7 Strange Depictions Of Centaurs In Ancient Greek Art

Ancient Greek art is overflowing with strage depictions of centaurs. Let's take a look at 7 of the strangest.

Apr 22, 2021By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
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Chiron and Achilles, 525-515 BCE, Louvre, Paris; with A winged running centaur, Micali Painter, late 6th-5th century BCE, Sotheby’s

 

Half-men and half-horses, the famous centaurs of Greek Mythology, are amongst the most popular mythological creatures. We have all probably seen a centaur representation in at least one Hollywood movie or TV show, and they all tend to look pretty much the same; upper body of a man (almost exclusively male) and the rest of a horse. However, in antiquity, the image of centaurs was a project under construction. Greek art was filled with centaurs with human legs, wings, Medusa heads, six fingers, and even centaurs dragging chariots like common horses. Moreover, other centaur depictions that might not look weird to us, like centaur women and children, looked pretty strange to the ancient Greeks. Let’s take a closer look at 7 strange depictions of centaurs from ancient Greek Art!

7. A Ceramic Centaur With 6 Fingers That May Or May Not Be Chiron

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The centaur of Lefkandi, 1000 BCE, via Wikimedia Commons

 

One of the most interesting cases of a centaur in Greek art is the centaur of Lefkandi. This is a statuette with a height of 36 cm. It is generally considered to be the first representation of a centaur in art, predating all literary mentions by at least two centuries as it is dated in 1000 BCE.

 

The figure is just as interesting as it is mysterious. Since there is no literary evidence from this time, we cannot be sure which centaur is depicted here. Still, there are reasonable arguments supporting that this is an early depiction of the legendary wise teacher Chiron or a centaur with lore similar to Chiron. Why? Well, for one, he has six fingers, a symbol of divinity and one of Chiron’s characteristics. The Lefkandi figure also has what appears to be an injured left leg which happens to be the spot in which, according to Greek Mythology, Hercules accidentally shot Chiron with his arrows.

 

Another indication is the centaur’s front legs. If you notice the figure’s knees, you will realize that they could or could not be human legs. This was not uncommon in early depictions of centaurs in Greek Mythology, but it was a characteristic that tended to be more common in depictions of Chiron.

 

So Chiron or not Chiron? Well, we will probably never know. But this cannot stop us from exploring and questioning. However, this is simply one of the mysteries surrounding the Lefkandi centaur. Another mystery is that the centaur was found buried in two pieces and two separate neighboring tombs. Many solutions to this mystery have been proposed, including the possibility of the centaur symbolizing the relationship between teacher and student, but this is yet another thing we will probably never know with certainty.

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6. The Medusa Of Greek Mythology As A Centaur

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Perseus killing Medusa, c. 670 BCE, Louvre, Paris

 

One of the strangest depictions of a centaur in Greek Mythology is undoubtedly the Medusa centaur. This was a centaur whose head is that of the notorious Gorgon Medusa.

 

The image above is extracted from a pithos of the 7th century from Thebes. It depicts a rather famous subject, the beheading of Medusa by the Greek hero Perseus. Perseus is using his sickle to take Medusa’s head while avoiding her gaze. He is wearing his kibisis, the bag that he will use to store the head, as well as his winged sandals, which will help him escape from the wrath of Medusa’s two sisters. Medusa is looking straight at the viewer, as is common with her images. Her hair does not seem to be snakes, and she is wearing a long dress.

 

The reason why she is presented as a centaur is unknown but could be related to her rape by Poseidon. According to this story, Poseidon raped Medusa in Athena’s temple, causing the rage of the goddess who transformed Medusa into a hideous beast with the ability to turn whoever she gazed into stone. Poseidon being the god of horses, amongst other things, it does not seem far-fetched to suggest that there would be a group of people who imagined Medusa as a half horse.

 

Worth noting is that Greek Mythology was not a coherent whole until the classical period, and even then, there were multiple variations for each myth as well as multiple local traditions. In the seventh century, famous myths such as Medusa’s had not yet boiled down to a standardized iconographical form.

 

5. Centaurs With Human Legs

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Chiron and Achilles, 525-515 BCE, Louvre, Paris

 

Centaurs with human legs were not that strange in antiquity, especially in archaic art. However, these depictions appear a bit awkward by today’s standards to those who have not studied ancient centaur iconography.

 

Paul Baur, who studied archaic centaurs extensively, categorized them into three types:

  1. with equine forelegs
  2. with human forelegs
  3. with human forelegs but hoofs instead of human feet on

 

The third category was the rarest and seemed to have been less popular than the others.

 

In the depiction of the image above, we see one of the most classic examples of category B. But this is not just any centaur from Greek Mythology. This is Chiron, the legendary teacher of great heroes with divine wisdom. Chiron, unlike the rest of his race, descended from Cronus and was immortal. Whereas the other centaurs were brutes who enjoyed raping and pillaging, Chiron was a noble creature bearing unlimited wisdom. Whereas the others were seen as beings closer to their animal side, Chiron was the exact opposite. This is precisely why he is commonly depicted wearing human clothes, to emphasize his civilized and human side compared to the other centaurs of Greek Mythology who were running naked.

