“Horses frighten me as much as chickens do,” he said.
“That is too bad, because lack of communication with horses has impeded human progress,” said Abrenuncio. “If we ever broke down the barriers, we could produce the centaur.”
― Gabriel García Márquez
Ancient Greece is generally considered the cradle of western civilization, since they were the first to keep extensive historical and ethnographic records and distinguish themselves from their “less civilized” eastern neighbors, and although they were a fractious bunch of Mediterraneans, we tend to think of them as a monolithic culture that emerged in the Aegean where philosophy, the seeds of modern democracy, and scientific inquiry first flourished in forms we would recognize. The Hellenistic World certainly had a good run before being subsumed by the ever expanding sphere of Roman prosperity, but Greece only really began to emerge as a distinct entity in the 8th Century B.C. Some precursors were apparent in the earlier Mycenaean civilization that seems to have failed in about 1100 B.C. as part of a generalized Bronze Age collapse in the eastern Mediterranean that decimated the Hittite Empire, Syria, and Egypt as well (many major cities throughout the region were destroyed and abandoned). The prevailing theory is that a combination of climate change leading to drought and crop failures, northern invaders (the hypothetical Dorians), and the emergence of massed infantry in warfare may have led to a general systems collapse, decreasing literacy and interrupting trade. Everybody was busy staying alive, so nobody was writing about stuff. The cultural forefathers in the western world only started getting their civilized groove on again and taking notes in classical Greece (around the 5th Century B.C.). We do have a few ideas about was going on during the period referred to as the Greek Dark Ages (1100-800 B.C.) that preceded the classical dawn, and there are suggestions that al least part of the problem may have been a centaur infestation. We don’t encounter many centaurs (the mythological half-man, half horse) these days, and this may be due to the horrible conflict hinted at by our few historical sources, called the Centauromachy, that is, the war with the centaurs.
Proto-historical Greece was occupied by at least four distinct indigenous tribes – the Aeolians (Herodotus says they were previously called the Pelasgians), Achaeans, Dorians, and Ionians, the largest of which were the Aeolians in the region of Thessaly (central Greece on the Aegean and originally named Aeolus). Eventually the Aeolians were dispersed throughout Greece after invasions from their western neighbors in Thesprotian Ephyra, and hence the area took the name Thessaly. We don’t have precise dates for the Aeolian war with the centaurs, but it appears to have emerged from a disagreement between an Aeolian subgroup called the Lapiths, who while human, are rumored to have shared a common ancestor with the centaurs, and from the fact that centaurs can’t hold their liquor.
Centaurs were a fixture of the Aegean world, and appeared to have inhabited the area at least since the Syrian port city of Mycenaean Ugarit had its heyday (from roughly 1450-1200 B.C.) given the presence of terracotta centaur figurines. Rationalists who wish to explain away the possibility of creatures with a human torso and horse body have suggested that as early as the 27th Century B.C., the Minoan civilization that dominated the Aegean world from the 27-15th Century B.C., and from where the notion of the centaur is hypothesized to originate, was not familiar with the horse-riding, nomadic cultures of northern nomads (the steppe grasslands of Central Asia are likely where equestrian culture truly arose), and that when they first encountered them, understandably assumed that horse and rider were a single beast. This of course, makes the usual assumption that our forefathers were morons and couldn’t tell the difference between a person riding a horse and a monstrous hybrid of the two. I for one find it more comforting to think that strange monsters existed than to conclude that our ancestors were completely retarded, especially when their lives depended more on an accurate assessment of threats. By the time the Greeks started seriously writing about centaurs, there was nary a centaur to be found on the planet, although at one point, presumably in the proto-Indo-European world (at a time when a common language was spoken by the ancestors of the people’s of South Asia and Europe, suggested to be anywhere between 4500-2500 B.C.), they must have thrived since we encounter analogous descriptions in Hindu and ancient Mediterranean literature and artwork, thus awareness of the centaur as a species likely dates almost 7000 years into the past. Of course, by even 3500 B.C. we were just getting good at flint-knapping and cooking our food, so we could hardly have been expected to keep detailed records. The centaur first starts getting recognized in earnest by a forgotten people called the Kassites, and although they managed to take over Babylonia and dominate it from 1531 – 1155 B.C., very few people have ever heard of them. Luckily, their obsession with horses and dominance in the region around the Tigris and Euphrates places them just prior to the Greek Homeric Age (1100-800 B.C.), thusly named as this was the era that Homer was presumed to be writing about, and the time period in which the genocidal Centauromachy occurred.
