The Hidden Significance of Moonlight’s ‘Chiron’

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Ashton Sanders as Chiron. Photo: David Bornfriend

The protagonist of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight — played at various points of his life by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes  is called many names. When he's a child, he's “Little”; when he's with his first love, he's “Black”; too often, he's “faggot.” But it’s his given name that’s the most compelling: Chiron. (In the film it's pronounced Shy-rone — fitting, given his demeanor.) Moonlight's Chiron shares his name with the immortal centaur from Greek mythology, the son of the titan Cronus and a half-brother to Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, among others. The centaur Chiron was an outsider in both worlds: He was abandoned by his nymph mother because of his appearance, and yet, because he was the son of a god, he was different from the other centaurs: gentler and less wild. In some Greek art he is depicted with the front legs of a human. In the world of mythology, Chiron isn’t like anyone else. He's a character without a peer.

The parallels to Chiron in Moonlight are clear. This Chiron also finds himself set apart from those around him. He isn’t like the other boys, and they bully him for it. He's quiet on the surface, with roiling emotions underneath. He’s alone at home, too, with his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) disappearing into the depths of her crack addiction. In Greek mythology, Chiron is fostered by the gods Apollo and Artemis, who school him in the arts of medicine, music, and prophecy. In Moonlight, Chiron finds a set of surrogate parents in Juan and Teresa (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe), who teach him how to swim, how to make a bed, how to sit up straight, and how to live a life with dignity.

There’s a deeper resonance in the naming choice for those who follow Hellenistic astrology. Astronomically speaking, Chiron is the name of the minor planet discovered in 1977 that orbits the sun in between Saturn and Uranus. In an astrological birth chart, Chiron is known as the “wounded healer” — a description that comes from the rest of the centaur Chiron’s story. There are a few competing versions of the myth, but the essential details are this: Chiron is fatally wounded by a poisoned arrow, but because he’s the son of Cronus, he doesn’t die. Instead, the injury simply never heals, and becomes a perpetual source of pain. In some interpretations of the myth, Chiron hones his skills as a healer by treating his wound. While he can heal others, he can’t heal himself.

In astrology, Chiron represents your “mortal wound” — a pain that you suffered, often in childhood, that doesn’t seem to go away. Understanding your own Chiron, the thinking goes, can become a source of learning and growth, with the potential for closure. Moonlight, in many ways, is a meditation on the wounds inflicted upon Chiron by his mother, his classmates, and the largely disinterested institutions of the state. Chiron is a gay black boy who grows up in a world that doesn’t care about gay black boys. In the film's third act, Chiron appears anew as an adult: freshly muscled, his shy silence taking on dimensions of toughness. His three-part journey is a story of survival, but it is also a universal one of a life lived — an attempt not only to heal, but to explore.