Metamorphoses XII:210-535 – The Battle of Centaurs and Lapiths

Centaurs and Lapiths

Artist Johann Whilhelm Baur (1600-1640), Nuremberg edition, 1703.

Pirithous, the son of reckless Ixion, wed Hippodamia. He placed the wild cloud-born Centaurs at dining tables lined up in a bower of trees. The chief men of Thessaly were present and I, Nestor, was there with my folk also. The palace echoed joyfully with the mingled crowd. They sang the marriage hymn. Wedding torches flared in the hall, and the bride, surrounded by her mother and girlfriends, was the most beautiful of all.

We cried that Pirithous was fortunate to have such a wife–which almost became an evil omen. The heart of Eurytus, the most bestial of the bestial Centaurs, burned as much with sight of the maiden as with wine; drunkenness doubled by lust mastered him. He overturned the table, disrupting the feast, and seized the new bride by the hair.

Thus Eurytus grabbed Hippodamia, whereupon those around him each grabbed the woman he liked best or was closest to, turning the banquet into the image of a captured city. The palace resounded with the cries of women.

We rose to our feet instantly. Theseus cried, “What madness has driven you, Eurytus, that like a fool you would attack Pirithous while I am living? For thus you make two deadly enemies with one act!”

Eurytus didn’t reply–for how could words defend such deeds as his?–but he clawed the face of his angry challenger and punched his noble chest. There happened to be a ancient mixing bowl nearby, carved with relief decoration. Theseus, son of Aegeus, raised it overhead and hurled it into the Centaur’s face. Eurytus sprayed the crowd with a mixture of wine and his brains, from his wound and his mouth both. He fell back, his death throes trampling the wet soil.

His halfling fellows took fire from his slaughter and cried with one voice, “To arms! To arms!” Wine had given them spirit, and the first volley of the battle was of cups, fragile jars, and delicately curved bowls. Once the apparatus of a feast, they were now turned to war and slaughter.

The Centaur Amycus, descendent of Ophius, didn’t hesitate to enter the house itself and take a heavy chandelier hung with glittering lamps. He raised it high as though he were preparing to sever the white neck of a bull with a sacrificial axe, then dashed it into the forehead of Celadon. The blow scattered blood and bones, making Celadon’s features unrecognizable. His eyes flew out, and when the bones of his face were shattered, his nose drove through the roof of his mouth.

Pelates lurched upward with the table of maplewood from Mt Pella. He smashed Amycus to the ground with his chin spread over his chest, sending the Centaur to the shades of Tartarus spitting blood and teeth from the ruin of his head and torso.

The Centaur Gryneus stood near Amycus. He glared at the smoking altar and said, “This will do!” He picked up the huge altar, flames and all, and hurled it into the thick of the Lapiths, crushing Broteas and Orion. Orion’s mother was the witch Mycale, whose chanting as the horned moon waxed had often called it down to earth.

“You’ll pay for that as soon as I find a weapon!” cried the Lapith Exadius, and as he spoke he saw what he needed: the horns of a stag had been hung on a tall pine tree as a votive offering. He used the rack to pierce Gryneus, separate points gouging out both eyes. The antlers were slick with humors from the Centaur’s eyes, some of which dripped with blood down into his beard.

The Centaur Rhoetus snatched a brand of plumwood from the altar and drove it through Charax’ right temple. His blond hair blazed up like a fire in dry brush, and the blood pouring from his wound shrieked into steam. It was just as though a smith with his tongs had plunged iron, glowing from the fire, into cold water: it screams, followed by a hiss as the warmed water quenches the iron.

Tortured by the flames devouring his shaggy locks, Charax snatched up the door lintel, a heavy burden for a cart. It was too heavy even for his agony; instead of hurling it at his enemy, the very weight caused him to smash the rocky mass into his comrade Comes.

Rhoetus crowed, “Thus I pray may be the fate of the whole brave lot of you Lapiths!” He pounded his half-burned club three and four times into Charax’ head, bursting the joints of the skull and leaving the bones sticking out from the liquescent brains.

The victorious Centaur charged Evagrus and Corythus and Dryas. First Corythus sprawled, a boy with only the first downy whiskers on his cheeks. “What glory have you gained by slaying a boy?” Evagrus said. Instead of replying, fierce Rhoetus thrust the blazing torch into the Lapith’s open mouth and down into his breast.

