1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Centaurs

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

CENTAURS, in Greek mythology, a race of beings part horse part man, dwelling in the mountains of Thessaly and Arcadia. The name has been derived (1) from κεντεῖν (goad) and ταῦρος (bull), implying a people who were primarily herdsmen, (2) from κεντεῖν and the common termination -αυρος or αὔρα (“air”) i.e. “spearmen.” The former is unsatisfactory partly from the philological standpoint, and the latter, though not certain, is preferable. The centaurs were the offspring of Ixion and Nephele (the rain-cloud), or of Kentauros (the son of these two) and some Magnesian mares or of Apollo and Hebe. They are best known for their fight with the Lapithae, caused by their attempt to carry off Deidameia on the day of her marriage to Peirithous, king of the Lapithae, himself the son of Ixion. Theseus, who happened to be present, assisted Peirithous, and the Centaurs were driven off (Plutarch, Theseus, 30; Ovid, Metam. xii. 210; Diod. Sic. iv. 69, 70). In later times they are often represented drawing the car of Dionysus, or bound and ridden by Eros, in allusion to their drunken and amorous habits. Their general character is that of wild, lawless and inhospitable beings, the slaves of their animal passions, with the exception of Pholus and Chiron. They are variously explained by a fancied resemblance to the shapes of clouds, or as spirits of the rushing mountain torrents or winds. As children of Apollo, they are taken to signify the rays of the sun. It is suggested as the origin of the legend, that the Greeks in early times, to whom riding was unfamiliar, regarded the horsemen of the northern hordes as one and the same with their horses; hence the idea of the Centaur as half-man, half-animal. Like the defeat of the Titans by Zeus, the contests with the Centaurs typified the struggle between civilization and barbarism.

In early art they were represented as human beings in front, with the body and hind legs of a horse attached to the back: later, they were men only as far as the waist. The battle with the Lapithae, and the adventure of Heracles with Pholus (Apollodorus, ii. 5; Diod. Sic. iv. II) are favourite subjects of Greek art (see Sidney Colvin, Journal of Hellenic Studies, i. 1881, and the exhaustive article in Roscher’s Lexikon der Mythologie). Fig. 34 in article Greek Art (the west pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia) represents the attempt of the Centaurs to carry off the bride of Peirithous.