the minor planet Chiron. Aphros, his piscine brother, became king of Carthage in modern Libya and gave his name to a whole continent. Aphros (“sea-foam”) and his twin Bythos (“sea-deeps”) are honored together as Pisces, heavenly gratitude for their aid in Ashtarte/Aphrodite’s safe birth. They got along with their titan half-brother, Poseidon, but I don’t know how their once-fertile father Kronos felt about them. It’s not like he was good parent material.