Mythology - It’s a Man, It’s a Horse, It’s a Centaur!

by Erin on May 10, 2012

I like to refer to Centaurs as a type of hybrid creature, in that they are half man, half horse. Indeed, typically Centaurs are depicted in both myth and art as having the torso of a man combined with the hindquarters of a horse.

Stories from Greek mythology reveal that Centaurs were not terribly civilized. For one thing, they were said to consume a diet that consisted of raw flesh. And in a culture that celebrated the fruits of the vineyard, Centaurs especially stood out because they couldn’t hold their wine. We will learn more about this fatal flaw in a moment.

In mythology, the race of Centaurs are traditionally thought of as the children of two possible sets of parents. The first candidates were Ixion and Nephele. The second claim was that they descended from Centaurus, who in some versions of the myth was the son of the god Apollo and the nymph Stilbe.

One of the most famous Centaurs in myth is Chiron. Now, Chiron wasn’t your typical Centaur. His parents were Philyra and Cronus - not the aforementioned ancestors of the rest of his race. He appears in the legendary tales of the great Greek hero Herakles (Hercules, if you prefer his Roman name) as a gentle, even wise figure. In addition to this, Chiron was immortal.

Since no discussion of the Centaurs would be complete without a mention of a rather obscure word connected to them, let’s explore that now. The word is centauromachy. A centauromachy is a specific kind of mythological battle between the Centaurs and their rivals, the Lapiths. The Lapiths were a neighboring tribe who represented the polar opposite of the unruly Centaurs. While the centaurs were uncouth and uncivilized, the Lapiths were in comparison considerably more refined and cultured. The clash of the two tribes is the stuff of legend.

Centaurs were fond of one thing even more than fighting. Apparently, they appreciated the female form, and many tales from myth depict Centaurs attempting to abduct women. Indeed, one of the key causes of the conflict between the Centaurs and Lapiths was due to the former trying to carry away the women of the latter. Kind of makes a social situation awkward when you are invited to a wedding and you think that the female guests would make a perfect “hey, thanks for coming!” gift.

A notorious example of the lengths a Centaur would go to claim a lovely woman as his prize involves, again, the hero Herakles. The Centaur in this myth was named Nessus, and his profession was ferrying - or rather carrying - people across a river. The tale of how Nessus encountered Herakles and got involved with the hero is worth discussing, but that, as I am fond of saying, is a tale for another day.

Centaurs are called Kentauroi in Greek by the way.

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