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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Ixion and Nephele: A Tale of Seduction and Punishment

Mythology, Sons of Apollo Series

The controversy surrounding the tale of Ixion and Nephele is integral to understanding the reputation and culture of the centaurs in Greek Mythology.
Rather than a tale of fighting with Greek heroes, the story of Ixion and Nephele is one of the many origin stories of the centaurs, and as such provides particular insight into the stereotypes revolving around the equine race as a whole. It is perhaps the most popular origin story of antiquity, considering that many of the famous centaurs in mythology were said to be their descendants, including: Nessos, Pholus and Eurytion.
In Greek mythology, Ixion was a man credited to be a forefather of the centaurs. The story says that Ixion was wed to Nephele (meaning cloud), a cloud-nymph daughter of Zeus and Hera. While drunk, Ixion mistook Hera for his wife and attempted to rape her. For his offense, Ixion was condemned to eternal punishment on a fiery wheel in Tartarus, to pay for his insult to the Queen of the Gods. In other versions Zeus formed a cloud in the image of Hera to deceive the centaur.
Ixion was, himself, a descendant of Lapithus, son of Apollo and Stilbe. As such he would have been close to the centaurs. They were his family. He possibly might have been a student of Kheiron also.
The centaur descendants of Ixion and Nephele were referred to as Ixionidae (meaning sons of Ixion) or alternatively in Latin, Nubigenae (meaning cloud-born). In mythology, the terms also carry the negative connotation to mean “born of shame,” though not a direct translation of the meaning of either word. This connotation is likely in connection with Ixion’s punishment in the afterlife.
In my series, Sons of Apollo, I have taken some liberties with the details of this myth in making Ixion a descendant of Kentauros, son of Apollo and Stilbe, rather than his brother Lapithus, thus making him a centaur.
In my version the punishment assigned to Ixion and his descendants is rumored to be that the gods turned their back on his line and he lost favor with them, favor he once enjoyed. Men speculate it is because of this curse that honor has left the dying race of centaurs. His descendants, the Ixionidae believe it is their right to rule the race of centaurs and that their birthright had been stolen from them by the Lapithe. As a political party the Ixionidae believe the centaurs should mount a revolution to take back their lands in Thessaly, restoring the throne and honor of Pelion to the race.
Because Ixionidae was also used as a derogatory term in mythology when men referred to the centaurs as his cursed descendants, I have used the term in both contexts. First, to refer to the descendants of Ixion in which I have expanded the reference to include their lineage as well as associated it with their political positions and cultural ideologies. Secondly, I use the term as it is implied in the original mythology as a derogatory term referencing the fall of the race from favor among the gods and men, and their subsequent cursing that led to their exile from Thessaly.
While it has been incredibly fun and creative to develop these aspects of the culture of the centaurs in my stories it has also presented challenges in terms of how to effectively deliver this information in the context of the story. Especially not knowing how much of the original mythology my readers will be familiar with.
In my first book, Mate For a Centaur, I endeavor to introduce the reader to the culture of the centaurs as well as the rumors and stereotypes surrounding their race.
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