The Origins of 'Centaurs

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  • The Origins of 'Centaurs'Author(s): Alex ScobieSource: Folklore, Vol. 89, No. 2 (1978), pp. 142-147Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.Stable URL: .Accessed: 16/06/2014 06:42

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  • The Origins of 'Centaurs'


    T HE possible origins of the ancient Greek horse-human hybrid 'cen- taur' have taxed the learning and ingenuity of many scholars who have approached the problem of this monster's genesis from various angles. Paul Kretschmer, 'Mythische Namen', Glotta, 10 (1920), pp. 50-8, 211-12, offered an etymological explanation of Ktvrcvpa; according to which the word means 'Wasserpeitscher' (water-whipper). According to this explana- tion 'centaurs' were originally water spirits.' 'In that case, one might believe that they were originally spirits of the precipitous mountain torrents. At all events, their character is rough and violent. They resemble the spirits of wood and wilderness2 which appear in the folklore of northern Europe. They represent the fierce and rough aspects of nature.'3 Martin P. Nilsson, the author of the foregoing quotation, was later to view Kretschmer's etymo- logical explanations with greater scepticism when he stated in his Geschichte der griechischen Religion (Munich 1955), p. 231, 'Die Etymologie und die Deutung der Ursprungs sind unsicher und mogen auf sich beruhen.' Two further authorities regard the etymology of Ktvzvopa; as uncertain.4

    The Greeks themselves were not without ideas about the origins of centaurs. Palaiphatos, who was perhaps a contemporary of Aristotle, approached the problem with euhemeristic pragmatism5 and rationalized the myth of Ixion and Nephele whose illusory union led to the birth of Cen- taurus :6 'When Ixion was king of Thessaly, the country was much plagued by herds of wild cattle. On his offering a reward for their destruction, certain enterprising archers from a village called Nephele went out on horseback and shot them down. Hence arose the tale that Ixion was the father by Nephele (the Cloud) of a race of beings called Kentauroi (prickers of bulls) who were a mixture of man and horse.'7 However, the meaning 'bull- prickers' seems to have been as firmly rejected by modern scholars as Kretschmer's 'water-whippers'. Another explanation is given by Plutarch in his Bruta Animalia Ratione Uti (Beasts Are Rational), 990F: 'For men have, in fact, attempted to consort with goats and sows and mares ... From such unions your Minotaurs and Aegipans, and, I suppose, your Sphinxes and Centaurs have arisen.' That centaurs might have been the product of interspecific breeding is a belief that was held not only in classical antiquity, but in seventeenth-century Europe. For example, A. Pare, in chapter 19 of his Des Monstres et Prodiges (1573)8 quotes several 'cases' of half-human, half-animal monsters which are alleged to be the fruit of bestial intercourse.

    Etymological, allegorical, and physiological approaches to the problem under discussion have so far, it seems, yielded no evidence which wins con- fidence and compels belief, and many explanations do not reach the level

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    of possibility, let alone that of probability. The rest of this note will therefore focus on a theory which, so far as I am aware, was advanced for the first time in 1844 by Leonhard Schmitz in W. Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography,9 and then promptly forgotten or ignored by writers of subsequent handbooks on Greek mythology.

    Schmitz belongs to the 'bull-prickers' school of interpretation and claims that the Thessalians 'in early times spent the greater part of their lives on horseback. It is, therefore, not improbable that the Thessalian mountaineers may at some early period have made upon their neighbouring tribes the same impression as the Spaniards did upon the Mexicans, namely, that horse and man were one being.' As Schmitz does not document this reference to the Mexicans and entirely omits mention of the reactions of the Maya and the 'Incas', the following authorities may be cited here to corroborate what in Schmitz's account is little more than an unsubstantiated conjecture.

    I. The 'Aztecs'

    (a) Bernal Diaz del Castillo:

    Just at this moment we caught sight of our horsemen. But the great host of Indians was so crazed by their attack that they did not at once see them approaching behind their backs.... As soon as we saw the horsemen we fell on the enemy so vigorously that, caught between the horsemen and ourselves, they soon turned tail. The In- dians thought at that time that the horse and rider were one creature, for they had never seen a horse before.10

    (b) Fray Bernardino de Sahaguin: In his Nahuatl account of the life and customs of the Indians of Mexico Sahagun relates the words used by mes- sengers when they reported back to Montezuma about the appearance of the advancing Spaniards: 'Iron were their shields. Iron were their lances. And those which bore them upon their backs, their deer were as tall as roof terraces.' I

    It seems from this account that the more discerning Indians did not con- sider horse and rider as an indissoluble unity. It is also noteworthy that Mon- tezuma's scouts should refer to European horses as deer, since in the minds of these Indians the deer was the nearest local equivalent to the horse.

    II. The Maya

    According to J. E. S. Thompson, Maya History and Religion (Norman, 1970), p. 256, 'the Maya, at first contact with the Spaniards, thought horse and rider were a single being.' Thompson also refers in the preface (p. xxii) of his book to the fact that the Mayas treated Cortez's horse as a god:12 'A stone statue of the horse was set up in one of the temples and became one of the principal gods under the name Tzimin Chac, "Tapir Lightning" (the Maya named the horse "tapir", the animal closest to it in appearance; "lightning", because the Maya at first thought the horse was discharging

    lightning when the man on its back fired his gun) ... The supposed associa- tion of the horse with firearms was one of the reasons which led the Maya to conceive of the Chacs, gods of rain and lightning, as riding on horses,

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    a belief they still hold. Thus, the horse, in Spanish eyes man's servant, became in Maya belief his Lord.'

    III. The 'Incas'

    (a) Garcilaso de la Vega:

    For the most part the Indians are terrified of horses.... Moreover, at the beginning of the conquests throughout the whole of the New World, the Indians considered that horse and rider were one, like the centaurs of the poets.'3

    (b) Relacion del Primer. Descub. (MS) paraphrased by W. H. Prescott:

    ... it might have gone hard with the Spaniards, hotly pressed by their resolute enemy so superior in numbers, but for a ludicrous accident reported by the his- torians as happening to one of the cavaliers. This was a fall from his horse, which so astonished the barbarians, who were not prepared for this division of what seemed one and the same being into two, that, filled with consternation, they fell back, and left a way open for the Christians to regain their vessels.'4

    It is also worth noting the reaction of Atahualpa's nephew, Titu Cusi, to the Spaniards' strange appearance. 'They [sc. the Spaniards] seemed like viracochas [gods] .... partly because they were very different from us in clothing and appearance, and also because we saw that they rode on enor- mous animals that had feet of silver."' This description is very similar to that given by Montezuma's envoys (ibid, above) save that here no attempt is made to compare the exotic horse to the nearest indigenous equivalent animal, which in this case would have been the llama, a closer equivalent than either the Mexican deer or the Maya tapir.

    The above accounts of the reactions of native Americans to the horses of the Spaniards and the clearly recorded belief that, at least during the initial stages of the conquest of Central America and Peru, the Indians considered horse and mount an inseparable entity could perhaps be reinforced by de- scriptions of the impact of the horse on other cultures which were horseless prior to the arrival of horse-riding invaders. However, the evidence from the Americas is sufficient to support the theory that the ancient Greek con- cept of the centaur as a horse-human composite could represent the first reactions of the inhabitants of Greece to horse-riding invaders. But was this Greek concept peculiarly Greek, or was it derived and locally adapted, like so many Greek mythological motifs, from the art and literature of Near Eastern cultures ? In other words, does the Greek centaur reflect the reaction of a different culture to a rider mounted on a strange and awesome animal? Are we, perhaps, dealing in the case of the Greeks merely with a motif bor- rowed from the oral or written literature and plastic arts of their eastern neighbours ?

    G. S. Kirk who has fruitfully applied to the role of centaurs in Greek myth- ology the binary analytical method of Levi-Strauss (confined in this instance to the nature/culture opposition), ' 6 thinks it possible that 'the idea of these mixed creatures as wild nature-spirits was a Greek invention, the alternative being that it was derived from further north in the remote past ... Centaurs

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    in their developed mythical form look like a peculiarly Greek pheno- menon-and there are few other parts of Greek mythology of which that can be said."' ' In his more recent The Nature of Greek Myths (Harmonds- worth, 1974), p. 208, Kirk observes: 'The horse was a relatively recent arrival in Greece, being introduced from Asia Minor to draw chariots around 1700 BC and could still be regarded as in some way strange and monstrous as late as the seventh century, when a Theban vase-painter drew the Gorgon Medusa with a horse's body.' i8

    However, the fact remains that horse-human hybrids are found in Near Eastern art at a period which predates the first appearance of centaurs in Greek art (the second half of the tenth century),'9 and the first written reference to a horse occurs in a Sumerian text where the word used, Anse Kur-'foreign ass' or 'ass from the mountain'2 0-indicates the strangeness of the animal among the early Sumerians just as much as the words deer and tapir do among the Mexicans and the Maya. In the light of evidence presented by Rosemary Arnold (see note 19) it seems highly likely that the Greek centaur is an example of what she calls an 'iconographic transposition' (p. 161) from East to West, and not a peculiarly Greek invention, though some slight degree of local adaptation must be admitted.

    Another assumption about Greek centaurs that requires examination is that 'the conceptualization of the centaur as half man, half horse, seems to have been the creation of the visual arts.'2' 1J. Carter, who also sees an orien- tal influence at the back of the Greek concept of the centaur, also states that it was 'an invention of the visual arts'.22 Such an assumption seems to be based on the fact that in Homer, centaurs 'have no horsy attributes whatsoever'.23 Yet it is well known that Homer tends to strain the more fantastic elements from his received oral materials, especially when these elements are of a folkloristic or popular nature. For instance, the Sirens are not portrayed by Homer as bird-women hybrids, but as fully human young women whose sinister and lethal activities are merely hinted at.24 It is there- fore conceivable that Homer found it appropriate to the tastes of his aristo- cratic audience to 'humanize' the centaurs in the same way as he humanized the Sirens of popular tradition. The 'natural' characteristics of the centaurs in Homer are clear from the epithets used to describe them, but Homer stops short of physiological incongruity which might possibly have incurred criticisms of popular vulgarity. It should also be remembered that oral litera- ture might have provided Greek artists with descriptions to translate into plastic forms. This possibility seems to have been entirely overlooked by archaeologists.

    To conclude. Current attempts to explain the origins of centaurs as being of purely or predominantly Greek inspiration carry little conviction in view of Near Eastern exemplars which in the plastic arts could have provided Greek artists with models to imitate and adapt. Past efforts to deduce the origins of the centaurs by employing etymological analysis have, it seems, failed to gain wide agreement or support from classical philologists. On the other hand, the claim made nearly one hundred and forty years ago by Schmitz that the Greek centaurs were the product ofthe same kind of mental

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    processes which were experienced by the Indians of Pre-Columbian America on the introduction of the horse by the Spaniards, has been sub- stantiated from Spanish and other sources and suggests a further possibility: the Greek centaur is a local adaptation of a concept which originated from and represents the reaction of Near Eastern cultures to the introduction of the domesticated horse in the Near East long before it was introduced as a traction-animal to Greece about the midd...