A centaur is a mythological creature with the head, arms, and torso of a human and the body and legs of a horse. In early Attic and Beotian vase-paintings (see below), 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.
Theories of origin
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.
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.
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.
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 from ken – tauros, “piercing bull-stickers” was a euhemerist suggestion in Palaephatus’ rationalizing text on Greek mythology, On Incredible Tales 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 say that the Greeks took the constellation of Centaurus, and also its name “piercing bull”, from Mesopotamia, where it symbolized the god Baal 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.