Also called: Kéntauros, Kentauroi or Hippocentaur, Ixionidae, Nubigenae, Centauride or Kentauride for females
Etymology – “piercing bull-stickers” or “bull-slayer”
Centaurs are a familiar mythological hybrid creature from Greek mythology. They are frequently depicted as having the upper body of a human from the waist up and a horse’s body from the waist down. They are ultimately the descendants of Ixion, the son of Ares, the God of War. Sometimes, in later myths, the Centaurs are described as having horns, wings or even both.
The Centaurs were believed to have lived in the regions of Arcadia, Magnesia and Mount Pelion found in Thessaly, the Foloi Oak Forest in Elis and the Malean peninsula of southern Laconia. They are often described as eating meat and were known for their reckless and riotous behaviors. This is usually meant to represent a metaphor of being slaves to their more animalistic instincts and drives with their dual natures.
Other tribes or breeds of Centaurs were said to live in western Peloponnese. It is these Centaurs who came to a bad end during a drunk brawl with the hero Hercules. Another Greek writer mentions a tribe of bull-horned Centaurs on the island of Kypros.
Many scholars see Centaurs as the creation of folklore wherein the wild inhabitants of the mountains and spirits of nature are combined into a half-human, half-animal form. In early art, dating back to Assyria around 2,000 B.C.E., Centaurs were shown as humans in front and with the hind legs of a horse attached to them from behind. This image of Chiron often persists in many of these early depictions. Later, the Centaurs are shown as men from the waist up and horse from the waist down. The Centaurs were said to fight, using the branches of trees as weapons, they weren’t known to use bows or archery.
Sometimes they were shown as drunken followers of Dionysus, the god of Wine. Other times, they were often represented drawing the chariot of Dionysus or bound and ridden by Eros, the god of love, in allusion to their drunken and amorous habits. Centaurs are among the first representations used in pottery art among the Greeks.
During Medieval times, Centaurs came to be symbolized as an aspect of the devil and represent violent lusts, adultery, brutality, vengefulness, and heretics. They became the antithesis of knights and horsemen who master their instincts instead of being controlled by them as Centaurs are said to be. Centaurs can be seen in pictures of St. Anthony Abbot who met both a centaur and a satyr when searching for St. Paul the Hermit in the desert. According to some legends, this centaur was the Devil himself. Depictions of Centaurs said to be shown on a number of Pictish carved stones in North-East Scotland. These were outside the limits of the Roman Empire and appear to follow Classical representations and prototypes.
Father of the Centaurs
There are a couple of, though slightly different versions though related stories of how the centaurs came into being.
Ixion, the son of Ares, who lusting for Zeus’ wife Hera, was tricked into thinking a cloud, known as Nephele and in Hera’s form was really her. As punishment, Zeus sent Ixion to Tartarus where he was bound to a flaming wheel and from there, the centaurs were born. In this version of the story, the resulting Centaurs were left at Mount Pelion where the Centaur-God Chiron and his daughters took them in to raise as their own. Following this lineage of the Centaurs, they are sometimes called Ixionidae. They could also be described as the nubigenae or cloud-born.
Also spelled as Centauros. In the previous story, instead of multiple centaurs resulting from Ixion’s union with Nephele, it was only one, a deformed human named Centaurus. Centaurus then procreated the species by mating with the Magnesian mares. Some accounts say that Centaurus was the son of Apollo and Stilbe, the daughter of the river god Peneus. In the later versions of this story, Centaurus’ twin brother is Lapithes, the ancestor to the Lapiths and thus making the Centaurs and Lapiths warring cousins.
Sometimes, even Zeus himself is mentioned as the father or progenitor of the Centaurs, specifically the breed known as the Hippocentaurs. Zeus had metamorphosed into a horse and through Dia, the wife of Ixion, sired them.
In brief, some of the more famous Centaurs are:
Chiron was known for being gentle and wise. He has a linage and parentage different from the other centaurs and as a deity, was immortal until he gave it up to save Prometheus or was killed by an arrow covered with Hydra Poison.
This seems to be the name of two different centaurs and could explain why the Battle with the Lapiths can get intertwined with the incident where the hero Hercules battled and killed a number of the Centaurs.
The first Eurytion led the Centaurs in the battle with the Lapith’s at King Peirithous’ wedding where Eurytion was the one who tried carrying off Peirithous’s wife to rape. He was killed during this battle.
The second Eurytion, from Arcadia has a similar story where he demanded to marry the daughter of King Dexamenus of Olenus. This daughter was either Mnesimache or Deianira. In some accounts of this story, Eurytion threatened violence on Dexamenus’ daughter Hippolyte on the day of her wedding with Azan. When Dexamenus was forced to agree to a marriage, Hercules intervened and ends up killing Eurytion.
Hylaeus was one of two centaurs foolish enough to try and rape the hero Atalanta. In some accounts, he had attacked and severly hurt Atalanta’s lover Meilanion. In this account, Hylaeus is killed by an arrow shot from Atalanta. In other accounts Hylaeus is said to have been killed during the battle with the Lapiths or that he’s one of the centaurs killed by Hercules.
Hylonome’s claim to fame is being one of the few, if not the only female centaur mentioned in the Greek Myths. Specifically in Ovid’s The Metamorphoses where she is mentioned as the mate to the centaur Cyllarus. When Cyllarus was killed during the battle with the Lapiths, Hylonome took the spear that killed her husband and impaled herself on it as she couldn’t bear living without him.
Considered a civilized Centaur like Chiron, Pholus met his end when he invited the hero Hercules to dine with him. All was well until Hercules requested some wine to drink, which Pholus eventually produced. This wine was sacred and a rather potent brew, given to Pholus by the god Dionysus. When the wine was opened, the strong, heady aromas and alcohol lured in the other Centaurs who soon began a drunken brawl. Pholus was killed during this fight either by an accidental arrow shot or dropping a poisoned arrow on his hoof when he went to pull it from a dead comrade. Some scholars will say that either the constellations of Sagittarius or Centaurus represent Pholus.
Nessus is a centaur who ran a foul of Hercules and was driven from his home in Arcadia. He set himself up as a ferryman on the river Evenus, claiming that he had been appointed that position by the gods. Later, Nessus found himself with the task of ferrying Heracules’ bride, Deianeira while Hercules crossed the river by himself. Nessus took advantage of the situation in an attempt to rape Deianeira. Hercules stopped this by shooting Nessus with a poisoned arrow. As he was dying, Nessus convinced Deianeira that a love charm made from his blood would insure Hercules’ faithfulness. What Deianeira didn’t know, was this blood was really poison and it is this poison that is responsible for Hercules’ death.
Rhoecus is the other of two centaurs foolish enough to try and rape Atalanta. He too was killed by an arrow shot by Atalanta.
Probably the most well known incident involving the centaurs was when they were invited to a wedding. King Peirithous of the Lapiths, had inherited part of Thessaly from his father Ixion. The Centaurs also being descendants of Ixion, claimed they were entitled to part of the land as well. After the first series of battles were fought, Peirithous sought to try and arrange a peace by inviting the Centaurs to the aforementioned wedding.
At this wedding, the Centaurs proceeded to get very drunk, this being their first encounter with wine and alcohol. With their inhibitions lowered, the Centaurs got very violent and riotous. With the centaur Eurytion leading them, they tried to carry off Hippodamia, Pirithous’s bride and the rest of the Lapith women to rape them. This resulted in another battle and the Centaurs were driven off and away from the area.
The hero Theseus, a founder of cities helped Pirithous fight off the Centaurs. Another hero who was present was Caeneus. He was said to be invulnerable to weapons, but that didn’t stop the Centaurs from beating Caeneus into the earth using rocks and branches.
This story is often used to illustrate the struggles and conflicts between barbarism and the more civilized behaviors of society and humankind. Sometimes this battle is connected to the story of Hercules and the Centaurs with their battle that killed so many. Depending on the source of the tale, this event is placed as happening in either Thessaly or in Arcadia. The end result being that the Centaurs are exiled from their home country and end up living on Mount Pindus near Epeirus.
There is a distinction made by Classical Writers that the Centaurs that Hercules fought were the Peloponnesian Centaurs. These Centaurs had fled to the Malean Peninsula in southern Lakonia are Eleusis where the god Poseidon offered them refuge. The Centaurs involved with the incident at King Peirithous’ wedding were the Thessalian Centaurs of Magnesia in northern Greece.
Destruction By The Sirens
In the battle and confrontation with Hercules, those Centaur not killed by this hero met their end when they fled to the Tyrrhenian Strait in what we call now days, Italy. Here they encountered the Sirens who lured them to their deaths with their songs.
