This poem recounts the famous mythical battle, “Centauromachy.” It unfolds in the ancient home of the Lapiths in the region of Thessaly, Greece, a generation or two before the Trojan War. King Pirithous, Zeus’ son, prepares to wed Hippodamia (“horse-tamer” in Greek). Pirithous’ friend, Theseus, son of Aegeus, a hero from Athens, is present at the celebration, as well as Caeneus, a Lapithian hero. A large group of Centaurs are also there, led by their king, Eurytus.

 

“Aeolian! Apollo’s son!
Why from the banquet quickly run?
Your robes are torn, your sash is rent,
Your gilded herald’s staff is bent!
What happened in those pillared halls,
Where demi-god Pirithous calls
Lapithian sons and daughters fair
And lords of Thessaly to share
A generous nuptial feast?”

“There flowing wine, the harvest’s best,
Should fill the cup of every guest,
And bountiful boards of fresh-baked bread,
Savory cheese, and meats on bed
Of leafy greens, made fit to eat
Once Hippodamia they meet.
Her face unveiled, they see her blush,
Her gorgeous smile the crowd would hush
Before the sumptuous feast.”

“Yet how can nuptials cause such harm
To you, who run as if from war?
Did rough carousing bruise your arm
Or stumbling, drunken, to the floor?”

The herald turned to him and said,
“You’re partly right, Pirithous led
Us guests to wait and kindly share
His richest wine, while bridal hair
Was cut, and ceremonial baths
Were taken. Bride and Groom, their paths
Entwined forever, stood as one,
While holy bowls reflected sun
As clearest, cleansing water poured
Upon young lovers, here adored
By heaven and earth at once.”

“Yet as these wedding rites conclude,
The centaurs gorged themselves on food.
Their appetites enflamed by wine
They wolfed down ample boards, laid fine
With first-picked fruits, the country’s pride,
To laud the horse-wise, glowing bride.
But massive, hooved Eurytus led
His brutish centaurs forth and said,
‘Why hunger till the bride’s appeared?
Traditions are not by us feared –
Let’s have our fill at once!’”

“And that’s not all: Pirithous’ joy
To see his bride, all comely-coy,
When finally she parts her veil,
Transformed to rage, a man-made gale!
For when Eurytus saw her face,
Beaming bright with bridal grace,
He made a sudden forward leap,
To make this damsel his to keep,
Trapping her with brawny arms.
His sudden flight upraised alarms,
Unleashing mayhem’s ties!”

“Now every centaur charged to steal
Himself a maid and flee this meal,
Fulfilling their rudest craving yet
If they could just break through the men they met.
For up to fight did each man spring,
Led by the strength of their hero-king,
Pirithous, who sprang on Eurytus’ back
And smote his head in this first attack,
A fist-blow landing on the ear!
Eurythus reeled while groomsmen near
Each threw his centaur foe.”

“Yet elsewhere centaurs pummeled down
The lesser-powered men in town
And might have won this fateful day
Had not lord Theseus stood to say,
‘My good Thessalian men, give ear,
Let’s band together, no need to fear
These centaur brutes. Caeneus and I,
With others few and courage high,
Will hold their forceful charges back
While you these chairs and tables stack
To make a barricade.’”

“Assenting, each at once set forth
And Theseus, guest of highest worth,
With lordly Caeneus took his stand,
Fighting centaurs hand-to-hand.
With dexterous moves they’d out-wit foes,
Then lay them low with mighty blows
From make-shift implements of war,
As others attempt to obstruct the door –
The centaurs’ surest way to flee.
For only that way could they be
Outside confining halls.”

“Alas! When time enough was won,
Their hasty ramparts nearly done,
Then Theseus shouted, ‘men, fall back
Behind our lines, their brusque attack
Redoubles now, see how they burn!’
The noble vanguard found safe return
For all but one: Caeneus. His fall
Was sealed when centaurs one and all
With beastly strength threw basins, stools,
And stones to bury him as pools
Of blood foretold his death.”

“Now heart-sick each man took his post
While some escaped to fetch a host
Of bows and arrows, javelins, spears,
And massive shields to quench the jeers
Of those ungrateful centaurs. Still
The battle raged within until
The weapons came and all could take
A sturdy bow or spear and make
The naked-handed half-men shrink
From war and in the corner think
Of how to save their skins.”

“As men surrounded their mortal foes
With bristling spears and full-bent bows,
Pirithous spoke to end this strife,
Preventing further loss of life.
For huddling behind the centaurs’ knees,
Causing weapons in hands to freeze,
Lapithian maidens lay ensnared.
To shoot towards them? No one dared!
The king thus spoke to strike a deal
And swiftly end this grisly meal,
His woeful wedding day.”

