Legendary Lovers: Chiron and Achilles
BY Christopher Harrity
February 01 2014 8:00 AM ET
Chiron wasn't like the other centaurs. He was sensitive. More refined. Educated. He was so highly evolved that his front legs were human. Centaurs tended to run with a racy crowd: other lusty centaurs, satyrs, and fauns. They were basically the frat boys of the ancient world. Fun, but troublesome.
In the amphora pictured above, we see the earlier Greek version of the centaur as he instructs Achilles, who is riding on his back. Chiron indulges his young lover in "horseplay" as Achilles pulls the centaur's beard and feigns a punch in Achilles abs. In later Roman depictions of Chiron and Achilles (below: The Education of Achilles‚ wall painting, from the basilica in Herculaneum), we're shown the more traditional four equine legs, and ears folded at the top like a satyr.
Chiron was an educator, and he was especially good with boys. He taught them the skills they needed to become men: medicine, music, archery, hunting, and prophecy. And although he was married, his love of his young male students surfaces in many stories, his attachment to Dionysus, for example.
When Achilles was born, his mother Thetis tried to make him immortal by dipping him in the river Styx. However, he was left vulnerable at the part of the body by which she held him — his heel. His father Peleus entrusted Achilles to Chiron, on Mt. Pelion, to be reared.
The freewheeling sexuality of the mythological gods and creatures of ancient times has been systematically repressed by Christian-based academics. It seems reasonable to assume that if a shred of homosexuality still lingers after centuries of censorship and rewriting, that perhaps the homosexual story lines were more prevalent, more common.
When Chiron surrendered Achilles as a student and a lover, Achilles went on to have a deeply romantic relationship with his warrior comrade Patroclus. There are conflicting interpretations historically of their relationship, but keep in mind, these are men of myth, so interpretations are moot. But just as there are many paintings and works of art of the beautiful releationship between Chiron and his treasured pupil, there are just as many that show the deep connection between Achilles and Patroclus.
Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus (1855) by the Russian realist Nikolai Ge, below:
Aeschylus, Plato, Shakespeare, and of course Mary Renault have all presented Patroclus and Achilles as lovers. The death of Patroclus is a complex and beautiful story and underpins a great deal of Achilles' actions and emotions toward the Trojan war in Homer's The Iliad.
On the following pages, find more historic representations of Achilles and Chiron.