Appendix. Centaurs

It is difficult to discuss horses and hippomorphism in Greece without mentioning the figure of the centaur, so I will not conclude this work without doing so. There is no real reason to suspect that the figure is of IE origin, and its treatment is different from that of horses themselves, yet some traces of the IE equine ideology outlined above may still be observable in it. [1] They evince something of the heroic and sexual force seen in the horse elsewhere, but the centaurs’ expression of that force is remarkably violent, and almost universally male.
A note on the shape of the centaur is necessary, since they are not always depicted in the form with which we are most familiar. Our earliest references involve no real description at all. Observe the evidence from both the Iliad and the Homeric Hymn to Hermes:
κάρτιστοι μὲν ἔσαν καὶ καρτίστοις ἐμάχοντο
φηρσὶν ὀρεσκῴοισι καὶ ἐκπάγλως ἀπόλεσσαν.
They were very brave men, and they did battle with the very brave mountain-dwelling [centaurs] and destroyed them terribly.
Iliad I 267–268
βήματα δ’ οὔτ’ ἀνδρὸς τάδε γίγνεται οὔτε γυναικὸς
οὔτε λύκων πολιῶν οὔτ’ ἄρκτων οὔτε λεόντων·
οὔτε τι κενταύρου λασιαύχενος ἔλπομαι εἶναι
ὅς τις τοῖα πέλωρα βιβᾷ ποσὶ καρπαλίμοισιν·
These are not the footprints of a man or woman, or of hoary wolves or bears or lions, nor do I think these are from a shaggy centaur, whoever makes such monstrous footprints with swift feet.
Homeric Hymn to Hermes 222–225
The best early evidence from which we can draw any real conclusions comes from material art, which represents some centaurs with human feet and genitals in the front. [2] These are depicted as part horse, and thus roughly correspond to the classical model, even if they are not precisely what one might expect. It has been suggested that these were late models, which represent evolutions of a centaur form that was not hippomorphic at all. [3] Even if this is the case, it is still clear that the hippomorphic form of the centaur was eventually standardized and must have made sense to the Greeks with respect to other aspects of the centaurs’ mythology and Greece’s equine ideology more generally. Thus it remains reasonable to look to centaurs for evidence of Greek attitudes toward horses.
As in the case of the IE horse the association between centaurs and sexuality is very common, but in the case of the centaurs that sex is almost always violent. The most famous example stems from the myth of Nessos attempting to rape Deianeira, depicted by the Nessos Painter, in Sophocles’ Trachiniai, and elsewhere. [4] Nessos not only attempted to rape Deianeira but then convinced her that a mixture of his blood and semen would serve as a love charm to secure the affections of Heracles, which it did not. A connection between centaurs, sexual assault, and semen is also demonstrated by Nonnos, who incorporates this motif into his depiction of horned centaurs sprung from the semen of Zeus:
… ὁππότε Κύπρις ἐπέτρεχεν εἴκελος αὔραις
ἴχνιον ἱμείροντος ἀλυσκάζουσα τοκῆος,
μὴ γενέτην ἀθέμιστον ἐσαθρήσειεν ἀκοίτην,
Ζεὺς δὲ πατὴρ ὑπόειξε γάμων ἄψαυστον ἐάσσας
ὠκυτέρην ἀκίχητον ἀναινομένην Ἀφροδίτην·
ἀντὶ δὲ Κυπριδίων λεχέων ἔσπειρεν ἀρούρῃ
παιδογόνων προχέων φιλοτήσιον ὄμβρον ἀρότρων·
γαῖα δὲ δεξαμένη γαμίην Κρονίωνος ἐέρσην
ἀλλοφυῆ κερόεσσαν ἀνηκόντιζε γενέθλην.
Once Cypris [Aphrodite] ran like the winds fleeing the pursuit of her amorous father, so that she might not see an unlawful fatherly bedmate, and her father Zeus gave up his pursuit of the union, leaving untouched the swifter, unattainable, and unwilling Aphrodite. Instead of the bed of Aphrodite, he ejaculated on the earth, pouring forth the love-shower of child-producing plows. The earth received the marital dew of the son of Cronos and hurled forth the strange horned race.
Nonnos Dionysiaca XIV 194–202
Like the centaur, the sexual symbolism of the PIE horse and the Greek horse thereafter is also intimately connected to erotic power and with semen, but the centaur exhibits this connection in a particularly extreme and violent form.
The myth of the wedding of Peirithoos is another well-documented example of the violent sexual nature of centaur mythology. This wedding is said to have led to the famous battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, which is frequently depicted in literature and which is an important enough artistic motif to appear on the Parthenon, the Hephaisteion, and the temple to Zeus at Olympia. At this wedding the centaur Eurytion attempted to rape the bride, and the other centaurs followed by attempting to rape the other women and boys in attendance. [5]
Even the story of the centaurs’ creation links the figures essentially with extreme and inappropriate sexual impulse. Pindar’s Pythian II tells of how Ixion was brought by Zeus to Olympus, where it was discovered that Ixion intended to have sex with Hera. Zeus was in disbelief, so tested Ixion by fashioning an eidolon, or copy, of Hera, like that fashioned of Helen, and Ixion did indeed have sex with it. From this union was born a man named Kentauros, who had sex with the mares around Mount Pelion, and from them the race of the centaurs was born. [6] For his act Ixion was punished by being tied eternally to a spinning chariot wheel. Since chariot wheels spin due to the force of horses this form of punishment is ironic. The eternally spinning wheel reflects unchecked equine force because Ixion’s own sexual impulses were incontrollable, and the eventual and logical product of that sexual impulse was the race of the centaurs. The centaurs’ very essence is linked to a sexual impulse associated with horses, but the centaurs’ expression of it is uniquely violent and transgressive.
Unlike Greek mythological horses, however, the centaur is almost always male, as confirmed by a story about Zeuxis told by Lucian. In it Lucian describes a painting of a female centaur done by Zeuxis and compliments it not only because of its quality, but because of the ingenuity involved in contriving something so very novel:
Ἐθέλω γοῦν ὑμῖν καὶ τὸ τοῦ γραφέως διηγήσασθαι. ὁ Ζεῦξις ἐκεῖνος ἄριστος γραφέων γενόμενος τὰ δημώδη καὶ τὰ κοινὰ ταῦτα οὐκ ἔγραφεν, ἢ ὅσα πάνυ ὀλίγα, ἥρωας ἢ θεοὺς ἢ πολέμους, ἀεὶ δὲ καινοποιεῖν ἐπειρᾶτο καί τι ἀλλόκοτον ἂν καὶ ξένον ἐπινοήσας ἐπ’ ἐκείνῳ τὴν ἀκρίβειαν τῆς τέχνης ἐπεδείκνυτο. ἐν δὲ τοῖς ἄλλοις τολμήμασι καὶ θήλειαν Ἱπποκένταυρον ὁ Ζεῦξις οὗτος ἐποίησεν, ἀνατρέφουσάν γε προσέτι παιδίω Ἱπποκενταύρω διδύμω κομιδῇ νηπίω.
I want to give you an example from a painter. Zeuxis, that most excellent of painters, did not depict popular or common themes (heroes, gods, or wars, for example) but always endeavored to create novelty, and when he created something new and unusual he demonstrated the precision of his skill. Among his daring works, this Zeuxis created a female centaur, one who, moreover, nursed twin centaur children, babies. [7]
Zeuxis or Antiochus 3.1–10
Female centaurs seem to have rarely entered the Greek imagination. [8] We saw in Chapter 3 that in Greece equine characterizations of humans are deployed along strictly gendered lines: men are compared to horses in their sexual impulse and power while women are compared to horses in their need to be broken and tamed. The unruliness and incivility of the centaur are used in Greek myth to represent that which is wild and essentially uncontrollable, a purpose to which the symbolic connection between horses and men is apparently more fit than that between horses and women; hence female centaurs are ignored except as an occasional novelty.
It is useful to dwell for a moment on the anomalous centaur, Chiron, the legendary trainer of Achilles, about whom there is no story of violent sex. His character is entirely at odds with that of the other centaurs and he is, in fact, referred to as δικαιότατος κενταυρέων, “most just of centaurs.” [9] Yet his birth is also consistently distinct from that of all other centaurs. Hesiod says that he is the child of Phillyra, [10] and other sources add that he is the child of Cronos who mated with this Phillyra, a daughter of Oceanos, while he had taken the form of horse. [11] It seems that Chiron is the exception that proves the rule: his civility was so unlike that of all other centaurs that an alternative genealogy was necessary.
Although he represents a particularly dangerous and uncontrollable expression of the forces discussed throughout this work, the centaur does, in a way, exhibit the same thematic nexus of hippomorphism, sex, and power that was seen in the hero. It is in this twisted manifestation of the very elements of heroic identity, expressed hippologically, that the centaur achieves his identity, a reflection of the hero that is nevertheless grotesquely anti-heroic.


[ back ] 1. Centaurs have occasionally been linked to the Indian gandharvas, celestial beings who have partially animalistic forms. The similarities in the names makes this connection tempting, but an etymological link is simply not present. Although the sounds are similar, there is no reason to expect the Greek unvoiced velar stop (the k sound) to have a counterpart in the Sanskrit voiced velar (the g sound), nor is there any reason, in this word, for the Greek unvoiced, unaspirated dental stop (the t sound) to have a counterpart in the Sanskrit voiced, aspirated stop (the dh sound). On the possibility that folk etymology could be hindering our recognition of an etymological relationship, MacDonnel (1898:137) cites numerous mythologically based objections. For a comparative analysis of centaurs generally and the difficulty of analyzing them comparatively see Dumézil 1929.
[ back ] 2. See Arnold 1973.
[ back ] 3. Harrison 1980:382–385.
[ back ] 4. Trachiniae 555–581; Apollodorus Bibliotheca II 7.6; Diodorus Siculus IV 36.
[ back ] 5. Diodorus Siculus IV 70.3–4; Pausanias V 10.8; Plutarch Life of Theseus 30.3. It is perhaps significant that the bride at this ceremony was Hippodamia, the horse tamer. This is not the same Hippodamia who was discussed in Chapter 4, the wife of Pelops, but it does seem that in both instances the name of the woman is particularly well suited to the myth.
[ back ] 6. Pythian II 40–50.
[ back ] 7. The exact same motif was exploited by early animator Winsor McCay in his short animated piece, “The Centaurs,” from 1921. The novelty and fantastic potential of the medium of animation was exemplified in the depiction not only of centaurs, who could not at that time be realistically depicted in other media, but by the depiction of a female centaur and children. In 1940 Walt Disney did likewise in his animated work, “Fantasia,” by presenting female centaurs called centaurettes.
[ back ] 8. Representations of them are not, however, entirely unknown. For example, the Pella Archaeological Museum houses a fourth-century mosaic depicting a female centaur.
[ back ] 9. Iliad XI 832.
[ back ] 10. Theogony 1001–1002.
[ back ] 11. Titanomachia frag. 10 Poetae Epici Graeci; Pherekydes 3 F 50; cf. Ovid Metamorphoses VI 126.