Centaur Meaning, Symbolism & Mythology

Centaurs

The half-human, half-horse centaurs were mythical creatures who were known for their lustful, hard-partying, and even belligerent ways. Despite being portrayed as villains in many myths, the centaur is nevertheless a creature who has many admirers. Perhaps the reason is that centaur symbolism and meanings resonate strongly with many of us. Indeed, the centaur reminds us of aspects of ourselves, including a dualism in our own natures.

In this post, you’ll learn about the centaur, including centaur myths and legends, centaur meanings, the centaur in astrology, and more.

Centaur Statue
Centaur statue, Ceentaur Bridge, Pavlovsk, Russia.

What is a centaur?

A centaur is a mythical creature who has the upper body of a human and the lower body of a horse. Often depicted as male, centaurs could be both male and female.

Centaur Quick Facts:

  • Cultures of origin: Mesopotamia and Greece
  • Ancestry of the species: King Ixion of the Lapiths, an ancient tribe of Thessaly 1 (father) and a cloud called Nephele (mother)
  • Home: Mountain terrain of Thessaly and Arcadia in ancient Greece2
  • Unique Features: Human upper body and horse lower body

Etymology of the Name Centaur

Male Centaur

The original source of the name “centaur” is still up for debate. Most likely the name originated from the Latin word centaurus and the Greek word kentauros. Though historians theorize that the name (and the idea of centaurs themselves) pre-dates written language. The earliest instances of a similar name in written language dates back to 4000 BC or earlier in ancient Mesopotamia. However, seals depicting centaur-like creatures date back to the 13th century BC.

Baal and Mot

Some historians theorize that the Greek name and the centaur are based on Mesopotamian creation myths. According to the stories, the rain and fertility deity, Baal, battled a bull-like, horned demon called Mot who had brought drought to the land.

Thus, some surmise the name centaur originally meant “bull slayer.” The tauros part of the name meaning bull, which is similar to the Zodiac sign Taurus.3

Furthermore, in ancient Greece, the region of Thessalia, or Thessaly, was known for its skilled horsemen. The Greeks called them kentauros and they allegedly rode as though they were one with their horse. Thus, it’s easy to see how the myths of the centaurs were told and spread in that region.4

Assyrian Centaurs

Urmahlullu
A relief depicting the protective deity Urmahlullu from the palace of King Assurbanipal at Ninevah. Ca 640 BC.

While the centaurs are most known from Greek mythology, as the etymology of the name suggests, the creatures may have roots in ancient Mesopotamia, a region that today includes modern-day Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, and Turkey.

An ancient artifact gives us one clue: It’s an Assyrian seal that dates to the 13th century BC, which depicts a human with wings, the body of a horse, and the tail of a scorpion. Furthermore, the figure is carrying a bow, just like the one that is part of the symbol of Sagittarius.

Certainly, the Greeks adopted an incalculable number of cultural ideas from the Mesopotamians, as well as the ancient Egyptians, both of whom were known for depicting beings who were part human and part animal in their artwork and stories. Indeed, some historians surmise that the centaur may have been inspired by Urmahlullu, a Mesopotamian deity who had the upper body of a human and the lower body of a lion.

Urmahlullu was a guardian spirit who could protect against demons. Hence, the nobility and other wealthy Mesopotamians would place statues and seals depicting Urmahlullu around their homes.5

Centaur in Greek Mythology

Centaur Mosaic
Centaur mosaic. Source Altes Museum, Berlin, Germany.

While the centaur may have originated in the Middle East, it was the Greeks who ran with the idea and included the creatures in their stories and artwork. Here are some of the Greek myths involving centaurs:

King Ixion and Nephele: The Origins of the Centaur

According to one myth, the species of creatures known as the centaurs were the progeny of King Ixion, who ruled the oldest tribe in Thessaly. As mentioned earlier, the region was known for its skilled horsemen.

As the legend goes, when King Ixion chose a bride, whose name was Dia, he offered a high price to the maiden’s father. However, when it came time to pay, the greedy king reneged on his payment. Not to be outdone, Dia’s father took matters into his own hands and stole a number of Ixion’s prized horses in lieu of his promised payment.

This enraged the egotistical king who took his revenge by killing Dia’s father. The murder did not sit well with Ixion’s neighbors, however. Fellow noblemen in the region shunned Ixion for his destructive behavior, treating him like an outcast.

Misplaced Mercy

Overseeing these dramatic events, and perhaps seeing some of himself in Ixion, Zeus, the king of gods, took pity on the disgraced nobleman. Showing unusual benevolence, Zeus offered Ixion an invaluable invitation: to dine with him and the gods on Mt. Olympus.

However, even the almighty Zeus’ mercy did not humble Ixion’s sense of entitlement. Rather, it only it emboldened the king – so much so that he felt confident enough to openly lust after Hera, Zeus’ wife.

Not one to be trifled with, Zeus created a cloud named Nephele, which he fashioned to look exactly like the beautiful Hera. Naturally, the lustful Ixion was drawn to the cloud, and thus had sex with it.

Consequently, Zeus expelled Ixion from Olympus, blasting him with a lightning bolt in the process. Next, Zeus ordered his son Hermes to tie Ixion to a giant wheel and set it afire. The wheel was designed to spin with Ixion on it for eternity.

Centaurus

Although Ixion was now out of the way, his coupling with the cloud did manage to extend his life force, as it resulted in a son named Centaurus.

As the story goes, Centauros had the same lascivious tendencies as his father. He was so lustful, in fact, that he mated with the mares of Magnesia who grazed on Mount Pelion in southeastern Thessaly. And from this union, the species of creatures known as the centaurs was born.6

Perhaps the genes of their libidinous and immoral grandfather were to blame, but the centaurs came to be known as a raucous, trouble-making lot. They were particularly susceptible to the powers of alcohol, which only made them more lustful and out of control.

The Centauromachy

The Centauromachy
The epic battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs known as the Centauromachy. Piero di Cosimo, Ca. 1500 – 1515. Source: National Gallery.

Due to their brutish and unruly natures, the centaurs engaged in some epic battles. One such battle was known as the Centauromachy.

As the legend goes, King Ixion’s son and successor, Pirithous, was to wed a maiden named Hippodamia. As the new leader of the Lapith tribe, Pirithous thought his nuptials would be a good time to be more friendly with his region’s neighbors, with whom the Lapiths had feuded on and off. Thus, he invited the neighbors to his wedding, most of whom were centaurs.

Centaurs being centaurs, as soon as they started drinking at the wedding feast, fighting broke out. One centaur, in particular, caused the most trouble. Going by the name Eurytion, he decided that he would run off with Pirithous’ new bride.7

Unfortunately for the centaurs, Pirithous’ best friend, the hero Theseus, was also at the wedding feast. He rescued Hippodamia, and then with the help of the Lapiths, battled the centaurs, killing half of them. The remaining centaurs managed to escape, to wreak havoc somewhere else.8

The Centaurs and Heracles

Heracles and Pholos
Pottery depicting Heracles and the centaur Pholos. Ca. 520–510 BC. Source: Louvre Museum.

The centaurs engaged in other battles. Another notable one was with the hero Heracles (Hercules in Roman) who had a number of run-ins with them.

Not all centaurs were brutes, however. One such centaur was name Pholos who lived in a cave on Mount Pholoe. Heracles met Pholos while he was hunting the famous Erymanthian boar on the mountain. Finding Pholos to be different from his riotous kin, Heracles was intrigued and the two became friends.

As the pair engaged in an intellectual discussion, the naturally cordial Pholos offered Heracles some of his wine. Unfortunately, Pholos wasn’t the only centaur in the area. The pungent scent of the wine drifted in the breeze right into the nostrils of the other centaurs in the area. They soon came galloping to ransack Pholos’ cave in search of the alcohol. However, the herd of ruffians was no match for Heracles, who killed most of them with special poisoned arrows that had been dipped in the Hydra’s blood.

