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This article is on the mythological creatures. For other uses of the term "centaur", see Centaur (disambiguation).

Image:Sebastiano Ricci 045.jpg
Painting by Sebastiano Ricci, of Centaurs at the marriage of Pirithous, king of the Lapithae

In Greek mythology, the centaurs (Greek: Κένταυροι) are a race of creatures composed of part human and part horse. In early Attic vase-paintings, the head and torso of a human joined at the (human's) waist to the horse's withers, where the horse's neck would be.

This half-human and half-animal composition has lead many writers to treat them as liminal beings, caught between the two natures, embodied in contrasted myths, of centaurs as the embodiment of untamed nature, as in their battle with the Lapiths, or conversely as teachers, as Chiron.


[edit] Legendary centaurs

The Centaurs are best known for their fight with the Lapithae, caused by their attempt to carry off Hippodamia, and the rest of the Lapith women, on the day of her marriage to Pirithous, king of the Lapithae, himself the son of Ixion. The strife among these cousins is a metaphor for the conflict between the lower appetites and civilized behavior in humankind. Theseus, who happened to be present, a hero and founder of cities, threw the balance in favor of the right order of things, and assisted Pirithous. The Centaurs were driven off or destroyed.<ref>Plutarch, Theseus, 30</ref><ref>Ovid, Metamorphoses xii. 210</ref><ref>Diodorus Siculusiv. 69, 70</ref>. Another Lapith hero, Caeneus, who was invulnerable to weapons, was beaten into the earth by Centaurs wielding rocks and the branches of trees.

Like the Titanomachy, the defeat of the Titans by the Olympian gods, the contests with the Centaurs typify the struggle between civilization and barbarism.

Amongst the Centaurs, the most famous individuals were Nessus, Chiron, Pholus and Eurytion, all of which featured in the stories of Heracles. Another pair named Hylaeus and Rhoetus were destroyed by the heroine Atalanta when they attempted to assault her in the wilderness.

[edit] Art

Vignettes of the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs were sculpted in bas-relief on the frieze of the Parthenon, which was dedicated to wise Athena. The battle with the Lapithae, and the adventure of Heracles with Pholus<ref>Apollodorus, ii. 5; Diod. Sic. IV, li</ref> are favourite subjects of Greek art.<ref>see Sidney Colvin, Journal of Hellenic Studies, I, 1881, and the exhaustive article in Roscher's Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie</ref>

The mythological episode of the centaur Nessus carrying off Deianira, the bride of Heracles, also provided Giambologna (1529-1608), a Flemish sculptor whose career was spent in Italy, splendid opportunities to devise compositions with two forms in violent interaction. He made several versions of Nessus carrying off Deianira, represented by examples in the Louvre, the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden, the Frick Collection, New York and the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. His followers, like Adriaen de Vries and Pietro Tacca, continued to make countless repetitions of the subject. When Carrier-Belleuse tackled the same play of forms in the 19th century he titled it Abduction of Hippodameia .

[edit] Theories of origin

The most common theory holds that the idea of centaurs came from the first reaction of a non-riding culture, as in the Minoan Aegean world, to nomads who were mounted on horses. The theory goes that such riders would appear as half-man, half-animal. (Bernal Díaz del Castillo reported that the Aztecs had this misapprehension about Spanish cavalrymen.)<ref>Stuart Chase, Mexico: A Study of Two Americas, Chapter IV (University of Virginia Hypertext), accessed 24 April 2006.</ref> Horse taming and horseback culture evolved first in the southern steppe grasslands of Central Asia, perhaps approximately in modern Kazakhstan.

The Thessalians tribes described their own horse breeds as descendants of the centaurs.

Of the various Classical Greek authors who mentioned centaurs, Pindar was the first who describes undoubtedly a combined monster. Previous authors (Homer etc) only use words such as Pheres (Beasts) that could also mean ordinary savage men riding ordinary horses.

The armchair anthropologist and writer Robert Graves speculated that the Centaurs of Greek myth were a dimly-remembered, pre-Hellenic fraternal earth cult who had the horse as a totem. A similar theory was incorporated into Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea.

The Greek word kentauros could be etymologized as ken - tauros = "piercing bull". Another possible etymology can be "bulls slayer". Some say that the Greeks took the constellation of Centaurus, and also its name "piercing bull", from Mesopotamia, where it symbolized the god Baal who represents rain and fertility, fighting with and piercing with his horns the demon Mot who represents the summer drought. (In Greece, Mot became the constellation of Lupus.) Later in Greece, the constellation of Centaurus was reinterpreted as a man riding a horse, and linked to legends of Greece being invaded by tribes of horsemen from the north. The idea of a combined monster may have arisen as an attempt to fit the pictorial figure to the stars better.

Alexander Hislop in his book The Two Babylons theorized that the word is derived from the Semitic Kohen and Tor via phonetic shift the less prominent consonants being lost over time ,with it developing into Khen Tor or Ken-Tor, and being transliterated phonetically into Ionian as Kentaur .

[edit] Centaurs in fiction

Centaurs have appeared many times and in many places in modern times, in for example Artemis Fowl, Avatar's Perdition: Black Sword Chronicle, Fantasia, the Narnia books (as well as in the movie adaptation of its first novel, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Xena: Warrior Princess, Harry Potter, Clash of the Titans and the trilogy Titan, Wizard, Demon and they also featured prominently in the Xanth series. Additionally, the Centaur Inn was the hotel in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors.

[edit] Centaurs in games

  • In the Mortal Kombat series of fighting games, Motaro, one of the most infamous sub bosses of the first three games is a centaur.
  • In fantasy novels the view of centaurs has sometimes been changed from barbarism to an honorable race that practices breeding and other actions relative to that of animals. This has also been done in some of the Magic: The Gathering cards that represent centaurs. In the real-time strategy PC game, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and the MMORPG, World of Warcraft, the Centaur are portrayed as a barbaric warrior race.
  • The University of Tennessee's Hodges Library hosts a permanent exhibit of a "Centaur from Volos", in its library. The exhibit, made by combining a study human skeleton with the skeleton of a Shetland pony is entitled "Do you believe in Centaurs?" and was meant to mislead students in order to make them more critically aware, according to the exhibitors.<ref>Template:Cite journal</ref>
  • Though the Greek word kentauros is said to be composed of a single morpheme— perhaps not a Greek one in its origin—, a suffix -taur has been invented by writers and game designers in the late 20th century for fantasy animal-human hybrids. For more information, see Taur.

[edit] See also

Other hybrid creatures appear in Greek mythology, always with some liminal connection that links Hellenic culture with archaic or non-Hellenic cultures:

[edit] References


[edit] External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:

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