Who were the Kassites and how are they related to our search for the origins of the war against the centaurs? What we do know is that just after the Hittite Empire sacked Babylon in 1595 B.C., the Kassites swept in, ensconced themselves as a military aristocracy, and proceeded to rule Babylonia for the next five hundred years. Because the Kassites adopted the popular Akkadian language as an effort to assure their Babylonian subjects that they were legitimate rulers, we know very little about them in their own language (the few traces of their original language appear in the names of deities and, curiously, horses). From the scraps scholars have they are fairly confident that the Kassite language was not Semitic, and likely did not even fall into the Indo-Aryan group of languages, what linguists call a “language isolate”, that is a natural human language with no genealogical relationship to any other identifiable language, and this is not for lack of trying to classify it. Nobody actually knows where they came from, and their first appearance in the historical record is when an 18th Century B.C. Kassite invasion of Babylonia was repelled by Samsu-Iluna, son of Hammurabi. It is said they swept out of the Zagros Mountains in Lorestan (western Iraq). Two hundred years later, the Kassites took advantage of the battering of the Babylonians by the Hittites, and wound up in charge for a few centuries, finally succumbing to the neighboring Elamites in the 12th Century B.C. It is noted by Strabo, that the Kassites melted back into the Zagros Mountains from whence they came, but they reappear later, regularly raiding the Achaemenid Persians, fighting for the Persians against Alexander in 331 B.C., contributing 13,000 archers to the army of Elam (a vassal state of Parthia around 300 B.C.), and finally noted by 2nd Century geographer Ptolemy as residing near the Elymean regions. Then they vanish from history.
The Kassites concern us for a number of reasons. It is widely accepted that they introduced the horse to Mesopotamia. The Kassites considered the horse a sacred animal, and may have even worshiped the horse. And they kept drawing pictures of centaurs. Now first, I want you to disabuse yourselves of the modern notion that it isn’t an act of insanity to try and ride a horse. I’ve worked on horse farms, and while the domesticated equine may seem relatively placid these days, I assure you they are not, and to this day maintain a repertoire of nasty little tricks designed to prevent you from mounting them. We only began domesticating them around 4000 B.C. This is because you largely must have a death wish to look at a four-legged beast that is five feet tall, weighs 1000 pounds, runs at 30 miles per hour, and can kick you into next week, and decide that you probably need to get on top of it. Yet somehow, the Kassites thought this was a good idea. And no doubt, after many a would-be rider had his skull crushed while trying to convince a horse to cooperate, they developed a notion that horses were sacred animals. Another thing the Kassites were known for, as they jockeyed with Egypt and Assyria for supremacy in the Near East, was marking the boundaries of their lands with stones. And these stones were frequently adorned with pictures of centaurs. Anthropologists interpret these centaur motifs as representative of guardian spirits, as anthropologists are wont to do whenever they encounter an inexplicable monster, but just perhaps the Kassites were being quite literal and suggesting that anybody who messed with them better be ready for some serious mythological mayhem at the hand of monsters with which they were all too familiar (and perhaps got the whole idea of riding a horse from), that is a strange race of half-men, half horses.
By 500 B.C. the centaurs had disappeared in Greece, but were remembered by the Greek poet Pindar (522-443 B.C.), including an association with clouds that also appears in Hindu literature. Later genealogies replace Ixion (a forefather of the Lapith tribe, whose son would be the author of the Centauromachy, Perithous) with Apollo, but earlier versions maintain that the centaurs resulted from the awful manners of Ixion, who distinguished himself by first impressing Zeus, getting invited to dinner on Olympus, and then offending his host by lusting after his wife Hera. Zeus tricked Ixion into sleeping with a cloud that was made to look like Hera. The result of this union was a child named Centauros, who had a thing for the horses on Mt. Pelion, and the spawn of this unnatural union turned out to be the centaurs.
One, that in the secret cells of the palace vast
Jove’s own spouse he tempted! (Happy who knows his place!)
