Classical Centaur Art: The Abduction of Deianira By The Centaur Nessus

Nessus Abducts Deinaera


Among the few tales of centaurs that have managed to be passed down since ancient times the story of Hercules’ encounter with the “ferryman”, Nessus, is probably only second to the that of the “Tale of the Lapiths vs Centaurs at the Wedding Feast”. Of course, the legends share some disturbing pro-humanity/anti-minority details. In both, the centaur(s) are depicted as ravenous beasts who have no self-control and only mean to do harm (this is also true of the legend of Chiron’s demise at the hand of Hercules.)

These dramatic details are why the legends still are able to fascinate new audiences. Hercules is again exalted to his high place in the pantheon of the world’s heroes. Much as new executions of the legends surrounding Jesus, Robin Hood or any other icon of human esteem continue to impress people with their heroism or inherently good natures.

The centaur Nessus is a particularly vile villain among those Hercules thwarted. He not only attempts to rape Hercules’ wife, Deianira, but after he is mortally wounded by the hero, Nessus proceeds to pass on the essence of his inhumanity by convincing the hapless woman that his blood has magical properties. Later, this magical blood proves to be the hero’s undoing. So the demigod arrives at a rather ignominious and incredibly painful demise through the medium of the “other’s”  true nature. Nessus, to put it plainly, is black blooded. His evil permeates every part of him.

The moral of the story being: Even in death you can’t trust centaurs.

Centaurs are the randiest drunkards in all of Greek mythology with the possible exceptions of the satyrs and cyclopes. It seems that every time they come anywhere near wine their intentions immediately move toward attacking human females. Part of this is explained in legend by the idea that there were no female centaurs to achieve sexual congress and procreate with. I question that idea because it would be very easy for them to satisfy sexual desire amongst themselves (though not increase their ranks), but if there is one thing considered morally worse in legends than rape it’s homosexuality. And besides, if the centaurs were a contented lot, how better to demonize them then by passing on sordid tales of their grossly libidinous natures and how humans heroically wiped these terrible threats to peace and happiness out?

If new readers of this blog are unfamiliar with my past blog entries let it be stated again that, if centaurs are imagined to be in the same historical (mythical) positions as any other outlier group (Amerinds, Jews, Gypsies, etc.), it is relatively easy to grasp the concept that these legends are anti-other propaganda intended to raise the heroic value of humans at the expense of the other. There is no effort to convey any attempts at conciliation of any sort. No, when it comes to centaurs, it’s all-out war against the beasts and nothing less.

The most overt implication of these legends is that others are generally more powerfully viral and potent than ordinary (read “more tasteful”) humans. This is also easily noticed in the tales told against blacks and others who are simultaneously envied and demeaned for their potency. In Greek artistic depictions of male figures bodies were to be admired, but large phalli were considered in the worst of taste so they were largely ignored. Male beauty, hallelujah! Male penises, hide that disgusting object away! The actual and more realistic fixation with prodigious male members among Greco-Roman artists/writers is most aptly represented in the semi-equine figures of centaurs. The Greeks admired the beauty of equines and depictions of Chiron, the one centaur with any worth in these legends, frequently show both his wisdom and physical prowess. But the beastly centaurs, creations of flagrant immorality,  were overly endowed and humans found all the more reason to hate and eliminate their kind. This sends a message that states potency is to be reviled, but more so in half-cast beasts than in the more cultured and evolved humans. You really can’t win for losing in this material.

So, without further pondering, here is a collection of classical and not art devoted to the story of poor Nessus and his murderer, Hercules. Obviously, Deianira is merely along for the ride:





May 17, 2014 · 7:20 PM

6 responses to “Classical Centaur Art: The Abduction of Deianira By The Centaur Nessus

  1. Love the post. One of my favorite parts of the Heracles myth. I appreciate the collection of old and new art, too. Some I have seen, some not. Thanks!

  2. Something that is implied by the legend is that Deianira did not mind being “taken” (the original meaning of ‘rape’, btw) by Nessus, as Hercules was a notoriously unfaithful husband. In fact, most of the artwork posted in this thread depicts Deianira as a rather willing and appreciative participant, rather than a helpless victim, and there is something to be said for the nature (or psychology, if you will) of desire. Deianira may realize that all Nessus wants is sex–and cannot truly love her–but at least he would be faithful to her, far more so than Hercules.

    Contrast this to the tragic story of Cyllarus and Hylonome* (“Nestor’s Tale of the Centaurs”, Ovid’s The Metamorphoses). The centaur Cyllarus is mortally wounded during the battle between the Lapiths and centaurs, and literally falls dead before the Hylonome. She cannot bear the thought of living without him, so she plucks the fatal arrow from his body and plunges it through her heart, thereby dying alongside him. I can think of no better example of love, tenderness, and devotion that is far superior to that of humankind.

    (*Footnote: Yes, there were female centaurs or ‘kentaurides’. They are few and far between, but are often depicted on ancient Greek pottery, usually in the role of ‘wise women’ that were sought for their natural wisdom.)

    • Well, the reason the guy had to do his 12 Labors was because he slaughtered his wife and sons. What a lovely hero he was. of course just about no modern treatment of the legend addresses that issue. When all is said and done, Hercules was just about as bad a guy for a demigod as Ares, his half-brother, was for a Greek God. Still we are more likely to admire him for his all-too-human flaws than we would those he butchers. Such is the way of superhuman heroes. They get all the slack.

      Deianira may very well have pondered a life with a more faithful centaur stud, but she couldn’t have possibly imagined escaping with Nessus when Hercules was nearby needing only a whiff of betrayal to go into violent action. Poor Nessus seems to have been drawn into human marital difficulties, eh? And, since creatures like centaurs are fairly disposable in these legends, he had to pay the ultimate price for the indiscretion of trying to “rescue” Deianira from the insensitive and unfaithful brute she married. I suppose lust can drive even sensible centaurs toward rash acts.

      The earliest centaur origin tales include no kentaurides and representations of centaurs on the earliest pottery give the fellows the front body of a human with legs, feet and penis attached to an equine hind. It took a while before artists and tale-tellers refined the image and character of centaurs to what we are most familiar with today. Ovid’s tales were of later creation and the tale of Hylonome is the first one of any note to include a female centaur. Yes, her choosing death over life without her partner is probably the most romantic event in all centaur legends. But then Cyllarus and Hylonome aren’t your ordinary centaurs even if they do participate in the battle with the Lapiths. They are a more fully realized representation of centaur beauty and worth than the depiction of the beasts who go crazy when Hercules opens a wine cask and subsequently slays his esteemed mentor, Chiron, accidentally.

      Thanks for commenting, James. I always appreciate your contributions to centaur-related discussions and history.

  3. Nice read, glad i’m not the only one who ponders this kind of ponderable and reaches the same conclusions. 🙂

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