Hercules’ battle with Nessos wasn’t the hero’s only encounter with the centaurs that ended in bloodshed. Another was the story of Hercules fighting the centaurs on Mount Pholus. This was a hugely popular story in Ancient Greece, rivaling the account of the Centauromachy, the largest battle of the centaurs.
During the hero’s fourth labor, the pursuit of the Erymanthian boar, Hercules visited the home of Pholus, a centaur in Arcadia whose mountain home bears his name. The centaur served his guest meat, but feared to serve him wine from a particular cask prepared by Dionysus, God of Wine, which belonged to the centaurs collectively. Hercules opened the wine jar himself and the other centaurs caught scent of it. In some versions of the story the centaurs became enraged and in others they became drunk simply on fumes. A battle ensued in which Pholus was wounded by one of Hercules’ hydra-poisoned arrows, (a weapon he had poisoned after his second labor, slaying the Lernian Hydra).
It was common, in Ancient Greece, for local story tellers to change the details of their stories to appeal to their local audiences. Of all the mythology involving the centaurs, the story of Hercules and Pholus is one of the most prominent examples of this kind of adaptation. While the plot of the story generally remains the same, nearly all of the details vary, such as the location and the characters. In one version, the story describes the death of Kheiron and is set in Thessaly on mount Pelion. However, in the account of the story of Pholous, the action takes place in Arcadia on the Peloponnese, an entirely different region of Greece. Some variations include, Hercules demanding the wine and then Pholus obligingly serving it to him. In other versions Hercules takes the wine for himself. In one account, the stray arrow of Hercules strikes the centaur, slaying him, and in another account, the centaur picks up the arrow. Marveling at it, he drops the hydra-poisoned arrow, pricks his foot and dies. In the case of Kheiron, the centaur’s immortality causes the wound to fester incurably, yet he cannot die. The centaur subsequently trades his immortality to Hercules for relief from his suffering. Both are considered to be accidental deaths and both involve the demi-god Hercules. In yet another account, both Pholus and Kheiron are present as the centaurs flee from Hercules and appeal to the protection of Kheiron.
These discrepancies also provided both inspiration and artistic license to explore the same story from the point of view of the centaurs in my own series, Sons of Apollo, and to consider some of the following questions: what was the relationship of Hercules to the centaurs that he would stop to visit one of them? Why would this centaur receive Hercules, and serve him as a guest?
The Ancient Greeks had specific beliefs about how to treat guests, some of which included serving wine. These traditions were closely guarded by Zeus Xenios, a specific title given to the Lord of the Sky as patron God of Hospitality. To treat a guest poorly, especially the son of Zeus himself, would risk incurring the wrath of the king of the Olympic gods. How would these customs factor in to what transpired during Hercules’ visit? Why would the other centaurs be angered about it enough to fight to the death over it? And for that matter, why would Hercules pursue them in effort to slay all witnesses to the events? What other events surrounding this incident might have affected both its instigation and its outcome? How might variations in centaur traditions and customs been in conflict with the human traditions of the Ancient Greeks? How might these opposing views have affected the interpretations of facts as rumor spread, both from the point of view of the centaurs and the humans?