The Centaur: Half Human, Half Horse of Greek Mythology

Illustration of the Centauromachy, War between Lapiths and Centaurs.
Illustration of the Centauromachy, War between Lapiths and Centaurs. Rollout of a vase from the collection of Comte de M Lamberg by Alexandre de Laborde, 19th century.

G. Dagli Orti / Getty Images Plus

In Greek and Roman mythology, a centaur is a member of a race of people who are half man and half horse. They were children of the arrogant and overbearing Kentaurus, who had sexual intercourse with mares on Mount Pelion and produced hyper-masculine men with a weakness for wine and women and given to violent behavior. 

Fast Facts: Centaurs in Greek Mythology, Half Human, Half Horse

  • Alternate Names: Kentauroi and Hippokentauroi
  • Culture/Country: Greek and Roman mythology
  • Realms and Powers: Wooded parts of Mt. Pelion, Arcadia
  • Family: Most of the centaurs are descendants of the obnoxious and bestial Centaurus, except for wise Cheiron and Pholos.
  • Primary Sources: Pindar, Apollodorus, Diodorus of Sicily

Centaurs in Greek Mythology

The centaur race (Kentauroi or Hippokentauroi in Greek) was created out of Zeus' anger. A man named Ixion lived on Mt. Pelion and wanted to marry Dia, the daughter of Deioneous, and promised to give her father a large bride price. Instead, Ixion built a large pit filled with blazing coals to catch his father-in-law and kill him when he came to collect his money. After committing this heinous crime, Ixion sought mercy fruitlessly, until Zeus took pity and invited him to Olympos to share the life of the gods. In return, Ixion attempted to seduce Zeus' wife Hera, who complained to Zeus. The almighty god made a "cloud Hera" and put it into Ixion's bed, where he mated with it. The result was the obnoxious and bestial Kentaurus (Centaurus), who mated with several mares and produced the half men/half horses of Greek prehistory.

Ixion himself was condemned to the underworld, one of the sinners who suffer everlasting torment in Hades. In some sources, all of the descendants of Centaurus were called Hippo-Centaurus. 

Appearance and Reputation 

The earliest depictions of centaurs had six legs—a horse body with an entire man attached to the front. Later, centaurs were illustrated with four horse legs and a man's torso and head springing from where the horse's head and neck would be. 

Almost all of the centaurs were mindlessly sexually and physically violent, half-bestial with little access to females and no self-control, and driven mad by wine and its smell. The two exceptions are Cheiron (or Chiron), who was a tutor to many of the heroes in Greek legends, and the philosopher Pholos (Pholus), a friend of Hercules (Herakles).

There are no extant stories about female centaurs, but there are a few examples in ancient art, the daughters of centaurs that married nymphs.

Centauromachy (The Centaur/Lapith Wars) 

The homeland of the centaurs was in the wooded areas of Mount Pelion, where they lived side by side with nymphs and satyrs; but they were ejected from that location at the end of the wars with their kinsmen the Lapith.

The tale is that Peirithoos, a faithful companion of the Greek hero Theseus and a chieftain of the Lapith, threw a feast on his marriage to Hippodameia, and invited his kinsmen the centaurs to attend. Knowing the centaurs' lack of control, Peirithoos attempted to serve them milk, but they rejected it and were driven mad by the smell of the wine. They began to molest the female guests, including the bride, which began a furious battle in the hall. One centaur, Eurytion, was dragged out of the hall and his ears and nostrils were cut off. 

5th Century Scupltureof Wedding of Peirithoos
Fracas at the Wedding Feast of Peirithoos, Bassai Sculpture, The Phigaleian Frieze, Temple of Apollo, Bassae Greece, 420–400 BCE. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Some versions of the story say that set off the Centauromachy, where the Lapiths (with help from Theseus) fought with swords and the centaurs with tree trunks. The centaurs lost and were forced to leave Thessaly, and eventually found their way to the wild mountainous region of Arcadia, which is where Herakles found them. 

Cheiron and Pholos

Cheiron (or Chiron) was a wise centaur who was born immortal, married Chariklo and had children, and accumulated wisdom and knowledge and a fondness for humans. He was said to have been the son of the titan Kronos, who turned himself into a horse to seduce the Oceanid nymph Phillyrea. Cheiron was the tutor of several of the heroes of Greek history, such as Jason, who lived in Chiron's cave for 20 years; and Asklepios, who learned botanical and veterinary medicine from Cheiron. Other pupils included Nestor, Achilles, Meleager, Hippolytos, and Odysseus. 

19th Century Ivory Sculpture of Chiron and Achilles
19th Century Ivory Sculpture of Chiron and Achilles. S. Vannini / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images Plus

Another fairly wise leader of the centaurs was Pholos, who was said to be the son of Seilenos the satyr and a Melian nymph. Pholos was visited by Herakles before beginning his fourth labor—Capturing the Erymanthian Boar. Pholos served a meal of meat—thoughtfully cooking Herakle's portion. Herakles opened a jar of wine and the smell drove the centaurs gathered outside the cave mad. They rushed the cave, armed with trees and rocks, but Herakles battled them, and the centaurs fled seeking refuge with Cheiron. Herakles shot an arrow after them, but Cheiron was shot, an incurable injury because the arrow had been poisoned with hydra blood from an earlier Labor; Pholos was also shot and died. 

Nessos and Herakles

Nessos (or Nessus), on the other hand, was the more typically behaved centaur whose job was to ferry people across the river Euenos. After his labors were ended, Herakles married Deineira and lived with her father the King of Calydon until he killed a page of royal blood. Herakles was forced to flee home to Thessaly, and he and his wife Deianeira reached Euenos and paid for the ferry ride. But when Nessos attempted to rape Deineira in mid-stream, Herakles killed him. As he died, Nessos told Deianeira about a way to keep her husband close to her—bad advice from a bad source that eventually led to Herakles' death. 

Giambologna's Hercules and the Centaur Nessus
Marble statue of Hercules battling the Centaur Nessus; carved by Giambologna in 1599. Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. Fred Matos / Moment / Getty Images Plus

Sources and Further Reading

  • Hard, Robin. "The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Routledge, 2003. 
  • Hansen, William. "Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Leeming, David. "The Oxford Companion to World Mythology." Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
  • Scobie, Alex. "The Origins of 'Centaurs'." Folklore 89.2 (1978): 142–47. 
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology." London: John Murray, 1904.