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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The Origin Myths of the Centaurs: Insightful or Condemning?

Mythology, Sons of Apollo Series

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?
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Bride-stealing centaur or bride-stealing hero? You decide.

Mythology, Sons of Apollo Series

Hercules, the greatest of the Greek heroes, had several dealings with the centaurs, each episode more famous than the last. One notable encounter was his fight with the centaur Eurytion (Eurytos in some versions of the myth) for the hand of the beautiful princess, Deianeira.
Her father, King Dexamenos promised her to the centaur as a bride out of fear of violence. Before the marriage could take place, the king appealed to Hercules to rescue his daughter, for which he would award the bride to the hero instead.
Hercules slew Eurytion and married Deianeira. The hero subsequently journeyed with his wife and came to the river Evenus where they encountered another centaur named Nessos.
Like the account of Pholus, this is another story where the details were changed to accommodate the audience and there are several different versions of the myth. In some versions, the princess in question is named Mnesimache or Hippolyte. Other versions claim the bride was first promised to Hercules and Eurytion attempted rape at the wedding feast. In yet another variation, the princess had been seduced by Hercules during a visit. Upon his departure, the hero promised to return to marry the girl. In his absence, the centaur, Eurytion, appealed to the king for his daughter’s hand. When Hercules found out, he then returned to slay the centaur and claim his bride.
In all these various tales the centaurs seem overwhelmingly to get the bad rap, even in instances where the facts don’t seem to implicate them in any licentious behavior. The centaurs seem to be guilty as a matter of principle, particularly when pitted against such a popularly renowned hero as Hercules. The one exception to this uncivilized portrayal of the centaurs was Kheiron, the trainer of Greek heroes- including Hercules.
In all this telling and retelling of the events, I wonder if the centaurs would have their own perspective of the facts. After all, it was Hercules who was reported to have slain his first wife and children in a drunken rage (the very act for which his penance was to complete his famous 12 labors), not the centaurs, who seem to have to fight for the right to have a bride in the first place.
These were some of the questions that led me to write my series, Sons of Apollo, and explore the facts through the eyes of the accused. Why were the centaurs so widely hated and feared? Or were they simply misunderstood? What about their culture (so one-sidedly portrayed and always from the outside looking in) makes them subject to villainy in popular mythology? Or were they destined to lose by virtue of their demi-god competitor, Hercules? After all who could compete with the son of Zeus himself?
Read the first chapter of Mate For a Centaur, which is the first book in my series, and decide for yourself if the centaurs are villains or victims of circumstance and rumor.
Or download a Free coloring page featuring one of the centaur characters from my series.

Friend Or Foe- Hercules’ Penchant For Battling Centaurs

Mythology, Sons of Apollo Series

Hercules’ battle with Nessos wasn’t the hero’s only encounter with the centaurs that ended in bloodshed. Another was the story of Hercules fighting the centaurs on Mount Pholus. This was a hugely popular story in Ancient Greece, rivaling the account of the Centauromachy, the largest battle of the centaurs.
During the hero’s fourth labor, the pursuit of the Erymanthian boar, Hercules visited the home of Pholus, a centaur in Arcadia whose mountain home bears his name. The centaur served his guest meat, but feared to serve him wine from a particular cask prepared by Dionysus, God of Wine, which belonged to the centaurs collectively. Hercules opened the wine jar himself and the other centaurs caught scent of it. In some versions of the story the centaurs became enraged and in others they became drunk simply on fumes. A battle ensued in which Pholus was wounded by one of Hercules’ hydra-poisoned arrows, (a weapon he had poisoned after his second labor, slaying the Lernian Hydra).

It was common, in Ancient Greece, for local story tellers to change the details of their stories to appeal to their local audiences. Of all the mythology involving the centaurs, the story of Hercules and Pholus is one of the most prominent examples of this kind of adaptation. While the plot of the story generally remains the same, nearly all of the details vary, such as the location and the characters. In one version, the story describes the death of Kheiron and is set in Thessaly on mount Pelion. However, in the account of the story of Pholous, the action takes place in Arcadia on the Peloponnese, an entirely different region of Greece. Some variations include, Hercules demanding the wine and then Pholus obligingly serving it to him. In other versions Hercules takes the wine for himself. In one account, the stray arrow of Hercules strikes the centaur, slaying him, and in another account, the centaur picks up the arrow. Marveling at it, he drops the hydra-poisoned arrow, pricks his foot and dies. In the case of Kheiron, the centaur’s immortality causes the wound to fester incurably, yet he cannot die. The centaur subsequently trades his immortality to Hercules for relief from his suffering. Both are considered to be accidental deaths and both involve the demi-god Hercules. In yet another account, both Pholus and Kheiron are present as the centaurs flee from Hercules and appeal to the protection of Kheiron.

These discrepancies also provided both inspiration and artistic license to explore the same story from the point of view of the centaurs in my own series, Sons of Apollo, and to consider some of the following questions: what was the relationship of Hercules to the centaurs that he would stop to visit one of them? Why would this centaur receive Hercules, and serve him as a guest?

The Ancient Greeks had specific beliefs about how to treat guests, some of which included serving wine. These traditions were closely guarded by Zeus Xenios, a specific title given to the Lord of the Sky as patron God of Hospitality. To treat a guest poorly, especially the son of Zeus himself, would risk incurring the wrath of the king of the Olympic gods. How would these customs factor in to what transpired during Hercules’ visit? Why would the other centaurs be angered about it enough to fight to the death over it? And for that matter, why would Hercules pursue them in effort to slay all witnesses to the events? What other events surrounding this incident might have affected both its instigation and its outcome? How might variations in centaur traditions and customs been in conflict with the human traditions of the Ancient Greeks? How might these opposing views have affected the interpretations of facts as rumor spread, both from the point of view of the centaurs and the humans?

All of these questions are addressed in the context of my series. To read chapter one of my first book, Mate For A Centaur, sign up for my newsletter.

For more information about the story of Hercules’ battle with the centaurs, I recommend my two favorite mythology websites:
Myth index

Hero Versus Centaur- Hercules and Nessos

Sons of Apollo Series

The most well known centaur myth is the story of Hercules and Nessos (Nessus in Latin). It is a relatively short, but exciting tale, full of seduction, intrigue, deception, revenge and a fight to the death.

After the battle with the Lapithe and subsequent expulsion from their homeland in Thessaly, the centaurs fled to various regions of Hellas (Ancient Greece). Nessos settled at the river Evenus where he became a ferryman, carrying people across the river on his back. When Hercules brought his new bride, Deianira (whom he had won by defeating another centaur by the name of Eurytos), Nessos volunteered to ferry the woman safely through the swift current to the opposite bank. Halfway across, however, Nessos became infatuated with his beautiful passenger and lust won over reason. Nessos attempted to seduce and kidnap Hercules’ bride. Deianira screamed for help and Hercules leapt to the rescue, shooting Nessos with one of his Hyrda-poisoned arrows. In some versions of the myth, Hercules beats the centaur with his club, and thereby rescuing his bride.

Unlike their leader, Kheiron, centaurs were traditionally characterized as drunken, lustful, pugnacious and uncivilized. The depiction of Nessos in this myth is no exception. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that all the stories featuring individual centaurs were often pitted against the most popular Greek hero, Hercules. The hero must have a villain to defeat. Still, the story of Nessos follows a familiar pattern inherent in all the stories about centaurs. First, a situation involving a beautiful woman and an encounter with a centaur. Second, the centaur feels lustful toward the woman and attempts seduction. Third, the hero defeats the centaur- usually killing him and thereby rescues the damsel in distress. This theme is repeated over and over again, almost ad nauseam, or so it seemed to me as I delved deeper and deeper into my study of Greek mythology. Were the centaurs always the bad guys? What about their side of the story?

This negative portrayal of centaurs is still most common even in modern mythology with some few exceptions. Perhaps the most widely recognized version of this story is the Disney adaptation. Disney took some liberties with the story of Hercules and Nessos and its characters, giving the myth a cameo in their 1997 film, Hercules.

The more mythology I read, both ancient and modern, the more I recognized this trend. I began thinking, if I wanted to see a story that didn’t follow these themes and depicted the centaurs’ side of the story, that I would have to write one myself. And that was the inception of my series, Sons of Apollo, which follows the line of Kentauros, son of Apollo, and his descendants, giving an account of mythological events from the cultural perspective of the centaurs.

As is common with most centaur mythology, particularly that of antiquity, the battle of hero versus centaur is symbolic of the conflict of civility against barbarity, or more generally the embodiment of opposition.

To learn more about Nessos’ character in mythology, I recommend two of my favorite mythology websites:
Greek myth index

If you love mythology, then the series, Sons of Apollo, is for you. Sign up for my newsletter to read the first chapter of book 1, Mate For A Centaur.