Greek MythologyMythology

The Twisted Origin of Centaurs

Centaurs are iconic.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, in all of Greek mythology, centaurs are some of the creatures most linked to the myths.  If someone has a passing familiarity with the myths, they could likely recognize centaurs, the hydra, the cyclopes, and harpies. Centaurs are at least in the top 10.

Pop culture likes to portray them as wise, intelligent beings. See: Harry Potter, for example. They’re sort of like fantasy elves. This is…far from how they were portrayed in the myths. 

But I’ll get to that in a minute. First lets talk about where they came from.  It’s kind of a mess.

Table of Contents

Creation

Quintessential examples of wildness and all the dangers that come with it, the centaur species was born after Ixion, who has an interesting story of his own, slept with a Hera-shaped cloud (it’s Greek mythology; just go with it) and the offspring of that, Centauros, then mated with mares on mount Pelion, which produced the centaurs.

The cloud, incidentally, later became a nymph. Or already was a nymph. Stories differ. And Ixion was tied to a burning wheel forever. But anyway.

The poet Pindar, in his second Pythian Ode, describes how this species came into being.

ἅντε δόλον αὐτῷ θέσαν

Ζηνὸς παλάμαι, καλὸν πῆμα. τὸν δὲ τετράκναμον ἔπραξε δεσμόν,

ἑὸν ὄλεθρον ὅγ᾽: ἐν δ᾽ ἀφύκτοισι γυιοπέδαις πεσὼν τὰν πολύκοινον ἀνδέξατ᾽ ἀγγελίαν.

ἄνευ οἱ Χαρίτων τέκεν γόνον ὑπερφίαλον,

μόνα καὶ μόνον, οὔτ᾽ ἐν ἀνδράσι γερασφόρον οὔτ᾽ ἐν θεῶν νόμοις:

τὸν ὀνύμαξε τράφοισα Κένταυρον, ὃς

ἵπποισι Μαγνητίδεσσι ἐμίγνυτ᾽ ἐν Παλίου

σφυροῖς, ἐκ δ᾽ ἐγένοντο στρατὸς

θαυμαστός, ἀμφοτέροις

ὁμοῖοι τοκεῦσι, τὰ ματρόθεν μὲν κάτω, τὰ δ᾽ ὕπερθε πατρός. (Pindar, Second Pythian Ode, 39-48).

meeting the bait placed

by the hand of Zeus, beautiful misery, he passed over his four-spoked band

his own ruin, falling into inescapable fetters, he recieved a message for all.

Without the Charities she brought forth an overbearing child

neither honored by men nor by the laws of gods

she raised him and named him Centauros

he mated with Magnesian horses on the foothills of Pelion

and from them a wonderful army arose

like both parents, mother below and father above.


This basically gives the full story of their creation, showing how Zeus tricked Ixion and the son he had with the cloud-nymph would go on to father a race of beings that more represented forces of nature than civilization.

Portrayal

Remember I said they weren’t like the wise and intelligent elves? Yeah. Aside from Chiron who, though rendered and described as a centaur, was immortal and actually had a completely different lineage (he was the child of Cronus and Philyra), they are usually portrayed as warlike and violent.

There’s a reason Pindar uses the word ‘army’

The major episode that deals with them as a group is the so-called centauromachy, where, invited to a wedding feast, they become drunk on wine, attempt to carry off and rape the bride and other women, and engage in open combat with the host.

This is one of the few things the Disney movie and subsequent series got sort of right in their portrayal. Obviously Disney won’t go into that level of detail and will heavily sanitize portrayals for their audience, but centaurs at least weren’t portrayed as kindly, wise beings.

Conclusion

So, yeah, centaurs weren’t just horse-people, and they weren’t particularly benign. They were wild and feared creatures engendered by a being who was “neither honored by men nor by the laws of gods”.

Centaurs were something entirely separate, outside the bounds of human civilization and dangerous because of it.

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