In Greek mythology, Centaurs (or Kentauroi) are half-man, half horse creatures that inhabited the mountains and forests of Thessaly. Centaurs were said to be primal, existing in tribes and making their homes in caves, hunting wild animals and arming themselves with rocks and tree branches.
There are many origin myths surrounding centaurs; one is that Centaurus, the offspring of King Ixion, mated with the cloud nymph, Nephele whom a jealous Zeus created in the likeness of Hera. They spawned centaurs and left them on Mount Pelion where the daughters of the immortal centaur Chiron nursed them.
Centaurs and Dionysus
Centaurs were followers of Dionysus, the God of Wine and were thus known for being savage, rowdy and boisterous. Often they were portrayed as being governed by their bestial half. They were invited to attend the wedding of their half-brother Pirithous, King of Lapith and became severely drunk during the festivities. They attempted to carry off the bride and the other female guests. The hero Theseus happened to be present at the wedding and aided Pirithous; a battle broke out, and most of the centaurs were killed.
Representation in Greek Culture
Centaurs were creatures that represented chaos and barbarism, their likeness and proclivity for trouble were frequently described in Greek sculpture, myths, stories and pottery. While boasting a bestial and lustful reputation, some centaurs only acted in such a way under the effects of wine and alcohol; which may have served as a cautionary tale to the ancient Greeks.
The Wise Centaur: Chiron
The most well know and considered the most civilised centaur was Chiron, who was incredibly wise and a tutor and advisor to heroes like Hercules, Achilles and Jason. Unfortunately, he was only a minor character in Greek mythology, so though mentioned often very little is know about him. He was the son of Philyra and the Titan god, Cronus and he married the nymph Chariklo.
Chiron resided in the forests of Mt. Pelion. He was responsible for Achilles adolescent education. Achilles was also gifted a formidable Pelian ash spear from his tutor which he used during the Trojan war. Chiron was known for not indulging in drinking, having superior knowledge to his brethren and having a different lineage than the other centaurs.
Centaurs in Epic Sagas
Centaurs permeate Greek myths and can be found throughout epic sagas and Greek stories. In one instance a tribe dwelling in the western Peloponnese came into conflict with the hero Hercules; where the centaur Pholos hosted Hercules while he was hunting for the giant boar, one of his required labours.
Attracted by the smell of the wine Pholos and Hercules were drinking, other centaurs interrupted the festivities. Eventually, spurred on by intoxication they attacked Hercules. In the mayhem, Hercules accidentally poisoned Chiron with a poisoned arrow. Pholos was then killed after accidentally dropping one on his foot.
Here is yet another tale of the centaurs’ overindulgence and the repercussions of wine. While immortal the poison caused Chiron terrible pain and when Hercules asked for the freedom of Prometheus from Zeus he had to make a trade. Chiron volunteered in Prometheus’s place and died free from the pain he endured.
Centaurs in Greek Legends
Centaurs were a favourite beast portrayed in Greek mythology often as barbarians and uncivilised or like Chiron and Pholos who were famous characters and teachers in the legends of the Greek’s favourite heroes.
Other Interesting Facts
- Other myths make centaurs children of Centaurus who mated with the Magnesian mares
- Another tribe of horned Centaurs were said to have lived on Cyprus, who were fathered by a frustrated Zeus after Aphrodite rebuffed his advancements
- Centaurs are portrayed as barbaric and savage in the story of Caeneus, a hero who was invulnerable to weapons, was beaten into the earth by centaurs wielding primitive weapons of stones and sticks
- The various battles centaurs were engaged in epitomise the struggle between civilisation and barbarism prevalent in Greek mythology
- Female centaurs, or centauresses, were said to have existed but their stories have only been found in late classical art and literature
- A Macedonian mosaic from the fourth century BC is one of the earliest examples of female centaurs and Ovid, the Roman poet, mentions the existence of another centauress, Hylonome
- Centaurs may have a basis in reality; there was a tradition in Thessaly of hunting bulls on horseback and the very word centaur may have originally meant bull-killer
- The most common theory is that the idea of centaurs came from the first reaction of a non-riding culture to come into contact with people who were mounted on horses
- The myth of centaurs continued through Roman mythology and later existed in medieval bestiaries
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