Peleus’ Encounters With Centaurs
Peleus was the grandson of Chiron. At one point, he had a friendship with Acastus, one of the Argonauts. Acastus was manipulated into trying to kill Peleus after being told by his wife Astydamia that Peleus had tried to rape her. Acastus hid Peleus’ dagger or sword so he would be defenseless when the Centaurs came to try and kill him. Luckilly for Peleus, Chiron arrived to save him. Chiron is also said to have helped Peleus in succeeding marrying the goddess Thetis.
Achilles And The Centaurs
Achilles was the son of Peleus, making him the great-grandson of Chiron. He was at one point one of Chiron’s many students. This doesn’t seem to have worked out so well as according to Statius’ Achilleid, the Centaurs would complain to Chiron how Achilles would plunder their homes, steal their herds and eventually drove them from their homes.
Possible Reality Behind The Myths
Among historians and anthropologists, the idea is passed around that the legends of Centaurs may have been the first reaction of a culture unfamiliar with horse-back riding seeing peopled mounted on an animal, horses in this case. It could have been easy for people seeing these riders for the first time to see the half-man, half-animal figure. A Bernal Diaz del Castillo reports how the Aztecs thought the same thing when they first saw Spaniards on horseback for the first time. Horse taming and riding first arises out of those cultures living in the grassland steppes of Central Asia or the Middle East.
The Lapiths, kinsmen of the Centaurs from Thessaly were described as the inventors of horse-back riding by Greek writers. In Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History, he describes the Centaurs or Kentauroi as the first to engage in horse riding. Many Thessalian tribes claim their horse breeds come from the Centaurs.
This seems to further make sense of the Centaurs as a case of mistaken identity and really just riders on horseback when looking at the etymology of the word Centaur, meaning “piercing bull-stickers.”
In Palaephatus’ “On Incredible Tales,” mounted archers from a village called Nephele, killed off a herd of bulls that were menacing Ixion’s kingdom.
Babylonian Mythology And Connection
Some scholars, linking the names of the constellations to ancient Babylon, say that the name of Centaur and Centaurus; with its name of “piercing bull,” come from Mesopotamia where it symbolized the god Baal. He represented rain and fertility, fighting with and piercing with horns, the demon Mot who represented the summer droughts. Other sources say that the constellation of Centaurus in Babylonian and Mesopotamian cultures was a Bison-Man and associated with the Sun god Utu or Shamash.
Kentaurides, Female Centaurs!
Well yes, that makes sense when one thinks about it. If there are male centaurs and they were a tribe, wouldn’t there be females as well? A show like “Xena: Warrior Princess” says that all the Centaurs were male but could have intercourse with a human woman and the resulting baby or foal would be a male centaur. Thus they propagated the species that way.
Nor was Disney’s Fantasia the first to show female centaurs.
While the female centaurs or Kentaurides don’t have mention of in early Greek literature and writings, they have appeared in later writings. One female Kentaurides, Hylonome is mentioned by name in a 4th century B.C.E. Macedonian mosaic. It is one of the earliest examples of a female centaur in art.
The Greek Rhetorician, Philostratus the Elder describes the Kentaurides as the sisters and wives of the male Centaurs who live on Mount Pelion with their children. Even the idea of female centaurs is mentioned in Shakespeare’s play King Lear in Act IV, Scene vi, lines 124-125: “Down from the waist they’re centaurs,/Though women all above.”
And Finally! Centaurs In Astronomy!
The name Centaur is given to a classification of celestial objects or Minor Planets that share characteristics of both asteroids and comets. Unlike classic or True Planets, Centaurs don’t have a stable orbit and cross through the paths or orbits between Jupiter and Neptune. The first such Centaur was 944 Hidalgo in 1920, but it wasn’t until the discovery of 2060 Chiron in 1977 that these Minor Planets and Celestial objects were given a name in an attempt to classify them. There’s thought to be some 44,000 of these Centaurs in the Solar System with some of them reaching diameters of 1km. As this field of Astronomy is still new and there’s still lots being learned, different Institutions have different criteria for what makes these celestial objects a Centaur and the classifications are likely to change as more information is gotten.
Modern Astrologers have cheerfully glommed onto some of these Centaurs such as Chiron to adapt and come up with astrological correspondences and information for them.