In Greek mythology, centaurs were creatures that were half man and half horse. They had the head, neck, chest, and arms of a man and the body and legs of a horse. Most centaurs were brutal, violent creatures known for their drunkenness and lawless behavior. They lived mainly around Mount Pelion in Thessaly, a region of northeastern Greece.
Origin of the Centaurs. According to one account, centaurs were descended from Centaurus, a son of Apollo*. A more widely accepted account of their origin, however, is that they were descendants of Ixion, the son of Ares* and king of the Lapiths, a people who lived in Thessaly.
Ixion fell in love with Hera, the wife of Zeus*. Recklessly, Ixion arranged to meet with Hera, planning to seduce her. Zeus heard of the plan and formed a cloud in the shape of Hera. Ixion embraced the cloud form, and from this union, the race of centaurs was created.
War with the Lapiths. The main myth relating to the centaurs involves their battle with the Lapiths. King Pirithous of the Lapiths, son of Ixion, invited the centaurs to his wedding. The centaurs became drunk and disorderly and pursued the Lapith women. One centaur even tried to run off with the king's bride. A fierce battle erupted. The centaurs used tree trunks and slabs of stone as weapons, but eventually the Lapiths won the fight, killing many centaurs. The centaurs were forced to leave Thessaly.
Hercules and Centaurs. A number of tales describe conflict between centaurs and the Greek hero Hercules*. In one such story, Hercules came to the cave of a centaur named Pholus. Pholus served Hercules food but did not offer him any wine, though an unopened jar of wine stood in the cave. Pholus explained that the wine was a gift and was the property of all the centaurs. Nonetheless, Hercules insisted on having some wine, and Pholus opened the jar.
Not all centaurs were savage brutes. One such exception was Chiron, who became a teacher of medicine, music, hunting, and archery. The son of the god Cronos (Saturn), Chiron taught gods and heroes, including Jason*, Achilles*, Hercules, and Asclepius. Chiron was accidentally wounded by one of Hercules' poisoned arrows. As the son of a god, he would live forever and suffer from the injury forever. Chiron therefore asked Zeus to let him die. Zeus granted his request and placed him in the heavens as a star in the constellation Sagittarius, the archer.
The smell of the wine soon brought the other centaurs to the cave and before long a fight broke out. Hercules drove off the centaurs by shooting poisoned arrows at them. Afterward, Pholus
In another well-known story, a centaur named Nessus tried to rape Deianira, the wife of Hercules. Hercules caught him and shot the centaur with a poisoned arrow. As he lay dying, Nessus urged Deianira to save some of the blood from his wound. He told her that if Hercules ever stopped loving her, she could regain his love by applying the blood to a garment that Hercules would wear. Deianira did as Nessus suggested and saved some of his blood.
Many years later, when Hercules had been unfaithful to her, Deianira gave him a tunic to wear, a tunic that she had smeared with the blood of Nessus. The blood was poisoned, and Hercules died. In this way, Nessus took his revenge on Hercules.
Literature and Art. Centaurs usually represented wild and bestial behavior in Greek literature and art. They appeared on many vases, and their fight with the Lapiths was depicted in sculptures in various temples. Because of their drunken behavior, centaurs were sometimes shown pulling the chariot of Dionysus (Bacchus), the god of wine and revelry. At other times, they were pictured being ridden by Eros, the god of love, because of their lustful ways. In Christian art of the Middle Ages, centaurs symbolized the animal nature of man.
The Roman poet Ovid* described the battle of the centaurs and the Lapiths in the Metamorphoses. This work, in turn, inspired
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
the English poet Edmund Spenser to write about the battle in his most famous work, The Faerie Queene.
See also Hercules .