The mythological creature Centaur has the head, hands, and chest of a human being and the remaining parts of its body (hindquarters, four legs and a tail) resembled that of a horse.
There are also dog-centaurs, deer-centaurs and the man-headed horse or the Gaelic androcephalous. Both Etruscans and Greeks sometimes painted pictures of an animal like the Centaur with the whole body of a human being that was awkwardly attached in different ways with the back or lower parts of that of a horse.
History of Centaur in Brief
A Centaur (Greek Kentauros) belongs to a group of creatures that have a composite structure (part horse and part human) that lived in the mountains of Arcadia and Thessaly. In Greek mythology, the creature is also referred to as hippocentaur. Traditionally, the centaurs were born to Ixion, the king of the Lapiths, and Nephele (the nymph cloud made to look like Hera). According to another version, centaurs are the children of a Centaurus that mated with the mares of Magnesia. The Centaurus himself was either Ixion and Nephele’s or Apollo and Stilbe’s (river god Peneus’ daughter) son. In this version, Lapiths’ ancestor Lapithes was his twin brother. The Kentauros purportedly inhabited the Magnesia region as well as Mount Pelion in Thessaly, southern Laconia’s Malean peninsula and Elis’ Foloi oak forest.
The Centaurs are remembered for their fight (Centauromachy) against Lapiths because of their effort to take away Hippodamia as well as the other women of Lapith on the day she and Pirithous, Lapithae’s king, who was himself the son of Ixion, were to get married. At the marriage feast Eurytion, a Centaur, got intoxicated with the wine and attempted to violate the bride.
The other Centaurs also followed him and this led to a dreadful conflict. Theseus, a hero who has founded cities, supported Pirithous and the Centaurs were defeated and destroyed. However, the Centaurs beat Caeneous, the Lapith hero who was unassailable through weapons, into the earth, wielding tree branches and stones. In many myths of the Greeks, Centaurs are depicted as untamed horses. Centauromachy, just like Titanomachy (Olympian gods’ defeat of the Titans), typifies the struggle between barbarism and civilization.
The presence of Centaurs on the basis of illustrations can be traced back to 2000 BC in Assyria and 3000 BC in India. Some people related the origin of the Greek Centaur to the Gandharvas who in Indian Vedic mythology drove the horses away from the Sun. However, the currently accepted theory is that the Centaurs were shepherds from Thessalony who were rough and primitive.
The Greek tradition depicts two Centaur families. The unruly Centaurs that were born to Ixion and the cloud (Zeus disguised the cloud as Hera, his wife, with whom Ixion claimed to have a relationship) and the sober, studious and learned Centaurs fathered by Chiron who was like the Centaurs only in appearance. Chiron, son of Cronus (the Titan) and Philyra (an Oceanid or ocean nymph), was famous as a physician and teacher.
He was also well-known for his skills as a hunter, musician and in medicine and prophecy. Chiron who was tutored by Diana and Apollo had great Greek warriors such as Jason, Hercules, Aesculapius and Achilles as his students.
Centaurs that lived in herds in Thessaly, Greece, were a nuisance to the people in the area. They got drunk, ate raw flesh, trampled crops and raped human females. They were hostile towards humans sometimes and they got involved in battles and brawls. Zeus often sent the Centaurs to punish humans and gods who offended him.
Facts about the Centaur
The Centaur originated from Greek mythology.The top half of their body was that of a human and the bottom half was that of a horse. Some believe that they are descendents of Centaurus. Some others believe that they were born to Nephele and Ixion.
They were uncouth and even a small amount of wine made them extremely wild. They loved drinking more than any other thing. In constellation mythology, Chiron was accidentally injured in the knee by a poisoned arrow shot by Hercules during his fight with the Centaurs. As Chiron was immortal, he did not die but lived in great pain. Zeus allowed Chiron to die, giving him place among the stars. In Greece, Eudoxus of Cnidus noted the Centaurus constellation in the 4th century BC and Aratus noted it in the 3rd century. Contrary to the Greek mythology, the Centaurs are presented as intelligent creatures in the Chronicles of Narnia. Early Greek literature or art does not mention anything about female centaurs, Kentaurides. However, they do occasionally appear in later antiquity.
Scientific Points of View
The online Encyclopedia Britannica notes that these mythical creatures may best be explained as a creation of the folktales which represented savage forest spirits and wild mountain inhabitants in the combined form as half-human and half-animal.
The commonly held theory is that an idea about the Centaurs came into existence because of a non-riding culture’s (such as that of the Minoan Aegean world) first reaction to the horse-mounted nomads. According to the theory, the nomad riders appeared half-man and half-horse when mounted on horse. Greek writers describe Thessaly’s Lapith tribe that was related to the Centaurs in myth as responsible for horse-back riding.
Among Classical Greek authors, Pindar was the first to mention clearly about a combined monster. Prior to him, authors such as Homer used words such as ‘pheres‘ which could also mean savage men riding horses.
In the philosophical poem that Lucretius wrote in the 1st century BC ‘On the Nature of Things’, he denied Centaur’s existence because of the difference in growth rates of humans and horses. He states that it is impossible for this mythical creature to exist as the horses will be going through the prime period of their life at three years of age, whereas humans will still be babies at three years of age.
Robert Graves argued that the centaurs were a long-forgotten cult that belonged to pre-Hellenic earth. According to him, they had the horse as their totem. He relied on the Georges Dumezil’s work, criticized for tracing the creature’s origin to the Gandharvas of the Indian culture, for making his speculations.