Into measureless shame Delusion the lover cast
Fooled, yet unresisting, he welcomed a Cloud’s embrace,
Whose phantom charms the wittol lured,
In form of Heaven’s proud Queen, fatally fair,
Shaped by Zeus’ craft the sinner to ensnare!
Thus his own dread doom of fourfold fetters he ensured; In everlasting chains confined, He speaks Heaven’s message to mankind!
And offspring weird of the phantom came
Monster of unexampled birth, Unhonoured or in heaven or earth,
She reared; and Centaurus she named his name.
To him Magnetian mares at Pelion’s foot
Strange progeny bare,
Commingled that share
The form of sire and dam, half man, half brute!
(Pindar, 2nd Pythian Ode)
Interestingly, Vedic literature extensively mentions a race of half-men, half-horses called Gandharvudu (formidable warriors and accomplished singer/musicians). The Mahabarata, the origins of which are dated to roughly the 9th Century B.C., repeatedly discusses the Gandharvudu, and their correspondence to the later Greek centaur is remarkable. Keep in mind that Indo-Aryan migrations from Iran to India have frequently been hypothesized, and we may be looking at verification of an idea from independent sources, recording a memory of fearsome critters that once wandered from the Middle East to South Asia.
Whatever be the etymological discrepancy between Centaur and Gandharva, the likeness is close. Centaurs are nubigenae; Gandharvas are cloud-forms; the town of Gandharvas is cloud-land. Both are sensual (kiminah; paiderastai); both have equine forms; both are musical. The Visnu-Purana even derives Gandharva from gam-dhara, “songmaker”, obviously forcing the etymology to give the sense felt to be necessary. Both become teachers. Narada means the “water-giver” (cloud) and is at ﬁrst a Gandharva and then becomes an expositor (Parvata, his companion, is cloud). Compare further Varuna as a Gandharva and the “sky-going horses”, recognised as “mind-born sons” of Laksmi, sister_of Dhatr and Vidhatr. Native authorities give gandh as “injure”, perhaps as seizing (habeo); Gandharvas as grahas or robbers. The Vedic Gandharva thus seizes the bridle (rays) of the Sun and the bride of men. Gandhakali (-ika, as mother of Vyasa) was an Apsaras who became a Grahi, or seizing monster; “she took the lives of all she seized and even devoured gods and Gandharvas”, till the sight of Hanumat put an end to the curse of the Muni Yaksa (RG 6, 82, 74 and 160 f.). The Connection with gandha as vapor seems more natural. Perhaps Siva as gandhadharin and gandhapalin is so to be interpreted (Hopkins, 1915, p157-158).
Where once centaurs may have ranged from Greece to India, by the Homeric Age (1100-800 B.C) in Greece, only remnant populations of centaurs seemed to exist in isolated pockets – the region of Magnesia and the densely forested Mount Pelion in Thessaly, the Foloi oak forest in Elis (the Peloponnese peninsula), and the Malean peninsula in southern Laconia (Sparta). The war with the centaurs erupted in Thessaly, which as you will remember was at the time occupied by the Aeolian Lapith tribe. The Lapiths inhabited the Valley of Peneus, roughly between the fabled, but nonetheless real, Mt. Olympus and Mt. Pelion. Centaurs and humans lived in relative amity presumably due to the fact that they were believed to share a common ancestor. Apollo (who in some versions replaces the previously mentioned Lapith Ixion, although note that both versions maintain the family relationship between centaurs and Lapithes) and the daughter of the river god Peneus were said to have had twins, Cenataurus and Lapithes. Lapithes made his father proud and went on to become King of the Lapithes, whereas Centaurus slept with a horse, reputedly begetting a centaur. Relations between the Lapithes and Centaurs seemed unremarkable. In fact countless Greek heroes were said to have been educated by the wisest of the centaurs on Mount Pelion, Chiron, including such notables as Asclepius, Aristaeus, Ajax, Aeneas, Actaeon, Caeneus, Theseus, Achilles, Jason, Peleus, Telamon, Perseus, Heracles, Oileus, and Phoenix. The centaurs were even invited to the wedding of Lapith King Perithous and Hippodamia. This is where things went very wrong. Centaurs apparently don’t drink very much, but overindulged at the wedding feast, eventually losing control and attempting to kidnap the bride. This is not appropriate wedding etiquette. Psychologists have interpreted this as a metaphor for the conflict between civilization and the brute nature of mankind. I interpret it as centaurs behaving badly. The royal groom was understandably put out, and this sparked a savage war to eradicate the centaurs, labeled by later scholars as the Centauromachy. Presumably, the Lapithes succeeded in their efforts to wipe out the centaurs, as there are no more centaurs.