Unfortunately, Pholos was an accidental casualty in the battle. Curious about Heracles’ powerful poisoned arrows, he picked one up only to accidentally drop it on his foot. He died instantly.

Not to miss big battles, the gods had witnessed Pholo’s hospitality toward Heracles and were impressed by it. So, they paid tribute to him by placing him in the sky as the constellation Centaurus, or Sagittarius. (In a different version of the story, which you can read more about below, it is the centaur Chiron who is placed in the constellation.)

Heracles, Deianeira, and Nessus

Nessus Abducting Deianira
The centaur Nessus abducting Deianira. David Vinckboons, 1612. Source: Kunsthistorisches Museum.

The centaurs had another unfortunate run-in with Heracles. According to the legend, Heracles’ wife, Deianira, came to the river Euenos, which she wanted to cross. A centaur named Nessus offered to be her ferryman and carry her on his back to the other side.

However, centaurs being the lustful creatures that they were, instead of dropping Deianira off on the other side, Nessus took off at a gallop with her on his back, intending to have his way with her.

Seeing his wife’s abduction taking place, Heracles shot Nessus with one of his poisoned arrows.

As Nessus fell to the ground, he expressed his regret to Deianira, and told her to gather up some of his blood. He then told her that if she ever doubted Heracles’ fidelity to her, she could use some of the blood as a love potion and Heracles would fall in love with her once again.

As things go, Nessus’ instincts about Heracles were not off base, as the hero turned out not to be the most faithful husband. Sensing her husband’s infidelity, Deianeira smeared some of the centaur’s blood on Heracles’ shirt, which he then put on. However, far from being a love potion, the centaur’s blood proved toxic, burning Heracles so badly that he threw himself into a funeral pyre to put himself out of his misery. Seeing the death of her husband destroyed Deianira, who soon after killed herself with a sword.9

Atalanta and the Centaurs

The centaurs were not successfully destructive in every situation, however. While they routinely victimized beautiful women whose only recourse was to be saved by a heroic male, the centaurs met their match when they tried to have their way with a maiden named Atalanta.

As a babe, Atalanta had been rejected by her father and left on a mountaintop to die because she had not been born a son. However, the baby Atalanta managed to survive. Some claim she was rescued and raised by bears who taught her how to hunt and fight. Indeed, she grew up running wild in the woods and thus pledged herself to the goddess Artemis, vowing to remain a maiden forever.

One day while Atalanta was hunting, she caught the eye of two centaurs named Rhoikos and Hylaios. Confident that they could easily have their way with her since she was outnumbered, Rhoikos and Hylaios pursued her. However, they were no match for the she-bear-like maiden. Atalanta turned and adeptly killed both of them with her swift arrows.10

Chiron

Chiron
Chiron teaching Achilles how to play the lyre. Ca. 1st century AD. Source: National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

Like Pholos, the centaur Chiron (or Kheiron) was an outlier amongst his kind in that he was honorable, learned, and possessed self-restraint.

Chiron was the son of the Titan Kronos (Cronus) and the sea nymph Philyra. Kronos was besotted with the nymph when he saw her. In order to seduce her, he transformed himself into a horse so he could catch her unawares.

As a result of Kronos’ obsession, Philyra became pregnant and gave birth to Chiron. However, when she saw her baby, she was appalled at his half-human, half-horse form, so she left him on a rocky cliff to die.

The god Apollo took pity on the baby (or colt) and adopted him. The combination of the god of music, archery, medicine, and prophecy as his stepfather and Chiron’s natural curiosity imbued him with wisdom. Not to mention, Apollo’s sister Artemis was on-hand to teach Chiron in the arts of archery and hunting.

Knowledge, Wisdom, and Generosity

As he grew up, Chiron’s knowledge, wisdom, and generosity attracted students, and he famously taught heroes including Asclepius, Theseus, Heracles, Achilles, Jason, Perseus, and others.