“‘Centaurs, we could kill you all.
By whizzing arrows and spears you’d fall
With one sign from my right hand. Keep still
And listen now to my good will:
Release the maidens, unmolested
By parting blows, or you’ll be bested
By raining shafts, just mark my words,
Set them free as cageless birds.
Do this now and you’ll be spared
Even after all you’ve dared
Within my pillared halls.’”

“These beasts, though shameless, trusted him,
Releasing maidens at his whim.
Not waiting for their king’s command,
They took the chance which lay at hand
To flee through parted ranks of men,
O’er barricades, and fallen kin
To reach the freshly opened door.
Once out, each centaur quickly tore
Away from Peneus, its hill-ringed vales,
Through wooded glades and mountain trails
To coastal Pelion’s heights.”

“The last of all Eurytus filed,
Not planning to flee those halls as mild
As other centaurs, for he spied
A way to wreck Pirithous’ pride:
He quickly grabbed a limply-held sword
Then leaped to strike the Lapithian lord
Upon the head, turned unaware,
And send him down to Hades’ lair,
A gruesome way to end this feast.
Alas for him, the faithless beast,
Undone by Theseus’ speed.”

“For up the son of Aegeus sprang
As Hippodamia shrilly sang,
Her husband’s doom so close at hand,
To bring dark grief o’er all that land.
The brilliant hero took his spear
And sent the bronze-point punching clear
Through flesh and bone, which disemboweled
The beast, who dropped the sword and howled,
Falling violently down to breath
His last as blood, life’s ember, seethed
And soaked the stony ground.”

“So now you know my disarray
Has just excuse, I go to tell
Those unaware about this day
Which started glad but ended fell.”

The townsman replied with thoughtful words,
“A wedding is no place for herds
Of brutish centaurs making eyes
At well-bred maidens, our greatest prize.
How did Pirithous such friends make?
Are ties from youth so hard to shake?
I’m sure with them he’d had his fun,
Before his gorgeous bride was won
Or princely path set straight.”

“When Pelion’s coastal heights they reach
These centaurs will mend their wounds and teach
Their brethren that vengeance must be sought.
I fear Pirithous has merely bought
His kingdom time to arm for war
And make defense its greatest chore.
For surely Centaurs will return
To fight and kindle a vengeful burn
From this centauromachy.”

 

 

Nathaniel McKee’s interest in classical poetry first grew while studying for a master’s in business administration at the University of Oxford, UK. Somehow this whimsical place deepened an already strong appreciation for the humanities, even as he studied business. Nathaniel’s literary interests include Greek and Roman classics, 18th-19th century English literature, 18th-19th century French literature, the Bible, and history in general. He currently purchases agricultural commodities and energy for a mid-sized food manufacturing company in the foothills of southeastern Tennessee, USA, where he lives with his wife, Bethany.


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15 Responses

  1. James A. Tweedie

    Vividly and marvelously told! It reads like a translation. Is it, perhaps, a poeticized improvement on an existing prose translation?

    On a lighter note, I suppose this poem spells doom for the “Take a centaur to lunch” movement.

    Reply
    • Nathaniel McKee

      Thanks, James. This isn’t a translation, but it’s interesting you should say that it reads like one. I’m a huge fan of Robert Fagles’ translations of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, so its very likely that I have subconsciously mimicked his style in my own writings.

      Reply
  2. Carolyn Clark

    An entertaining and well wrought tour de fotce from TN. Thanks for the fresh look at old material.

    Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    The battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs was frequently depicted in Graeco-Roman art, and was taken as symbolic of the eternal struggle between civilization and barbarism. The Centaurs represent everything disgusting, savage, foreign, freaky, and beyond the pale; while the Lapiths are the defenders of civilized order, decorum, and tradition. Their big mistake was inviting the Centaurs to the wedding, thereby opening the door to drunkenness and rape.

    One might think of the SCP itself as a modern equivalent of the Lapiths. Let’s hope we won’t make the same blunder of welcoming Centaurs here.

    Reply
    • Nathaniel McKee

      Thanks for your comments, Joseph, I definitely tried to tap into this symbolism. In my view, the battle can represent as much an internal struggle within each individual as an external one.

      Reply
  4. Sultana RAZA

    The flow of the poem is quite sweeping. It’s very difficult to write a poem set in antiquity because of the restrictions in terms of the words one can use. And this rather long passage could only be done in rhyming couplets. Well done, and bon continuation!

    Reply
    • Nathaniel McKee

      Thanks, Sultana, couplets do lend themselves well to longer pieces because of their simplicity. I did use alternating rhyme in two short transition sections before a change in speaker. Do you think this disrupted the flow at all or did it help signal a transition?

      Reply
  5. David Gosselin

    Dear Nathanial,

    Love that you decided to take up a Greek myth and give it an original treatment. In our “contemporary” world, being original no longer means making some attempt to capture and communicate something truthful about the nature of man and the universe, and to do it with beauty, as the Greeks did, but instead what’s thought original is stylized writing, novel word-choice and imagery with no other aim than to induce some “feeling.”

