Hero Versus Centaur- Hercules and Nessos

Sons of Apollo Series

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:

Greek myth index

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Battling The Centaurs And The Rest Of The Story.

Sons of Apollo Series

The most prominent Greek myth involving the centaurs that served as inspiration for my series, Sons of Apollo, is the story of the the battle between the Kentauroi (tribe of centaurs) and the Lapithe (tribe of men) who were their cousins. The centaurs and the Lapithe were descended from Apollo and the nymph Stilbe, who bore him twin sons, Kentauros, a centaur, and Lapithus, a man. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, tells of the infamous battle from the perspective of Nestor, king of Pylos. It is a bloody story of the ultimate defeat of the centaurs by the Lapith men at the wedding feast of Pirithoos and Hippodameia.

Pirithoos is a descendant of Lapithus. As cousins of the bridegroom, the centaurs were invited to attend the festivities. Trouble started when the centaurs, namely one Eurytos, become drunk and attempt to rape the bride and her handmaids. Theseus and the other Greek heroes come to their rescue, slaying Eurytos and his companions and a brutal battle ensues.
I have used many of the names of the centaurs from this story however they are not intended to portray these specific characters as chronologically my story takes place after this battle and the centaurs’ subsequent expulsion from Thessaly.

The Centauromachy was a popular theme in ancient Greece and was abundantly depicted in sculpture, architecture, on pottery and in art. Two of the most well-known depictions of the Centauromachy are: the West Pediment Statuary on the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, and the southern metopes from the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens.

Interesting to note, is the fact that Ovid is a Roman writer, which is significant for a few reasons. The Roman empire came after the fall of the Greek empire, so Ovid’s story is a later account of a story which must have had earlier origins. The evidence of these earlier origins are the prominence of this story as subject matter in Greek art and architecture and on pottery. Since there are multiple versions of the similar stories from different authors of other myths, it is a safe assumption that Ovid’s account isn’t the first and that there were likely other versions told previously in the form of oral tradition, or even written copies which have been lost to time.

It was also common for local story tellers to change the details of their stories to appeal to their local audiences. Generally the story is the same but some of the details vary, such as the location and the characters. Because I encountered these differences frequently in my own study of the mythology, it supported my idea that the facts would vary if the centaurs were to have told their side of the story and the facts could be considered just as true from their perspective. This awarded me much fictional license with which to justify tweaking the facts to suit the centaurs’ point of view without changing the relative truth of the account.

In my story, the female centaurs arise chiefly as a result of that first battle rather than existing prior to it. That makes a bit of a chronological discrepancy in Ovid’s account, but since the mythology is already inherently full of these little discrepancies, I took that as liberty and justification. In the realm of mythological realism in ancient Greece, my accounts would be no more or less true than any of the others. And since that was my goal, to write something that could have existed parallel to the original mythology, but from the perspective of the centaurs, it works in my favor.

The story of the Centauromachy contains the only female centaur mentioned in myth. Whether she was a later addition of Ovid or simply the last remaining female centaur of oral tradition can only be left to speculation. Female centaurs were popularly depicted in later antiquity and described by historian, Pliny the Elder.

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Books are a Luxury

What 10 Books Have Improved Your Life?

Ex Libris

Books are one of life’s luxuries. Throughout history, literacy has always been associated with the aristocracy- the class of wealth, power and luxury. This is still true of our modern affluent society, though perhaps less obvious and even taken for granted. Nevertheless, reading is arguably the most readily available asset to bettering life. Reading is a luxury.

A while ago I was challenged by a friend on Facebook to list 10 books which have affected my life. This process took much thought, debate and narrowing down. It was not only an introspective exercise then, but it the idea has lingered with me each time I have picked up a book since. As an avid reader this has provided a plethora of opportunities to be aware of the information I’m consuming, not only in books but elsewhere.

Here is the list I posted on Facebook:

    1. The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Christ, because I know it’s true. This book is the word of god, just like the Bible.
      1. 5. The Holy Bible, KJV, because how can I claim to be Christian and not have the life of the Savior affect my own. And Tyndale’s translation is simply masterful, which I have come to appreciate more through my study of Latin and ancient Greek.
    2. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, by John Gray Ph.D. because this book taught me about myself as much as about others. Just a note that I could add a whole slew of similar books, but I chose this one to represent them all. I would also include in this category the book: You Don’t Need to Slay My Dragons, Just Take Out the Trash, by Beverly Campbell, because this book added the spiritual element I felt was missing, to the Mars and Venus idea.
    3. Believing Christ, by Stephen E. Robinson, because this book brought to my attention the destructive side of my perfectionist tendencies and taught me to rely more fully on the grace of the Savior.
    4. How to Get Ideas, by Jack Foster, because this book opened my eyes to a new world of creativity. And I would add that this is another category where I have read other valuable books and essays with similar and compatible ideas. This one represents the lot.
    5. How to Make a Living As a Painter, by Kenneth Harris, because this book was so different from all the others I have read on the subject and it communicated to me what success ultimately means and that there’s not any one right (or wrong for that matter) way to do it.
    6. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare. This book was among my favorites as a child and remains so today. It is a gem. I have read it so many times. I own three copies- all in different states of wear.
    7. A Quiet Heart, by Patricia T. Holland. This book was a gift most timely given. An inspiration. It has become a precious reminder that daily communion with the Spirit of Christ is a vital part of a healthy soul.
    8. Sunset’s Western Garden Book, because let’s face it, my garden would be dead without it.
    9. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 12 the Centauromachy, because this was the story which inspired me to tell a story of my own.
    10. The Twilight Series, by Stephanie Meyer. (Before you laugh, hear me out. This is not a team Edward or team Jacob thing.) I enjoyed the series and was entertained for the time it took to read it, but the true inspiration was the feeling that the story I want to tell is at least that good and if this could be successful, then I could too. So, a toast to the pursuit of dreams.

Ok, ok I sort of cheated with the 1.5, but the scriptures really do go hand in hand and I needed room for another book without having a number 11. This was difficult, believe me. (Well, difficult in terms of narrowing it down to 10, not in terms of knowing which books have impacted me.)

Are you a reader? What books have had the greatest impact on your life? Share in the comments.