The centaurs of Greek Mythology are amongst the most famous composite creatures of antiquity. They were half-men and half-horse beings representing an intermediate stage between human civilization and nature. The ancients portrayed them as barbarians who were unable to control their primeval instincts. Here are 9 facts to learn everything you need to know and more about Greek Mythology’s centaurs.
1. The First Centaur In Greek Mythology Was Born From A Cloud
“the man in his ignorance chased a sweet fake and lay with a cloud, for its form was like the supreme celestial goddess, the daughter of Cronus”
(Pindar, Pythian 2)
The myth goes that Ixion, the king of the Thessalian tribe of the Lapiths, assassinated his father-in-law while the latter was his guest. This breach of the ancient law was deemed so terrible that Ixion from a king ended up living as an outlaw. Zeus took pity on poor Ixion and invited him to live with the gods on Olympus in a rare show of mercy.
However, instead of returning the kindness, Ixion proved a little more than ungrateful. Zeus suspected that his guest lusted his wife, Hera. Ixion had not crossed any lines yet. But Zeus would not wait for him to do so.
The king of the Olympian gods created a cloud (called Nephele in Greek) which assumed Hera’s form. Zeus then lured Ixion into mating with this fake Hera, and Ixion, misguided and ignorant, fell right into the trap. Zeus was now sure that the mortal was up to no good and gave him one of those eternal punishments that can only be paired with Prometheus and Sisyphus. Ixion was doomed to be tied on an eternally spinning fiery wheel. However, from his union with the cloud, a terrible creature was born. That was Centaurus, a terrible savage entity who mated with the magnesian mares and produced the centaurs’ race.
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The only centaur not descending from Ixion’s sin was Chiron, who was the son of Cronus.
2. They Lived In Thessaly
The centaurs in Greek Mythology were said to reside in Thessaly, and more specifically in the forests of Mount Pelion.
The Thessalians were famous riders and horse breeders. Since centaurs in Greek Mythology appear to be a Thessalian invention, it has been suggested that it was precisely this close relationship between humans and horses that led to the idea of a half man and half horse creature. According to the legend, the Thessalians were the first in Greece to ride horses. If this is true, then it would be plausible that someone unused to the sight of a horserider believed that this was, in fact, one creature, i.e. a centaur. Something similar happened when the Aztecs, who had never seen a horse before, saw Conquistadores riding for the first time.
Even though Thessaly was the centaurs’ home, ancient authors wrote about centaurs who lived in the Western Peloponnese. There, according to a story, they had picked up a fight with Hercules, who managed to repulse them with his bow and arrows. Other centaurs were also said to have resided in Crete and Cyprus.
3. They Could Not Handle Wine
The most famous story involving centaurs in Greek Mythology is the famous Centauromachy, the battle between Centaurs and the Lapiths.
According to this story, Peirithous, the king of the Lapiths, invited the centaurs to his marriage with Hippodameia. The centaurs were known savages, but Peirithous invited them on the grounds of their common ancestry as both the Lapiths and the centaurs descended from Ixion.
Everything was going great and the centaurs appeared to be behaving, but then wine began being served. At that point, one of the centaurs named Eurytion got drank almost instantly and attempted to run away with the bride.
“It was wine that made foolish even the centaur, glorious Eurytion, in the hall of greathearted Peirithous, when he went to the Lapithae”.
(HOMER, ODYSSEY 21.295)
The other centaurs, suddenly in a drunken frenzy, also attempted to force themselves on the female guests.
“When the Pheres [Centaurs] came to know the man-subduing blast of honey-sweet wine, they quickly pushed the white milk away from thetables with their hands and, spontaneously drinking from the silver drinking-horns, began to lose their senses.”
(Pindar, fragment 166)
The Lapiths could not sit in front of this violent outbreak and within moments were drawing their swords, spears, and fighting with everything they had. The legendary hero Theseus who also happened to be invited to the wedding, played a major part in the battle, helping the Lapiths win and successfully repulse the centaurs who were thus driven off Thessaly.
4. The Parthenon Frieze Featured A Centauromachy
The most famous depiction of a centauromachy is the sculptured decoration on one of the Parthenon’s metopes.
The frieze features a series of scenes from the battle between the Lapiths and the centaurs in striking poses. Many have tried to explain why the Athenians of the 5th century chose to depict this theme on the south metopes of the Parthenon frieze.
A straightforward answer is that the story is part of Theseus‘ legend, the hero who founded Athens and took part in the centauromachy. However, scholars have seen further layers of meaning in these depictions. A common and widely accepted explanation is that the centauromachy symbolized the struggle of the city of Athens against the Persians. For the Greeks, the Persians were barbarians who did not control their impulses. They were drawn to excessity just as the centaurs were barbaric savage creatures unable to control their worst impulses. Furthermore, the Persians had sacked Athens in 480 BCE showing disrespect towards the city the same way that the centaurs had disrespected the wedding of Peirithous and Hippodameia.
Nevertheless, the Centauromachy as a theme was extremely common. One could find a centauromachy at the temple of Zeus in Olympia, the temple of Apollo at Bassae, and the temple of Hephaestus in the Athenian Agora, amongst others.
5. Their Existence Was Debated In Antiquity
But Centaurs ne’er have been, nor can there be
Creatures of twofold stock and double frame,
Compact of members alien in kind,
Yet formed with equal function, equal force […]
Lucretius, the first-century Epicurean philosopher, wrote a poem arguing against the existence of centaurs.
