In Greek mythology, centaurs were wild, half-human, half-horse creatures. Depicted in art as having the body and legs of a horse and the chest, head, and arms of a man, the centaurs were said to be the children of Ixion and the nymph Nephele. They made their home in the forests and wooded mountains of Thessaly, in northern Greece. Centaurs were violent and lustful, and they loved to drink wine. For the ancient Greeks, centaurs represented their own primitive desires and behavior. In the Greek mind, centaurs existed to remind humans of the distinction between instincts and control.
Mentions of centaurs date from Homeric* times. Many legends about them include tales of their conflict with human society. The earliest of these describes how the centaurs upset the wedding festivities of their neighbor, the Lapith king, Pirithous. Invited to the wedding, the centaurs drank too much wine and assaulted the female guests. They even tried to carry off Pirithous’s bride. For their outrageous behavior, the centaurs were driven from Thessaly into the Peloponnese* by the Lapiths. In art, centaurs are often depicted fighting against the Greeks with boulders and uprooted trees.
Not all centaurs were brutal savages, however. In Greek myth, the centaur Chiron was wise and kind. Chiron had received instruction in medicine, music, hunting, and the art of prophecy from Apollo and Artemis. He himself taught many Greek heroes including Asclepius, Jason, and Achilles. Centaurs appear on many Greek objects of art, such as vases, and in the architectural elements of Greek buildings. One of the most famous depictions of centaurs is on the Parthenon in Athens. (See also Amazons; Myths, Greek; Satyrs; Wine.)
* Homeric referring to the Greek poet Homer; the time in which he lived, or his works
* Peloponnese peninsula forming the southern part of the mainland of Greece