The centaur has been suggested to have originated in Babylonia during the late 2nd millennuim B.C. It is thought the Kassites, a barbarian culture that migrated from Iran or further east to the Fertile Crescent around 1750 B.C., may have been responsible for creating the myth of the centaur. The Kassites, who fought with Egypt and Assyria for Near East supremacy, set up stones to mark the boundries of their lands. Figures of gods or guardian spirits were carved upon the stones, and some of these were half-man and half-horse beings.
It took centuries before the horse was common in the Near East, and it is possible the Kassites helped introduce equines to the region. As barbarian nomads, they might have ridden their horses, and to the Near-Eastern cultures who were used to chariots pulled by donkeys, the sight of a foreign men mounted on horses might have caused confusion. Hence, the rumors of half-men and half-horse beings may have grown.
So, the centaur may have originated in the Near East between 1750 and 1150 B.C. and functioned as a guardian spirit. They were depicted as hunters with a bow as their principal weapon. As the myth of centaurs grew, it is thought the Hittite culture may have imported tales of half-men and half-horse beings to the Mycenean Greeks.
The name centaurs signifies 'those who round up bulls' and so alternatively, the idea of the centaur may have originated from the cattle breeders of Thessaly in northern Greece who spent much of their time on horseback and whose manners were rough and barbarous. Yet another possible origin of the centaurian myth suggests the original centaurs were Cimmerian and Scythian raiders, rough riding nomads from the north, who often invaded Thrace in the north-east.
Once adopted into classical mythology, the Greeks believed a reprehensible mortal man named Ixion had founded the race. Ixion committed the outrageous offense of daring to attempt to seduce Hera, wife of Zeus and queen of heaven. To see how far Ixion's impudence would go, Zeus formed a cloud image of Hera and substituted it for the goddess. A monster, Centaurus, was born of this strange union, and when grown to maturity, he united with the mares of Mount Pelion and produced the race of centaurs.
Another legend portrays Chiron as the first centaur. Chiron had begun life as a Titan, a son of Cronus and the ocean nymph Phylyra. He dared to make war against the young gods of Olympus but was defeated. Apollo, the god of light and reason, punished Chiron by making him half-horse. Chiron had been educated by the gods and in turn undertook the instruction of hero after hero; Actaeon, Jason, Castor and Polydeuces, and Achilles. Each served an apprenticeship with Chiron in the wilderness.
Chiron's fate was an unhappy one because he fell wounded by a poisoned arrow in a tragic accident. The arrow came from the quiver of a good friend, Heracles (Hercules). There was no antidote to its poison and to escape the wound's unending agony, Chrion renounced immortality in favour of his fellow-Titan Prometheus. Zeus then generously set the kindly centaur's image in the heavens as the constallation Sagittarius, the Archer.
Followers of Dionysus
The Greeks made the centaur population over to represent a race associated with drunkeness and physical violence and followers of Dionysus, the god of wine. In Greece, they inhabited Mount Pelion in Thessaly located in northern Greece.
The principal myth associated with the centaurs concerns the war with the Lapiths, a neighboring Thessalian nation. The centaurs had claimed King Pirithous' kingdom and the king tried to make peace. The centaurs were invited to attend the wedding of Pirithous to Hippodamia (or Deidamia) as friends but they got drunk and tried to forcibly seize the Lapith women. One of the centaurs, Eurytion, even tried to carry off the bride but was restrained by Theseus. A long battle ensued and the Lapiths eventually emerged victorious. The centaurs were driven to the frontiers of Epirus and sought shelter on Mount Pindus.
Heracles played a part in the myth of the centaurs in his visit to the centaur Pholus during his pursuit of the Erymanthian Boar. A fight broke out among the centaurs when they smelled an open jar of wine given to Pholus by Dionysus. Heracles drove them off with his arrows poisoned with the Hydra's venom. As a result of this fight, both Pholus and Chiron were accidently scratched with poisoned arrows and died.
One of the centaurs, Nessus, sought vengeance on Heracles for the harm he had done to his race. After Heracles married Deianira, they were crossing the flooded river Evenus in Aetolia on their way home. Nessus offered to carry Deianira over the river on his back and then tried to rape her. Heracles caught Nessus and shot him with a poisoned arrow. As he died, Nessus seemingly tried to redeem himself by offering some of his blood to Deianira.
He said if Heracles lost his love for her, she could win it back by smearing a tunic with the blood and giving it to Heracles to wear. Years later, when Deianira resented her husband's faithlessness, she did as Nessus proposed. It turned out the blood was poisoned and Heracles met a horrible death wrapped in the burning garment.
Today in Greece, people will tell you of kallikantzaroi, 'good centaurs', who appear to be descended from the old legendary creatures. But the 'good' which has been prefixed to their names in modern times is a precaution taken out of fear, as when a superstitious northerner refers to elves or fairies as 'the good people'. The kallikantzaroi come up out of the ground on winter nights. They are hoofed, shaggy, swift, stupid and mischievous. In short they are 'monsters' in the modern, and not the ancient, sense.
The wild and beautiful race of Centaurs inhabits the mountain regions of Arcadia and Thessaly, in Greece. Nothing could be more striking than the sight of a troop of centaurs galloping across a mountain slope, with the heads and trunks of splendid human males like figureheads upon the bodies of potent stallions.
Their nobility of appearance is belied by their character, which may be blamed upon their ancestry, Ixion, a noted rascal, was the father of one branch of the tribe, and Chronus of the other. However, the descendants of Chronus and his wife Philyra, a beautiful sea nymph, are of a very different nature from those of Ixion.
Zeus invited Ixion into Olympus in order to purify him of his sins, but Ixion repaid this hospitality by an attempt to seduce the goddess Hera. She escaped him by changing herself into a cloud, and Ixion hd to satisfy himself with Nephele. The first of the Centaurs sprang from this union.
The Centaurs quickly showed that they combine strength of stallions with the greed, lust and arrogance of human males. They love to drink wine almost as much as they delight in running down a nubile female, and they glory in a drunken brawl. They showed all these qualities when they gatecrashed the wedding of Ixion's human son, Peirithous, to Deidameia. The centaurs got drunk on the wedding wine and made such blatant attempts to rape the bride that Theseus and Peirithous had to fight them off.
The Centaurs give allegiance only to Eros, God of Love, and Dionysus the God of Wine. A cavalcade of centaurs out on a spree, with Eros whipping them on and Dionysus lolling drunkenly in his chariot, makes every wise househoulder lock up his wife and daughters and barricade his wine cellar.
The descendants of Chronus remain aloof from such revels. Chronus and Philyra begat Cheiron, a learned centaur who brought up and educated a number of Greek heroes. His offspring pursue a sober and studious way of life, in great contrast to the drunken brawling and womanising of the other branch of the family.