In early Attic and Beotian vase-paintings, they are depicted with the hindquarters of a horse attached to them; in later renderings centaurs are given the torso of a human joined at the waist to the horse's withers, where the horse's neck would be.
This half-human and half-horse composition has led many writers to treat them as liminal beings, caught between the two natures, embodied in contrasted myths, both as the embodiment of untamed nature, as in their battle with the Lapiths (their kin), or conversely as teachers, like Chiron.
The centaurs were usually said to have been born of Ixion and Nephele (the cloud made in the image of Hera). Another version, however, makes them children of a certain Centaurus, who mated with the Magnesian mares. This Centaurus was either himself the son of Ixion and Nephele (inserting an additional generation) or of Apollo and Stilbe, daughter of the river god Peneus. In the later version of the story his twin brother was Lapithes, ancestor of the Lapiths, thus making the two warring peoples cousins.
Centaurs were said to have inhabited the region of Magnesia and Mount Pelion inThessaly, the Foloi oak forest in Elis, and the Malean peninsula in southern Laconia. They continued to feature in literary forms of Roman mythology. A pair of them draw the chariot of Constantine the Great and his family in the Great Cameo of Constantine (c314-16), which embodies wholly pagan imagery.
The Centauromachy is most famously portrayed in the Parthenon metopes by Phidias and in a Renaissance-era sculpture by Michelangelo.The Centaurs are best known for their fight with the Lapiths, which was caused by their attempt to carry off Hippodamia and the rest of the Lapith women on the day of Hippodamia's marriage to Pirithous, king of the Lapithae, himself the son of Ixion. The strife among these cousins is a metaphor for the conflict between the lower appetites and civilized behavior in humankind. Theseus, a hero and founder of cities, who happened to be present, threw the balance in favour of the right order of things, and assisted Pirithous. The Centaurs were driven off or destroyed. Another Lapith hero, Caeneus, who was invulnerable to weapons, was beaten into the earth by Centaurs wielding rocks and the branches of trees. Centaurs are thought of in many Greek myths as wild as untamed horses. Like theTitanomachy, the defeat of the Titans by the Olympian gods, the contests with the Centaurs typify the struggle between civilization and barbarism.
The tentative identification of two fragmentary Mycenaean terracotta figures as centaurs, among the extensive Mycenaean pottery found at Ugarit, suggests a Bronze Age origin for these creatures of myth. A painted terracotta centaur was found in the "Hero's tomb" at Lefkandi, and by the Geometric period, centaurs figure among the first representational figures painted on Greek pottery. An often-published Geometric period bronze of a warrior face-to-face with a centaur is at theMetropolitan Museum of Art.
The most common theory holds that the idea of centaurs came from the first reaction of a non-riding culture, as in the Minoan Aegean world, to nomads who were mounted on horses. The theory suggests that such riders would appear as half-man, half-animal (Bernal Díaz del Castillo reported that the Aztecs had this misapprehension about Spanish cavalrymen). Horse taming and horseback culture arose first in the southern steppe grasslands of Central Asia, perhaps approximately in modern Kazakhstan.
The Lapith tribe of Thessaly, who were the kinsmen of the Centaurs in myth, were described as the inventors of horse-back riding by Greek writers. The Thessalian tribes also claimed their horse breeds were descended from the centaurs.
Lucretius in his first century BC philosophical poem On the Nature of Things denied the existence of centaurs based on their differing rate of growth. He states that at three years old horses are in the prime of their life while, at three humans are still little more than babies, making hybrid animals impossible. Of the various Classical Greek authors who mentioned centaurs, Pindar was the first who describes undoubtedly a combined monster. Previous authors (Homer) only use words such as pheres (cf. theres, "beasts") that could also mean ordinary savage men riding ordinary horses. However, contemporaneous representations of hybrid centaurs can be found in archaic Greek art.
Robert Graves (relying on the work of Georges Dumezil argued for tracing the centaurs back to the Indian gandharva), speculated that the centaurs were a dimly remembered, pre-Hellenic fraternal earth cult who had the horse as a totem. A similar theory was incorporated into Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea. Kinnaras, another half-man half-horse mythical creature from the Indian mythology, appeared in various ancient texts, arts as well as sculptures from all around India. It is shown as a horse with the torso of a man in place of where the horse's head has to be, that is similar to a Greek centaur.
The Greek word kentauros is generally regarded as of obscure origin. The etymology fromken – tauros, "piercing bull-stickers" was a euhemerist suggestion in Palaephatus' rationalizing text on Greek mythology, On Incredible Tales (Περὶ ἀπίστων): mounted archers from a village called Nephele eliminating a herd of bulls that were the scourge of Ixion's kingdom. Another possible related etymology can be "bull-slayer". Some[who?] say that the Greeks took the constellation of Centaurus, and also its name "piercing bull", from Mesopotamia, where it symbolized the godBaal who represents rain and fertility, fighting with and piercing with his horns the demon Mot who represents the summer drought. In Greece, the constellation of Centaurus was noted by Eudoxus of Cnidus in the fourth century BC and by Aratus in the third century.
In a description of a painting in Neapolis, the Greek rhetorician Philostratus the Elderdescribes them as sisters and wives of the male centaurs who live on Mount Pelion with their children.Though female centaurs, called Kentaurides, are not mentioned in early Greek literature and art, they do appear occasionally in later antiquity. A Macedonian mosaic of the 4th century BC is one of the earliest examples of the Centauress in art. Ovid also mentions a centauress named Hylonome who committed suicide when her husband Cyllarus was killed in the war with the Lapiths.
"How beautiful the Centaurides are, even where they are horses; for some grow out of white mares, others are attached to chestnut mares, and the coats of others are dappled, but they glisten like those of horses that are well cared for. There is also a white female Centaur that grows out of a black mare, and the very opposition of the colours helps to produce the united beauty of the whole."
The idea, or possibility, of female centaurs was certainly known in early modern times, as evidenced by Shakespeare's King Lear, Act IV, Scene vi, ln.124–125: "Down from the waist they're centaurs, Though women all above"
In the Disney animated film Fantasia, during the Pastoral Symphony, some of the main characters are female centaurs, referred to as "Centaurettes" by the Disney studio.
Centaurs are shown on a number of Pictish carved stones from north-east Scotland, erected in the 8th–9th centuries AD (e.g., at Meigle, Perthshire). Though outside the limits of theRoman Empire, these depictions appear to be derived from Classical prototypes.Centaurs preserved a Dionysian connection in the 12th century Romanesque carved capitals of Mozac Abbey in the Auvergne, where other capitals depict harvesters, boys riding goats (a further Dionysiac theme) and griffins guarding the chalice that held the wine.
Jerome's version of the Life of St Anthony the Great, the hermit monk of Egypt, written byAthanasius of Alexandria, was widely disseminated in the Middle Ages; it relates Anthony's encounter with a centaur, who challenged the saint but was forced to admit that the old gods had been overthrown. The episode was often depicted; notably, in the The Meeting of St Anthony Abbot and St Paul the Hermit by Stefano di Giovanni called "Sassetta", of two episodic depictions in a single panel of the hermit Anthony's travel to greet the hermit Paul, one is his encounter along the pathway with the demonic figure of a centaur in a wood.
A centaur-like half-human half-equine creature called Polkan appeared in Russian folk art, and lubok prints of the 17th–19th centuries. Polkan is originally based on Pulicane, a half-dog from Andrea da Barberino's poem I Reali di Francia, which was once popular in the Slavonic world in prosaic translations.