Centaurs: Half-Horse Men of Greek Mythology

A centaur is a mythological creature belonging to Greek mythology. They are an infamous bunch with a reputation that precedes them, who apparently value good wine and worldly pleasures above all else. For a creature that is as notorious as the centaur, it is no wonder that their progenitor is described by Pindar as an apparent social menace: “…of monstrous breed, who had no honour amongst men nor in the laws of Heaven…” (Pythian 2).

Centaurs live in forests and mountains, dwelling in caves and hunting local game. They do not care for the hustle-and-bustle of the city, where the gravity of social norms weighs all too heavily. Such creatures are far more comfortable in limitless, open spaces. Perhaps that is why they value the company of the gods Dionysus and Pan so much.

READ MORE: Dionysus Family Tree: The Lineage of the Greek God of Wine

The image of a centaur is a unique one, but not one that is wholly Greek. There are a number of world mythologies that also boast half-horse beings, from India’s Kinnaras to the Russian Palkan. It begs the question as to where the image of humans with the body of a horse comes from.

What are Centaurs?

Centaurs (Kentauros) are a mythological race of creatures from Greek mythology. These mythological beings reside in the mountains of Thessaly and Arcadia, the realm of the god Pan. They were also known to exist in Elis and Laconia of the Western Peloponnese.

Equine lower halves make the centaurs well-equipped to handle rugged, mountainous terrain. It also affords them speed, thus making them unmatched hunters of large game.

More often than not, centaurs are described to be predisposed towards drunkenness and acts of violence. They usually appear in mythology as brutish creatures with little regard for the law, or the well-being of others. A notable exception to this temperament is Chiron, the son of the god Cronus and the nymph, Philyra. Centaurs, like other mythical creatures, appear throughout Greek mythology in varying degrees.

Are Centaurs Half Human?

Centaurs are always portrayed as being half-human. That being said, centaurs have taken on many forms through the years. They’ve had wings, horns, and even…human legs? The one throughline trait all of these interpretations share is that centaurs are half-man, half-horse.

Ancient Greek art depicted centaurs as having the lower body of a horse and the upper body of a human. This is also reflected in bronze statuettes from the 8th century BCE and in reliefs found on wine jugs (oinochoe) and oil flasks (lekythos) of the 5th century BCE. Romans didn’t want to break from tradition, so Greco-Roman art was likewise filled with more half-horse men.

The image of half-man, half-equine centaurs continues to be popular in modern media. They’re as much a fantasy staple as vampires, werewolves, and shape-shifters. Centaurs are featured in the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series, in Netflix’s Blood of Zeus, and Onward from Pixar Animation Studios.

Are Centaurs Good or Evil?

The centaur race is neither good nor evil. Although they embrace lawlessness and immorality with open arms, they aren’t necessarily evil creatures. Centaurs are – from the viewpoint of ancient Greeks – uncivilized beings. They are a mirror image of how the ancient Greeks thought of themselves.

In mythology, centaurs had a distinct weakness for alcohol and other vices. Once they had their fill of drink, or whatever pleasure fit their fancy, they would lose control. It is then of no surprise that centaurs accompanied Dionysus, the god of wine and madness. If not scattered throughout Dionysus’ procession, then centaurs did at least pull his chariot.

Centaurs appeared in myths as chaotic forces of nature, dominated by their animalistic tendencies. While indeed troublesome (and befitting of followers of Dionysus and Pan) the centaurs in no way were inherently evil creatures. Instead, they represented the constant struggle of mankind, ever-fluctuating between conscious civilization and primitive impulse.

What Do Centaurs Represent?

Centaurs represent the animalistic side of humanity in Greek mythology. They were generally regarded to be uncivilized and immoral by default. After all, the only centaurs to not fit in this generalization – Chiron and Pholus – were not descended from the centaur’s common ancestor. These outliers were born from divine unions rather than social outcast lusting after mares.

However, when we say that centaurs were “uncivilized,” it is vital to consider what the ancient Greek perception of “civilization” was. And, it isn’t easy.

