Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Life of Hercules: The Centaurs and the Erymanthian Boar

Sixth of a series. Here are the earlier posts:

Terra cotta centaur statue, 8th c. BCE.
(Bibi Saint-Pol / Wikimedia Commons)

        The Centaurs and the Lapiths are both depicted in ancient myths as descendants of Ixion and they represent certain pre-Hellenic mountain tribes of northern Greece, according to Robert Graves in his Greek Myths.  Two different versions of their origin (see Lapiths and Centaurs in Wikipedia) confuse the picture, but in one of these Lapithes and Centaurus were presented as twins.  Lapithes went on to found the human race of Lapiths, while Centaurus mated with the Magnesian mares, producing the race of Centaurs.  Thus the two peoples were in effect cousins, even though they became mortal enemies.  Early depictions of Centaurs show them as humans with a human's legs and a horse's rear attached at the back, while  the currently more familiar form of a man's torso on a horse body developed later on.
       As time passed, the Centaurs began to be viewed as more barbarous than the human Lapiths.  "The strife among these cousins is a metaphor for the conflict between the lower appetites and civilized behavior in humankind." (Centaurs in Wikipedia)
       The Centaurs were unused to wine.  When they were invited to the wedding of the Lapith Pirithous, they consumed wine in a barbarous fashion, i.e. straight, undiluted with water, and in excessive quantities.  Hence, they became very drunk and began to attempt to have sex with all the women (and the men, too).  A great battle ensued, in which the Centaurs were defeated. 

Cheiron and possibly Achilles, although it
could just as well be Jason.
Etruscan vase, c. 500-480 BCE
(© Fæ / Wikimedia Commons) 
       Strangely enough, even though the Centaurs represented the lower nature of humans, they could also produce great teachers, both of the arts of battle and of philosophical and moral matters.  This aspect of the Centaurs is best represented by the wise and honorable Cheiron.  Achilles' father gave him into Cheiron's tutelage to learn how to be a Champion, and Cheiron also mentored Patroclus, Asclepius, Jason, and other heroes (see list in the Wikipedia article).   He taught them not only how to fight but how to live. 
       Heracles was not mentored by Cheiron, but nevertheless they were friends.  This brings us to the topic of the Erymanthian Boar, the Fourth Labor of Heracles. I spoke about that briefly in my post The Life of Hercules: The First Six Labors, but I want to elaborate a bit here.  Boar hunts are common in Greek myth; after all the wild boar was a giant and fierce animal.  We already dicussed the Calydonian Boar Hunt, and who can forget that Adonis was killed by a boar?  However, our present interest lies in what happened as Heracles was on his way to Mount Erymanthos to capture the boar.  He stopped in at the house of Pholus, another kindly and friendly Centaur, and at dinner Heracles asked for wine.  Again, the concept that the Centaurs did not know how to handle wine comes into play.  The scent of wine attracted other Centaurs, who drank it straight, became rowdy, and attacked Heracles.  He shot at them with his arrows, which had been poisoned by the blood of the hydra, and they retreated to the cave-home of Cheiron.
       Curious as to why the arrows were so lethal, Pholus picked one up and dropped it on his own foot, thus causing his own death.  But more importantly, in the melee of the battle one of the arrows struck Cheiron.  Being a son of Chronus, Cheiron was immortal, but the pain of the poison was so great that he volunteered to give up his immortality in ransom for Prometheus.  Naturally, Heracles grieved mightily at having killed two of his old friends.

        So how do I make use of all this in The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head?  I needed a species of Shshi that could represent the Centaurs.  The termite world is not fantastic enough to have a people who are, say, half termite and half reptilian (there are no mammals on that planet).  But there are many varieties of nasutoids (termites whose soldiers have both fighting mandibles and a poison-spraying gland; true nasute soldiers have only a poison-spraying gland and hardly any mandibles at all).  To the plains Shshi Ki'shto'ba and Di'fa'kro'mi, a nasutoid appears like a hybrid.  So I created the Yo'sho'zei -- the Ancient Ones -- who are supposed to be an archaic species of Shshi, the oldest in origin that are known.  They have enormous, downward-hooking mandibles and a gland on their heads that produces a foamy, lethal acid spray.  Their home is far to the south, near the sea, in a obscure region known as the Spirit Hills, and they have a mysterious reputation of being Sorcerers and Sages, attuned to things of the spirit.  We meet one of their Workers in the person of Krai'zei, the young Is'a'pai'a's aide and caretaker.
       What do I do for Cheiron?  He is such an important figure that I divided him into two people.  The Warrior Ju'mu, whom we encounter in v.1: The War of the Stolen Mother represents the trainer of Warriors.  Ju'mu is shown as the mentor of Nei'ga'bao Swift-Foot just as Cheiron mentored Achilles and it teaches Ki'shto'ba how to fight with an extra-body weapon.  The name "Cheiron" means "hand," but I couldn't name Ju'mu just "Mu" (claw), so I named him "Hard Claw."
       The wise scholar and healer who is the other aspect of Cheiron doesn't appear as a speaking character until v.5: The Wood Where the Two Moons Shine, which I'm just preparing for publication.  Vai'zei'a'parn is an aged Alate who mentored Is'a'pai'a (the Jason figure) as a nymph and obeyed a Seer's instruction to send Is'a'pai'a off to roam northern lands and find a Champion to teach it.  I couldn't use the meaning "hand" twice, so Vai'zei'a'parn's name means "Giver of Knowledge."
       How I complete the myth -- i.e., how the Erymanthian boar fits in, how Heracles kills Cheiron by accident, and how the drunken Centaur aspect is utilized -- will remain a mystery until you read the fifth volume!

A more typical depiction of a Centaur
Probably one of the drunken ones!
Besides the Wikipedia references mentioned in the text above, the following articles are of interest: