In Greek mythology, the centaurs (Greek: Κένταυροι) are a race of creatures composed of part human and part horse. In early Attic vase-paintings body and a human torso joined at the waist to the horse's withers where the horse's neck would be.
This half-human and half-animal composition has lead many writers to treat them as liminal beings, caught between the two natures, embodied in contrasted myths, of centaurs as the embodiment of untamed nature, as in their battle with the Lapiths, or conversely as teachers, as Chiron.
The Centaurs are best known for their fight with the Lapithae, caused by their attempt to carry off Hippodamia, and the rest of the Lapith women, on the day of her marriage to Pirithous, king of the Lapithae, himself the son of Ixion. The strife among these cousins is a metaphor for the conflict between the lower appetites and civilized behavior in humankind. Theseus, who happened to be present, a hero and founder of cities, threw the balance in favor of the right order of things, and assisted Pirithous. The Centaurs were driven off or destroyed. Another Lapith hero, Caeneus, who was invulnerable to weapons, was beaten into the earth by Centaurs wielding rocks and the branches of trees.
Amongst the Centaurs, the most famoust individuals were Nessus, Chiron, Pholus and Eurytion, all of which featured in the stories of Heracles. Another pair named Hylaeus and Rhoetus were destroyed by the heroine Atalanta when they attempted to assault her in the wilderness.
Vignettes of the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs were sculpted in bas-relief on the frieze of the Parthenon, which was dedicated to wise Athena. The battle with the Lapithae, and the adventure of Heracles with Pholus are favourite subjects of Greek art.
The mythological episode of the centaur Nessus carrying off Deianira, the bride of Heracles, also provided Giambologna (1529-1608), a Flemish sculptor whose career was spent in Italy, splendid opportunities to devise compositions with two forms in violent interaction. He made several versions of Nessus carrying off Deianira, represented by examples in the Louvre, the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden, the Frick Collection, New York and the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. His followers, like Adriaen de Vries and Pietro Tacca, continued to make countless repetitions of the subject. When Carrier-Belleuse tackled the same play of forms in the 19th century he titled it Abduction of Hippodameia .
Theories of origin
The most common theory holds that the idea of centaurs came from the first reaction of a non-riding culture, as in the Minoan Aegean world, to nomads who were mounted on horses. The theory goes that such riders would appear as half-man, half-animal.
The Thessalians tribes described their own horse breeds as descendants of the centaurs.
Of the various Classical Greek authors who mentioned centaurs, Pindar was the first who describes undoubtedly a combined monster. Previous authors (Homer etc) only use words such as Pheres (Beasts) that could also mean ordinary savage men riding ordinary horses.
The armchair anthropologist and writer Robert Graves speculated that the Centaurs of Greek myth were a dimly-remembered, pre-Hellenic fraternal earth cult who had the horse as a totem. A similar theory was incorporated into Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea.
The Greek word kentauros could be etymologized as ken - tauros = "piercing bull". Another possible etymology can be "bulls slayer". Some say that the Greeks took the constellation of Centaurus, and also its name "piercing bull", from Mesopotamia, where it symbolized the god Baal who represents rain and fertility, fighting with and piercing with his horns the demon Mot who represents the summer drought. (In Greece, Mot became the constellation of Lupus.) Later in Greece, the constellation of Centaurus was reinterpreted as a man riding a horse, and linked to legends of Greece being invaded by tribes of horsemen from the north. The idea of a combined monster may have arisen as an attempt to fit the pictorial figure to the stars better.
Alexander Hislop in his book The Two Babylons theorized that the word is derived from the Semitic Kohen and Tor via phonetic shift the less prominent consonants being lost over time, with it developing into Khen Tor or Ken-Tor, and being transliterated phonetically into Ionian as Kentaur .
Other hybrid creatures appear in Greek mythology, always with some liminal connection that links Hellenic culture with archaic or non-Hellenic cultures: