Centaurs

Centaurs

Image of Chiron the Centaur in Daniel Le Clerc, Histoire de la médecine … (Amsterdam, 1723), plate facing p. 30.

The centaur is customarily depicted as a creature with the head, arms and torso of a human and the body of a horse with four equine legs. The centaur has also been depicted in Greek vase paintings, however, in the form of a human body terminating in human forelegs and feet or hooves with an equine barrel and hind legs extending behind the waist and buttocks.

It is thought that the concept of the centaur may have originated in Babylonia, in present-day Iraq, during the Kassite dynasty (ca. 1595-1155 B.C.).[1] The Kassites came to Babylonia from the Zagros Mountains in present-day Iran and among their surviving artefacts is a type of stone monument, known as a kudurru or narû, which contains inscriptions in cuneiform text and sculptured relief imagery with figurative scenes. Among the different beings and composite creatures depicted on these stones are those that are half-man and half-horse. An example of one such stone is held in the collections of the British Museum (Museum number:  90829), which has a double-headed winged centaur with a bearded human head with thick shoulder-length hair and wearing a conical head-dress facing forward and a lion’s head facing backwards. The centaur has two tails, that of a horse and a scorpion, and is represented drawing a bow with the ends of five arrows in a sheath visible over his right shoulder.

The Sagittarius zodiac sign is thought to derive from the centaurs on Kudurrus stone monuments.[2] The image below, which shows a galloping centaur drawing a bow and arrow, is a detail from a zodiac in Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus. Hoc est uniuersalis hieroglyphicae veterum doctrinae temporum iniuria abolitae instauratio that was published in Rome in 1653 and is reproduced in full on the homepage of this online exhibition.

Sagittarius zodiac sign, in the form of a centaur with a bow and arrow, from Athanasius Kircher, Oedipus Aegyptiacus. Hoc est uniuersalis hieroglyphicae veterum doctrinae temporum iniuria abolitae instauratio (Rome, 1653), ii, pt. ii, p. 160.

The Hittites, who controlled much of Anatolia in present-day Turkey and neighbouring regions between ca. 1650 and 1200 B.C., may have brought the centaur to Mycenaean Greece through their trade relations with the Mycenaeans.[3] Alternatively, the concept of a centaur may have evolved independently in Greece rather than being imported from another culture with one theory being that the centaur could represent the first reactions of the horseless inhabitants of ancient Greece to horse-riding invaders who believed that the horse and rider to be one being.[4]

There is a marked difference between the representation of the centaur Chiron (and, to a lesser extent, the centaur Pholus) and the rest of the centaurs in Greek culture with Chiron being ‘perceived as wise, benevolent to mankind, and universally beloved’.[5] In the epic poem Iliad, by the 8th century B.C. poet Homer, Chiron is ‘a celebrated healer and friend to man (4.218-19), the teacher of heroes (11.831), the maker of sophisticated weapons (16.143-44; 19.389-91), and, in summation, “the most righteous of the Centaurs” (11.831)’.[6] The centaur population as a whole, in contrast, was associated with drunkenness and physical, particularly sexual, violence.

Homer refers to centaurs in the Iliad as ‘beast men’ or ‘hairy beast men’ (1.268; 2.743), but does not allude to any specifically equine characteristic when discussing them.[7] Pindar (ca. 518-446 B.C.) is the ‘first poet to describe centaurs explicitly as semi-equine and to assign them myths of origin’.[8] Pindar outlines the origin of the centaur race in his lyric poem Pythian 2. The Thessalian king Ixion seduced Nephele, a cloud nymph made by the god Zeus in the image of his wife Hera to deceive Ixion into believing that he was seducing Hera after Ixion had made advances towards her, which resulted in the birth of a son called Centaurus. Centaurus later sired the centaurs by mating with Magnesian mares from Mount Pelion.

Pindar gives a completely different parentage to Chiron in Pythian 3 stating that he was the son of the Titan Cronus and the Oceanid Philyra. Philyra had taken the form of a mare to escape Cronus’ advances towards her, but he became a stallion to pursue and mate with her. Chiron is depicted with a complete human body with or without equines ears and an equine barrel and hind legs attached to his rump in Greek vase paintings and he is usually fully clothed. Chiron had been instructed by the gods Apollo and Artemis and was renowned for his wisdom and skill in hunting, medicine, music and the art of prophecy. Throughout Greek mythology, there are many stories of infant heroes, including Achilles and Heracles (Hercules), being brought to Chiron for tutoring. The parents of Achilles, Thetis and Peleus, marry outside the home of Chiron, which was a cave on Mount Pelion.

The accounts of the deaths of Chiron and Pholus vary, but both were killed by arrows belonging to Heracles that were soaked in the venomous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Pholus was entertaining Heracles with wine at his cave when the other centaurs, driven into a mad frenzy by the aroma, attacked. Heracles killed most of them with his arrows and the rest fled to seek refuge at Chiron’s cave. Heracles pursued them and shot an arrow that accidentally wounded Chiron. Chiron was immortal, but he surrendered his immortality rather than live in perpetual agony. Pholus was killed when an arrow he was examining fell on his foot.

The death of Heracles himself also involved a centaur and the venomous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. The centaur Nessus was employed in ferrying passengers across the river Evenus in Aetolia. Heracles engaged Nessus’ services to carry his wife Deianira across the river, but Nessus attempted to abduct her and was shot by Heracles with a poisonous arrow. Before dying, Nessus instructed Deianira to save his blood as a charm to ensure Heracles’ faithfulness to her. Daeianira preserved Nessus’ blood, which was tainted with the blood of the Lernaean Hydra, by dipping a tunic into it. Later, Deianira gives Heracles the blood-soaked tunic when she feared that he had taken a lover. The garment clung to Heracles’ skin and burned him so painfully when he wore it, that he built a funeral pyre and immolated himself.

Image of the Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs in Ovid, Ovids Metamorphosis Englished, mythologiz’d, and represented in figures. An essay to the translation of Virgil’s Æneis. By G.S [George Sandys] (London, 1640), plate facing p. 221.

The Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs, also known as the Centauromachy, is one of the most popular and significant centaur myths, and a favourite subject of Greek works of art. Homer alludes to the story in the Iliad and gives a more complete account in the Odyssey. Pirithous, son of Ixion and ruler of the Thessalian tribe known as the Lapiths, invited the centaur Eurytion, whom he was related to, to his wedding. Eurytion became drunk on wine at the wedding and attempted to carry off the bride Hippodame. Eurytion has his ears and nose cut off and was thrown out of the festivities, after which he roused the centaurs to avenge his humiliation. The subsequent formal battle, which is won by the Lapiths, takes place outdoors after a lapse of several months in the early versions of the story. The setting of the battle changes and is shown as taking place at the wedding, however, in the monumental sculpture of the temples of late Archaic and Classical  Greece (ca. 561-ca. 480 B.C. and ca. 480-323 B.C. respectively), which is evident by the presence of women and the absence of all weapons. The sculpturally decorated metopes from the south side of the Parthenon in Athens and the sculptures from the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, for example, depict the Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs. The Centauromachy has been interpreted as symbolising the confrontation between civilisation and barbarity, while the centaurs’ tendency to drunkenness, unruly lust and violence represents a treat to the established social order.

The most significant Roman literary use of the centaur appears in the narrative poem Memtamorphoses by Publius Ovidius Naso (43 B.C.-17 or 18 A.D.), more commonly known as Ovid.[9] There are numerous allusions to centaurs in the poem and the Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs is recounted in graphic detail in the story of Caeneus as told by Nestor, the king of Pylos, to Achilles during Ovid’s rendition of the Trojan War (12.210-535). The image of the battle above is a detail taken from a plate facing p. 221 in Worth’s copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis Englished, mythologiz’d, and represented in figures. An essay to the translation of Virgil’s Æneis. By G.S [George Sandys] that was published in London in 1640. The Lapith hero Caeneus, who had skin impenetrable to swords or spears, is shown being buried alive by centaurs under tree trunks and rocks to the left of the image and transforms into a bird.

Image of the Triumph of Bacchus in Michael Friedrich Lochner, Michaelis Friederici Lochneri … Mekonopaignion, sive Papaver ex omni antiquitate erutum, nummis … statuis … illustratum ad … Gothofredum Thomasium … (Nuremberg, 1719), plate XVII.

This image of the Triumph of Bacchus, which is a Roman cameo in glass paste in the collections of the Louvre Museum in Paris (Inventory number: BJ 1740), is taken from a second edition copy of Michael Friedrich Lochner’s Mekonopaignion, sive Papaver ex omni antiquitate erutum, nummis … statuis … illustratum that was published in Nuremberg in 1719. The image depicts the Roman god Bacchus, equivalent to the Greek god Dionysus, and Ariadne crowned in vine leaves in a chariot drawn by four centaurs separated into two male and female couples facing different directions. Bacchus is holding a two-handed drinking cup called a diota in his right hand and a staff topped by a pine cone called a thyrsus in his left. The male centaur on the left holds a thyrsus and the male centaur on the right holds a torch while the female centaur on the left plays upon two flutes and the female centaur on the right plays a hand drum called a tympanum.[10] Formerly in the collection of Cardinal Gaspare Carpegna (1625-1714) that was acquired by Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758) in 1741, the cameo was confiscated from the Vatican by French troops occupying Rome in 1798 and transferred to Paris. A frame was made for the cameo by the Italian goldsmith Luigi Valadier (1726-1785) in 1780.

Image of Dante, Virgil and the centaurs in the seventh circle of Hell in Dante Alighieri, Dante con l’espositioni di Christoforo Landino, et d’Alessandro Vellutello : Sopra la sua Comedia dell’Inferno, del Purgatorio, & del Paradiso, con tauole, argomenti, & allegorie; & riformato, riueduto, & ridotto alla sua vera lettura, per Francesco Sansouino Fiorentino (Venice, 1596), Sig. I4v (p. 68 verso).

The most significant literary use of the centaur during the medieval period takes place in the twelfth canto of the Inferno, the first part of the lengthy narrative poem Divina Commedia, known in English as the Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).[11] The Inferno chronicles the journey of Dante through the nine circles of Hell, guided by the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, (70-19 B.C.), more commonly known as Virgil. Dante and Virgil meet the centaurs Chiron, Nessus, and Pholus at the first or outermost ring of three concentric rings that constitute the seventh circle of Hell (12.55-138), the circle of violence. Centaurs gallop around the circle to shoot any submerged souls who tries to lift itself out of the boiling river of blood called Phlegethon. Chiron notices that Dante is alive as his feet disturb the rocks and Virgil asks Chiron for a centaur to guide and carry them across the river on his back. Chiron appoints Nessus as a guide who carries his charges across a shallow point in the river. The image shows Dante, Virgil and the centaurs in the seventh circle of Hell and is taken from an edition of the Divina Commedia, which contains the text of the poem surrounded by commentaries by Cristoforo Landino (1424-1504) and Alessandro Vellutello (1473-1550) that was edited by Francesco Sansovino (1521-1586) and published in Venice in 1596.

Image of an onocentaur in Ulisse Aldrovandi, De quadrupedibus solidipedibus volumen integrum Joannes Cornelius Uterverius collegit, & recensuit ; Marcus Antonius Bernia in lucem restituit (Bologna, 1639), p. 198.

The onocentaur, part-man and part-donkey, became popular during the Middle Ages with its depiction in bestiaries, which were compendiums of animals, birds, mythical creatures, and sometimes stones and plants, that were accompanied by Christian moral content. Medieval bestiaries derived from translations of the Greek Physiologus, which was a text compiled by an unknown author that has been traditionally dated to the 2nd century A.D. The image above depicts an onocentaur with only two equine legs and is found in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s, De quadrupedibus solidipedibus volumen integrum Joannes Cornelius Uterverius collegit, & recensuit ; Marcus Antonius Bernia in lucem restituit (Bologna, 1639).

Image of centaurs on the engraved title page of Joannes Jonstonus, Historiae naturalis de quadrupedibus libri … (Amsterdam, 1657).

The image above is taken from the engraved title page of Joannes Jonstonus’, Historiae naturalis de quadrupedibus libri … (Amsterdam, 1657) and depicts two centaurs holding an outstretched lion skin.

Sources

De Montfaucon, Bernard, Antiquity explained, and represented in sculptures, By the Learned Father Montfaucon, translated into English by David Humphreys (London, 1721), Vol. I.

Kollmann, Jedith J., ‘The Centaur’, in Malcolm Smith (ed.), Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide (New York and London, 1987), pp 225-239.

Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood, ‘The centaur: Its history and meaning in human culture’, Journal of Popular Culture, 27, no. 4 (Spring 1994), 57-68.

Moevs, Christian, ‘Centaurs, Spiders and Saints’, in George Corbett and Heather Webb (eds), Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy (Cambridge, 2016), Vol. 2, pp 13-29.

Nash, Harvey, ‘The Centaur’s Origin: A Psychological Perspective’, The Classical World, 77, no. 5 (May-June 1984), 273-291.

Scobie, Alex, ’The Origins of ‘Centaurs’’, Folklore, 89, no. 2 (1978), 142-147.

Slanski, Kathryn E., The Babylonian entitlement narûs (kudurus): a study in their form and function (Boston, 2003).

Text: Mr. Antoine Mac Gaoithín, Library Assistant at the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.

[1] Jedith J. Kollmann, ‘The Centaur’, in Malcolm Smith (ed.) Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide (New York and London, 1987), pp 225-226; Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence, ‘The centaur: Its history and meaning in human culture’, Journal of Popular Culture, 27, no. 4 (Spring 1994), 57-58.

[2] Kollmann, ‘The Centaur’, p. 232.

[3] Ibid., pp 225 & 226; Lawrence, ‘The centaur: Its history and meaning in human culture’, 58.

[4] Kollmann, ‘The Centaur’, p. 226; Lawrence, ‘The centaur: Its history and meaning in human culture’, 57; Harvey Nash, ‘The Centaur’s Origin: A Psychological Perspective’, The Classical World, 77, no. 5 (May-June 1984), 276-277 & 282-283; Alex Scobie, ’The Origins of ‘Centaurs’’, Folklore, 89, no. 2 (1978), 143-144.

[5] Kollmann, ‘The Centaur’, p. 227.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 229.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 232.

[10] Bernard de Montfaucon, Antiquity explained, and represented in sculptures, By the Learned Father Montfaucon, translated into English by David Humphreys (London, 1721), Vol. I, Part II, Book I, plate 75 & p. 154.

[11] Kollmann, ‘The Centaur’, p. 233.

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