The centaurs of Greek Mythology are amongst the most famous composite creatures of antiquity. They were half-men and half-horse beings representing an intermediate stage between human civilization and nature. The ancients portrayed them as barbarians who were unable to control their primeval instincts
“the man in his ignorance chased a sweet fake and lay with a cloud, for its form was like the supreme celestial goddess, the daughter of Cronus”
(Pindar, Pythian 2)
The myth goes that Ixion, the king of the Thessalian tribe of the Lapiths, assassinated his father-in-law while the latter was his guest. This breach of the ancient law was deemed so terrible that Ixion from a king ended up living as an outlaw. Zeus took pity on poor Ixion and invited him to live with the gods on Olympus in a rare show of mercy.
However, instead of returning the kindness, Ixion proved a little more than ungrateful. Zeus suspected that his guest lusted his wife, Hera. Ixion had not crossed any lines yet. But Zeus would not wait for him to do so.
The king of the Olympian gods created a cloud (called Nephele in Greek) that assumed Hera’s form. Zeus then lured Ixion into mating with this fake Hera, and Ixion, misguided and ignorant, fell right into the trap. Zeus was now sure that the mortal was up to no good and gave him one of those eternal punishments that can only be paired with Prometheus and Sisyphus. Ixion was doomed to be tied on an eternally spinning fiery wheel. However, from his union with the cloud, a terrible creature was born. That was Centaurus, a terrible savage entity who mated with the magnesian mares and produced the centaurs’ race.
The only centaur not descending from Ixion’s sin was Chiron, who was the son of Cronus.
The centaurs in Greek Mythology were said to reside in Thessaly, and more specifically in the forests of Mount Pelion.
The Thessalians were famous riders and horse breeders. Since centaurs in Greek Mythology appear to be a Thessalian invention, it has been suggested that it was precisely this close relationship between humans and horses that led to the idea of a half man and half horse creature. According to the legend, the Thessalians were the first in Greece to ride horses. If this is true, then it would be plausible that someone unused to the sight of a horserider believed that this was, in fact, one creature, i.e. a centaur. Something similar happened when the Aztecs, who had never seen a horse before, saw Conquistadores riding for the first time.
Even though Thessaly was the centaurs’ home, ancient authors wrote about centaurs who lived in the Western Peloponnese. There, according to a story, they had picked up a fight with Hercules, who managed to repulse them with his bow and arrows. Other centaurs were also said to have resided in Crete and Cyprus.
The most famous story involving centaurs in Greek Mythology is the famous Centauromachy, the battle between Centaurs and the Lapiths.
According to this story, Peirithous, the king of the Lapiths, invited the centaurs to his marriage with Hippodameia. The centaurs were known savages, but Peirithous invited them on the grounds of their common ancestry as both the Lapiths and the centaurs descended from Ixion.
Everything was going great and the centaurs appeared to be behaving, but then wine began being served. At that point, one of the centaurs named Eurytion got drank almost instantly and attempted to run away with the bride.
“It was wine that made foolish even the centaur, glorious Eurytion, in the hall of greathearted Peirithous, when he went to the Lapithae”.
(HOMER, ODYSSEY 21.295)
The other centaurs, suddenly in a drunken frenzy, also attempted to force themselves on the female guests.
“When the Pheres [Centaurs] came to know the man-subduing blast of honey-sweet wine, they quickly pushed the white milk away from thetables with their hands and, spontaneously drinking from the silver drinking-horns, began to lose their senses.”
(Pindar, fragment 166)
The Lapiths could not sit in front of this violent outbreak and within moments were drawing their swords, spears, and fighting with everything they had. The legendary hero Theseus who also happened to be invited to the wedding, played a major part in the battle, helping the Lapiths win and successfully repulse the centaurs who were thus driven off Thessaly.
The most famous depiction of a centauromachy is the sculptured decoration on one of the Parthenon’s metopes.
The frieze features a series of scenes from the battle between the Lapiths and the centaurs in striking poses. Many have tried to explain why the Athenians of the 5th century chose to depict this theme on the south metopes of the Parthenon frieze.
A straightforward answer is that the story is part of Theseus‘ legend, the hero who founded Athens and took part in the centauromachy. However, scholars have seen further layers of meaning in these depictions. A common and widely accepted explanation is that the centauromachy symbolized the struggle of the city of Athens against the Persians. For the Greeks, the Persians were barbarians who did not control their impulses. They were drawn to excessity just as the centaurs were barbaric savage creatures unable to control their worst impulses. Furthermore, the Persians had sacked Athens in 480 BCE showing disrespect towards the city the same way that the centaurs had disrespected the wedding of Peirithous and Hippodameia.
Nevertheless, the Centauromachy as a theme was extremely common. One could find a centauromachy at the temple of Zeus in Olympia, the temple of Apollo at Bassae, and the temple of Hephaestus in the Athenian Agora, amongst others.