 

In this image, Chiron is holding one of his students, the legendary Trojan War hero Achilles. Though we are used to imagining Achilles as a mighty warrior in full armor, in this case, we are presented with a (funnily) tiny man.

 

4. A Family Of Centaurs

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A Centaur Family, Jan Collaert II after Jan van der Straet, 1578, British Museum, London

 

In his essay, Zeuxis and Antiochus, the Roman writer Lucian pretend to worry that his speeches are valued for their novelty but not their technique, which he has strived to acquire. Lucian says that he feels just like the famous Greek painter Zeuxis when he painted The Hippocentaur.

 

The writer then embarks on a description of the painting, which depicted a family of centaurs.

 

According to Lucian, the painting was well received once revealed in Athens. However, Zeuxis, who had strived a lot to attribute the figures realistically, realized that the crowd praising the painting was only appreciating the subject’s novelty and not his technique. But what was the subject of the painting, and why did it astonish the Athenian public so much?

 

The Hippocentauri was the first time someone dared to depict a family of centaurs. This does not sound very original at first, but we need to understand that the centaurs were creatures carrying a distinct symbolism in antiquity. Except for Chiron (and Pholos), the centaurs represented a certain Other. Sometimes this Other were the people that the Greeks called barbarians, like the Persians.

 

Centaurs did not function exactly like the opposite of civilization. They represented a stage in-between nature and civilization but always closer to the former than the latter.  Their acts of barbarity, such as rape and pillaging, were manifestations of the centaurs’ inability to control their natural impulses. As a result, depictions of centaurs always focused on violence and barbarism and were exclusively male. What Zeuxis did was a complete undoing of this iconography. His painting did not simply present a centaur family, but a female centaur nursing a pair of infant centaurs and a male centaur holding a lion in his right hand trying to terrify his children as a joke. Long story short, Zeuxis presented an affectionate scene of a centaur family, which was a radically new conceptualization. Before that painting, no one had even thought of presenting female and children centaurs.

 

Zeuxis’ painting is today lost, just like all of the paintings by the Greek Old Masters. However, after reading Lucian’s dialogue, Jan van der Straet was inspired to create an artwork depicting the theme. This original is now preserved in the print depicted above made by Jan Collaert II. Other post-classical depictions of the subject include those by Sebastiano Ricci, Georg Hiltensperger, and Ignoto Fiammingo.

 

3. Dragging A Chariot

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Four centaurs dragging a chariot with Hercules and Nike, Nikias Painter, 425-375 BCE, Louvre, Paris, via RMN-Grand Palais

We can blame the ancient Greeks for many things, but if you have ever read Aristophanes, you will probably know that lack of humor is not one of them.

 

The centaurs of the above image are one of these cases where humor is visualized. The painting on this oenochoe can be easily characterized as an ancient caricature. In this depiction, we observe Hercules and the goddess Nike on a chariot dragged by four centaurs who function as common horses. Nike is even holding the bridle while at least one of the draggers looks back at her with a look that seems like it says, “come on now, are we really doing this?”

 

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Detail of the painting, via hellados.ru

 

The humorous part of the painting is located in the figures’ facial features, which are exaggerated to the point that the depiction receives an almost surrealist dimension. We can only imagine the reaction such a vase would provoke in the context of a symposium when it would be suddenly presented when everyone’s head had gotten a bit lighter under the wine’s effect.

 

2. Running, Muscular, And Winged

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A winged running centaur, Micali Painter, late 6th-5th century BCE, via Sotheby’s

 

We already discussed centaurs with human front legs, but this is a particular case from the late 6th/early 5th Century BCE attributed to the Micali Painter. This is a centaur with overtly muscular human legs, pointed ears, and wings. Obviously, this is supposed to depict a very, very speedy creature.

 

This idiosyncratic centaur is accompanied by two more with wings, three normal ones, all wielding branches, and some with pointed ears.

 

Particularly fascinating is that the vase is from Etruria, where Greek culture was exceptionally well-received.

 

1. Female Centaurs: A Strange Depiction For The Ancients

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Centaurides flanking Venus, Mosaic from Roman Tunisia, 2nd century AD, via Wikimedia Commons

 

We already saw that Zeuxis was the first to depict a female centaur, but we also saw that there was an archaic Medusa Centaur, and Medusas was a woman. Nevertheless, we haven’t yet seen a female centaur, the so-called Centauris, on her own. Even though this should not count as a “strange” image of a centaur, it is only fair for this list to include at least one. The Centaurides became popular in the Roman period and late antiquity.

 

In this case, we have a Roman mosaic from Tunisia, probably showing the Goddess Aphrodite and two Centaurides. The Centaurides appear particularly feminine, rivaling even the goddess of beauty. They also wear earrings.



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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.