Different city-states of ancient Greece valued different things. For example, Athens was the hotspot for education, the arts, and philosophy. Comparatively, Sparta had rigid military training and placed lesser value on mental subjects.

To be civilized usually meant that one was a rational human. One had tastes, preferences, and good habits. More than anything, however, a civilized individual was thought to hold the same values and customs as the ancient Greeks.

Prioritizing wisdom and intellect above other things was the mark of a civilized person. Likewise, hospitality and loyalty were placed in great emphasis. All of these traits are reflected in the characters of Chiron and Pholus.

Meanwhile, the ancient Greeks viewed those unlike them to be “uncivilized.” While this could extend out to having differing beliefs and values, it could also encompass language and appearance. Those on the fringes of the Greek world were thought to be uncivilized despite being very much Greek themselves. Therefore, the immorality of the centaurs in Greek mythology was only one of the things keeping the creatures apart from the rest of society.

Other significant factors included their uncharacteristic appearances and poor habits. Centaurs were also a traditionally isolated society, steering clear of human contact.

What is a Female Centaur Called?

Female centaurs are called centaurides (kentaurides) or centauresses. They are scarcely mentioned in early Greek literature. In fact, centaurides are mostly depicted in Greek art and in Roman adaptations in later antiquity. Even Medusa, the priestess of Athena turned monstrous gorgon, was depicted, albeit rarely, to be a female centaur.

As one can imagine, female centaurs appear physically the same as other (male) centaurs. Centaurides still have the lower half of a horse, but their upper bodies are that of a human woman. Philostratus the Elder describes the centaurides as beautiful, even where they had a horse’s body: “…some grow out of white mares, others…attached to chestnut mares, and the coats of others are dappled…they glisten like those of horses that are well cared for…” (Imagines, 2.3).

The most famous of the centaurides is Hylonome, the wife of Cyllarus, a centaur that fell in battle. After her husband’s death, a distraught Hylonome took her own life. To Ovid in his Metamorphoses, there was “none comelier of all the centaur girls” than Hylonome. Her loss, and that of her husband, was felt throughout the world of centaurs.

Famous Centaurs

The most well-known centaurs are those that are outliers. They’re either notoriously villainous or remarkably kind and abstain from the supposed “depravity” that torments other fellow centaurs. Though, sometimes centaurs are just name-dropped upon their death with no further information indicating any significant feat.

Centaurs named in Greek myths:

  • Asbolus
  • Chiron
  • Cyllarus
  • Eurytion
  • Hylonome
  • Nessus
  • Pholus

Above all, the most famous centaur out there is Chiron. He trained a number of Greek heroes from his home on Mount Pelion including Heracles, Asclepius, and Jason. Chiron also was close a companion of King Peleus, the father of Achilles.

Centaurs in Greek Mythology

Centaurs in Greek mythology frequently represented the animalistic side of humans. They were controlled by their bestial urges, desiring women, drink, and violence above all. That being said, any gut instincts were probably valued above any serious contemplation. Social norms weren’t their thing, either.

Significant myths involving centaurs are chaotic and sometimes perverse. From their conception to the Centauromachy (not only the Titans and Gigantes had a war named after them), the centaur myths are an experience, to say the least.

Creation of Centaurs

Centaurs have an interesting origin. It all began when Ixion, a king of the Lapiths, began to covet Hera. Zeus isn’t the most loyal husband, but he also isn’t down with other men flirting with his wife.

Ixion was originally a dinner guest at Mount Olympus, though not many of the Greek gods liked him. He had killed his father-in-law to avoid paying bridal gifts he had promised him. For some reason or another, Zeus pitied the man and invited him for dinner, which made his betrayal even worse.

To exact revenge on the mortal king, Zeus made a cloud in the shape of his wife for Ixion to seduce. The Hera look-alike cloud is later established to be a nymph named Nephele. Ixion lacked restraint and slept with Nephele, who he thought was Hera. The union produced Centaurus: the would-be progenitor of the centaurs.

