Half-Human Monsters: Centaurs in Greek Mythology

Anyone who has studied Greek mythology will have come face-to-face with the centaurs at some point. If you’ve never heard of these half-human, half-horse creatures of Ancient Greek mythology, or would like to know more about them, read on…

For the Greeks themselves, it was hard to place the centaurs in a single category. Were they humans, or horses? They were caught between the two forms that they embodied. But, perhaps too often, their animal part overcame their rational selves. These interesting and wild beasts are the protagonists of one of Anna’s kid-friendly art-history classes, available on her YouTube channel IterArtis, as well as on our Instagram and Facebook pages!

Anna’s kid-friendly class on the Centaurs

What Are the Centaurs Known For?

Centaurs are best known for their battles against the Lapiths, a legendary tribe from Thessaly. The beasts were invited to the wedding party of the Lapith king, Pirithous. However, after drinking too much (undiluted) wine, the centaurs attempted to abduct Hippodamia, the bride, and all the other Lapith women. The outrageous act had to be punished, the Lapiths thought. The battle, called Centauromachy, ended in favour of the Lapiths. Even the great hero Theseus helped them to win!

Chaos vs Order

The fight between Centaurs and Lapiths is representative of the struggle between civilization and barbarism. The half-human, half-horse beasts represented chaos, while the well-behaved Lapiths are the bringers of order and harmony. Of course, the uncivilised centaurs also showed everyone the dangers of drinking too much wine and losing control of your own faculties… who says the ancients can’t teach us valuable lessons?

Centaurs in Ancient Greek Art

Greek sculptors and painters represented the contest on several media, including temples and vases. In the temple of Zeus at Olympia, for example, a whole pediment (the big triangle supported by columns) was dedicated to the centauromachy. The protagonists are involved in a lively struggle and strike dramatic poses. Apollo, in the middle, dominates the scene bringing calm to the chaos. If you’ve been to the British Museum, you’ll know that the metopes of the Parthenon of Athens, also show the same battle.

The West Pediment of the Temple of Zeus, Archaeological Museum of Olympia. Photo via Flickr by Franco Pecchio 

Civilised vs Barbaric

But why did the Greeks like this mythological episode so much? Because they were smart! The Greeks thought that the battle could be a metaphor for their own wars against other populations, who they considered inferior and barbaric. Most notably, the Persians, who the Greeks defeated in the mid-5th century BC, after a series of wars that lasted almost half a century.

An Exception to the Rule?

As we’ve seen, the centaurs loved nothing more than drinking and feeling free. It’s not surprising then, that they often appear on vases in the company of Dionysus, the God of wine. But not all centaurs were wild and uncivilised. The centaur Chiron, for example, was known for his wisdom. He was even chosen as the personal tutor of Heracles and Achilles, probably the greatest of all Greek heroes. Incidentally, it’s thought that Chiron is the inspiration for Firenze, a name which will be familiar to fans of the Harry Potter series! In the series, the centaur Firenze left his wild and uncivilised brothers to become a teacher at Hogwarts, mirroring the story of Chiron.

Where to see more centaurs

Later artists also found centaurs an interesting subject to depict. In the early 17th century, Guido Reni painted the mythological episode of the centaur Nessus abducting Heracles’ wife, Deianeira. If you’ve played a Treasure Hunt at the Louvre with us, you know that only trotting like a centaur can give you those extra points to beat the competition! The same episode of Heracles and Nessus appears in a sculpture at the Uffizi and at the Loggia dei Lanzi (Florence) where we hope to expand soon. The Louvre is also home to a lovely sculpture of a centaur teased by Eros. Kids are often fascinated by centaurs, and rightly so! That’s why centaurs are in both our London and Paris Kid Packs. Ok… there are so many centaurs around our museums… there’s no way you’ll forget them!

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