The most well known centaur myth is the story of Hercules and Nessos (Nessus in Latin). It is a relatively short, but exciting tale, full of seduction, intrigue, deception, revenge and a fight to the death.
After the battle with the Lapithe and subsequent expulsion from their homeland in Thessaly, the centaurs fled to various regions of Hellas (Ancient Greece). Nessos settled at the river Evenus where he became a ferryman, carrying people across the river on his back. When Hercules brought his new bride, Deianira (whom he had won by defeating another centaur by the name of Eurytos), Nessos volunteered to ferry the woman safely through the swift current to the opposite bank. Halfway across, however, Nessos became infatuated with his beautiful passenger and lust won over reason. Nessos attempted to seduce and kidnap Hercules’ bride. Deianira screamed for help and Hercules leapt to the rescue, shooting Nessos with one of his Hyrda-poisoned arrows. In some versions of the myth, Hercules beats the centaur with his club, and thereby rescuing his bride.
Unlike their leader, Kheiron, centaurs were traditionally characterized as drunken, lustful, pugnacious and uncivilized. The depiction of Nessos in this myth is no exception. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that all the stories featuring individual centaurs were often pitted against the most popular Greek hero, Hercules. The hero must have a villain to defeat. Still, the story of Nessos follows a familiar pattern inherent in all the stories about centaurs. First, a situation involving a beautiful woman and an encounter with a centaur. Second, the centaur feels lustful toward the woman and attempts seduction. Third, the hero defeats the centaur- usually killing him and thereby rescues the damsel in distress. This theme is repeated over and over again, almost ad nauseam, or so it seemed to me as I delved deeper and deeper into my study of Greek mythology. Were the centaurs always the bad guys? What about their side of the story?
This negative portrayal of centaurs is still most common even in modern mythology with some few exceptions. Perhaps the most widely recognized version of this story is the Disney adaptation. Disney took some liberties with the story of Hercules and Nessos and its characters, giving the myth a cameo in their 1997 film, Hercules.
The more mythology I read, both ancient and modern, the more I recognized this trend. I began thinking, if I wanted to see a story that didn’t follow these themes and depicted the centaurs’ side of the story, that I would have to write one myself. And that was the inception of my series, Sons of Apollo, which follows the line of Kentauros, son of Apollo, and his descendants, giving an account of mythological events from the cultural perspective of the centaurs.
As is common with most centaur mythology, particularly that of antiquity, the battle of hero versus centaur is symbolic of the conflict of civility against barbarity, or more generally the embodiment of opposition.
To learn more about Nessos’ character in mythology, I recommend two of my favorite mythology websites: