Centaurs are surely the most famous human-animal hybrids from classical mythology, along with the Minotaur. But what do centaurs represent? These creatures – part-human, part-horse – turn up in a number of different myths from antiquity, but the meaning of these stories, and what the centaurs symbolise, varies from tale to tale.
The myth of centaurs: origins
Where did the myth of the centaur come from? Centaurs were half-man and half-horse, usually depicted with a horse’s body and a man’s head, arms, and torso. So they had four horse’s legs and two human arms. They often symbolise lust and the bestial side of man – although it’s worth noting that, in myth, centaurs were both male and female, even if it’s the male ones we tend to hear more about.
It was the Central Asians who first domesticated the horse so the animal could be ridden across vast distances, and the ancient Greek idea of the centaur is thought to have originated as a response to the Greeks’ first sighting of these nomadic riders charging over the hill. It must have been a terrifying sight, as if man and horse had indeed merged to create one super-creature. (Hans Biedermann, in his informative The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (Wordsworth Reference), observes that the native peoples of Central America, when they first saw Spanish conquistadors, similarly believed these European arrivals to be part-man, part-animal.)
As the The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Penguin Dictionary) tells us, centaurs were descended from Centaurus, the son of Apollo and Stilbe, the daughter of a river-god; an alternative lineage has Centaurus as the son of Ixion and Nephele. Chiron, the wise centaur (of whom more in a moment) was, significantly, of different descent from other centaurs, as was Pholus. Centaurs ate raw meat at all times.
The myth of centaurs: summary
Although centaurs could be male and female, the male ones came to be associated with lust: these part-human creatures seemed to be jealous of the fully human women they encountered and wanted to carry them off at almost every opportunity. Centaurs were often associated with the abduction (or attempted abduction) of local women: for example, it was said they tried to make off with the women who lived in Thessaly in the mountains (the mythical Lapith tribe). Once again, this links to the settled Greeks’ fear of nomadic foreigners arriving on horseback to plunder and ravage their lands.
Nessus is perhaps the most famous example of this wild, dangerous type of centaur. Heracles (or Hercules as he was known to the Romans) fought Nessus, who lived on the bank of the river known as the Evenus. Nessus acted as a ferryman across the river. Heracles was travelling with a woman named Deianeira, and although Nessus ferried Heracles across safely, when he went back and fetched Deianeira, he tried to violate her as they crossed the river.
Heracles shot an arrow through Nessus’ heart, killing him. As the centaur lay dying, he told Deianeira to gather his blood from the wound and make a love potion from it, and that if Heracles ever forgot her or forsook her for another woman, she should give this potion to Heracles and it would make him love her again. In some accounts, this special elixir wasn’t just composed of the centaur’s heart’s blood, but another bodily fluid he had ejected, shall we say, during his attempted violation of Deianeira.
So centaurs were associated with a primal and beastly virility and the love potion represents the distilled essence (as it were) of this.
That said, it was possible in some cases for the human half to tame the wild bestial half of the centaur, and probably the most famous centaur in Greek myth is Chiron, who was known for his wisdom and who tutored both Jason and Achilles. Indeed, after Heracles accidentally struck Chiron with a poison arrow, the immortal centaur chose to give up eternal life and rise into the heavens, where he became the constellation Sagittarius.
The myth of centaurs: analysis
As remarked above, the human-horse hybrid that is the centaur often symbolises the beastly and lustful side of man (and it is usually man specifically). The probable origins of the centaur-myth in fearsome raiders, and riders, travelling across the land and ready to pillage and slaughter and violate undoubtedly plays a part in this, though the strength, virility, and breeding potential of horses perhaps also feeds into the association.
That said, it was possible in some cases for the human half to tame the wild bestial half of the centaur, and probably the most famous centaur in Greek myth is Chiron, who was known for his wisdom and who tutored both Jason and Achilles. Indeed, after Heracles accidentally struck Chiron with a poison arrow, the immortal centaur chose to give up eternal life and rise into the heavens, where he became the constellation Sagittarius. So he fared somewhat better at the end of Heracles’ arrow than Nessus, who merely got turned into a sex potion.
Along with Chiron, the other non-aggressive centaur who was a friend to man was Pholus, but even he ended up dying thanks to one of Heracles’ arrows. On this occasion, as with Chiron, it was an accident: when Pholus received Heracles as his guest and opened the jar of wine he had, all of the other centaurs smelt it and came to drink. When they attacked Pholus’ cave, Heracles fought them and although Pholus survived the attack, when he pulled a poisoned arrow from one of the attacking centaurs it fell on his foot and killed him.
A modern poet who has written several poems about centaurs is Roy Fuller, whose early poem, ‘Centaurs’, features in the astounding collection New and Collected Poems, 1934-84. Fuller would go on to write other centaur poems, including a sonnet in his wonderful ‘Mythological Sonnets’ sequence, which emphasises the lustful and predatory desires centaurs harboured towards young women.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.