Where Did The Centaurs Come From? A Journey Through Ancient Art

What are the origins of Greek Mythology's centaurs? In this article we will explore ancient Greek and Eastern art to answer this question.

Mar 28, 2021By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
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Centaur mosaic from the Villa Hadriana, ca. 120-30 CE; with the Centaur of Lefkandi, ca. 1000 BCE

 

Centaurs in Greek Mythology were half-man half-horse beings that lived in the forests of mainland Greece. The Greeks used them as symbols of the Other to represent barbarian people or, in the case of Chiron, beings of divine wisdom. Although in literature, the earliest mention of a centaur goes as back as Homer, in art, the image of the centaur can be traced back to the end of the Greek Dark Ages and the centaur of Lefkandi or even further back to the art of the Great Eastern Civilizations.

 

Centaurs In Greek Mythology

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Metope from the Parthenon depicting scenes from the Centauromachy, 447-438 BCE, British Museum

 

The centaurs in Greek Mythology were a race of half-man and half-horse beings. They fought using tree branches and throwing rocks or, more rarely, with bows.

 

Their origin story was a bit weird. Ixion was in love with Hera, Zeus’ wife. Zeus made a cloud (Nephele) assume Hera’s form in order to expose Ixion’s lust for his wife. Ixion fell into the trap and mated with Nephele. From their union, Centaurus was born. In his turn, Centaurus mated with the Magnesian mares, and a race of half-horse half-man creatures was born.

 

The centaurs were generally brutes, closer to barbarism than civilization. They pillaged, raped, and loved violence. They lived in the forests around on and around mount Pelion in Thessaly. Some others lived in Arcadia or even Epirus, while centaurs with bull horns were said to live in Cyprus.

 

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Their most famous story in Greek Mythology was the Centauromachy. In this myth, the king Pirithous of the Lapiths invited the centaurs to attend his wedding with Hippodamia. The centaurs got drunk, attacked the guests, and attempted to take Hippodamia with them. In the fight that ensued, the Lapiths received help from the hero Theseus and defeated the threat.

 

The most famous centaur in Greek Mythology was Chiron. Homer called him “the most righteous of the Centaurs,” and he was one of the wisest beings in Greek myth. He was the teacher of Achilles, Hercules, Perseus, Theseus, and a series of other Greek heroes and deities. Chiron was the son of Cronus and Philyra, and possibly this different origin story was a way of explaining why he was so different from the other centaurs.

 

 

Centaurs As Composite Creatures

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Bronze man and centaur,

 

Centaurs are not the only composite creatures in Greek art. Satyrs, Gorgons, Sphinxes, and so many more were too composite creatures; part human, part animal. Like almost every other civilization, the Greeks had their own mythology, which incorporated elements beyond the real world. Through fantasy, the Greeks attempted to understand and explain the natural world by exploring and going beyond its limits.

 

Before the Greek world had emerged, images of composite centaur-like creatures were already a thing. There is at least one image of a centaur from Bronze Age Ugarit. However, the certainty that this was actually the image of a centaur has been debated. Other composite creatures have also been identified in the Mycenean and Minoan civilizations’ art that flourished in the Aegean during the Bronze Age Period.

 

During the Greek Dark Ages, the period that followed the collapse of Bronze Age civilization, these composite creatures mysteriously disappeared until they returned during the Greek Geometric Period. It is at that time half-man and half-horse creatures like the one in the image above made their appearance.

 

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Scaraboid gem with gorgon as winged centaur seizing a lion, 6th century BCE, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

A shared attribute of all composite creatures in Greek art was that their images were under constant experimentation until approximately the 6th century BCE. We can find centaurs with human legs, Gorgon centaurs, sphinxes with equestrian legs, and depictions of Typhon as a centaur during this period.

 

Eastern Art

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Neo-Assyrian human-headed winged bulls, 721-705 BCE, Louvre

 

Although centaurs are a par excellence Greek inspiration, this does not mean that their iconography cannot be traced back to other mythologies and cultures.

 

The Greeks were not isolated from the rest of the world. Around Greece, there were mighty kingdoms with rich histories and mythologies. Egypt and the Kingdoms of the near and middle East influenced the Greeks in every aspect, from architecture and art to religion. It is no coincidence that Archaic Art includes an orientalizing period. By the time Homer had written his epics, the Aegean had already seen war, trade, and immigration to the point that the images and the stories of the east were accessible to the Greeks. The Greeks, of course, were not passive receivers but active ones. They adopted these images and stimuli, mixed them with their own, and produced new unique myths, stories, and art that contained the old ones’ fragments.

 

Composite beasts like the sphinx or the chimera were lent from Eastern civilizations, sometimes with some small changes and other times with no changes at all. Furthermore, Eastern beasts like the human-lion and the human-bull present many visual similarities with centaurs.

 

Were There Eastern Centaurs?

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Middle Assyrian cylinder seal with Lahmu and Centaur, mid-late 13th century, from J.M. Padgett’s (2003) The Smile of The Centaur

 

In an Assyrian cylinder seal of the 13th century BCE, we can clearly see a man with wings, the body of a horse, and the tail of a scorpion. This idiosyncratic winged horseman holds a bow. Another early depiction of a centaur in eastern art comes from another Assyrian cylinder seal also of the 13th century BCE. The figure was also holding a bow, an image that became a canon during the next centuries and was crystallized in the image of the Sagittarius. For more information on these Assyrian engraved stones, you can read The Centaur’s Smile (2003, cat. no. 11-12.), edited by Jean Padgett.