READ MORE: Zeus Family Tree: The Family Tree of the King of the Gods

Centaurus was said to be unsocial and brutish, finding no joy amongst other humans. As a result, he isolated himself to the mountains of Thessaly. While removed from the rest of society, Centaurus mated frequently with the Magnesian mares that inhabited the region. From these rendezvous, the centaur race came to be.

As always, other variations of the centaur creation myth exist. In some interpretations, the mythical beings descend from Centaurus, instead a son of the Greek god Apollo and the nymph Stilbe. A separate myth states that all centaurs are begotten from Ixion and Nephele.

READ MORE: Apollo Family Tree: The Lineage of the Greek God of Light

The Centauromachy

The Centauromachy was a major battle between the centaurs and the Lapiths. The Lapiths are a legendary Thessalian tribe known for their law-abiding nature. They were sticklers for the rules, which didn’t bode well when their neighbors were the rowdy centaurs.

The new King of the Lapiths, Pirithous, was due to marry a beautiful woman named Hippodamia. The marriage was meant to quell a power vacuum that began after Pirithous’ father, Ixion, was removed as king for his offense to the gods. The centaurs thought they had a rightful claim to rule since they were the grandchildren of Ixion. Considering this, Pirithous gave the centaurs Mount Pelion to enjoy.

After gifting the mountain to the centaurs, all went quiet. The two tribes had a period of peaceful relations. When it came time to get married, Pirithous invited the centaurs to the ceremony. He expected them to be on their best behavior.

Come the wedding day, Hippodamia was presented to the celebratory crowds. Unfortunately, the centaurs took advantage of the access to free-flowing alcohol and were already inebriated. Upon seeing the bride, a centaur named Eurytion was overcome with lust and attempted to carry her off. Other centaurs in attendance followed suit, carrying off the female guests that had piqued their interests.

Such was the violence that ensued that the Centauromachy became known as one of the bloodiest moments in Greek mythology. The Lapiths did not take kindly to the sudden assault on their women and soon there were numerous casualties on both sides.

In the end, the Lapiths people emerged victorious. Their success likely had to do with the Athenian hero Theseus, who was a close friend of the groom, and Caenus, an old flame of Poseidon gifted with invulnerability, being in attendance.

The Eyrmanthian Boar

The Erymanthian boar was a giant boar that was tormenting the Arcadian countryside of Psophis. Capturing the creature was Hercules’ fourth labor, as ordered by Eurystheus.

On the way to hunt the boar, Hercules stopped by his friend’s house. The friend in question, Pholus, was a long-time companion of Hercules and was one of two “civilized” centaurs besides Chiron. His abode was a cave on Mount Erymanthus, where the wild boar dwelled.

READ MORE: Hercules Family Tree: The Lineage of the Legendary Hero

When learning that Hercules was hungry and thirsty, Pholus quickly cooked a warm meal for the hero. However, a bit of an issue arose when Hercules asked for a drink of wine.

It turns out Pholus was hesitant to open the large wine jug because it belonged to all the centaurs collectively. They would know someone had drunk their wine and would be angry. Hercules brushed off this information and, telling his friend not to sweat it, opened the jug.

Just as Pholus feared, the nearby centaurs caught the scent of the honey-sweet wine. They were enraged, charging into Pholus’ cave to demand answers. When they saw Hercules with their wine, the centaurs attacked. In defense of himself and Pholus, Hercules slew several centaurs with arrows dipped in poison from the Lernaean Hydra.

While Hercules was out chasing away alcohol-maddened centaurs for miles, Pholus accidentally fell victim to the poison himself. According to Apollodorus, Pholus was examining a poisoned arrow, wondering how such a small thing could fell such a large foe. Suddenly, the arrow slipped and landed on his foot; the contact was enough to kill him.

The Abduction of Deianira

The abduction of Deianira is committed by the centaur Nessus following her wedding to Hercules. Deianira was the lovely half-sister of Meleager, the ill-fated host of the Calydonian boar hunt. Apparently, Meleager’s spirit promised Deianira to the hero when Hercules went to gather Cerberus from Hades for his twelfth labor.

