jeudi 4 septembre 2008

Centaurus 6

Centaurus is one of several constellations that deal with the Labours of Heracles.
In the Fourth Labour, Heracles' assignment was to bring back a rampaging wild boar that was bringing death and destruction to the inhabitants of the northern part of the Peloponnesian peninsula. On his way, he stops to visit a friend of his, a Centaur named Pholus.
Centaurs were half-men, half-horse, who had all descended from Ixion and Nephele (who was in fact a cloud, shaped by Zeus to resemble his wife Hera).
Centaurs were featured in a number of Greek myths, but by and large remained on the periphery of Greek fable.
As Heracles finishes the sumptuous meal provided by Pholus, he then has the effrontery of opening the Centaurs' private wine cask, meant for them alone. The rest of the Centaurs catch the odour of their wine, wafting across hill and dale, and they become enraged.
Gathering up huge boulders, ripping out trees to use as clubs, and arming themselves with axes, the Centaurs advance on the dinner party.
Pholus takes fright, so the battle is left to Heracles. After repulsing a number of Centaurs single-handedly, Heracles then chases the rest of them to the cave of their king, Cheiron.
Heracles shoots an arrow at one fleeing Centaur (Elatus by name), but it passes through his arm and strikes Cheiron on the knee. You may recall that Heracles' arrows were all dipped in poison, so each was fatal, no matter how slight the wound. Cheiron was a great friend of Heracles, and our hero is devastated. He tries to assist Cheiron, but there is nothing to be done.
Cheiron was immortal, so the poison couldn't kill him, only cause great pain that would last through eternity. He descends to the depths of his cave, his screams of agony echoing throughout the cavernous walls.
Eventually Prometheus takes pity on the long-suffering king of the Centaurs, and offers to take over Cheiron's immortality, if Zeus would agree. Zeus does agree, so Cheiron's agony finally comes to an end, and Zeus places the great king of the Centaurs in the heavens.
Back to the previous battle. The Centaur Pholus looks over the dead and dying and wonders how Heracles' arrows could be so fatal. He plucks one arrow out of a body and looks at it, but it slips through his fingers and strikes him on the foot, killing him instantly.
Heracles hears of the tragedy and returns to bury his friend, at the foot of the mountain that bears his name: Mt Pholoe.
This high plateau region in the interior of the peninsula is just up the road from Olympia. Now called Pholois, this is where the Centaur stories of antiquity originated. It is said that Zeus had held Pholus in very high regard, and therefore also put his likeness in the heavens. Thus the constellation Centaurus represents two Centaurs: Pholus and Cheiron.
The fact that two Centaurs are linked with the constellation is no accident. The earliest extant artifact showing the likeness of a Centaur is a piece of Mycenaean jewellery which shows two centaurs together: half-men, half-horse, facing each other and dancing, similar to satyrs.
These half-men half-horse figures were also transformed at times to half-man half-goat. Many rituals are known to have involved dressing as one of these half-beasts, rituals which may date back to Neolithic times.

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