Centaur

A centaur is an ancient being that generally has the upper body and head of a human but the legs and body of a horse. The creature is most associated with ancient Greek mythology, but the idea of half-human, half-horse beings is thought to have originated in Babylonia.

Centaurs usually have a human head, torso, and human arms; however, from the loins down, they are horses, complete with four legs, a body, and a tail. In early Greek pottery, they are often portrayed with human legs at the front, so they only appear horse-like from behind, but four legs and two arms seem to be a common theme. Later representations sometimes depicted centaurs without human arms but with four horse legs. Other representations show human arms but only one set of legs, those of a horse’s hind legs.

The facial features are always those of a human, usually a man and usually bearded. They sometimes differ a bit from humans by having a snubbed nose and pointed ears.

Centaurs have multiple origin stories

There is no definite explanation as to why centaurs entered human consciousness, but most historians accept that it likely occurred when humans first learned to tame and began riding horses. The shock some humans must have felt when seeing another person galloping on a horse may have caused them to believe they were seeing a new creature. If these horse/human beings were soldiers intent on death and destruction, then that may well be the origin of centaurs being seen as malevolent, violent beasts. There is a somewhat modern equivalent to this theory as Native Americans, on seeing the Spanish Conquistadors on horseback, reportedly assumed they were looking at a new species.

The first recorded mention of Centaurs seems to have originated in Babylon, modern-day Iraq, during the 2nd Century BC. The Kassites settled in the area around 1750 BC, having made their way from the Zagros Mountains in modern-day Iran. They created a stone tablet, known as a kudurru, that featured cuniform text and relief images. These reliefs contained images featuring half-human, half-horse creatures. These early centaurs were portrayed as hunters, but they were also likely seen as guardians.

The questionable parentage of centaurs

In Greek mythology, there are several origin stories for the centaurs. The best-known version is that they were spawned by the cloud-nymph Nephele after she was raped by the Lapith king, Ixion. Nephele then left her newborns on Mount Pelion in Thessaly. Another origin legend claims a man called Centaurus was the father of all centaurs. He was the son of Nephele and Ixion and allegedly mated with horses to create centaurs. Another origin story claimed the centaurs developed or evolved from fallen drops of semen from Zeus, king of the Gods; this group of centaurs lived in Cyprus.

The majority of centaurs lived in the vicinity of Mount Pelion and were viewed by outsiders as a savage and barbaric species who lived in caves. They hunted animals for food using branches and rocks as their weapons, and they were prone to drunkenness, kidnapping, and other types of uncouth behavior.

Centaurs went to war with Lapiths after an unruly wedding

The uncivilized behavior of the centaurs was perhaps best displayed in the story of the epic war between centaurs and the Lapiths. The Lapiths had invited the centaurs to the wedding feast of the Lapith king, Pirithous, and his bride-to-be, Hippodameia. Unfortunately, the centaurs, unable to hold their liquor, became drunk and unruly, and one even tried to make off with the blushing bride.

This act led to a particularly bloodthirsty war between the two groups, which the Lapiths ultimately won. The Lapiths were a human race from northern Greece, allegedly fathered by Lapithes. Lapithes was the brother of Centaurus, meaning the two warring sides were actually related. The war was immortalized in sculpture on the Temple of Athena, aka the Parthenon, at the Akropolis in Athens; in the metope sculpture, a triumphant centaur stands over a fallen Lapith.

Chiron: The civilized centaur who taught Achilles

Not all centaurs were uncivilized thugs; a famous example of a civilized centaur was the tutor, Chiron. He was allegedly the offspring of Cronus, god of the Titans, and Philyra, a sea nymph. Philyra, who was raped by Cronus, was so distraught by Chiron being born a centaur that she prayed to be transformed and was changed into a lime tree.

Chiron found fame by teaching some of the most revered heroes in Greek mythology, such as Achilles, Jason, Heracles, and Asclepius. Chiron was renowned for his wisdom and knowledge in a range of subjects, from hunting, warfare, herbology, gymnastics, and prophecy. But he was most revered for his study of medicine. Hesiod described Chiron as the first to discover herbs that could be used to heal injury and sickness. He lived in the foothills of Mount Pelion.

The supposedly immortal Chiron was killed by a poisoned arrow accidentally shot by Heracles. Heracles was at war with the centaurs, who took refuge with Chiron, who found himself in the crossfire. Chiron’s immortality was exchanged for the life of Prometheus, but Zeus honored Chiron by placing him among the stars as the constellation Centaurus.

Centaurs inspire art and literature for centuries

Centaurs passed from Greek mythology into Roman art and literature and went on to inspire poets, artists, authors, and Hollywood movie makers up to the present day. They are featured in numerous Greek temples, from the Parthenon and the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae.

Centaurs subsequently appeared in medieval literature, such as Dante’s Inferno, and modern-day literature, such as the Harry Potter series.


References

Bliss, Douglas Percy. “The Centaurs,” in The Glasgow Herald (January 1955), accessed May 2, 2024.

Brown University, “Archaeologies of the Greek Past: The Lapiths and the Centaurs,” accessed April 29, 2024.

Edward Worth Library, “Mythical Creatures: Centaurs,” accessed April 29. 2024.

Hesiod. “Theogony,” This version published 2006 and trans. by Glenn W. Most. Pub.:Harvard University Press, accessed May 6, 2024.

Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood. “The Centaur: Its History and Meaning in Human Culture,” in Popular Culture, Vol.27, Issue 4, (1994), accessed May 3, 2024.

Nash, Harvey. “The Centaur’s Origin: A Psychological Perspective,” in The Classical World, Vol. 77, No. 5 (May – June 1984), accessed April 29. 2024.

The British Museum, “Metope: The Parthenon Sculptures,” accessed May 6, 2024.

Theoi Greek Mythology, “Kentauroi,” accessed May 6, 2024.

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