Who are the Centaurs in Greek Mythology?
According to Greek mythology, CENTAURS (or the Kentauroi) were said to be the descendants of Ixion, son of Ares, the god of war. These strange creatures had the hand, arms and chest of a man but the leg and lower half of a horse. They lived in Thessaly, fed on meat and were prone to riotous behaviour.
They were usually depicted as drunken followers of DIONYSUS, except for wise Chiron—a half-brother to Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia—who was the tutor to several heroes, including Achilles.
Creation of Centaurs
When we think of creatures in Greek mythology, the centaurs undoubtedly come to mind as one of the most recognizable. They were considered by many to be one of the first human-animal hybrids in Greek mythology. The vast majority of centaurs are believed to be the children of Centaurus, the son of king Ixion and a cloud fashioned by Zeus in the image of his wife, Hera.
The story begins when king Ixion through his father-in-law into a fiery pit. Zeus did not punish Ixion; instead, he absolved him of his crimes. Even after having this divine favour bestowed upon him, Ixion showed no gratitude and even attempted to seduce Zeus’s wife.
Hera warned her husband of Ixion’s true intentions, and Zeus fashioned a cloud in her likeness. When Ixion made advances at what he believed to be Hera, he was caught red-handed by Zeus and sent to the underworld where he would remain for eternity, but not before the cloud, being Nephele, became pregnant with Centaurus.
The majority of centaurs are depicted as a primitive tribe, wild and lustful, and at times almost barbaric. This did not help because they had a taste for wine which led to more crude and lascivious behaviour. The caves and forests of Thessaly are where the centaurs made their home, and they could be found using the surrounding rocks and tree branches as weapons while they hunted wild animals.
There were tribes of centaurs scattered all over ancient Greece, with one of the largest being found in the Western Peloponnese. There are stories of a tribe of horned centaurs, native to the island of Cyprus, children, of Gaia and Zeus. These centres were considered to be fertility deities.
We do eventually see the appearance of female Centaurs but in much later literature. The Centaurs were considered one of the first real hybrid creatures being half man and half horse. They even had some features such as long pointed ears and a snub nose that could mean they were part Satyr.
The Centaurs — Chiron and Pholus
There is a handful of predominant Centaur figures in Greek mythology. We often know them by name, and they appear very different from the other Centaurs. The most famous centaur was Chiron.
Unlike his barbaric kin, Chiron was known for his great wisdom, teaching ability, and knowledge of medicine. His role in Greek mythology was relatively small, and he was only ever mentioned in a handful of stories, but we know that unlike the other centaurs, Chiron was not born from Centaurus.
He was the son of the Titan Cronus and the nymph Philyra, an Oceanid or sea nymph. He was often shown as being of a higher class than the other Centaurs because of his superior intellect. This intellect led him to become the tutor to some of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology, including the Argonaut Jason, Perseus, Theseus, and even Heracles. It would later be Heracles who would be responsible for Chiron’s death.
During his fourth labour, Heracles visited the Centaur Pholus, and as the two began to eat dinner, Pholus opened a bottle of wine given to him by the god Dionysus. The smell of the wine attracted the centaurs of the surrounding area, and they became hostile as they attempted to steal the wine.
With the use of arrows that had been dipped in the poisonous blood of the Hydra, Heracles managed to kill most of the attacking centaurs, but in the crossfire, one of the arrows had mistakenly hit Chiron. The arrow did not kill Chiron because he was immortal, but it left him in unbearable pain. The pain was so excruciating that Chiron willingly decided to give up his immortality and his half-brother Zeus then placed him amongst the stars as the constellation, Sagittarius.
In some versions of the story, Chiron sacrificed himself for the freedom of Prometheus when he was asked to by Heracles. Much like Chiron, Pholus was also considered to be a very wise Centaur, but he would also suffer a similar death that are poison arrows of Heracles.
On that same evening, when Pholus was examining Heracles’s arrows, he accidentally dropped one, landing on his foot and killing him instantly. As they did of Chiron, the gods rewarded Pholus by placing him in the sky as the constellation Centaurus.
The Centaur — Nessus
Another Centaur that we know by name is Nessus. This is where you might see a pattern emerging, as necessary at the hand of Heracles, but this time it was no accident. Heracles and his new wife, Deianira, came across Nessus when he offered to ferry them across a river.
Nessus took Deianira across the river first, and it wasn’t long before the Centaur’s intention of abducting Heracles’s wife became apparent. Heracles, not hesitating, fired a poison arrow and hit Nessus, but before he died, Nessus convinced Deianira to save some of his poisoned blood to be used in a love potion if her husband was to ever fall out of love with her.
The day did eventually come when the two grew apart and wanted to win back the affections of Heracles. Deianira covered his cloak in the love potion. When Heracles put on the blanket, he was driven mad by the pain of the poison. In despair of what she had just done, Deianira killed herself, and eventually, Heracles would take his place on Mount Olympus.
In this story, Nessus comes across much like the other Centaurs, unable to control his lust and desires, and even appear spiteful in death as he sews doubts into Deianira’s mind and begins the series of events that would lead to the death of Heracles.
There is a very similar story that takes place at the wedding of King Pirithous. The Centaurs were King Pirithous’s half-brothers, and he invited them to his wedding. There were large amounts of wine served at the wedding, and the Centaurs indulged a little bit too much and became drunk.
Their mood began to change, and eventually, they attempted to kidnap and violate the bride. This caused the large battle between the Centaurs and the guests of the wedding—a struggle that would result in the vast number of Centaurs being wiped from existence.
The Centaurs seemed to pose an interest in a dilemma. They may appear as half-man, but they struggled to control their lust, and at times, they are more beast than man, disregarding any morals they once may have had.
We could attribute this behaviour to the fact that they were born from King Ixion’s sinful lust, on attempting to seduce an already married goddess. As a result of his actions, his offspring may have been cursed to share a similar fate, and we do see them showing very similar behaviour—The sins of the father, being a widespread trope in Greek mythology.
There are a few exceptions, with Chiron and Pholus being shown as civilized, intelligent, and capable of self-control. The Centaurs were fierce warriors with immense strength and prowess, but they also represent the more primitive and unpredictable side of human beings.
Image Sources: Viergacht, Thegryph, Oliver Fetscher.