Today I want to share a story about an encounter between a hero and a Centaur. The hero in this tale is Herakles - or Hercules - who is famous in Greek mythology for his strength and his twelve legendary labors. The Centaur is named Nessus. He is perhaps not quite as well known as Hercules in mythology. Despite this, Nessus did play an important role in one specific incident from myth. It is the tale of a husband, his bride, and a kidnapper, all told by a favorite Roman poet.
The source for this story is Book Nine of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And the passage I am featuring begins with a reference to the previous tale, which is about Achelous. It then leads us to our topic :
“Although the god had lost his handsome horn
and had his forehead marred, he still was sound
in every other way. And he could hide
his scar with wreaths of weeds or willow boughs.
But you, ferocious Nessus, who were struck
with love for Deianira, lost your life:
a flying arrow pierced you through the spine.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book Nine, lines 98 ff.)
I’m going to paraphrase the rest of Ovid’s version of the story here, but I highly recommend that you check out Allen Mandelbaum’s lyrical translation if you want to read something far more beautifully written.
The story starts innocently enough I suppose. Hercules is heading home with his wife Deianira. The couple are thwarted in their journey by a rather formidable river that blocks their path. Of course Hercules has no concerns about something as petty as a swollen stream - after after all, our hero has a reputation for overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles. What’s crossing a river to him? However, he did worry about his wife.
Cue Nessus the Centaur. Nessus just so happens to be standing near the river. Recognizing the hero and immediately grasping his predicament, he saunters over to where the pair are standing and offers to assist Deianira in crossing the river. Now Nessus is canny enough to realize that appealing a bit to the vanity of Hercules will help him in his scheme. Wait, what scheme? Allow me to explain.
You see, Deianira is quite lovely. The kind of woman who inspires love at first sight. And Centaurs were pretty notorious for being unable to resist female charms. Anyway, Nessus acknowledges that while Hercules himself may not require help, Deianira, who was by this point looking a little pale and anxious about this whole river crossing business, may appreciate the extensive river-crossing experience of a half equine companion. Could he be of service?
Hercules takes the bait. While he busies himself with tossing his weapons onto the opposite bank and swimming mightily across the river, he barely notices that his wife is in fact screaming. Deianira is calling for her husband because Nessus is carrying her off. This fact gradually dawns on Hercules. In typical heroic fashion, he first warns Nessus that the Centaur won’t get away with the abduction. Then he acts. Scooping up his bow and arrows, Hercules shoots the Centaur squarely in the spine.
It’s worth noting that this point that Hercules had taken the precaution of poisoning the tips of his arrows with venom from an earlier conquest, that of the Hydra. So the death of Nessus was both swift and most assuredly painful. However, before he passes away the Centaur has the presence of mind to plan a final act of retribution.
With his dying breath Nessus turns to Deianira. He whispers hoarsely that his tunic is magical, endowed with an enchantment that will prevent Hercules ever from straying from his wife.