From Symbolic to Idiomatic Motif
The half-man and half horse creatures originate from the oldest Greek mythology and likely older lost origins. Like many myths from antiquity, multiple origins of the creature exist, obscuring the original narrative, but scholarly speculation tends to focus on the centaur as a symbolic liminal creature caught between states of “humanity” and “animal-like” or “civilized” and “barbaric” (Nash, 1984). In most literary interpretations, the centaur represents the division of beastly or animal like tendencies vying with more refined and logical attributes of humans. The duality of the centaur has all but lost symbolic potency in modernity, leaving intact the cultural importance surviving only as an idiomatic motif of modern fantasy literature.
The Centaur Symbol
The centaur’s liminal quality is perhaps one of the oldest views of the duality of human spirit and mind. One of the earliest stories tells of Cronus, the father of Zeus, who took stallion form to, “keep his wife Rhea from observing his sexual assault on Philyra,” giving birth to the centaur Chiron, or “because Philyra had transformed herself into a mare to escape Cronus,” resulting in the birth of the centaur. Accounts such as these producing liminal creatures are common in Greek mythology including Pan, who in the account by Apollodorus of Athens in “The Library, Volume 2”, recalls several accounts of Pan being Penelope’s child, fathered by all the suitors, who Odysseus kills upon arriving home. Similar to Pan, the Centaur’s origin is almost always attributed to some form of union wrought in emotional appetite or indiscretion that supplants reason. In another account, translated by John Tzetzes, in the the centaur is born of the indiscretion of Ixion Pleugos who tried to force himself upon Hera and was tricked by Zeus into revealing the truth and punished,
And Zeus, wishing to know the truth,
Made a cloud into an image of Hera and led it to Ixion.
He lay with the cloud resembling Hera,
And fathered a child named Centaurus, a disfigured man who,
Mixing with horses in Pelian places,
Brought forth the part-horse Centaurs.
These early narratives of the Centaur’s origin trace the centaur’s symbol as human duality between appetite and reason, which over time has continued to fade in potency as more realistic symbols have replaced the myth.
The Death of the Centaur
The death of the Centaur’s symbolism has occurred over thousands of years as less reductive views of human nature flourished. Throughout history the Centaur has been a cultural inspiration as the symbolism of human duality of nature remained relatively static. The earliest of accounts of Chiron best represent the longevity of the centaur in cultural meaning.
Many descriptions of the centaur describe a creature given to violence and appetites: war, stealing nymphs. Chiron, in early and late antiquity, is reflected as the wise centaur who rose above his beastly nature giving himself to rational thought. He is the educator of many Greek heroes of the Epic Cycle known for teaching Achilles the lyre. Chiron is the ideal state of man in some sense because he represents the person who has overcome his appetites. This view appears in throughout Greek and Roman art both early and late antiquity.
The Greek and Roman art mostly depicts the Centaur as either the wise Chiron or as a beast given to impulse (Nash, 1984). This view of the Centaur is consistent until early Medieval art begins depicting the Centaur as symbol of evil. Given the nature and mythical symbolism of the Centaur, this interpretation is consistent with the rise of Christianity. In the story, “Life of St Anthony the Great” by Athanasius of Alexandria the saint is challenged by a centaur who admits the death of the old gods when faced with the faith of Anthony. Christianity’s influence changed the perception of the centaur from a theme of striving to overcome nature to a more externalized view of the centaur as a force of sin overcome through faith. This view remains in art but with the rise of education and industry it is likely that the original view of the centaur repopulated culture as the creature is reprised in art and fantasy novels clearly seen beyond 1800 (Nash, 1984). Some of the more famous centaur illustrations in literature are featured in books such as the Chronicles of Narnia and The Harry Potter Series which both depict the creatures similarly to the original Greek symbolism as civilized creatures but with a propensity to emotionalism. However, modern cultural references are mostly confined to science fiction and fantasy as the influence of Christianity likely made the creature less palatable as an offspring of indulgence or sin. Equally impactful in the decline of the Centaur in popular culture is the movement away from reductivism.