Then Rhoetus whirled the fire around his head and went after you, savage Dryas–but this didn’t end the same way: you stabbed him with a charred stake where his neck met his shoulders. Rhoetus groaned and could scarcely tear the stake from his breastbone; he fled, dripping with his own blood.

The Centaur Orneus fled along with Lycabas and with Medon, whose right shoulder was wounded; Thaumas fled with Pisenor. Mermeros had been the fastest of the Centaurs in a recent race, but he limped away slowly because of a wound.

The Centaurs Pholus and Melaneus ran, and Abas the great boar hunter. The Centaur Astylus, an augur, had vainly begged his fellows not to fight. Now he saw Nessus cowering in fear of wounds and cried, “You needn’t flee! You’ll be saved for the bow of Hercules!”

The Centaurs Eurynomus and Lycidas and Areos and Imbreus weren’t able to escape slaughter. The right hand of Dryas knocked every one of them down–and you too, Crenaeus, though he struck you from behind; for when you looked back, you took his heavy blade between the eyes, just above the bridge of the nose.

Despite the clamor, the Centaur Aphidas remained in drunken sleep with a cup of mixed wine in his languid hand, sprawled on the shaggy skin of a bear taken on Ossa. His fellow, Phorbas, saw him from a distance and became infuriated that Aphidas wasn’t taking part in the fight. He seized a javelin and cried, “Mix your wine with the water of the Styx!”

As Phorbas spoke, he hurled the javelin. The iron-tipped beechwood took the young Centaur in the neck as he lay. Death caught him unaware. Black blood poured through his throat, onto the bearskin and into his cup.

I saw the Centaur Petroeus striving to lift an acorn-laden oak. He had gripped it with both arms and was shaking it to and fro when the dart sent by Pirithous, son of Ixion, pierced his ribs and fixed the corded muscles of his breast to the hard oak.

Some say that the hand of Pirithous slew the Centaur Lycus, others say that he slew the Centaur Chromis; but the Centaurs Dictys and Helops gave even greater honor to the victor. Pirithous pierced Helops through the temples, from right ear to left, with a javelin. Dictys was fleeing his rush down a steep mountainside. When he missed his footing, he plunged over a precipice. The weight of his body smashed an ash tree and decorated it with his entrails.

The Centaur Aphareus was already a victor. Now he advanced, preparing to hurl a boulder he had ripped from the mountain. Theseus, son of Aegeus, forestalled him by shattering the great bones of his elbow with an oak branch.

Theseus didn’t have time or need to finish off the cripple. Instead he leaped on the high withers of Bienor which had never before carried any human form but the Centaur’s own. Theseus clamped his knees into the Centaur’s ribs and gripped his mane while shouting threats and battering in his bony temples with the club of knotted oak.

Theseus with his club laid out Nedymnus; and Lycops who was trying to throw a javelin; and Hippas whose beard flooded over his chest; and Ripheas, who lived in the deep woods; and Thereas, who had often carried home snarling bears which he had captured live on the mountains of Thrace.

The Centaur Demoleon fared much the same as Theseus continued his rampage across the battlefield. The Centaur exerted great effort trying to rip an ancient pine tree from the midst of a thicket of briars. He couldn’t pull out the roots, but the trunk broke and he threw the upper portion at his enemy.

Theseus dodged the missile easily. He was warned by Athena, or at least that was what he told people afterward. The tree trunk didn’t fly in vain, though, for it tore away tall Crantor’s chest and the left shoulder on which his carried his javelin.

Crantor was the squire of your father Peleus son of Aeacus, Achilles. He was the son of Amnytor, king of the Dolopes in Thrace, who after his defeat had given the boy to Peleus as a hostage and pledge of peace.

Peleus was nearby to where the mangled corpse was flung. “Accept this funeral offering, Crantor, dearest of youths!” Peleus said His strong arm hurled a beechwood spear into Demoleon, putting his body and soul into the cast. The point drove through the Centaur’s ribs from the side and stuck trembling in bone.

Demoleon dragged out the shaft with his own hand, leaving the spearhead stuck in his lungs. Agony gave him the strength of madness: wounded, he reared against his human enemy and tried to trample him with his hooves.

