Astro Journal · Mythology

Planet Myths: The Story Behind Chiron

Chiron represents your primal wound and where you have a gift for healing others. It’s the wound that won’t heal, but through that wounding your experience of life is deepened and transformed. Chiron stands for the wound, the wounded, the wounder, and the healer, and he initiates you into self-knowledge and spiritual growth.

Chiron – small but powerful, like Pluto (source)

Astronomically speaking, Chiron isn’t a planet because it’s too small. It’s been re-classified several times and shows comet-like behaviour. It’s known as a centaur, one of the minor planets that orbits between the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt. Chiron is described as a maverick due to its eccentric orbit. It moves between Saturn and Uranus, and sometimes even ventures within the orbit of Jupiter.

Astrologers are still arguing about which sign, or signs, Chiron rules. Some place him with Sagittarius because there are myths that identify Chiron with that constellation. While others say it makes more sense for him to rule Virgo because of the emphasis on earth medicine and healing. The jury is out and it may be that Chiron is too much of a maverick to be pinned to one sign. Perhaps we should let him roam free, dispensing wisdom as he sees fit.

The glyph for Chiron is the letter K above the circle of spirit. Apparently, this is supposed to represent a stylised centaur – the circle being the horse part and the K being the human part. To me, it looks like a key. But it also reminds me of the symbol for disabled access for wheelchair users – quite appropriate!

As a centaur, Chiron has a dual nature. He mediates between the human and divine worlds, between body and soul, and between the human and the animal or instinctual. Because he orbits between Saturn and Uranus, he stands between the personal and transpersonal planets and provides a bridge – a way for us to experience the transcendent realm directly. This can be healing as well as wounding.

Chiron represents acceptance of the limitations of Saturn and the wounds that come from being in a body – death and time and the general unfairness of life. He also represents the potential liberation from those limits via Uranus, as well as the experience of being wounded by contact with the divine – the thunderbolt that shatters your previous reality.

The archetypes and symbols associated with Chiron include wounding and healing, teaching and hard-won wisdom, sacrifice, initiation, inner guidance, paradox and wholeness, and the path of individuation. Let’s have a look at how these ideas appear in the mythology…

Chiron Myths

We start in the obvious place, with Chiron himself. As we saw in Sagittarius Myths, Chiron was a Centaur, half-man and half-horse, so he embodies the conflict between civilised humanity and animal instincts. Centaurs were born to Nephele, a cloud nymph, and Ixion, a human king, and were known for being wild and savage. Chiron became their king because he was the oldest and wisest.

But Chiron wasn’t like his fellow Centaurs because he was more civilised and kind. He was often depicted with human front legs instead of those of a horse, and was sometimes shown wearing clothes. Perhaps because of this, some sources gave Chiron an alternative parentage.

Chiron, Peleus and the infant Achilles (source)

In this version, he was the son of Kronos (Saturn) who took the form of a horse to impregnate the water nymph Philyra. But she was so disgusted by his appearance that she abandoned him and got herself turned into a linden tree rather than raise him. Kronos wasn’t going to take care of him, so Chiron was effectively orphaned at birth. Luckily, Apollo raised him instead.

Apollo, and his sister Artemis, taught Chiron the skills of hunting, medicine, music and prophecy – including astrology. This influence by the god of the sun and healing is probably why Chiron learned to transcend his animal nature and become more rational and reflective. It means he embodies the reality of the chthonic gods of the past through his link to Kronos, as well as the coming age of the sky gods of wisdom and enlightenment through Apollo.

Chiron lived in a cave on mount Pelion and was a renowned healer and teacher of the wisdom of nature and the earth. He taught the arts of war and hunting to many Greek heroes, including Achilles and Jason (see Aries Myths), and possibly Hercules, although some say they were just good friends.

Being friends with Hercules was a risky business. During his fourth labour to kill the Erymanthian Boar, Hercules managed to start a fight with the Centaurs and some of them sought refuge with Chiron, their king. Chiron tried to intervene and calm everyone down. But Hercules fired an arrow that hit Chiron by accident and wounded him in the leg.

In some versions, Chiron accidentally wounded himself when he was examining one of Hercules’ arrows and dropped it on his foot. This seems unlikely to me, but either way, the arrow had been dipped in the poisonous venom of the Hydra. Chiron tried to heal the wound using all his wisdom, but nothing would work – the wound was incurable.

Despite receiving this terrible wound, Chiron couldn’t die because he was immortal. He retired to his cave, howling in agony. Some time later, Hercules made a deal with Zeus to allow Chiron to exchange his immortality with Prometheus (see Aquarius Myths). However, some say that Chiron chose death because he had grown tired of his long life, not because of the pain of his wound. Either way, he finally found peace and Zeus placed him in the stars as either the constellation Sagittarius or Centaurus.