With the advent of modern psychology and advancement of critical theory, views of human nature became more complex. Freud provided more robust views of human nature, theorizing the relation of conscious and subconscious rather than a choice between rationality and emotion. More to the point, Freud alters the paradigm of myth from one of relating a morale or ethic to a vision of human nature: an unconscious pool of desire and taboos that cannot be voiced in society. In this Freudian view, the Centaur is not an emotional vice to be overcome but instead an intrinsic part of human nature to be understood, thus opening the door to scientific analysis of human nature but also a different interpretation of myth. Referring to the aforementioned discussion of Pan, the emerging field of psychology becomes a new literary critique lens,
Freud and other psychologists would focus especially on the dreams of Penelope, particularly the dream in which the goddess Athena suggests the contest of the bow. Such a dream can be interpreted as Penelope’s subliminal yearnings to control her own destiny by establishing the terms of her remarriage. At the same time, the dream expresses her subconscious refusal to accept such remarriage, except to her long-absent husband Odysseus. The arrow which Odysseus shoots from the bow in this contest means death for the suitors but sexual and personal gratification for Penelope. Elements of religion and cult in the myth of Penelope are less evident.
This shift in critical interpretation of myth fuels the decline in the centaur’s prevalence in culture as more psychological and feminist views arose,
While there is certainly no evidence that this tale derives from some long-forgotten ritual, the close parallels between Penelope and Athena in the myth of Odysseus are striking. Both goddess and wife use their cunning to advance the interests of Odysseus. Penelope is Odysseus’ human ally, much as Athena is his divine sponsor. The identification of Penelope with divinity is made more explicit in a post-Homeric tradition that Penelope was not faithful to Odysseus in his absence but slept with all 129 of her suitors and gave birth to the god Pan.
As seen in both examples of Freudian interpretations of the story of Penelope and Pan, the Centaur’s relevance become even more obscured. With the development of trait theory, and the measuring human cognition and attitudes, this complexity of nature becomes further removed from the symbolism of the centaur in the measure of behavior and attitudes via distinctive traits. In modern theory, the centaur’s symbolic struggle of self becomes antiquated giving rise to far more robust characters in literature and descriptions of internal struggle. Essentially, the centaur no longer represents the inner conflict of humanity being dated.
Perhaps adding to this complexity is the unbelievability of the centaur. Whereas other creatures have remained popular in culture such as Bigfoot or witches, the centaur has no evidence and no credibility in a scientific sense. The concept of any creature through cross-species breeding is known to be impossible by normal means, doubtful by extraordinary means such as lab grown centaur, and this is perhaps why the centaur is relegated to plot-driven science fiction and fantasy rather than literary fiction as science and knowledge continue pushing the centaur further human nature's symbolism.
From Symbolic to Idiomatic Motif
Modern versions of the centaur are in most instances idiomatic motifs of fantasy that sometimes express their old symbolism. In the The Gaea Trilogy by John Varley there are centaurs aliens who are hermaphrodites that share the skill of music with the original Chiron. The book The Neverending Story by Michael Ende there is a doctor centaur, Cairon, whose name and profession alluded to the myth of Chiron. There are many examples of the appearance of the centaur in pop culture but this appearance is less impactful as the most characters are a form of window dressing or idiomatic motif in the case of fantasy literature. Having a centaur in a modern fantasy novel is as ubiquitous as a dwarf or elf. While traits may change or some skill or attribute the creature is relatively the same, shifting from one book to the next, representing the fantasy rather than a theme.
This same slow death of symbolism can be seen in the Xena: Warrior Princess, television series, which depicts centaurs which are allies but could just as easily be some other mythological character. Similarly, In Futurama: Bender’s Game, Leela is depicted as a centaur but not as symbolic of human nature but as a satirical element in comedy. Perhaps the clearest example of the death of the centaur reveals in the art of Bill Willers, a professor of Biology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, who created skeletal remains of a centaur made of human bones and a Shetland pony. The exhibit’s intention was to encourage critical thinking skills in people.
Perhaps Willers made something more meaningful than intended as this artwork clearly distinguishes the real from unreal by using the mythical centaur. This shift away from meaning in the centaur reflects the lack of importance given to the creature’s symbolism. Despite this loss of meaning, understanding the centaur’s symbolism in literature and art still provides insight in literary criticism as it draws a line between modern and antiquated views of human nature.
Chiron teaching Achilles how to play the lyre, a Roman fresco from Herculaneum, 1st century AD. (n.d.). Wikimedia Commons