Like a god, and unlike other centaurs who were mortal, Chiron was born with the gift of immortality. However (similar to the myth about Pholos), Chiron was accidentally wounded by one of Heracles’ poisoned arrows. For Chiron, the wound was not deadly, as he was immortal. However, its incurable nature meant that he would suffer unspeakable pain for eternity. Despite his agony, Chiron continued to travel, teach, and heal others.

It was on his travels that Chiron met Prometheus, a kindred spirit who was also stuck in a cycle of eternal misery. (Prometheus was being punished by Zeus for giving humans the gift of fire. The punishment was that an eagle would eat Prometheus’ liver out, yet Prometheus would not die. His liver would regenerate and the eagle would come back and eat it again.)

Taking pity on Prometheus, Chiron offered him his immortality, so that Prometheus could cease dying of agony only to be born again, while Chiron would be able to die and have freedom from his own agony. Impressed by Chiron’s generosity, Zeus placed Chiron in the stars as the constellation Centaurus, or Sagittarius. Thus, Chiron came to symbolize the wounded and selfless healer.11

Chiron, the Comet, and Centaur Objects

In addition to Chiron’s association with the constellation Centaurus, there are other celestial associations. Astronomer Charles Kowal discoverd what he thought was an asteroid in 1977, and in 1978 it was officially named Chiron after the wise centaur. Twelve years later, astronomers Karen Meech and Michael Belton discovered that the asteroid was far more volatile than first thought and that it more closely resembled the structure of a comet.12

Consequently, other similar comets were discovered and collectively given the name centaur objects. Befitting their name’s sake, these celestial bodies are known for their unstable orbits and propensity for colliding with large planets.13

Chiron in Astrology

For astrologers, the position of the comet Chiron in a person’s natal chart signifies where they have experienced deep emotional or spiritual wounds, which are karmic in nature – meaning they may be from this lifetime or previous ones. However, as the centaur Chiron was a wise healer, our emotional wounds in this area can also be our greatest sources of wisdom and strength. 14 We can thus use these experiences to heal ourselves and others.

Centaur Meaning in the Bible

Centaur and Satyr
A centaur and a satyr. Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Ca. 1771 – 1791. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Bible does not reference centaurs directly. However, creatures similar to centaurs are mentioned. The satyrs, who were also mythical creatures with Greek origins, were part-human and part-horse. However, satyrs were depicted in more comical terms. They were described as having the hind legs of a horse and the upper body of a man all while possessing a nonstop erection.

Satyrs are mentioned in the Bible, such as in the Book of Isaiah 13:21: “But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there…”15

In essence, the Bible depicts the satyrs like they do goats in some cases: as Satan-like, devilish, and unholy. So, we can only assume that if the centaurs had also appeared in biblical stories, they would be viewed negatively as well.

Centaur in Celtic Mythology

Centaur in Celtic Mythology
A plaque that decorates a cross featuring a centaur. Ca. 1160 – 1170. Source: Louvre Museum.

Just as cultural and spiritual beliefs cannot be contained to one region of the world, nor could the centaurs. They managed to make their way into the belief systems of the Celts of ancient Ireland and Scotland as well. In fact, despite satyrs getting a bad rap in the Bible, centaurs appeared in the carvings on Irish and Scottish crosses.

Most likely the centaurs’ appearance in these spiritual figures reflects the blending of earlier Celtic pagan beliefs and incoming Christian ones. The Celts associated the centaur with freedom, strength, virility, and fertility – qualities to be honored and celebrated.16

Centaur Symbol in Native American Culture

Conquistador
A conquistador practices intimidation on horseback. From the book “Romance of History, Mexico” by Margaret Duncan Coxhead.

Native Americans, particularly the plains tribes of North America, are known for their excellent horsemanship. Thus, some may wonder if there are centaur-like creatures in Native American creation myths and stories.

While North American fossils and petroglyphs reveal that horse-like animals roamed this continent tens of thousands of years ago, these creature became extinct about 12,000 years ago.17 Hundreds of years later, when the Vikings were in North America in the 10th and 11th centuries, it’s possible that they left ponies here. However, most historians agree that the Indigenous People of North, Central, and South America learned about horsemanship from the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century.