Peleus received the blows on his helmet and the ringing buckler which he kept out at arm’s length with the strength of his shoulders. Stabbing up between Demoleon’s forelegs, he pierced both the equine and human breast with one stroke.

Before fighting Demoleon, the hero Theseus had already sent the Centaurs Phlegraeos and Hylas to death, then had killed Iphinous and Clanis in the same melee. Toward him came the Centaur Dorylas, who bound a wolfskin about his temples and had been using the crooked horns of a bull as a weapon; they were now dripping with blood.

To Dorylas–for excitement gave me strength–I cried, “Behold how much your horns cede to steel!” as I hurled my javelin. He couldn’t dodge, but he threw up his hand to block the missile which pinned his palm to his forehead.

Dorylas cried out, unable to move because of his serious wound. Peleus was close by and fiercely stabbed the Centaur low in the belly, slashing the sword downward to rip out his guts. Dorylas trampled his own intestines, chopping them apart with his hooves and tangling his legs before he died with an empty belly.

Nor did the shapeliness of the Centaur Cyllarus save him in the fighting, if we’re willing to grant shapeliness to one of his species. His beard was just starting to grow; it was like golden fuzz, and golden was the hair which hung over his shoulders and halfway down his thighs. His expression was animated.

Cyllarus’ neck, shoulders, arms, and breast were all worthy of statues by the most honored sculptors. Such was the human part of him; his horse body was as fine. Barring his head and neck, he was a mount worthy of Castor. His back was made to be sat on, and the muscles of his breast stood out distinctly. He was entirely pitch black, save for his white haunches and his shining white tail.

Many females of his own kind sought Cyllarus, but Hylonome alone had stolen his heart; there was no more lovely mare among the half-men living in the deep forest. She alone, by sweet nothings, by loving him and by telling him of her love, held Cyllaron.

Hylonome was well dressed also, in so far as someone of her species could be. Sometimes a comb lifted her smooth hair; sometimes she bound it with rosemary, sometimes with violets and roses or shining white lilies. Twice a day she washed her face in a spring that fell from the wooded peak of Mount Pelion, twice a day she soaked her double body in the stream; nor did she neglect to wear a chosen fur over her shoulder and down her left side.

Their love was mutual. They wandered the mountains together and explored the same caves. They had come together to the Lapith dwellings, and together they waged fierce battle.

Who struck the blow is uncertain, but a javelin flew from the left side and plunged down into you, Cyllarus, where your neck joined your chest. Your heart, nicked by the point, grew cold and chilled your whole body.

Hylonome lifted the dying limbs, covering the wound with her hand and pressing her mouth to his mouth; trying to force back his fleeing soul. When she saw that he was dead, she cried out so loudly that I covered my ears. She threw herself down onto the weapon which had pierced Cyllarus and, dying, embraced her spouse.

Before me stood the Centaur Phaeocomes who had slain six lions and joined them as armor for both his human and equine bodies. Swinging a wooden club which two yoked pair of oxen could scarcely have moved, he crushed the skull of Tectophon son of Olenus. The blow smashed the man’s head from round to flat; his liquid brains sprayed from his mouth and nostrils and eyes and ears, like whey dripping from the openings as cheese is squeezed through a basket of oak withies.

As Phaeocomes bent to strip the arms from his victim, I–and your father saw me do it–thrust my sword deep into the looter’s groin. The Centaurs Chthonius and Teleboas also fell to my sword. The former carried a forked branch, the latter a javelin. The javelin wounded me–see my proof? The old scar yet remains!

For these acts I earned a place in the expedition against Troy. There, though I couldn’t overcome the arms of great Hector, at least I could delay him for a moment. But that has nothing to do with this former day, when Hector was a boy and I was not yet wasted by age.

What shall I say about Ampyx son of Periphas and his victory over the two-formed Pyraethus? After that he drove a dogwood staff without a point through the back of the skull of four-hoofed Echeclus.

Then it was the turn of Macareus from Pelethronia, who slew the Centaur Erigdupus; and I remember also the hunting spear driven into Cymelus’ groin by the hands of the Centaur Nesseus. And you’ll be amazed at what Mopsus son of Ampyx, the future soothsayer, did. At Mopsus’ spear-cast , the Centaur Hodites sprawled, trying vainly to speak: his tongue was pinned to his lower jaw and his jaw to his throat.