His main argument was that it would be paradoxical for a half man and half horse creature to exist. Why? Because humans and horses reach their prime at a different age. Horses reach their prime at the age of three, but humans are still infants at that age. That also means that when the horse part of the centaur is getting old and closer to dying, the human part is just beginning its journey in life. As such, Lucretius concludes that:
So never deem, percase,
That from a man and from the seed of horse,
The beast of draft, can Centaurs be composed
The interesting part of Lucretius’ poem is that it attempts to approach the issue from a scientific point of view using logical arguments to disprove the existence of a mythological creature.
6. They Had Families
The Greek painter Zeuxis was famous for his life-like paintings. However, one of his most famous works was not praised for its technique but its theme. That painting was called the Hippocentaur and it depicted a family of centaurs. This theme was so novel that everyone stood in awe in front of the painting, impressed by this depiction that did not present the centaurs as mere savages but humanized them for the first time.
The Roman writer Lucian provided a detailed description of the painting. In the center stood a female centaur nursing a pair of infant centaurs, and in the background, a male centaur – the father held a lion in his right hand to terrify his children as a joke. This centaur family with a compassionate mother, playful children, and a caring father was a radically new conceptualization for the time.
Since then, women centaurs, called Centauridai, became commonplace in Greco-Roman art. Zeuxis’ original painting, unfortunately, did not survive to the present day. However, this did not stop artists from imagining how it could have looked like. One such experiment is the image above from the British Museum.
7. Chiron Was A Special Centaur
While all of the centaur’s descended from Ixion and Nephele, Chiron was the son of Cronus and there was a good reason for that. Chiron was not just another Centaur. Aside from being blessed with the gift of immortality, he was an astronomer, doctor, prophet, and one of the wisest figures in Greek Mythology.
His knowledge was incomparable and he was not afraid to share it as he was also a famous teacher of great heroes. The most notable included Jason, Achilles, Castor and Pollux, Theseus, Actaeon, and many more.
Asclepius, the Greek God of medicine, was also one of Chiron’s students. Interestingly he learned what he knew about medicine from Chiron.
Chiron represented an ambivalent tendency in Greek Mythology. On the one hand, the Greeks portrayed the centaurs as savage brutes closer to animals than humans. On the other hand, they imagined one of the centaurs, Chiron, as the exact opposite; a divine being of wisdom beyond measure.
It has been suggested that Chiron in Greek art was depicted as having human front legs in stark contrast to his fellow centaurs. However, it is equally plausible that the image of the centaurs was not standardized in archaic Greek art as different mythological traditions depicted them differently. This possibility is further strengthened by the fact that in early Greek art, we also encounter centaurs with wings, as well as Medusa heads. Besides, more than one centaurs are presented with human front legs, indicating that Chiron was not the only one to appear in this form.
8. A Centaur Killed Hercules
Hercules was the most popular Greek hero and famous for his 12 labors. He had a few encounters with centaurs.
During one of his travels, Hercules passed from Laconia, where the centaur Pholus’ cave was. Pholus invited Hercules to his cave and, as a hospitable host, decided to open a cask of wine. The odor of the drink was so strong that a group of centaurs smelled it.
If you read the third fact of this list, you will know that centaurs could not handle wine. In this story, they could not even handle its smell. The centaurs attacked the cave in a mad frenzy.
Hercules defended himself and shot arrows killing many of the attackers. During the battle, Hercules killed his friend and, according to some traditions, a teacher with one of his arrows by mistake. As Chiron died, Zeus took pity on him and transformed him into the constellation of Centaurus, thus making him immortal. Pholus also got injured and died.
This was not the only encounter Hercules had with centaurs and certainly not his last. His last one was when a centaur named Nessus attempted to rape his wife Deianira, but Hercules shot the centaur with his arrows that were dipped in the venomous blood of the notorious Lernaea Hydra. In his last moments, Nessus offered his tunic, which was soaked in his blood, to Deianira, telling her that if her lover wore it was a magic gift for “reviving a waning love.” Later on, when Deianira became afraid that Hercules would leave her for another woman gave him Nessus’ tunic. Unsuspicious, Hercules wore the tunic which began burning his flesh. As he tried to tear it off, it pulled his skin, exposing his bones.
“the consuming fires suck at the air in his chest: dark sweat pours from his whole body: his scorched sinews crackle.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses IX 159-210)
When Hercules’ body burnt, the gods agreed to take the hero with them on Olympus to reside amongst them as an immortal.
9. Modern Scholars Are Reimagining The Centaurs Of Greek Mythology
Today, no one (hopefully) believes in the existence of centaurs. However, a few recent entertaining experiments have tried to reimagine what a centaur would look like in real life.
If you ever visit the Jack E. Reese Galleria in the Hodges Libary of the University of Tenessee, you will face a truly confusing exhibit called The Centaur Excavation At Volos. The exhibit is nothing else than the body of a centaur. Of course, this is no real centaur, but “an elegantly constructed showcase, complete with a faux marble base and simulated wood panels…along with various inscribed clay tablets”. The exhibit uses the conventions of scholarship to make the centaurs of Greek mythology come to life, presenting something fictional as authentic. As for the skeleton, it was made “from the tea-stained bones of a pony and a deteriorating human skeleton.”
But what is this experiment seeking to accomplish? According to the university, this is
“a valuable object lesson on the importance of skepticism. Many students are conditioned to believe the word of authorities, whether they be academic, political, scientific or religious. This work of academic parody functions as a conscious form of self-critique, deconstructing the authority of the library itself.”
Another exciting experiment belongs to Dr. H.C. Reinhard V. Putz, a researcher at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Putz published a paper called Anatomy of the Centaur at the Annals of Improbable Research. The paper used mythological mentions and images from ancient art to reconstruct the anatomy of centaurs as if they were real. The paper found that a centaur would have two hearts, two digestive systems, and double respiratory and urinary apparatuses.