The Centaurs: A Fascinating Trope From Greek Mythology

Mythology, Sons of Apollo Series

The fantastical beasts and monsters are some of the most intriguing elements of any fantasy or mythological story. Greek mythology has no shortage of unique creatures. One such creature is the centaur.

The centaurs are a race of half man, half horse beasts traditionally depicted as a man from the waist up, joined to a horse’s body at the withers. In other words, a man’s torso where the horse’s neck and head should be.

For the ancients, mythological stories were their way of explaining, understanding, and interacting with the world around them. Because of this purpose, the characters and creatures themselves take on symbolic meaning. While conclusions are often speculative, the symbolism is fascinating to analyze.

In Greek mythology, there are several myths involving the centaurs. The centaurs were a mythological trope which served as a symbol of barbarism when juxtaposed with the contrasting sophistication of Greek civilization. To the ancient Greeks the centaurs represented the uncivilized, non-Greek, outside world, and even that which was uncivilized within their world. The conquering of the centaurs by the various Greek heroes was likewise symbolic of their victory over barbarism, and the rise of their culture to the elite civilization in which they viewed themselves.

In all of mythology the centaurs are depicted as the villains. There are only two exceptions to the stereotype of the drunken, riotous, lustful, pillaging, and pugnacious brute of a centaur: Kheiron, the renowned trainer of Greek heroes, and Pholus, friend of Hercules (who is sometimes equated with Kheiron by certain Greek storytellers), both of whom were tragically and accidentally killed by the hero. Other notable centaurs include Nessos, Eurytion, and Kentauros.

Also with few exceptions, the stories involving the centaurs follow a particular and predictable pattern. The centaur(s) gets drunk and attempts to abduct a woman. The hero steps in and slays the centaur thereby rescuing the damsel in distress. The characters and details vary, but this is the general plot of all the centaur myths, whether it is the story of a one-on-one battle between hero and centaur (such as the case of Hercules and Nessos), or if it is a story of war between men and the race of centaurs like Ovid’s Centauromachy. This pattern is even visible in the stories which, on the surface, seem to deviate from the formula such as the story of Atlanta’s encounter with her would-be equine suitors.

This pattern of centaurs stealing women, begs the question about the existence of female centaurs. On this, the mythology is not entirely clear, leaving room for speculation and expansion.

While there is illusion to the female counterpart of the race in Greek art as described by Pliny the Elder’s historical commentary, their presence in the stories is little more than non-existent. In all the myths involving the centaurs, there is only one mention of a female centaur by a roman author of late antiquity. She is Hylonome, a female centaur mentioned by name as being present at the wedding feast of Pirithoos and Hippodameia. In my series, I draw conclusions about the origin of the female centaurs based on this discrepancy.

In none of the original Greek mythology are the stories ever told from the point of view of the creatures themselves. That is, in part, my objective in writing my series, Sons of Apollo, to show how the various heroes’ encounters with the centaurs would be viewed from within the perspective of their own culture. Isn’t the classification of villain or hero dependent on perspective?

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