Hercules wasn’t the only hero to have dealings with the race of centaurs besides their own kin. Theseus (of minotaur-slaying fame) was also present with the Lapithe in their battle with the centaurs. In fact, men were not the only ones to have dealings with the centaurs. Women were often the objective that caused the centaurs to become involved in the first place. One woman in particular refused to become a victim, or even a damsel in distress, when she crossed paths with the centaurs. Her name was Atalanta.
The story of the centaurs killed by Atalanta is perhaps the most unique myth involving the centaurs, though small, and relatively less well-known. As seen in the stories of Hercules’ several encounters with the equine race, the stories about centaurs often followed a particular pattern. Namely, the centaur attempts to abduct a woman and a man comes to the rescue, slaying the centaur, and earning hero status by his success in defending and rescuing the woman. Because most of the centaur myths follow this pattern it is all the more poignant when one doesn’t. The story of Atalanta’s encounter with two centaurs is just one such story.
While it is only a small episode in a longer tale about Atalanta, the encounter is significant precisely because it is so atypical. Similar to most of the other centaur myths, it involves a beautiful woman. Atalanta was not only reputed for her beauty, she was also an athlete and a huntress of sufficient talent to compete among men. Atalanta swore she would never marry unless a man could prove himself worthy of her hand. She determined her suitors would prove their worth by racing her. If they won, she would marry them; if they lost, she would kill them.
When her virtue was threatened by a couple of carousing centaurs, Atalanta slew them. Through her actions, she became a hero in her own right. However, her hero status was debated even in the story itself when some of her male opponents tried to deny her the prize in a hunt because she was a woman.
The fact that there were two centaurs who vied for her hand, gives the mythological connoisseur an additional glimpse into the types of situations where centaurs were involved. Its deviation from the traditional formula is an additional treat. This is the only story of a woman defeating the centaurs.
This perspective of a woman slaying the centaurs is interesting and unique because it emphasizes the poignancy of the symbolism of the myth in a way that is perhaps overlooked in more formulaic stories. Women are often regarded as symbols of virtue. To the ancient Greeks, the centaurs were symbolic of a lack of virtue and civilization. In this story rather than having the male hero slay the centaur to rescue and defend the female, it is the female who conquers the savagery and brutality of the centaurs. Virtue defends itself. Even though women aren’t revered for their strength or wartime prowess, virtues highly prized in ancient Greek society, there is an underlying message that is communicated by the symbolism of the story of a woman fighting to defend her own virtue, particularly in a story where a woman must fight and even kill to protect that virtue. This is also a message that extends to the other stories of men defining themselves as heroes by the act of defending virtue.
The word virtue has roots in the Latin word vir, meaning man. In Latin, virtue, or virtus, literally means manliness or courage. In English the word virtue carries the connotation of sexual purity and is a characteristic traditionally assigned to women, or in other words, it is considered to be a feminine trait. Hence the symbolism that a true and honorable man will fight to protect and preserve the virtue of a woman and therein lies his manliness, his courage.
Perhaps the most basic message of all the centaur myths, simply stated, is that virtue is worth protecting.
A special thanks to Megan Cheever for permission to feature her lovely art. More of her work can be seen on her website: megankcheever.com