    You took the time to tell a story, and told it well. Even more, you brought out some nice poetry.

    So I’m thankful to see that there are people like you inspired and taking up lofty themes like the Greek myths and doing something original with them.

    I wrote a ballad a while back, The Lament of Tros, which takes the myth of Ganymede and gives it a different treatment than the one generally used whether it be in Goethe’s Ganymede, or Ruben’s and the many Romanticized depictions of Zeus stealing a little boy from his parents in order to make him his “servant”. I was inspired by Rembrandt’s treatment of the theme in his “The Abduction of Ganymede.”

    https://www.thechainedmuse.com/single-post/2017/09/22/The-Lament-of-Tros

    Reply
    • Nathaniel McKee

      Thank you, David, for your kind remarks and for sharing your poem. I enjoyed reading it; it’s the only piece I have read on the legend Ganymede other than Homer’s brief mentioning of it. Ancient legends deserve to be reinterpreted and re-told in interesting ways.

      Reply
  6. Monty

    Well, one thing’s for sure, Nath: you certainly don’t lack stamina. But it was as lengthy as it needed to be for a story so comprehensively relayed. What a ripping yarn; and told so vividly, it must be said, with a wide use of our language, and rich in detail (so rich, that I – as did another commenter above – initially thought that you’d rendered the poem from the same story in prose.

    I must point out a couple of ‘tense’ irregularities: The first 3 stanzas are in the ‘present’ tense, and at the start of the 4th stanza, the tense changes to ‘past’ (“Pitthous LED us guests..”), and remains in the ‘past’ until the 17th stanza. Thus, in the 1st line of the 5th stanza, ‘conclude’ should read ‘concluded’ (in the ‘past’, as does “gorged” in the following line, and “wolfed” two lines later).

    Again, in the 7th stanza, the 2nd line should read “the meal” (‘past’) and not “this meal” (present), hence matching the word “charged” (‘past’) in the 1st line. In the same stanza, the 4th line is also in the ‘present’ (“could just break”.. which should be “could’ve just broke”) . . but I feel that that’s the least of that line’s problems. It’s got too many syllables (even allowing for the inconsistency of meter throughout the piece); and the diction seems forced . . seemingly rushed. It doesn’t deserve to be in such a well-written poem.

    Regarding the two transition-sections: I don’t think the rhyme-alternation in any way “disrupts the flow”; if anything, I feel that it’s a clever way of emphasising the change of speaker.

    Jolly well written, Nath; and upon completion of such a mammoth task, I’d like to think that you afforded yourself a short holiday.

    Reply
    • Nathaniel McKee

      Monty, thank you for your compliments and critiques. I must confess that I left the first tense irregularity you mentioned just because it rhymed so well in the present tense (more succinctly, laziness). Here’s a possible revision (5s,1):
      “As wedding rites were about to conclude”
      -+-+–+–+

      Regarding your second comment, I agree, the line seems forced. Here’s how I might re-word the first four lines of the stanza (7s,1-4):
      “Now every centaur charged to steal
      -+-+-+-+
      Himself a maid and flee the meal.
      -+-+-+-+
      They rushed to gain the exit wide
      -+-+-+-+
      As maidens kicked and screamed & cried.”
      -+-+-+-+
      This would correct the tense issue as well as make the meter easier to follow.

      You mentioned “inconsistency of meter throughout the piece.” Are any of these what you would consider an incorrect use of meter? If so, could you provide an example or two? I tried to pick appropriate syllables for strong and weak “beats”, but what makes sense in one’s own mind often reads quite different another’s.

      Thanks again for the feedback.

      Reply
      • Monty

        I feel that your alternative suggestion for S5,1 is also musically-awkward. There’s not a lot of room to correctly use the words you want to use, so it might be an idea to consider changing the whole couplet. The best I can come up with is:
        “And as the rites were being done,
        The centaurs gorged on food as one;
        Their appetites . . . ”

        Regarding your suggestion for S7,1-4: the word “wide” sounds redundant, and forced for rhyme-convenience. An alternative could be:
        “The centaurs seemed to sense their cue,
        And looked for maids to get their due;
        They upped, and pushed their plates aside
        As maidens all around them cried”.

        As for the ‘meter’, forgive me, Nath: my use of the word “throughout” was rash. There are certainly inconsistencies (S2,1.. S9,8.. S10,6.. S12,1.. S13,3.. S15,2-5-6.. S19,2-3), but I think I might’ve been getting mixed-up with the syllabic-inequality throughout.

        p.s. I meant, but forgot, to relay in my initial comment how much I admired the line “unleashing mayhem’s ties”. That is a most imaginative use of our language.

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