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Centaurs in Greek Mythology

Updated on May 21, 2015
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The centaur is one of the most easily identifiable characters from the ancient world of Greek mythology, as the half-men, half-horse creatures are unique. The imagery of the centaur has been a favourite one for artists since antiquity, and even modern writers make use of the creatures, including JK Rowling who has used centaurs in the Harry Potter series of books.

The Mythological Beginnings of the Centaur

In Greek mythology, the centaurs had a mythical beginning, a beginning which starts on Mount Olympus. Zeus was hosting one of his noted feasts, and he invited one of his mortal sons, Ixion, to the feast.

Ixion was hardly the perfect guest though, and he started to lust after Zeus’ wife, Hera. Zeus was told of his guest’s bad manners, but without seeing it for himself, would not believe it. In order to test Ixion, Zeus created Nephele, a cloud, and shaped her to look like Hera.

When Ixion saw Nephele, the mortal acted on his desires and slept with her. Observing the betrayal, Zeus would punish Ixion by having him punished for eternity in Tartarus.

From the brief relationship with Ixion, Nephele would give birth to a son called Centaurus. Centaurus though was born deformed, and was shunned by both gods and men. Centaurus would go to live in Magnesia, where he would mate with the mares found there; the mares would then give birth to the centaurs.

In some versions of the story, the figure of Centaurus is omitted, the centaurs being born directly to Nephele.

After being born, the centaurs were said to reside upon Mount Pelion, a mountain of eastern Magnesia in Thessaly. On Mount Pelion, the centaurs were said to live in caves, and hunt for food with their clubs, and were generally described as savages.

The earliest tales of the centaurs presume that all were male, and it was only in later antiquity that the idea of female centaurs, the centaurides, was talked about.

There were a few centaurs that were not classed as being savages, including Pholus and Chiron, but whilst classed as centaurs, these pair did not have the same parentage as the other centaurs.

The Battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths

Luca Giordano, The Hermitage PD-art-100
Luca Giordano, The Hermitage PD-art-100 | Source

The Centauromachy

The centaurs really come into prominence in an event that became known as the Centauromachy, or war of the centaurs.

At the time, Pirithous was King of the Lapiths, and with the king due to wed Hippodamia, Pirithous invited his cousins, the centaurs, to the wedding feast. Ixion had been a previous King of the Lapiths, hence the relationship between centaurs of and Lapiths.

At the wedding feast though, the centaurs quickly became drunk, as was their want, and became even more savage; and the centaurs attempted to carry off Hippodamia and the other female guests.

In their drunken state though, the centaurs had made a fatal mistake, as they were not the only guests at the wedding as heroes, including Theseus, Peleus and Nestor, were also present. These three, along with Pirithous, took up their weapons, and set about killing the centaurs.

The centaurs were savagely strong, but the heroes were powerful and well trained, and so many centaurs would die during the fight; to the ancient Greeks civilisation had overcome savagery and barbarism.

Those centaurs that were not killed during the fight would flee from Thessaly, and set up new homes on Mount Pholoe in Arcadia, and in Malea on the Peloponnesian peninsula.

Heracles Slaying the Centaurs

Charles Le Brun PD-life-70
Charles Le Brun PD-life-70 | Source

Pholus and the Centaurs of Mount Pholoe

The centaurs who had settled in Arcadia after the Centauromachy would be encountered by another Greek hero, Heracles. Heracles would be seeking the Erymanthian Boar for one of his labours, when he would be welcomed by the centaur Pholus.

Pholus was regarded as one of the most civilised of centaurs and well versed in medicine, although Pholus was a son of the satyr Silenus, rather than Centaurus. During the meal with Heracles, Pholus would open a jar of wine for the two to share. The aroma of the wine though, attracted all of the nearby centaurs, who, gathering around the cave of Pholus, would attempt to take the wine by force.

Heracles would wrestle with several centaurs to prevent them entering the cave, before he took up his bow and arrows to force them back. The poisoned arrows of Heracles quickly killed many of the attacking centaurs, and those that were not hit, quickly fled.

Being a civilised centaur, Pholus sought to bury the killed centaurs, but as he attempted to do so, he was scratched by an arrowhead. The poison of the Lernaean Hydra would flow through Pholus, killing him immediately.

Heracles would give Pholus a magnificent funeral; after all, the centaur had welcomed him as a guest.

Chiron Educating Achilles

James Barry (1741–1806) PD-art-100
James Barry (1741–1806) PD-art-100 | Source

Chiron the Civilised Centaur

The centaurs are normally named as a group, rather than individuals, although Ovid, in Metamorphoses, did name many. Pholus was one named individual, but Chiron was an even more famous centaur.

Like Pholus, Chiron was not a descendent of Ixion, but was the son of the Titan ruler, Kronos and the Oceanid nymph, Philyra; this parentage gave the centaur an extra gift of immortality. Chrion was regarded as the most skilful and wise of all centaurs, and as such many heroes were given over into his care for training; those taught by Chiron include the likes of Achilles, Jason and Asclepius.

Chiron was an onlooker when Heracles dealt with the centaurs of Mount Pholoe; unfortunately an arrow unleashed by the Greek hero passed through another centaur and embedded itself in Chiron.

Even the poisonous blood of the Hydra could not kill Chiron, but it did not stop intense pain coursing through his body; and even the medicinal skill of Chiron could not cure himself.

In order to rid himself of the pain, Chiron gave up his own immortality, enabling him to die in peace. Zeus, in recognition of the greatness of Chiron, placed the centaur amongst the stars, as the constellation Sagittarius.

The Centaur Nessus

Arguably the third most famous centaur was Nessus, another centaur encountered by Heracles. Nessus was amongst the centaurs present at the wedding of Pirithous, but had fled uninjured as his brethren were killed.

Nessus had travelled to Aetolia, and there, on the banks of the River Evenus (Euenos), made a living as a ferryman, transporting, those who wished to cross the river, on his back.

Heracles, and his wife Deianeira, came to the Evenus, and Deianeira was safely transported across the river. Nessus though, taken with the beauty of Deianeira, sought to abduct her, and with Heracles safely on the far bank, started to ride off with Heracles’ wife. The width of the River Evenus was not so great that an arrow from Heracles’ bow could not reach it though, and Heracles unleashed an arrow that killed Nessus.

Even as Nessus was dying though, the centaur was plotting his revenge, and he told Deianeira that his blood would act as a love potion, ensuring that Heracles would always be true to her.

Later, when Deianeira feared that Heracles planned on leaving her, she presented her husband with a cloak dipped in Nessus’ blood. When Heracles put the cloak on, the blood of Nessus, and the blood of the Hydra, poisoned the hero, ultimately killing him.

Abduction of Deianeira by Nessus

Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1724–1805) PD-art-100
Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1724–1805) PD-art-100 | Source

Possible Origin of the Centaur Myth

The centaur was, with some notable exceptions, used in Greek mythology to represent the savage or the barbarian; with the hero, or heroes, who overcame them representing the civilisation of Ancient Greece.

In Ancient Greece the land to the east was often thought of as being the land of the barbarians, and it was also from this region of the ancient world that horse riding first emerged. The first sighting by Ancient Greeks of men riding horses may well have been interpreted as a four legged creature with the torso of a man, a centaur.

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