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Centauridae, the Mystical Creatures from Ancient Greek Mythology

Centauridae
Centauridae, creatures from Greek mythology that were a combination of females and horses, are depicted in this Roman-era mosaic in Tunisia, showing the goddess Aphrodite, or Venus, in the middle. Created in the second century AD. Credit: Bardo Museum/Giorces /CC BY 2.5

The Centauridae, or Centauresses, were fantastic creatures from ancient Greek mythology blending women and horses, much like the Centaurs, who had mens’ torsos and the bodies of horses.

Called in ancient Greek Κενταυρίδες, Kentaurides) or centauresses, they made their first appearance in Greek mythology as members of the tribe of the Centauroi. Oddly, the Centaurides are only occasionally mentioned in written sources, but they appear frequently in Greek art and Roman mosaics.

The centauress who appears most frequently in literature is Hylonome, the wife of the centaur Cyllarus. These half-man, half horse creatures lived in the mountains and forests of the Greek region of Thessaly.

Centauress and Faun
Centauress and Faun, bronze Sculpture by Augustin Courtet 1849, Lyon, France. Credit: Jamie Mulherron/ CC BY-SA 4.0

Centauridae represented contrast between humans’ baser animal nature and civilized behavior

Centaurs were said to belong to tribes, making their homes in caves, while they hunted wild animals, using arming rocks and tree branches for weapons. Among the origin myths for centaurs; is that Centaurus, the offspring of King Ixion, mated with the cloud nymph known as Nephele, whom Zeus created in the likeness of his consort, Hera.

The centaurs that resulted from that pairing were left on Mount Pelion, where the daughters of the immortal centaur Chiron nursed them.

Centaurs were noted followers of Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry in ancient Greece; thus they were depicted as being savage, uproarious and boisterous, with the resultant behavior a result of them being governed by their bestial half. The implication there was clear for all those who could discern the meaning.

Although not technically considered to have been a Centauress, Medusa, the fearsome female monster featuring in many a tale in Greek mythology, was in early depictions portrayed with the lower body of a horse and the torso and the head of a woman.

Perseus and Medusa
Perseus is seen slaying Medusa, depicted as a Centauress, with the body of a horse, on a Cycladic pithos. Ca. 660 BC, found in Thebes. Louvre Museum/Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen /Public Domain

Centauridae noted for exceptional beauty

A Centauride or Kentauride refers specifically to a female of the tribe of the Centauroi or Kentauroi. Centauress is the more usual term in English; although they play but a small part in Greek mythology, their depictions in art are quite striking in their beauty, with some ancient Greek writers paying particular attention to their form.

The Greek rhetorician Philostratus the Elder, who lived in the third century AD, rhapsodizes about the physical appearance of the Centaurides, and notes their existence at Pelion, ostensibly describing an ancient Greek painting located at Neapolis (Naples), in his work “Imagines”:

“How beautiful the Centaurides are, even where they are horses; for some grow out of white mares, others are attached to chestnut mares, and the coats of others are dappled, but they glisten like those of horses that are well cared for. There is also a white female Centaur that grows out of a black mare, and the very opposition of the colors helps to produce the united beauty of the whole.”

Centauress
“Centauress,” a painting by John La Farge, Brooklyn Museum. Credit: John La Farge /Public Domain

He states “You used to think that the race of Kentauroi (Centaurs) sprang from trees and rocks or, by Zeus, just from mares — the mares which, men say, the son of Ixion covered, the man by whom the Kentauroi though single creatures came to have their double nature.

“But after all they have, as we see, mothers of the same stock and wives next and colts as their offspring and a most delightful home; for I think you would not grow weary of Pelion and the life there and its wind-nurtured growth of ash, which furnishes spear-shafts that are straight and at the same time do not break at the spearhead.

“The delicacy of their female form gains in strength when the horse is seen in union with it”

“And its caves are most beautiful and the springs and the Kentaurides beside them, like Naides (Naiads) if we overlook the horse part of them, or like (horse-riding) Amazones if we consider them along with their horse bodies; for the delicacy of their female form gains in strength when the horse is seen in union with it.

