The Centaur is one of the many fabulous beasts of mythology. There are different stories about how the Centaur, a half-man half-horse creature, came into existence. According to one story it was as a result of the romantic interest that Centaurus, a Greek hero with a serpent’s tail, took in the mares of Magnesium. Another story makes the Centaur the off-spring of King Ixion of Thessaly and a strange Goddess-shaped cloud that Zeus blew into existence. More realistic theorists insist that the idea of a Centaur was actually cooked up by Ancient Greeks with vision problems and no knowledge of horses (horse riding was unknown to the Homeric Grecians) – after they had first encountered and been routed by those magnificent horsemen of the Ancient World, the Scythians. Whatever its origins, the Centaur certainly made an impact on the Greek psyche and appears in various examples of Greek Art. Notably in the famous Elgin Marbles, so called after the art-loving Englishman Lord Elgin. He was in the habit of appropriating for his nation any portable (he made them portable if they were not to begin with) works of art that caught his fancy on his many international jaunts. He was a great believer in Rule Britannica and since Britannica really ruled in those days he got away with the freehanded piracy – today he would most likely incite an international ‘incident’ and enjoy an extended stay behind bars at the foreign location.
Anyway, to get back to the Centaurs, the most famous of these magical creatures probably was Cheiron. He was the King of the Centaurs and a great chum of the Greek strong-man, Hercules. He was also singularly responsible for imparting hunting skills to Achilles and Aesculapius and thereby endangering the wild-life in the Ancient World. Perhaps he should have spent equal time honing the skills of his pal, Hercules – it was finally a poisoned arrow by Hercules, let loose in the wrong direction, that knelled his doom. Of course, being an immortal, he needn’t have died, but he voluntarily chose that option – because, mortal or immortal, poison hurts, and whoever would choose to live in everlasting agony? For this piece of rational thinking, Zeus placed Cheiron amongst the stars and on a clear night – and especially if you were born between 21 November and 20 December – you can see him as the constellation Sagittarius.
To offset Cheiron, the Sumerians had the wise Hes Bani (though he was really half-bull half-man) and the Scythians celebrated their love of the Equine Family with Ipopodes, who was blessed with just the legs and the hooves of a horse. Then there were the Onocentaurs – the Ono having no relation to Yoko and everything to do with the exclamatory O! No! – these creatures were half-ass half-man, and although such a winning combination would pass muster unnoticed today, the Ancients had a higher standard and considered the Onocentaurs of no possible account. Actually though there is something admirable alright about the Onocentaurs – they were such fiercely independent, freedom-loving creatures that they preferred to starve themselves to death rather than exist in bondage. This trait was never overcome and so none of the Ancients ever owned a live Onocentaur. And we all know the story of the Fox and the Sour Grapes. If we don’t, we should make an acquaintance with one of the most delightful of the Ancient Greeks – Aesop.
Another famous Centaur is the Celestial Horse of China. Perhaps the Ancient Chinese who came up with this Centaur idea was a wit of the first order or was short on descriptive drawing skills. Because the Celestial Horse of China looks more like the Celestial Piebald and Winged Dog of China.
Then there is Al Borak, the Centaur that is said to have belonged to the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam. Al Borak must have been a sight to behold indeed – he had a human face (a man’s, of course, since the Prophet didn’t have a very high opinion of women), the ears of a donkey, the body of a horse, and the brilliant feathers of a peacock. Atleast this is how he is depicted in miniature paintings. Astride Al Borak, Mohammed used to nightly visit the Seven Heavens. This was possible since Al Borak’s one stride covered a distance beyond the comprehension of human sight.
And then there is the Celtic Centaur, Epona – my favorite and perhaps the only female Centaur in Mythology.
And then the Hippogriph – not, as you would think, the love-child of a Hippopotamus and a Horse, but, in fact, of a Horse and a Griffin. For those who don’t know, the Griffin in turn is the off-spring of a Lion and an Eagle.