Caeneus gave five Centaurs to slaughter: Stypelus and Bromus and Antimachus and Elymus and axe-bearing Pyractes. I don’t recall their exact wounds, but I jotted down their names and the order of their death.

The huge Centaur Latreus, wearing the armor of Emathian Halesus whom he had killed, rushed toward Caeneus. In years he was between manhood and old age and had white streaks on his temples, but he had the strength of a youth.

Latreus rode in a certain course through the melee, the focus of all eyes for his round shield, sword and Macedonian pike; clashing his weapons and looking from one side to the other as he angrily shouted threats through the sudden hush: “Is that you I see, Caenis? For you’ll always be a girl to me, you’ll always be my Caenis! It was as a girl you were born and as a girl your personality was formed! How much did you have to pay in order to feign the appearance of a man?

“But as you were born, so you must live! Go and find your distaff and basket of wool, begin spinning the thread with your thumb. Leave war to the men!”

As the Centaur shouted his boasts, Caeneus’ far-flung spear plowed through his side where the human part joined the horse part. Raging with pain, Latreus drove his pike toward the bare head of Caeneus, the youth from Phyllus. The blow rebounded as though from a thick roof or if someone happened to bounce a pebble from the head of a hollow drum.

Latreus closed to sheathe his sword in the youth’s impenetrable flank. “I won’t let you get away!” he cried. “I’ll drive this sword to the midpoint into you though the blade be lead!”

He swung the sword toward Caeneus’ flank to slash the entrails. The youth’s belly boomed as though the sword had struck a marble statue; bits of skin flaked off.

Caeneus displayed his practically untouched limbs to the startled Centaur. “Now,” he said, “let’s see what my sword does to your body!” Using the strength of his shoulders, Caneus sank the death-dealing weapon to the hilt in the guts of his victim.

Behold, though all the two-formed Centaurs rushed up to thrust or hurl their weapons against Caeneus, those weapons bounced away blunted. Elateian Caeneus remained unharmed, merely bloodied by his own stroke.

This unheard of situation astounded the attackers. “Alas, what a terrible dishonor!” exclaimed the Centaur Monychus. “That our entire race should be conquered by one man–and him only half male! Though even granting that he’s a man, we are defeated by our laziness regardless of what he is.

“What use are our mighty limbs, what use the doubled strength of our bodies and the joined courage of the two bravest species? Though we didn’t have a goddess mother nor were we the offspring of Ixion, who was so bold that he that he made a play for the goddess Juno–still shall we be overcome by a transsexual foe? Hurl rocks and beams and whole mountains, tear up the woods for spearshafts and throw them till we bury him alive! Suffocate him with a whole forest and let the weight itself be our weapon!”

So speaking, Monychus found a tree which had been thrown down by the strength of a wild storm out of the west. He flung it at his powerful enemy. Following his example, other Centaurs had stripped the trees from Mount Othrys and the shade from Mount Pelion.

Caeneus was trapped beneath the great weight of the mound. He heaved at the mass of timber, shifting the oaken tangle with the strength of his powerful shoulders. After the pile covered his face and head, however, he didn’t even have room to breathe.

At last he subsided, the way the wind pauses in trying to lift and roll the trees it has torn up. All the time the mass continued to quiver, however, as one can see when the earth quakes beneath the hard rocks of Mount Ida.

There is disagreement about whether Caeneus died there. Some say the mass of timber sent his crushed corpse to the Underworld. Ampycides denies that, saying that he saw a cuckoo squirm out of the pile and take to the open air on sandy wings.

The seer Mopsus also saw this first and most important appearance of the cuckoo as it encircled the scene of loud-clanging battle in slow flight, viewing the bird both with his soul and with his eyes. He cried, “Hail, Caeneus, thou glory of the Lapith race! You were once our greatest hero but are now a unique bird!” On the authority of Mopsus, the miracle was accepted.

The death of Caeneus made us furious, however, for we found it unbearable that one man should have been crushed by so many of the enemy. We scrubbed away grief with our swords, not stopping until we had slaughtered many of them and flight and darkness had hidden the rest.


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