Mythology, Sons of Apollo Series

The Origin Myths of the Centaurs: Insightful or Condemning?

Often, bad behavior can be traced to equally bad origins. Perhaps the origins of their race is the reason the centaurs are credited with such a bad reputation in mythology.
The origins of the centaurs are given several different explanations in mythology depending on the author, the region of Greece the author is from, and the story itself. Most of this variety has to do with who, among the characters of mythology, is credited with their parentage.
One explanation of their origin is that they are descendants of the first and most famous of centaurs, Kheiron, the trainer of Greek heroes, and his wife, the nymph Chariclo. The centaur, Kheiron was the son of Khronos, the Titan father of the Olympian gods, when he pursued the nymph Philyra. In some versions of the myth, Philyra fled from the Titan, transforming herself into a mare to hide. The deception didn’t fool the god, who likewise transformed himself into a stallion among the herd and made love with the beautiful nymph in equine form. In other versions, Khronos wife, Rhea, happened upon the tryst and the Titan changed himself into a stallion to escape detection. Either way, their son Kheiron’s double form, half horse- half man, was a result of that union.
Another origin assigned to the centaurs is that they are descendants of Apollo and the nymph, Stilbe (who, incidentally, is also the mother of Chariclo- wife of Kheiron), through their centaur son, Kentauros. Stilbe bore twin sons to the god, Apollo, the eldest being Kentauros, a centaur, and the youngest, Lapithus, a man, thus making the centaurs cousins with men. The region of Magnesia was home to many wild herds of horses. Magnesia was the same region where Philyra fled from Khronos and assumed the form of a mare to hide from the amorous pursuit of the Titan, and also adjacent to Mount Pelion, the home of Kheiron. Kentauros was said to have coupled with the local Magnesian mares and thus spawned the race of centaurs.
Perhaps the most popular origin myth is the story of Ixion and Nephele. Its popularity might be credited to the fact that it is the story involving the most scandal and thereby justified the vilification of the race of centaurs as a whole. Another reason could be the fact that the couple is assigned the parentage of both Nessos and Eurytion, two centaurs who both were slain by Hercules for their own scandalous exploits. Ixion was a decendant of Lapithus, brother of Kentauros and son of Apollo and Stilbe. So he was also already related to another centaur credited with the race’s origin. According to myth, Ixion sired the race of centaurs through Nephele, the cloud nymph daughter of Zeus and Hera.
The final, and perhaps least well known, origin story of the centaurs would be through the parentage of Nais (sometimes called Melia depending on the region and the storyteller) and Silenos. Silenos is the God of Wine Making and Drunkenness, a fitting association for the race know for their revelry and brawls. Traditionally, Silenos and Nais are named as the parents of Pholus, a centaur sometimes equated with Kheiron.
The origin myths are an interesting and informative part of the mythology involving centaurs and provided inspiration to further develop the culture of the centaurs. These origins connect the dots from story to story, both in similarity of elements and in relationships of characters and locations. The way the characters are inter-related also serves to explain the way the race is portrayed as a whole. When their origins involved drunkenness and lust-filled scandals, those elements of the origin stories become part of the heritage and legacy surrounding the subsequent characters and stories. If every origin story involves one or more of these scandalous features, drunkenness, brawling, debauchery and lust, it’s no wonder that these were the very things the centaurs were known for in all of mythology.
As in all stories of scandal, wouldn’t the centaurs have their own version of the events?
To read an excerpt from Mate For a Centaur, subscribe to my newsletter.

Leave a Reply