When, soon afterwards, Pirithous became united to Hippodamia, a Thessalian princess, he invited Theseus to the wedding-feast, which was also attended, among other guests, by a large number of Centaurs, who were friends of Pirithous. Towards the end of the banquet Eurytion, a young Centaur, heated and flushed with wine, seized the lovely bride and sought by force to carry her off. The other Centaurs, following his example, each endeavoured to capture a maiden. Pirithous and his followers, aided by Theseus, who rendered most valuable assistance, attacked the Centaurs, and after a violent handto-hand struggle in which many perished, forced them to relinquish their prey (Berens, 1894, p266).
Homer remarked on the same incident.
And they that held Ormenius and the fountain Hypereia, and that held Asterium and the white crests of Titanus, these were led by Eurypylus, the glorious son of Euaemon. And with him there followed forty black ships. And they that held Argissa, and dwelt in Gyrtone, Orthe, and Elone, and the white city of Oloösson, these again had as leader Polypoetes, staunch in fight, son of Peirithous, whom immortal Zeus begat— even him whom glorious Hippodameia conceived to Peirithous on the day when he got him vengeance on the shaggy centaurs, and thrust them forth from Pelium, and drove them to the Aethices (Homer, Iliad Bk. 2, verses 734-745).
By Homer’s time, it appears that the centaur was a distant memory, hunted down by vengeful Lapithes. The centaurs were remembered only as the most terrible of enemies, having been utterly decimated in an epic battle against the Lapithes.
Then among them arose Nestor, sweet of speech, the clear-voiced orator of the Pylians, from whose tongue flowed speech sweeter than honey. Two generations of mortal men had passed away in his lifetime, who had been born and reared with him before in sacred Pylos and he was king among the third. He with good intent addressed the gathering and spoke among them: “Comrades, great grief has come upon the land of Achaea. Truly would Priam and the sons of Priam rejoice, and the rest of the Trojans would be most glad at heart, were they to hear all this of you two quarrelling, you who are chief among the Danaans in counsel and chief in war. Listen to me, for you are both younger than I. In earlier times I moved among men more warlike than you, and never did they despise me. Such warriors have I never since seen, nor shall I see, as Peirithous was and Dryas, shepherd of the people, and Caeneus and Exadius and godlike Polyphemus, and Theseus, son of Aegeus, a man like the immortals. Mightiest were these of men reared upon the earth; mightiest were they, and with the mightiest they fought, the mountain-dwelling centaurs, and they destroyed them terribly (Homer, Iliad Bk. 1, verses 245-270).
Our knowledge of the world before humanity decided that writing was good for more than keeping tax records remains fragmentary, and just as we have driven countless mundane species to extinction, both intentionally and inadvertently, is it so inconceivable that a very different world existed before our appreciation of written records manifested itself, but we similarly enforced our position at the top of the food chain with extreme prejudice? In our earliest writings there are hints of brutal wars, complex foreign relations, and comingling with monsters that today come down to us as fables, but what if our ancestors were encoding memories of a far darker world, populated by bizarre creatures, hybrid beasts, and dare I say it, monsters that were wiped from the face of the earth. Just as we have forgotten that for five hundred years, a mysterious people of unknown origins called the Kassites ruled Babylonia, so too may we have forgotten that centaurs once roamed across Asia and the Mediterranean, and fell into mortal conflict with their neighbors. Entire civilizations rise and fall, build monuments, fight wars, live and love across generations and disappear into the mists of time. The structures of Gobekli Tepe, the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi, and the vague written references to the Hyperboreans are often all we have left of what might have been substantial peoples with deep histories that extend far beyond our accepted notion of the timeline of the human race. Then again, as a species, we do lie a lot.
Berens, E. M. A Hand-book of Mythology. New York: Charles E. Merrillco., 1894.
Homer. The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924.
Hopkins, Edward Washburn, 1857-1932. Epic Mythology. Strassburg: K.J. Trübner, 1915.
Pindar. The Olympian and Pythian Odes of Pindar: Tr. into English Verse. London: H.S. King & Co., 1876.