Wednesday 6 July 2016

Star Gayzing : Centaur of Controversy

It’s been a few months since I wrote about an actual constellation, over two years in fact, so let’s get back to our star maps and look at one of the largest constellations, Centaurus. It is notable for containing the nearest stars to our own sun, Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri.

As its name suggests this constellation represents one of those mythological half-man, half-horse creatures from Greek mythology. Specifically, Centaurus is meant to represent Chiron, the most celebrated of all centaurs. Many people assume that the zodiac constellation of Sagittarius is a centaur because that is how medieval astrologers depicted it. But the Ancient Greeks saw Sagittarius as a satyr. Their centaur constellation was Centaurus. Originally, it was a Babylonian constellation representing a half-bull, half-man creature associated with their Sun god.
In Ancient Greece Centaurus was much bigger than it is now. Several portions have been “moved” into new or adjacent constellations, one of which is Lupus. Part of Centaurus also makes up the Chinese constellation of the Azure Dragon of the East.

Its not known for sure if the Ancient Greeks actually had Chiron in mind when forming their constellation. It is the Roman poet Ovid who first seems to record that they had Chiron in mind. So, let’s look at why this particular centaur had such an important place in Greek mythology and how he connects to lgbt heritage.

First and foremost Chiron was considered different to other centaurs. In fact, perhaps he should not be called a centaur at all. All of the Ancient Greek portrayals of Chiron show him as fully human with a horse’s body emerging from his back, rather than the more familiar human body from the waist up replacing the horse’s neck, an image we actually get from the later Romans. This is because Chiron was not a full-blood centaur but the half-divine son of the Titan Kronos.

Also, because of his semi-diving blood he was considered to be more cultured and restrained than the full-blood centaurs who were lusty, bawdy and wild. The Ancient Greeks placed high respect to anyone of culture and refinement and Chiron was just that. This made him a suitable choice as teacher and mentor to young Greeks. As such it is not surprising that he followed the convention among mentors of having sex with his young pupils. This, of course, takes us into a murky world its best not to think about too much! After all, Chiron was half-horse. Can it be called bestiality? Or did the Greeks consider any living creature that possessed any human physical features, capable of intelligence conversation, and displaying culture and refinement, to be human in all but name?

Many of the famous Greek heroes were said to have been pupils, and therefore also lovers, of Chiron – Jason, Perseus, Theseus and, some say, Hercules/Herakles. Several heroes of the Trojan War are listed among his pupils – Ajax, Patroklus and, most importantly, Achilles. The relationship Chiron had with Achilles was the most celebrated of all. There are many depictions from both Ancient Greece and the Renaissance period which show Chiron and Achilles in a close, homoerotic, relationship.

With Chiron’s high standing in Greek culture it was just a matter of time before legends of him being honoured with his own constellation were created, though why it was given the generic name of Centaurus and not Chiron is a mystery. If it had, perhaps it would have averted the mis-identification of Chiron with Sagittarius.

But even if the pre-modern world of astronomy forgot Chiron’s name it re-emerged in modern times as the name of a completely new type of planetary object which led to the controversial demotion of Pluto from major planet to dwarf planet. In 1977 a new object was discovered between Saturn and Uranus. Its orbit was eccentric, taking it way out beyond Uranus and swinging back closer than Saturn making it a new type of asteroid/minor planet. After being named Chiron it was suggested that any others found with similar orbits in this region should also be named after centaurs.

Moving on a few years and many, many, many other “centaurs” had been discovered. Many were too much like Pluto to reasonably call them “minor planets” while Pluto was a major planet – one of the nine. Hence the controversy over the re-classifying of all objects in the solar system a few years ago. For Pluto this was disaster, a demotion to dwarf planet, but for the largest minor planets in the main asteroid belt it meant an upgrade to dwarf planet.

To end with, let’s go REALLY off-grid and enter the world of science fiction. Perhaps the nearest intelligent life outside our solar system might live on planets orbiting our nearest interstellar neighbours – Alpha and Proxima Centauri. Whether this life will take the form of centaurs is unlikely, but certain British people of my generation may remember the name Alpha Centauri as producing one of the most memorable science fiction aliens of all time. In 1973 and 1974 there were two stories in “Doctor Who” which featured a diplomat of the Galactic Federation from the Alpha Centauri system. It was a strange, amusingly phallic-shaped alien with six tentacles (very good at table tennis, a more recent Doctor remarked) and one huge eye. When asked by his companion what gender Alpha Centauri was the Doctor replied “it’s a hermaphrodite hexapod”.

Whichever form of life lives in the Centaurus constellation, whether a centaur or hermaphrodite hexapod, it’s reassuring to think that gender variation might exist in outer space!

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