Centaur (wounder, stabber) In Greek mythology, a half-man, half-horse creature living principally in Thessaly; offspring of either Ixion and Nephele, a cloud, or Apollo’s son Centaurus and Silbia, or Centaurus and the mare Magnesian. Centaurs, noted as rapists and drunkards, came to the marriage of Hippodameia and Pirithous, king of the Lapiths, as invited guests and attempted to rape the women and kill the men. Pirithous and his friend Theseus killed many centaurs at the wedding and drove the rest out of Thessaly. But not all centaurs were lascivious drunkards.
The centaur Chiron, son of Cronus and an Oceanid, was a friend of man, teaching him the arts of healing, hunting, and music. He was the tutor of Asclepius, the god of medicine, and also of Jason, Achilles, and Heracles. During a fight with some other centaurs one of Heracles’ poisoned arrows accidentally struck Chiron, who was immortal. To avoid suffering from the wound for eternity, Chiron asked Zeus to let him die. Zeus then presented his immortality to Prometheus and out of pity placed Chiron in the heavens as the constellation Sagittarius, the archer, the ninth sign of the Zodiac.
In general, the Greeks used centaurs in their art and literature to represent barbaric civilization. They are often portrayed on vases and appear on the metope of the Parthenon and as sculptures on the west pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia. In Roman art they are portrayed in Pompeii at the House of the Centaur. In medieval Christian art they represent man’s animal nature. For example, a centaur is portrayed on one of the capitals of Winchester Cathedral in England. Vergil’s Aeneid (book 6.618) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (book 12), which describes the battle of the Lapiths and centaurs, inspired Spenser’s Faerie Queene (4.1.23), which tells of the battle of the centaurs with Heracles as well as the Lapith-centaur battle.
Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante