A centaur (/ˈsɛntɔːr/; Greek: Κένταυρος, Kéntauros, Latin: centaurus) or hippocentaur is a mythological creature with the head, arms, and torso of a human and the body and legs of a horse.
In early Attic and Beotian vase-paintings (see below), they are depicted with the hindquarters of a horse attached to them; in later renderings centaurs are given the torso of a human joined at the waist to the horse's withers, where the horse's neck would be.
This half-human and half-horse composition has led many writers to treat them as liminal beings, caught between the two natures, embodied in contrasted myths, both as the embodiment of untamed nature, as in their battle with the Lapiths (their kin), or conversely as teachers, like Chiron.
The centaurs were usually said to have been born of Ixion and Nephele (the cloud made in the image of Hera). Another version, however, makes them children of a certain Centaurus, who mated with the Magnesian mares. This Centaurus was either himself the son of Ixion and Nephele (inserting an additional generation) or of Apollo and Stilbe, daughter of the river god Peneus. In the later version of the story his twin brother was Lapithes, ancestor of the Lapiths, thus making the two warring peoples cousins.
Centaurs were said to have inhabited the region of Magnesia and Mount Pelion in Thessaly, the Foloi oak forest in Elis, and the Malean peninsula in southern Laconia. They continued to feature in literary forms of Roman mythology. A pair of them draw the chariot of Constantine the Great and his family in the Great Cameo of Constantine(c314-16), which embodies wholly pagan imagery.
The Centaurs are best known for their fight with the Lapiths, which was caused by their attempt to carry off Hippodamia and the rest of the Lapith women on the day of Hippodamia's marriage to Pirithous, king of the Lapithae, himself the son of Ixion. The strife among these cousins is a metaphor for the conflict between the lower appetites and civilized behavior in humankind. Theseus, a hero and founder of cities, who happened to be present, threw the balance in favour of the right order of things, and assisted Pirithous. The Centaurs were driven off or destroyed. Another Lapith hero, Caeneus, who was invulnerable to weapons, was beaten into the earth by Centaurs wielding rocks and the branches of trees. Centaurs are thought of in many Greek myths as wild as untamed horses. Like the Titanomachy, the defeat of the Titans by the Olympian gods, the contests with the Centaurs typify the struggle between civilization and barbarism.
The Centauromachy is most famously portrayed in the Parthenon metopes by Phidias and in a Renaissance-era sculpture by Michelangelo.
The tentative identification of two fragmentary Mycenaean terracotta figures as centaurs, among the extensive Mycenaean pottery found at Ugarit, suggests a Bronze Age origin for these creatures of myth. A painted terracotta centaur was found in the "Hero's tomb" at Lefkandi, and by the Geometric period, centaurs figure among the first representational figures painted on Greek pottery. An often-published Geometric period bronze of a warrior face-to-face with a centaur is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.