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What is a Centaur? - Definition & Mythology

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Few mythological creatures have captured our attention for as long as centaurs. In this lesson, we'll explore the legends surrounding the centaurs, and see where in the world they came from.

The Centaurs

Monsters are found in folk traditions around the world, but there's something unique about such creatures in ancient Greece. Greek monsters are notable for their heredity and physical relationship to humans, and many of them had strong human features. One of the most famous examples of this is the centaur. Centaurs were mythical creatures with the upper body of a human and the lower body of a horse. They were considered unique and fascinating creatures with an important role in Greek mythology.

Centaur on a Greek vase
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Origins

The first question that many people ask when seeing a depiction of a centaur is: How on Earth did this come to be? Greek mythology never gives us a rare creature without letting us know its origin, so here it is. The legend of the centaurs begins with a people called the Lapiths, a mythical tribe who lived in the central Greek region of Thessaly. The king of the Lapiths, Ixion, fell in love with the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus.

Rather than just smiting Ixion, Zeus decided to trick him. Zeus took a cloud and shaped it to look like Hera, gave it life, and called her Nephele. Ixion mistook Nephele for Hera and consummated his love. As a result, Nephele got pregnant and gave birth to a deformed child named Centaurus. Cast out, Centaurus lived in the wilds of Thessaly, and mated with the wild mares of the forest. From these unions, the half-human, half-horse centaurs were created.

That's the mythical origins of the centaurs. Historians have a different theory of the stories' origins. The region of Thessaly was beyond the influence of Greek city-states such as Athens when the Greeks formed and settled urban civilizations. Thus, it had a reputation to the Greeks as a barbarous place. The inhabitants of Thessaly were migratory, coming from West Asia and relying on wild or domesticated horses to hunt. The theory is that these bareback horse-riding groups in Greece were mistaken for mythical creatures, as the rider and horse seemed to move as one. For the Greeks, who saw non-urban populations as uncivilized and nearly animalistic, the connection would not have been hard to make.

Traits of the Centaurs

Regardless of the exact origin of the myth, the centaurs entered into Greek stories in which they were characterized as wild and excitable. They were not evil, just uncivilized by Greek standards. In some stories, the centaurs were basically animals, but in others they were well-behaved and orderly … until they started drinking wine.

There were, however, exceptions. The most famous centaur in Greek mythology was named Chiron. Chiron was famed for his wisdom and knowledge, and at different points served as a tutor for Asklepios (the god of medicine), as well as the heroes Hercules, Jason, and Achilles. In fact, when the Iliad describes Achilles in the Trojan War, it specifically mentions that his famed spear was a gift from Chiron.

The centaur Chiron
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There are a few other centaurs we know by name. Hercules got into a fight with the centaur Nessos, who tried to abduct his wife before being killed by the hero. Hercules had a different encounter with the centaur Pholus, who hosted Hercules as the hero was hunting the giant boar (one of his twelve labors). Pholus brought Hercules food and wine, and the two enjoyed a pleasant evening until the scent of wine attracted the other centaurs. A few drinks later, fighting broke out during which both Chiron and Pholus were killed.

The Centauromachy

One of the most important legends of the centaurs was their battle with the Lapiths, an event known as the Centauromachy. The centaurs were invited to a Lapith king's wedding, which they happily attended. As in the story of Hercules, everyone was having a great time until the centaurs started drinking. In some versions of the story, this was the first time they ever had been introduced to wine.

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