Indeed, according to some historians, the conquistador Hernan Cortez told his men to never let the Native Peoples they were trying to conquer see them off of their horses. He believed that as long as they were on horseback, the Natives would think that man and horse were one – and mythical beasts with great powers.

However, Native accounts show that the locals weren’t fooled. They told their leader, Montezuma, that foreigners had arrived who were riding big deer.18

What is clear is that the Indigenous Peoples of North, Central, and South America came to revere the horse. And some of them may have believed that humans could shapeshift into horses and back. However, there are no accounts that they believed in creatures who were half-human and half-horse, like the centaur.

The Centaur in Astrology: the Sign of Sagittarius

Sagittarius

As noted in the sections about Pholus and Chiron, the centaur is embodied in the constellation Centaurus and the astrological sign of Sagittarius. In astrology, Sagittarius is a fire sign that represents courage, travel, a sense of adventure, and a love of freedom. The darker side of Sagittarius is more line with the traditional qualities of the centaur, including restlessness, impulsiveness, and hot-headedness.

Another important aspect of the sign of Sagittarius is the symbol of the archer. As such Sagittarius literally and figuratively is aiming for the stars. Thus the sign of Sagittarius reminds us to dream big and to aim for the highest expression of ourselves. At the same time, Sagittarius’ ruling planet is Jupiter, which is the planet of expansion, exploration, and good luck.

What does the centaur symbolize?

As complex creatures with a rich history of myths and folklore, the centaur symbolizes a number of aspects, some positive and some negative.

Positive centaur meanings include:

  • Independence
  • Travel and adventure
  • Freedom
  • Primal energy
  • Zest for life
  • Education
  • Philosophy
  • Medicine and healing

Negative centaur meanings include:

  • Impulsiveness and recklessness
  • Hostility and belligerence
  • Violence
  • Escapism
  • Confusion and a clash of opposing views

Detailed Centaur Symbolism and Meanings

Female Centaur

The Greek myths portray the centaurs as the villains – foils to the brave heroes who fought against their violent, self-serving ways. However, despite their drawbacks, centaurs intrigue us, most likely because we see aspects of ourselves in them. To begin, they are part human and part beast. Thus, they remind us of our own primal, animalistic impulses and instincts as well as our ability to overcome them.

The centaur challenges us to recognize that while we might consider ourselves to be kind-hearted and thoughtful, each and every one of us has a dark side that is capable of negative thoughts, words, behaviors, and actions. Yet once we recognize our dual natures, we can begin to address our negative aspects so that we can heal ourselves and become more unified and whole.

Using Our Wounds for Personal Growth and to Help Others

Chiron, the wise centaur, presents the perfect example to us. While born a centaur, he changed the trajectory of his life path by seeking knowledge and understanding. Then, he took this a step further and shared his wisdom with others. Thus, Chiron is the perfect example of using our dark sides, or shadow selves, and our negative experiences to learn from and to bring more enlightenment to the world.

As horses are prey animals, they have an instinct to escape from negative situations. Thus, the part-horse centaur, while known to be belligerent, also has an escapist streak. The centaur’s love of drink is a symptom of this. Thus, the centaur reminds us to recognize our own impulse to escape, to be avoidant, and to even numb ourselves from unpleasant or painful realities. Instead, we should look to the positive aspects of the centaur. For example, turning our desire for escapism into positive experiences, such as getting out of our comfort zones, traveling, and embracing healthy new experiences.

Virility, Fertility, and Abundance

Centaurs are also woodland creatures. As such, they are symbols of nature, fertility, and virility. They remind us of the possibility for creation, growth, and abundance. So, the centaur is a helpful symbol for harnessing our primal energies and using them in creative pursuits and positive expression.

Finally, the centaur is also a symbol for higher learning, seeking wisdom, and aiming high. Thus, they remind us of our ability to grow, evolve, and shoot for the stars.

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