See also centaur (planetoid), Centaur (rocket stage)
In Greek mythology, the centaurs (Greek: Κένταυροι) are a race part human and part horse, with a horse's body and a human head and torso (illustration, right). A centaur is the first reaction of a non-riding culture, as in the Minoan Aegean world, to nomads mounted on horses, who appear half-man, half-animal. Horse taming and horseback culture evolved first in the southern steppe grasslands of Central Asia, perhaps approximately in modern Kazakhstan.
Dwelling in the mountains of Thessaly, the centaurs were the offspring of Ixion and Nephele, the rain-cloud. Alternatively, the centaurs were the offspring of Kentauros (the son of Ixion and Nephele) and some Magnesian mares or of Apollo and Hebe. It was sometimes said that Ixion planned to have sex with Hera but Zeus prevented it by fashioning a cloud in the shape of Hera. Since Ixion is usually considered the ancestor of the centaurs, they may be referred to by poets as the Ixionidae.
Centaurs have a dual nature. On the one hand they are wild, instinctive, irrational creatures that consort with satyrs. On the other hand certain centaurs possess deep cultural lore, in which they may instruct heroes.
Centaurs are best known for their fight with the Lapithae, caused by their attempt to carry off Hippodamia (a "horse"woman herself) on the day of her marriage to Peirithous, king of the Lapithae, himself the son of Ixion (illustration, left). 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 (Plutarch, Theseus, 30; Ovid, Metamorphoses xii. 210; Diodorus Siculus. iv. 69, 70). Vignettes of the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs were sculpted in bas_relief on the frieze of the Parthenon, which was dedicated to wise Athene.
Like the Titanomachy, the defeat of the Titans by the Olympian gods headed by Zeus, the contests with the Centaurs typify the struggle between civilization and barbarism.
Their general character is that of wild, lawless and inhospitable beings, the slaves of their animal passions. Two exceptions to this rule were Pholus and Chiron, who expressed their "good" nature, wise and kind centaurs. They are variously explained by a fancied resemblance to the shapes of clouds, or as spirits of the rushing mountain torrents or winds.
Among the centaurs, the third one with an individual identity is Nessus (illustration, above). 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 Grunes Gewolbe, 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 Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse tackled the same play of forms in the 19th century, (illustration left) he titled it Abduction of Hippodameia .
In early Attic vase-paintings centaurs were represented as human beings in front, with the body and hind legs of a horse attached to the back; later, they were men only as far as the waist. The battle with the Lapithae, and the adventure of Heracles with Pholus (Apollodorus, ii. 5; Diod. Sic. iv. li) are favourite subjects of Greek art (see Sidney Colvin, Journal of Hellenic Studies, i. 1881, and the exhaustive article in Roscher's Lexikon der Mythologie).
Other hybrid creatures appear in Greek mythology, always with some liminal connection that links Hellenic culture with archaic or non-Hellenic cultures: Typhoon, the Minotaur, mermaids and satyrs, or the Sphinx.
Many centaur legends state that they are very fickle creatures, and often look to the sky to determine the fates. They are great astrologers and have a love for divination.
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.
Modern creatures inspired by centaurs
Though the Greek word kentauros is said to be composed of a single morpheme— perhaps not a Greek one in its origin—, a suffix _taur has been invented in the late 20th century to create a generalized form, "taur". For fuller treatment, see Taur.