What is a Centaur?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A centaur is a mythical Greek creature with the body of a horse and the head and torso of a man. For people who are curious about anatomy, typically the creatures are depicted with the torso of a man appearing where the neck of a horse normally would. The half man, half horse is depicted in numerous works of Greek art, and the mythical creatures are also featured in many Greek epic poems and songs. The curious creatures are among the more well known of mythical beasts, and they hold a special meaning for some people because they are half human and half animal, rather than being strange hybrid animals.

Centaurs are mythical Greek creatures with the body of a horse and the torso and head of a man.
Centaurs are mythical Greek creatures with the body of a horse and the torso and head of a man.

The story of the centaurs begins with Ixion, the King of Lapithe, who arranged a tryst with Hera. Zeus got wind of the scheme, and he transformed a cloud so that it would take her form. The result of Ixion's rendezvous with the cloud was the first centaur. The Greeks sometimes called the centaurs Ixionidae, in a reference to their human forefather.

According to Greek mythology, centaurs fed on wine and meat.
According to Greek mythology, centaurs fed on wine and meat.

According to Greek mythology, the centaurs lived on Mount Pelion, and they were closely associated with Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. Centaurs fed on wine and meat, and they were well known for their bestial, violent, and often brutal natures. In addition to participating in Dionysian revels, the creatures also carried off maidens and young women, sometimes sparking bitter wars with their behavior.

The exception to this rule was Cheiron, a centaur who acted as a mentor and teacher. Cheiron illustrates the very dualistic nature of centaurs, since he managed to overcome his bestial side in the interests of being more human. Cheiron is a respected and revered figure in mythology, and many fictional centaurs appear to be modeled after him, rather than on his more rambunctious brethren. Many books, poems, and films feature centaurs in advisory roles, offering wisdom and assistance to young heroes.

The blend of animal and man in the centaur is particularly interesting to some mythologists, since the creatures illustrate the conflicted nature of humans themselves. In most Greek myths, the centaurs were unable to assert their basic humanity, and they reverted to an intensely bestial and often horrifying nature. These traits classify centaurs as liminal creatures, meaning that they are on a threshold between two existences. This conflict is reflected in their belligerent nature, and in the occasional individual centaur who manages to overcome it, suggesting that savages are still capable of redemption.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@stl156 That is an excellent point. I remember reading an article about New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez having a painting made of him as a centaur. This sounds very odd and I would like to think that this may be ego and love for himself playing a role in having the painting made and placed in his bedroom.

Besides this story of Alex Rodriguez the only stories I have heard involved people who are classified as "furries," or people that wish they were part animal, and dress up as such in public. This furry craze could be one of the reasons why centaurs are depicted as having humanity.

Even though the furries like to depict themselves as half animal they still have their humanity and are still essentially human even in their fantasies and fan fiction they write.

If a centaur were to lack humanity it does not become a creature that would be very appealable to humans. However, if the centaur has more humanity than beast then it becomes a creature that is appealable to humans and more likable.


@popcorn As someone who has not read much mythology I never thought of the centaur as a creature that was very brutish. I agree the centaurs depicted in pop culture are very different than how they are depicted in Greek mythology. This being said the question I have is if centaurs are creatures that lack humanity, then why are there people that seem to fantasize about centaurs and make them seem like humans that are half horse as opposed to horses that are half human?


@indemnifyme - Although some horses are domesticated, they aren't all docile that's for sure! A friend of mine is really into riding horses and she got bitten pretty badly by a horse a few years ago. I think actual horses might have kind of a dual nature too!


I think it's kind of funny that centaurs are portrayed as being so brutish. And it kind of doesn't even make sense. Horses aren't exactly known for their aggression, so why would a half human-half horse hybrid be so aggressive?

However, I suppose a nice centaur doesn't make for as good a story.


Centaurs traditionally are not very nice creatures, so it is always surprising to me when I see interpretations like Disney's centaurs in Fantasia. These singing, beautiful creatures are certainly a far cry from the centaurs in Greek mythology.

Most centaurs in history were known solely as bloodthirsty brutes that enjoyed violence, booze and kidnapping women to satisfy their bestial urges. Not exactly a creature you would want to see as a cute and novel fantasy character. I suppose that a lot of nasty characters have been adopted and changed over the years by modern culture. Everything from mermaids to fairies. Things that used to be nightmares are apparently much better when you animate them and let them sing.


It seems to me that centaurs seem to pop up in tons of fantasy games, books and movies. They really are a staple of the fantasy genre and I enjoy watching how writers approach this kind of dualistic character.

One of my favorite appearances of the centaur in popular fantasy was when they showed up in the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling portrayed the centaur is a wise creature that as staying out of the affairs of the wizarding world. They could be aggressive, but only when they saw others as intruding on their territory.

Their neutrality was further emphasized when Firenze, one of the centaurs was banned for mingling too closely with humans. He was later made a Hogwarts professor because of his skills at reading into the future.

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