The differing accounts vary in details, but each story contains the following elements: Herakles visited his cave sometime before or after the completion of his fourth Labor, the capture of the Erymanthian Boar. When Herakles drank from a jar of wine in the possession of Pholus, the neighboring centaurs smelled its fragrant odor and, driven characteristically mad, charged into the cave. The majority were slain by Herakles, and the rest were chased to another location (in the Bibliotheca, Cape Meleia) where the peaceful centaur Chiron was accidentally wounded by the arrows of Herakles which were soaked in the venomous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. In most accounts, Chiron surrendered his immortality to be free from the agony of the poison.
While this pursuit and second combat was occurring, Pholus, back in his cave, accidentally wounded himself with one of the venomous arrows while he was either marveling at how such a small thing could kill a centaur (Bibliotheca) or preparing the corpses for burial (Diodoros). He died quickly as a result of the poison's outrageous virulence and was found by Herakles.
Much later, authors like Hyginus (in his De Astronomia) became confused with these details since Chiron and Pholus, both being the only civilized centaurs in Greek myth, died in the same story. Consequently, his writings in places exhibit a conflation of details as a result of his typical inaccuracy.
In the Divine Comedy Pholus is found with the other centaurs patrolling the banks of the river Phlegethon in the seventh circle of Hell.
Pholus, Chiron, and the other centaurs
It is well known that Chiron, the famously civilized centaur, had origins which differed from those of the other centaurs. Chiron was the son of Cronus and a minor goddess Philyra, which accounted for his exceptional intelligence and honor, whereas the other centaurs were bestial and brutal, being the descendants of the unholy rape of a minor cloud-goddess by the mortal king Ixion. Where Chiron was immortal and could die only voluntarily, the other centaurs were mortal like men and animals.
Pholus, like Chiron, was civilized, and indeed in art sometimes shared the "human-centaur" form in which Chiron was usually depicted (that is, he was a man from head to toe, but with the center and hindparts of a horse attached to his buttocks). This form was of course used to differentiate Chiron and Pholus from all other centaurs, who were mostly represented as men only from the head to the waist, and therefore more animal-like.
To further account for the unusually civil behavior of Pholus, the author of the Bibliotheca wrote that his parents were Silenus and one of the Meliae, thus differentiating him genealogically from the other centaurs, as Chiron was known to be. This different parentage apparently did not carry with it immortality, however, and Pholus died just as the other centaurs.
- Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources.
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