Monday, December 08, 2014

Mirroring Centaurs and inverted medicines: Chiron and Nessus

Here's an odd example of unexpected symmetry in The Women of Trachis -- some might say it's a stretch, but bear in mind, the material of the myth was all one giant text to the Greeks.

Deianira is about to relate her discovery -- her dawning apprehension that Nessus gave her no love charm. She tells how she faithfully followed the dying Centaur's every instruction:
I let fall (παρῆκα) no part of the precepts which the savage Centaur gave me when he was hurting from the bitter barb in his side; they were in my memory, like the graven words which no hand may wash from a tablet of bronze.
ἐγὼ γὰρ ὧν θήρ με Κένταυρος, πονῶν
πλευρὰν πικρᾷ γλωχῖνι, προυδιδάξατο
παρῆκα θεσμῶν οὐδέν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐσῳζόμην
χαλκῆς ὅπως δύσνιπτον ἐκ δέλτου γραφήν.
She is thinking of Nessus as if he were a teacher, not a rapist. She adheres to his formula for making the charm as if it were a medicine she is learning to compound from a learned pharmacist. This of course should remind us of Chiron, the one Centaur who was learned in many arts, including medicine. (Chiron was a giver of the gift of knowledge not unlike Prometheus, only he did not suffer the wrath of Zeus for having stolen sacred fire.)

The irony is that Heracles killed both Nessus and Chiron with the same poisoned weapon -- though in the case of Chiron, it was an accident. At least one well-known tale goes this way:
Chiron had been poisoned with an arrow belonging to Heracles that had been treated with the blood of the Hydra . . . this had taken place during the visit of Heracles to the cave of Pholus on Mount Pelion in Thessaly when he visited his friend during his fourth labour in defeating the Erymanthian Boar. While they were at supper, Heracles asked for some wine to accompany his meal. Pholus, who ate his food raw, was taken aback. He had been given a vessel of sacred wine by Dionysus sometime earlier, to be kept in trust for the rest of the centaurs until the right time for its opening. At Heracles' prompting, Pholus was forced to produce the vessel of sacred wine. The hero, gasping for wine, grabbed it from him and forced it open. Thereupon the vapors of the sacred wine wafted out of the cave and intoxicated the wild centaurs, led by Nessus, who had gathered outside. They attacked the cave with stones and fir trees. Heracles was forced to shoot many arrows (poisoned with the blood of the Hydra) to drive them back. During this assault, Chiron was hit in the thigh by one of the poisoned arrows. (Wikipedia)
The tale continues with Chiron, who was immortal, suffering so greatly that he wished to die. Heracles then brokered an exchange by which the Centaur was permitted to die and Prometheus was freed from his savage punishment.

Heracles, then, killed both the noblest Centaur and the worst of them, and used knowledge gained from Chiron (about the poison) to do it. When Nessus tells Deianira that he can give her a potent charm, he is imitating Chiron's instruction of Heracles. And when he is struck by the Hydra-tainted arrow, he replicates the death of Chiron. Deianira, then, could have been misled by a kind of chiastic mirroring:

Chiron - teacher of Heracles - wounded by Heracles' poisoned arrow:
:Nessus - mortally wounded by Heracles - teacher of Deianira

The similarities are superficial. Upon closer consideration one might realize that if anyone could have used the Hydra's poison to good purpose, it would have been Chiron, but he couldn't. Chiron gave men medicine to preserve life and knowledge to make the best of it. Nessus, the doppelganger, gives a charm that horribly takes life. And the charm takes the form of a shirt, a copy, or replica, of the human form beneath.

Chiron certainly gave Centaurs an aura of primal learning - an air of authority and respectability which even someone as intelligent as Deianira might mistakenly attribute to all Centaurs.

The balanced structure of the myth would surely have fascinated the Greeks: Heracles was brought up and became who he was thanks to the illumination and humane tutelage of Chiron. And then he was brought down thanks to the prescription of a fraudulent beast who resembled him superficially. That doubleness, the real and the mere copy -- is itself underscored by the reality that Chiron and Nessus are "like" each other precisely in being dual creatures, double natures. And the difference between the dual natures lies precisely in the gift of benign culture -- of teaching, paideia.

We are not far from the Phaedrus's lesson in the differences between true knowing and mere writing. And writing is indeed present in Deianira's account of how she faithfully followed Nessus's precepts:
they were in my memory, like the graven words which no hand may wash from a tablet of bronze.
In a coming post we'll look at the charm itself in the Women of Trachis.

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