Legendary Lovers: Chiron and Achilles

By Christopher Harrity

Originally published on Advocate.com 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.

Benigne Gagneraux


Eugene Ferdinand Victor Delacroix, 1845

Jean Baptiste Regnault, The Education of Achilles, 1782

Pompeo Batoni, 1746

James Barry, The Education of Achilles

Bertel Thorvaldsen, Chiron Teaching Achilles to Shoot with the Bow, 1811


Donato Creti, The Education of Achilles, 1714


Greek vase painting


The Education of Achilles by Chiron, 18th.century


Chiron and Achilles, Thorvaldsens Museum


Willy Pogany, 1918

Toussaint Dubreuil, The Education of Achilles, 16th century

 


Johannes Riepenhausen, Franz Riepenhausen, Chiron Teaching Achilles to Play the Lyre, after 1800


Giovanni Battista Cipriani, L'education d'Achille. Below a variation by the same artist.

 


Pompeo Batoni, Thetis Confiding the Education of Achilles to the Centaur Chiron, 1760


Pompeo Batoni, Thetis Takes Achilles from the Centaur Chiron, 1760

The two paintings above show Achilles as he meets the Cetaur Chiron for the first time (top) and as the wistful Chiron surrenders his young charge, now a young man, to his mother's care — as well as that of some comely young nymphs and serpent men —after his education.