Descendants of Ixion
In Greek mythology, centaurs were creatures that had the head, neck, chest, and arms of a man, and the body and legs of a horse. Most centaurs were brutal, violent creatures known for their drunkenness and lawless behavior. They lived mainly around Mount Pelion in Thessaly, a region of northeastern Greece.
According to one account, centaurs were descended from Centaurus, a son of Apollo. A more widely accepted account of their origin, however, is that they were descendants of Ixion, the son of Ares and king of the Lapiths, a people who lived in Thessaly.
Ixion fell in love with Hera, the wife of Zeus. Recklessly, Ixion arranged to meet with Hera, planning to seduce her. Zeus heard of the plan and formed a cloud in the shape of Hera. Ixion embraced the cloud form, and from this union, the race of centaurs was created.
The main myth relating to the centaurs involves their battle with the Lapiths. King Pirithous of the Lapiths, son of Ixion, invited the centaurs to his wedding. The centaurs became drunk and disorderly and pursued the Lapith women. One centaur even tried to run off with the king's bride. A fierce battle erupted. The centaurs used tree trunks and slabs of stone as weapons, but eventually the Lapiths won the fight, killing many centaurs. The centaurs were forced to leave Thessaly.
A number of tales describe conflicts between centaurs and the Greek hero Heracles. In one such story, Heracles came to the cave of a centaur named Pholus. Pholus served Heracles food but did not offer him any wine, though an unopened jar of wine stood in the cave. Pholus explained that the wine was a gift and was the property of all the centaurs. Nonetheless, Heracles insisted on having some wine, and Pholus opened the jar. The smell of the wine soon brought the other centaurs to the cave and before long a fight broke out. Heracles drove off the centaurs by shooting poisoned arrows at them. Afterward, Pholus was examining one of these arrows when he accidentally dropped it. It struck his foot, and the poison killed him.
In another well-known story, a centaur named Nessus tried to rape Deianira, the wife of Heracles. Heracles caught him and shot the centaur with a poisoned arrow. As he lay dying, Nessus urged Deianira to save some of the blood from his wound. He told her that if Heracles ever stopped loving her, she could regain his love by applying the blood to a garment that Heracles would wear. Deianira did as Nessus suggested and saved some of his blood. Many years later, when Heracles had been unfaithful to her, Deianira gave him a tunic to wear, a tunic that she had smeared with the blood of Nessus. The blood was poisoned, and Heracles died. In this way, Nessus took his revenge on Heracles.
Not all centaurs were savage brutes. One exception was Chiron, a teacher of medicine, music, hunting, and archery. The son of the god Cronus , Chiron taught gods and heroes , including Jason, Achilles , Heracles, and Asclepius. Chiron was accidentally wounded by one of Heracles' poisoned arrows. As the son of a god, he would live forever and suffer from the injury forever. Chiron therefore asked Zeus to let him die. Zeus granted his request and placed him in the heavens as a star in the constellation Sagittarius, also known as the Archer.
Centaurs in Context
It is possible that the idea of half-man, half-horse creatures was born when ancient Greeks or Minoans—who did not routinely ride on the backs of horses—first encountered nomads who spent most of their time on horseback. The Lapiths—often associated with centaurs in Greek myth—were considered to be skilled horsemen, and perhaps even the inventors of horseback riding.
Key Themes and Symbols
Centaurs are often associated with wild, reckless behavior. They generally symbolize chaos, or disorder, and may symbolize human traits that were seen as undesirable, such as lust and drunkenness.
Centaurs in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Centaurs usually represented wild behavior in Greek literature and art. They appeared on many vases, and their fight with the Lapiths was depicted in sculptures in various temples. Because of their drunken behavior, centaurs were sometimes shown pulling the chariot of Dionysus , the god of wine and revelry. At other times, they were pictured being ridden by Eros , the god of love, because of their lustful ways. In Christian art of the Middle Ages, centaurs symbolized man's animal nature.
The Roman poet Ovid described the battle of the centaurs and the Lapiths in the Metamorphoses. This work, in turn, inspired the English poet Edmund Spenser to write about the batde in his most famous work, The Faerie Queene. Centaurs also appear in more recent literary works, such as the Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series by C. S. Lewis.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Compare centaurs to the mythical creatures known as satyrs . What physical and personality traits do satyrs have? How are they similar to centaurs? How are they different? What role do these creatures have in Greek and Roman myths?
SEE ALSO Heracles