Chiron teaches Achilles (source)

There’s a tendency amongst astrologers to wilfully misinterpret this myth and make it more positive than it is. It’s quite a tragic tale and it doesn’t sit well with the ego’s heroic perspective on life. The first thing to clarify is that Chiron doesn’t become a healer because he’s wounded. He was already a healer before he received the wound. This is what makes the story so tragic and unfair – and that’s the key to understanding the meaning of the myth.

The second thing is that Chiron never actually heals his wound – he chooses to die rather than live in pain. However, the heroic perspective sees death as failure and defeat. To the ego, Chiron’s death isn’t noble or inspiring, but meaningless.

Clearly there’s more to this myth than sulking about mortality and suffering. We’ll get to that later, but first there are more healers connected with Chiron to look at:

Apollo was the Greek god of healing, amongst many other things. As we’ve seen, he taught the arts of healing to Chiron, who in turn taught them to Apollo’s son, Asclepius. In relation to the archetype of the wounded healer, Apollo is a wounder as well as a healer. He heals through music and the arts, but his arrows also bring disease and death, such as the plague he sent to the Achaeans.

Asclepius was the main god of healing but his power to heal came from Apollo. He was born to a mortal woman who died in childbirth or was killed, depending on the story. Apollo saved his unborn son by performing the first caesarean section, and then handed the child over to Chiron, who taught him everything he knew about healing.

Asclepius wasn’t really wounded but he was sometimes depicted as lame. However, he ran into trouble with Zeus because he got into the habit of bringing people back from the dead, which was against the rules. Zeus got angry and blasted Asclepius with one of his thunderbolts. So Asclepius ended up in the underworld and suffered the same fate as mortals, despite being a god. Later, Zeus restored him to life and he was placed in the sky as the constellation Ophiuchus.

Asclepius healing a dreamer

Other Wounded Figures

We’ve already met another wounded god in the figure of Prometheus. He was chained to rock by Zeus for stealing the fire of the gods to give to mankind. Prometheus suffered by having his liver pecked out by an eagle every day – and every night it grew back in an endless cycle of torment – until Chiron set him free. One act of sacrifice paid back by another.

Meanwhile, Hephaestus was the blacksmith of the gods and was either lame from birth or wounded later, depending on the myth. In an echo of Chiron’s story, he was rejected by his mother, Hera, because he was lame, and thrown out of Olympus. Alternatively, it was Zeus who threw him out of heaven and he was wounded when he crashed to earth.

Like Chiron, Hephaestus is another earthy god with ancient roots. He was ugly and lame but created beautiful objects for the other gods, such as Zeus’ thunderbolts, Hermes’ winged sandals, and Pluto’s invisibility helmet. In some myths, he also created a wheelchair for himself and mechanical women to help in his forge.

Beyond ancient Greece, we have the Gnostic myths about Sophia, a fallen and wounded saviour figure. Her voice is particularly vivid in the Nag Hammadi text called The Thunder, Perfect Mind, a wild outpouring of paradox. She’s presented as a powerful being, trapped and fragmented in matter and suffering a dissociated state. But despite her pain, she seeks wholeness so she can restore the world to its original divinity.

There are many other examples of wounded and grieving goddesses from various cultures, such as Inanna in Sumer, who descends to the underworld, and Demeter and Persephone in Greece, who both undergo a symbolic death and rebirth. We can also see this archetype in the story of the Handless Maiden who is wounded by others and learns to heal herself and return to wholeness.

Another obvious wounded saviour figure is Christ who sacrificed his life for others. He was wounded by the culture, but his death served a higher purpose. Like Chiron, he embodied both the divine and human worlds (although some would argue about that), and was a healer and spiritual teacher.

Finally, we have the tale of the Fisher King, the wounded Grail King who was too ill to live but unable to die. He was wounded by accident, but despite owning the Grail, couldn’t partake of its healing power himself. Only when Percival asked the right question, was the King able to heal. The Grail symbolises the true Self, or wholeness – the divine source within.

The Meaning of Chiron

Chiron can teach us a lot about being human because, like him, we bridge the gap between the animal and the divine, between heaven and earth. But the myth also shows that the result of this connection is a wound that won’t heal.

The fact that Chiron embodies both reveals the potential for grounding the divine in the body and balancing it with the instincts. But his wound suggests there’s a price to pay for connecting heaven and earth. Just as Prometheus pays for his gift of the fire of consciousness, Chiron pays for his gift of healing and wisdom.

Chiron receives his wound late in life, long after he has become a great and wise healer. But really, he was wounded twice: first, when he was abandoned by his parents – an emotional rejection and wound to the soul; and second, by Hercules – an accidental wound to the body. The first wound is existential, and the second is to the animal part of his being, the instincts.

