Today’s myth diverges a bit from the previous myths. Despite their children’s storybook style of narration, none of them have been particularly child-friendly, but today’s is even less so. But I referenced it earlier, in talking about Pirithoos, so…here goes. As with some of the other myths I’ve handled so far, there aren’t a lot of full-length accounts of this story in surviving ancient sources, more just brief summaries and such.
Ixion was the King of the Lapiths, who lived in Thessaly. When it came time for him to take a wife, he decided to marry Dia, the daughter of his kinsman Eioneus. Eioneus was reluctant to let Dia marry Ixion, because the Lapiths were a primitive, nomadic tribe, without proper palaces and with little of value. But Ixion was an ardent and relentless suitor, and promised to pay Eioneus a huge bride price of many horses and cattle. Eioneus agreed, sent his daughter back with Ixion, and promised to meet Ixion in Larissa to collect the livestock he was owed.
Ixion was delighted with his new wife, but when he returned to his tribe, he realized that if gave Eioneus everything he had promised, then their herds would be so greatly diminished that they would have very little left. He couldn’t have that, but he couldn’t possibly return Dia–who was so beautiful that Zeus himself was smitten with her!–nor could he admit to his father-in-law that he would need more time to pay the bride price.
Instead, Ixion came up with a clever plan to keep his wife and his livestock.
Setting all the herds of horses and cattle in a particular field outside of Larissa, Ixion went up on top of a nearby hill, where there was a little bit of an old fence. He dug a pit in front of that fence, covered the pit with a carpet, and then erected a hasty shack over the pit, so the carpet would not seem out of place. When he heard Eioneus had arrived in Larissa, Ixion filled the pit with burning coal, and then replaced the carpet.
Ixion went to meet Eioneus, greeted him joyfully, and then led him towards the shack, telling him that from within, he could both look out at the flocks that were the bride price and stay out of the hot sun. Eioneus was grateful for the consideration and stepped inside the shack.
The carpet gave way under his weight, and Eioneus plunged down into the burning coals, where he was roasted alive, screaming in agony.
Dia was distraught that her husband had killed her father, and the other Lapiths were horrified that their king had killed his own kinsman, but they dared not speak out against their king.
But the Lapiths were soon visited by many misfortunes, because Ixion was still stained with blood. He needed to be purified of the homicide, but only kings–and gods–can purify a man of such a terrible crime.
But no matter where Ixion traveled, he could find no king willing to purify him of his unspeakable murder of his own blood relation and father-in-law.
Eventually, Zeus himself–moved by Dia’s prayers–took pity on Ixion, and allowed him to visit Mt. Olympus as a guest. Zeus purified Ixion of the murder, and allowed him to sit at the table with the gods and share in a feast.
But as they ate, Ixion would not stop staring at the beautiful Hera, queen of the gods, and as the night wore on, he began to speak words of love to her.
Hera was horrified to be so accosted by a murderous mortal, and Zeus was enraged by Ixion’s effrontery.
So Zeus concocted a plan far more clever than Ixion’s had been. He fashioned a cloud in the semblance of Hera, and sent that to the chamber where Ixion was resting for the night.
Then while Ixion was slowly and laboriously seducing the cloud, Zeus stole down onto the mortal plane and went to visit Dia–as had always been his plan, after all–and quickly got her with child.
On his return to Olympus, Zeus barged into Ixion’s chamber, and found the mortal man in the process of having his way with the cloud in the shape of Hera. Ixion was terrified, but his fear turned into confusion when Hera appeared in the doorway behind her husband. Only then did the cloud resume her own shape.
Zeus dragged Ixion out into the open, and declared for all the gods to hear just what the mortal had done. “I will have no mortal presume to cuckold me!” the angry god bellowed. “I’ll show you what happens to mortals who sin against the gods!”
Zeus personally dragged Ixion all the way down to Tartaros, and had him bound to a wheel of fire, which turned eternally under the screaming mortal.
Nine months later, even as Dia was going birth to Zeus’ son Pirithoos, the cloud that had impersonated Hera, too, gave birth. But that child was the monstrous Centauros, born fully grown. Centauros was a man from his head down to his waist, but below his waist was the body of a horse. The disgusted cloud released her horrible offspring into the wild mountains of Thessaly. There Centauros mated with all the wild mares, and soon had produced the race of the centaurs, who looked like their father, and were just as wicked as their grandfather, Ixion.
As with a lot of these tales, there’s probably a reason it wasn’t often fully written out…but I’m surprised how little dialog there is in it. Usually I insert more of that than this.
The odd thing about this story is that one of my sources talked about how Ixion was supposedly the first man to shed the blood of a kinsman. But if Ixion is in the generation before Theseus, that doesn’t seem possible. In fact, it’s absolutely impossible, if you’re going to accept that Pelops, as a boy, had been (temporarily) killed by his own father, Tantalos, in order to test/impress the gods. Pelops, as a grown man, was driven out of Lydia by the grandfather of King Priam, and Theseus and Pirithoos are contemporaries of Heracles, who set the young Priam on his throne. So Ixion can’t possibly have killed his father-in-law before Tantalos (temporarily) killed Pelops. And Pelops–as I’ll get to eventually–in turn killed his own father-in-law, so it’s not like that part hadn’t been done before, either. Sigh. These myths were just never meant to all be connected like this. It’s been the impulse of mythographers at least since the Hellenistic era to try and make them all work together in a single, cohesive narrative, but they’re the product of centuries (or possibly even millennia) of oral tradition across a wide region with different local beliefs and practices, so of course they don’t fit together cohesively! Ahem. Sorry about that. I’ve probably said all this before, too, and I apologize for that as well.
Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered any mention of Centauros having been born fully grown, but if he wasn’t then the centaurs would have been too young to play their role at Pirithoos’ wedding. Unless we’re supposed to assume that centaurs have the lifespan of horses instead of human beings? (Not that I know, specifically, what the lifespan of a horse is, but I’m pretty sure it’s shorter than a human’s.)
I’m wondering if I should re-write this one and “Theseus and Pirithoos” so that Pirithoos actually is the son of Ixion, and Dia had just claimed Zeus had fathered him because she didn’t like the idea of having had the son of such a terrible man as her husband Ixion. Ancient sources contain both versions, so either one is “accurate.”