He goes on to describe baby centaurs and centauresses, saying “Of the baby Kentauroi … here some lie wrapped in swaddling clothes, some have discarded their swaddling clothes, some seem to be crying, some are happy and smile as they suck flowing breasts, some gambol beneath their mothers while others embrace them when they kneel down, and one is throwing a stone at his mother, for already he grows wanton.

“The bodies of the infants have not yet taken on their definite shape, seeing that abundant milk is still their nourishment, but some that already are leaping about show a little shagginess, and have sprouted mane and hoofs, though these are still tender.

“How beautiful the Kentaurides are, even where they are horses; for some grow out of white mares, others are attached to chestnut mares, and the coat’s of others are dappled, but they glisten like those of horses that are well cared for. There is also a white female Kentauroi that grows out of a black mare, and the very opposition of the colors helps to produce the united beauty of the whole.”

Romans also discoursed about the Centauridae

The Roman poet Ovid, who lived from the first century BC to the first century AD, in his great work the Metamorphoses, writes effusively of the Centaurides in describing the battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths of Thessaly.

This famous mythical battle was a metaphor symbolizing — as did the very existence of the centaurs — the human struggle between their more bestial inclinations and civilized behavior.

Ovid alludes to two didactic poems, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and his own Ars Amatoria III in Metamorphoses.

In this episode, he explores hybridity, illustrating the relationships and “possible combinations of a number of conceptual opposites: natura and cultus, human and animal, male and female, love and war, and the contrasting values of lyric-elegiac and epic poetry,” according to Jeri Blair Debrohun in her work “Centaurs in Love and War: Cyllarus and Hylonome in Ovid’s ‘Metamporphoses,” published in 2004 by Johns Hopkins Press.

The epic fight erupted at the wedding feast of Pirithous, king of the Lapiths, when the centaurs became intoxicated and tried to carry off the women — including the bride. But Ovid’s exquisite wordplay describing the beauty of the half-people/half-beasts was what is most memorable:

“Nor did his beauty ransom (the centaur) Cyllarus, fighting that day, if hybrids such as he be granted beauty. His beard was just beginning, a golden beard, and golden tresses fell down on his shoulders reaching to his flanks,” Ovid stated.

“High-mettled grace shone in his face; his neck, chest, shoulders, hands and every manly part seemed like a sculptor’s much-praised masterpiece. Unblemished too his equine shape, nor less fine than his man’s. With horse’s head and neck he’s make fit mount for Castor, so high stood his chest-muscles, so rideable his back.

“Jet black he was, the whole of him, save that his tail was white and legs were milk-white too. Many a centauress would be his mate, but one had gained his heart, (the female centaur) Hylonome.

“None comelier of all the Centaur-girls”

“In the high woods there was none comelier of all the centaur-girls, and she alone by love and love’s sweet words and winning ways held Cyllarus, yes, and the care she took to look her best (so far as that may be with limbs like that).

“She combed her glossy hair, and twined her curls in turn with rosemary or violets or roses, and sometimes she wore a pure white lily. Twice a day she bathed her face in the clear brook that fell from Pagasae’s high forest, twice she plunged her body in its flow, nor would she wear on her left side and shoulder any skin but what became her from best-chosen beasts.

Ovid concludes his encomium of the best attributes of the Centauridae by exalting the love between the married couple, saying “Their love was equal; on the hills they roamed together, and together they would go back to their cave; and this time too they went into the Lapithae’s palace side by side and side by side were fighting in the fray. A javelin (no knowing from whose hand) came from the left and wounded Cyllarus, landing below the place where the chest joins neck–slight wound, but when the point was pulled away, cold grew his damaged heart and cold his limbs.

“Hylonome embraced him as he died, caressed the wound and, putting lips to lips, she tried to stay his spirit as it fled. And when she saw him lifeless, she moaned words that in that uproar failed to reach my ears; and fell upon the spear that pierced her love, and, dying, held her husband in her arms.”

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