 

Except for these Assyrian seals, the roots of the centaur can be traced back to the Mesopotamian Urmahlullu, an idiosyncratic type of lion-centaur. Of course, there are also other beings that have human and animal bodies but nothing like the centaur as it appeared in Greek Art and Mythology.

 

Another very interesting comparison can be made with the Indian male spirits called Gandharva, which often take the form of creatures that have the head of a horse and the body of a man. Could these beings be related to centaurs as part of a common Indo-European heritage? The most probable answer is no. It is very unlikely that there is a true connection with the Gandharva, even though the idea is very appealing.

 

Origins In Mycenean And Minoan Art

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Myceneans centaur, in the Aleppo Museum (top); Mycenean bull figurine, in the Benaki Museum (middle); and another Mycenean centaur from Ugarit (bottom)

 

The Mycenaeans and the Minoans were the civilizations that flourished in the Aegean during the Greek Bronze Age and until the 12th century BCE when the Greek Dark Ages began.

 

A good case for supporting a Mycenean descendance of the centaur are two clay Mycenaean figurines found in Ugarit, although we cannot be certain that they truly were centaurs. Since Ugarit was a major trade hub in the area of Syria, it not weird that Mycenean objects were found there. Actually, the Myceneans were in constant communication through trade, war, and travel with the peoples around them.

 

Notable cases of centaur-like objects include ceramic votive figurines from sanctuaries in Crete and Cyprus from the 12th and 11th centuries BCE. However, these objects looked more like sphinxes and less like centaurs since they had no hands. Similarities with bronze figurines from Cretan sanctuaries have also been suggested. More specifically, Aggeliki Lembesi has pointed towards a 12th-century bronze figurine from Philakopi of Melos. Only fragments of this figurine were found, but Lembesi has suggested that it should be reconstructed as a horseman. If this view is correct, then this would be the first true representation of a centaur in art.

 

Greek Dark Ages: The Lefkandi Centaur

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The centaur from Lefkandi, ca. 1000 BCE, Archaeological Museum of Eretria

 

The centaur from Lefkandi is regarded to be the first complete centaur in Greek art. But what does complete mean? Although the idea of human-horse hybrids is not a Greek invention, the idea of a centaur as a being with the head and upper body of a human and the body of a horse is a Greek inspiration.

 

The Lefkandi figure was discovered near a small town of Euboea in the area called Lefkandi. It is dated to the Greek Dark Ages, and more specifically, the 10th century BCE. In general, Lefkandi is an important archaeological site whose excavation provided valuable information regarding the Greek Dark Age and the contact between Greece and Egypt, Cyprus, Syria, and the Levante.

 

The figure from Lefkandi is the first complete example of a centuar. Its importance is so great that many handbooks commonly consider this the beginning of Greek Art. It is also worth pointing out that at this time there was no standardized Greek mythology. Homer’s epics were not written down until only two centuries later. At the time of the Lefkandi sculpture, Greek mythology was still under construction. This was a period where myths were interacting with one another and constantly changing. As a result, we can claim that the figure was a centaur in stylistic terms, but it is not safe to assume that it had the same meaning and symbolism as in the 6th century BCE.

 

The Mysteries Of The Lefkandi Figurine

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Detail of the centaur from Lefkandi

 

The most interesting thing about the Lefkandi Centaur is its discovery. It was discovered in two different but adjacent tombs in two pieces. The head was found in the one and the rest of the body in the other. There are many theories as to why this happened, but no one has managed to answer this mystery convincingly.

 

The centaur itself is a ceramic figurine with a height of 36 centimeters. At a time when monumental sculpture in Greece was not developed, a piece this tall would certainly be a unique sight and true prestigious symbol for its owner(s).

 

A great debate is whether the front legs of the Lefkandi centaur are that of a human or a horse due to the form of its knees. Both cases are equally possible since there are a few depictions of centaurs with human frontal legs in early Greek archaic art.

 

Could The Lefkandi Centaur Be Chiron?

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Chiron, the Painter of London, ca. 520-500 BCE, British Museum

 

Furthermore, the centaur has six fingers in his hand. A famous example from Greek Mythology with six fingers was Chiron, whose wisdom was legendary. Chiron died after being hit by Hercules’ arrows on his left knee. If we take a careful look at the left knee of the Lefkandi figure, we will notice a deep scratch. This could be an intentional addition or an unintentional consequence caused by the passage of time. If the former is true, there would be another reason to believe that this was an early image of Chiron or a creature whose myth had similar characteristics to Chiron’s.

 

In conclusion, the Lefkandi centaur is the earliest example in Greek art. However, many questions remain unanswered. Why was it found in two separate tombs? Are his frontal legs human or horse? How likely is it that this centaur can be matched with Greek Mythology’s Chiron? In any case, we need to remember that Greek mythology at the time existed as a fluid oral tradition. Nevertheless, this tradition is the one that carried the elements that later gave form to Greek Mythology. Even if this is not Chiron,  the figurine from Lefkandi is the most reliable predecessor of the centaur to have been discovered yet.



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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA). Antonis is a senior staff member at TheCollector, managing the Archaeology and Ancient History department. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.