His first wound may also have been reinforced by his isolation from the other Centaurs. Chiron is different to his fellows: he’s more civilised and refined, and that cuts him off from union with nature – an echo of being cast out of Eden. This shows how we’re wounded by the process of civilisation. As we become more conscious and self-aware, we can repress our instinctual selves and lose touch with our bodies and feelings.

Hercules fighting the Centaurs (source)

Chiron is wounded again when he comes between Hercules and the Centaurs and tries to stop the fighting. Hercules represents the ego on an heroic quest to define himself as an individual. Ego is characterised by duality and conflict – hence all the fighting.

The Centaurs represent wildness and the instincts. Chiron holds the middle ground, so he can see both sides – the need for consciousness and self-definition, and the need to be grounded in nature. He stands for paradox and the unification of the opposites – the integration of body and mind, not conflict between the two. And this is why he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up wounded.

The fight between Hercules and the Centaurs kicks off when Hercules opens their special wine during a meal. This either offends the Centaurs because Hercules is being rude – “How dare you come into my cave and open my wine!” Or because the fumes from the wine, made by Dionysus himself, gets them drunk and they go mental. Everyone overreacts and it all gets out of hand. Either way, it doesn’t make much sense.

Hercules fighting the Centaurs represents the ego fighting the instincts – the conscious mind at war with the body. Hercules is disrespectful and tries to take what isn’t his. In a similar way, the ego seizes control and usurps the centre of consciousness at the expense of the body.

The wine is an interesting detail – perhaps it represents the ecstatic states of consciousness that can arise when you’re grounded in the body and the present moment. However, these states represent oblivion to the ego. So the ego (as Hercules) tries to achieve this ecstasy for itself – to have its wine and drink it, as it were.

While Hercules is busy fighting for his life, an arrow goes astray and wounds Chiron by accident. So the ego causes the wound. Not only that, the ego wounds the instincts while fighting against the instincts. The more we struggle against ourselves, the more we wound ourselves. The ego doesn’t realise what it’s doing, so on and on it fights.

We wound ourselves by accident but we’re also wounded by life. The wound happens because being conscious is wounding to the instincts. Being alive and aware of suffering and mortality is painful to the ego, so it fights and resists – and wounds itself as well as others.

Chiron can’t heal his wound so he chooses to die rather than live in pain. But his death isn’t meaningless because he dies for the sake of Prometheus. In other words, by sacrificing himself for another, he makes his suffering sacred – he offers it up to a higher good.

This is a hard lesson for the ego to face because it doesn’t want to accept that it’s not in control. Life can be unfair and sometimes doing your best isn’t enough. If you can’t heal your wounds, you have to find a way to live with them. There may be part of you that longs for release from suffering, like Chiron, but in the end, you have to choose to live despite your pain.

That means accepting your limitations and the facts of life. In fact, both the stories of Chiron and Asclepius show that healing can come from the acceptance of natural limits and by acknowledging the reality of death. This means including your woundedness as part of your being rather than fighting against it.

The Chiron and Hephaestus myths also show the compensatory gifts of healing and creativity. Civilisation may be wounding, but in the process of struggling with your wounds, you can grow in self-knowledge and wisdom. Creativity can be a healing response to being wounded, and that healing can then be shared with others.

Chiron shows how you’re wounded by life and how you can heal others thanks to insight gained through being wounded. The wound and its healing can happen at any, or every, level – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. It represents an initiation into deeper self-knowledge with the ultimate aim of healing the split between spirit and matter, and becoming whole.

Chiron Myths on Film

Films that represent the Chiron archetype include stories about wounds and wounding, healing and health, wounded healers, and the process of individuation or becoming whole. You’ll have your own favourites, but here are a few examples of Chiron on film:

  • Jack Lucas seeking redemption by helping Parry on his own grail quest in The Fisher King.
  • Friends Thelma and Louise who go on a road trip and run into old wounds in Thelma and Louise.
  • Aging mutant Logan on a quest to help his feral daughter find Eden in Logan.
  • Hedonist Ron Woodroof who finds a way to help fellow AIDS sufferers in Dallas Buyers Club.
  • Pat struggling with bipolar disorder and learning to dance with new friend Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook.
  • Jean-Dominique Bauby writing his account of locked-in syndrome in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
  • Tom Creo searching for the secret of eternal life to save his dying wife across parallel lives in The Fountain.
  • Quadriplegic millionaire Philippe hiring a carer who changes his life and becomes a friend in The Intouchables.

Follow the links above for more on some of those films. More on the inspiring world of The Intouchables here. Next: the role of Chiron in the process of Individuation

More on Chiron

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