Centaurs in Greek Mythology: From the Iliad to Sagittarius and Harry Potter
Greek mythology is full of interesting magical creatures. From the sirens and their alluring voices to the one-eyed cyclops, these creatures have captured the imaginations of people worldwide from ancient times up to the present day. Indeed, they are still featured in horoscopes, books, movies and tv shows. Few creatures from Greek mythology are so iconic as the centaur. Half man, half horse, the centaur has become a staple of fantasy media everywhere, including Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Percy Jackson Series.
The Origin of Centaurs
Although closely associated with Greek mythology, it is thought that the concept of a centaur may have originated in ancient Babylonia, in present-day Iraq. Several artifacts have survived from the Kassite Dynasty (1595-1155 BC) including a type of stone monument known as a kudurru or narû that contains sculptured reliefs of figurative scenes with many different creatures. Among these creatures were depictions of multiple creatures that are half man, half horse. It is possible that the Hittites, who controlled much of Anatolia in present-day Turkey from 1650-1200 BC, may have brought the centaur to Mycenaean Greece (c. 1600-1100 BC).
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Another theory is that centaurs developed independently in Greece rather than being imported. Some suggest the creation of the centaur was in response to the horse-riding invaders of horseless Greece, with the Greeks believing the horses and their riders were one being. Regardless of their origin, they feature prominently in Greek mythology as well as being frequently depicted in classical art.
This painting, "Battle of Centaurs and Wild Beasts," was made for the dining room of Hadrian's famous palace villa between 120 and 130 AD. (Altes Museum / Public domain)
Centaurs According to Greek Mythology
The origin story of the centaurs in Greek mythology is outlined by the poet Pindar (518-438 BC) in his poem Pythian 2. According to him, the Thessalian king Ixion seduced Nephele, a cloud nymph created by Zeus in the image of his wife Hera to deceive Ixion into believing that he was seducing Hera. Ixion’s advances resulted in the birth of a son called Centaurus. Centaurus would then father the centaurs by mating with Magnesian mares from Mount Pelion. Here, the centaurs were raised by the daughters of Chiron.
The centaurs were well known for their drunken, violent nature, particularly their sexual violence. They were described by Homer in the Iliad as “beast men” or “hairy beast men.” There were, however, exceptions to the rule in the form of Chiron and, to a lesser extent, Pholus.
The centaurs Chiron and Pholus had different parental lineages. According to Pindar, Chiron was born of the Titan Cronus and the Oceanid Philyra after Philyra had taken the form of a mare to escape the advances of Cronus. Unfortunately for her, he became a stallion to pursue and mate with her.
Philyra gave birth to Chiron, a centaur renowned for his wisdom and skill in hunting, medicine, music and the art of prophecy. He lived in a cave on Mount Pelion and many heroes such as Achilles and Heracles were brought to him as children for tutoring.
Pholus was similarly considered benevolent and wise in comparison to the other centaurs. Less is known of his heritage, however. He was the son of Silenus, the rustic god of winemaking and the nymph Melia. Other than that, not much is known of his origin. Pholus is only famous because of his legendary encounter with the hero Heracles.
Pholus was resting on Mount Pholoe, a mountain named after him, when he met Heracles on his way to killing the Erymanthian boar, a task that was one of his 12 labors. Pholus welcomed Heracles hospitably, but when he opened up a wine jar to offer it to Heracles, its scent attracted the wilder centaurs, who attacked. Heracles fought them off using a bow and chased after them as they ran. Pholus left his cave only to be surrounded by the bodies of dead centaurs. He picked up an arrow used to kill one of the centaurs, but accidentally dropped it on his foot, killing himself.
Chiron, the most famous individual centaur, teaching Achilles how to play the lyre, as depicted in a 2,000-year-old Roman fresco found at Herculaneum, Italy. (muesse / Public domain)
Centaurs in Literature Through The Centuries
According to the Greeks, the centaurs dwelt in the mountains of Thessaly and Arcadia. They were offspring of Ixion, son of Ares and king of the Lapiths. The Lapiths were a legendary ancient tribe in Thessaly.
The centaurs are perhaps best known for their fight with these Lapiths in what was known as the “centauromachy.” This event occurred when the centaurs were invited to the wedding of Pirithous, the son and successor of Ixion, and Hippodamia. The centaurs got incredibly drunk and behaved terribly, and eventually attempted to kidnap Hippodamia and the other female guests, enraging the Lapiths.
The centaurs lost the battle against the Lapiths and were forced from Mount Pelion. This battle is often portrayed as a metaphor for the battle between civilization and barbarism due to the wild, drunken nature of the centaurs.
Centaurs have also featured in many other European sources inspired by the Greeks. Most notoriously, the Romans took great inspiration from the Greeks. The best example of centaurs in Roman literature is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The poem has numerous allusions to centaurs and even recounts the centauromachy.
The most important example of centaurs in medieval literature also comes from Italy in Dante’s Inferno. The poem follows its author Dante along with the ancient poet Virgil through the nine circles of hell. On their journey, they meet the centaurs Chiron, Pholus and Nessus at the seventh circle of hell. Here, the centaurs gallop around a circle to shoot any submerged souls who try to lift themselves out of the boiling river of blood called Phlegethon.
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Centaurs also became extremely common in bestiaries during the Middle Ages. These were books that collected information on animals, birds and mythical creatures and put them together in one place.
Today, centaurs are commonly depicted in the Sagittarius horoscope, popular literature, and films based on Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Percy Jackson series.
Top image: If your star sign is Sagittarius then your “animal” form is that of a centaur. Sagittarius, the centaur archer, is the sixth sign of the Zodiac. Source: Daniel Eskridge / Adobe Stock
By Mark Brophy
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