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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.
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.. Another Lapith hero,
Caeneus, who was invulnerable to weapons, was beaten into
the earth by Centaurs wielding rocks and the branches of
Like the Titanomachy, the defeat of the Titans by the
Olympian gods, the contests with the Centaurs typify the
struggle between civilization and barbarism.
Notable individual Centaurs
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.
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 are favourite
subjects of Greek art.
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
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.) 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 .
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