Who Were the Centaurs in Greek Mithology?

Half man half horse, the Centaur Chiron was, unlike his violent fellow Centaurs, a wise, benevolent creature that lived in the wooded mountains of Thessaly, Greece.

The Centaurs were a tribe of mythological creatures that lived in the mountains and woods of Thessaly, an area of the Greek mainland. They are depicted with the body and legs of a horse and the torso, arms, and head of a man. In his Greek Myths, Robert Graves wants the Centaur myth inspired by neolithic mountain tribes of northern Greece and their horse cult. The word Centaur is of unknown origin.

Centaurs were a violent and lascivious race involved in many battles with ancient Greek heroes, such as Heracles and Theseus. Among them, Chiron (a.k.a. Cheiron) was known for his wisdom, intelligence, and kindness. He was also famous as a healer, renowned for his medical skills. Cheiron has reputedly taught ancient Greek figures such as the father of medicine, Asclepius; Theseus, Achilles, Jason, Heracles, and others.

Centaurs, Mythological Creatures and their Ancient Battles

Wild and lusty Centaurs were famous for starting violent brawls. Once such was the ancient battle with the Lapiths, the tribesmen of Thessaly who were depicted in Greek mythology as being the opposite of the Centaurs – representing the forces of civilization against barbarity. During the wedding of the King of the Lapiths, the Centaurs who could not tolerate wine got intoxicated and seized the Lapith women.

A bloody battle broke out in which the Centaurs were defeated with the intervention of Theseus. The battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs is a favourite subject in Greek art and is famously depicted on the Parthenon metopes, the temple of Zeus at Olympia and the Temple of Apollo at Bassae. The Lapiths defeated the Centaurs and drove them out of Thessaly and into the Peloponnese, south Greece, were they confronted Heracles.

Heracles and the Centaurs

When Heracles encountered the Centaurs he was onto his fourth Labour, the capture of the Erymanthian Boar. He was entertained by Pholus, another civilized Centaur next to Chiron. The Centaurs were attracted by the smell of wine and another one of the ancient battles involving Centaurs broke out. Heracles used his arrows which were dipped in the blood of the mythological monster, Hydra of Lerna (or Lernea Hydra).

The blood was a fatal venom and many Centaurs died. Unfortunately, one of the arrows passed through a victim and into the body of Chiron, killing him. Nessus, the leader of these violent mythological creatures, survived and later on took his revenge on Heracles. Having being shot by Heracles for trying to rape his wife, Deianeira, Nessus convinced her to use his blood as a love charm. Deianeira dipped Heracles robe in it and Heracles died a terrible death for the Centaur’s blood was poisoned by Hydra’s venom.

Who Were the Centaurs?

The half man half horse mythological creatures with a civil (human) and a savage (horse) side roamed the Thessalian mountains and were involved in ancient battles with heroes and Lapiths. The Parthenon metope in the British Museum depicts succinctly the ancient battle between civilization and barbarity with the Lapith and the Centaur pulling in opposite directions. Yet the violent Centaur Nessus is counterbalanced with the wise and kind, Cheiron.