Hercules marries Deianira and the two are traveling together when they come across a raging river. Being an all-around tough guy, Herc doesn’t worry about the frigid, rushing waters. He does, however, worry about how his new bride would handle the risky crossing. Just then, a centaur appears.

Nessus introduces himself and offers to carry Deianira across. He reasoned that since he had the body of a horse he could easily traverse the rapids. Hercules saw no issue and agreed to the centaur’s proposal. After the great hero bravely swam across the river, he awaited Nessus to bring Deianira; only, they never came.

It turns out that Nessus plotted to kidnap and assault Deianira all along: he just needed to get rid of her husband. Unfortunately for the centaur, he didn’t consider Hercules having a fantastic aim. Before Nessus could take advantage of Deianira, Hercules shot and killed him with a poisoned arrow to the back.

The Shirt of Nessus

The shirt of Nessus refers to a Greek myth dealing with the death of Hercules. Having no other reason than to be malicious, Nessus told Deianira to keep his blood in case she ever came to worry about her husband’s fidelity. Supposedly, Nessus’ blood could ensure that he would be loyal to her and she, for who-know-why, believed him.

When the time did come that Deianira began to question Hercules’ love, she stained his chiton with Nessus’ blood. Little did Deianira know that the blood was no love potion, but rather full-blown poison.

By the time the wife realizes her mistake, Hercules was already dying. Albeit slowly, though still very much dying. Thus, even though Nessus was slain by Hercules, he still managed to get revenge years later.

Death of Chiron

The most famous centaur of them all was undoubtedly Chiron. As he was born from a union between Cronus and a nymph, Chiron was unlike the centaurs who originated from Centaurus. In Greek mythology, Chiron became a teacher and healer, unswayed by the temptations that other centaurs would give into. He was unnaturally iron-willed.

Thus, along with Pholus (also conveniently not descended from Centaurus), Chiron was thought to be a rarity: a “civilized centaur.” It was also said that Chiron was completely immortal since he was an offspring of Cronus. The death of Chiron was said to have occurred in a number of ways.

The most common myth states that Chiron was accidentally caught in the crossfire when Herc killed all those centaurs back during his fourth labor. Although the Hydra’s blood was not enough to kill Chiron, it did cause him immense suffering and he willingly died. On the contrary, some say Chiron’s life was used to barter with Zeus for the freedom of Prometheus. While Apollo or Artemis likely made such a request, it is suspected that Hercules did as well.

It is just as possible that knowing of Prometheus’ suffering, Chiron willingly gave up his immortality for his freedom. In one of the rarer myths surrounding Chiron’s death, the teacher may have accidentally come in contact with a Hydra-laced arrow after examining it, much as Pholus had.

Do Centaurs Still Exist?

Centaurs do not exist. They are mythological, and as with other creatures of this classification, they never really existed. Now, whether or not there is a plausible origin for centaurs is still left to be seen.

It is likely that early accounts of centaurs come from the perspective of non-riding tribes encountering nomads on horseback. From their point of view, riding a horse could give one the appearance of having an equine lower body. An incredible amount of control and fluidity displayed can also support that perspective.

For the centaurs to actually be a nomadic, possibly isolated tribe of horseback riders would further explain their skill in acquiring the big game. After all, having well-trained horses would give one a significant advantage when hunting bears, lions, or bulls.

Continued evidence could be found in the Greek “centaur” definition. Whereas the word “centaur” has an obscure origin, it may have meant “bull-killer.” This would be in reference to the Thessalian practice of hunting bulls on horseback. Such is fitting, considering that Thessalians were said to be the first in Greece to ride horses.

So, centaurs – at least as they are depicted in Greek myths – are not real. No evidence has been discovered supporting the existence of a race of half-human, half-horse. That being said, it is far more probable that centaurs were just a fantastical misinterpretation of early horseback riders.

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