Can we think of Centaurs as a species?

2019.05.03 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. Ιn three previous essays posted in Classical Inquiries, 2019.04.26, 2019.04.19 and 2019.03.22, I analyzed myths about Centaurs. Since they were pictured as half-man and half-horse, we could nowadays think of them as monsters. And, in terms of what we see in pre-classical and classical representations of Centaurs, such monsters were exclusively male, exhibiting the shaggy hormonal characteristics of exaggerated human maleness. Accordingly, Centaurs could hardly be viewed as a species of animals—or, let us say, of half-animals. In post-classical representations, however, as noted by Jan Bremmer (2012:26, 29) in the course of his detailed survey of relevant testimonia about such monsters, we start seeing female Centaurs as well. So, maybe Centaurs were eventually perceived as a species after all? Such a perception persists into modernity, culminating almost absurdly in the image of the “Centaurettes” featured in Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940). A closer look at the theriomorphism or beastly form of the Centaurs, however, reveals that even in pre-classical times there existed representations of female monsters who were half-woman and half-horse. My favorite example is a Boeotian incised decoration, dated to the seventh century BCE, picturing Medusa the monstrous Gorgon as half-woman and half-horse. But is this female monster really a Centaur? In formulating an answer to this question, I will need to reassess my understanding of the relationship between myth and ritual in Greek traditions.

two centaurettes_325


Perseus averting his gaze as he kills Medusa, represented here as a Centaur.
Perseus averting his gaze as he kills Medusa, represented here as a Centaur. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


After Fantasia, directed by Wilfred Jackson et al. (1940).
After Fantasia, directed by Wilfred Jackson et al. (1940).


Centauress (ca. 1887). John La Farge (1835–1910).
Centauress (ca. 1887). John La Farge (1835–1910). Image via Wikimedia Commons.


§1. So far, I have been talking about Centaurs in myth. But what do Centaurs have to do with ritual? Part of the answer was explored in the essay I presented in the previous posting for Classical Inquiries, 2019.04.26, where I showed that myths about Centaurs, whether they are solitary or grouped together, shed light on rituals that Arnold van Gennep (1909/1960) has described as “rites of passage.” But there is more to it. Another part of the answer has to do with the ritual meaning of the actual biformity that we see in visual representations of Centaurs. This biformity is more evident in earlier rather than later versions of picturing these monsters. In earlier versions, the front part of a Centaur is a complete man, standing on his own legs, but there is attached to his buttocks the back part of an incomplete horse that has only its hind legs to stand on, without its front legs. In later versions, more realistically, the front part of a Centaur is an incomplete man whose upper body extends into the front legs of a horse that would be a complete animal—except for the fact that the horse here is without its own chest and its own neck and its own head. I have just said that this version of the monster is more realistic—now that the two front legs can keep up with the two back legs of a speeding horse—but this realism makes it less effective in conveying the ritual meaning of the Centaur’s monstrous biformity. And what I said about the earlier version of male Centaurs applies also to the picturing of the Gorgon Medusa in her monstrous biformity as half-woman and half-horse.

§2. Here I rely on the anthropological perspectives of Victor Turner (1967) in his analysis of meanings that are built into constructs of monstrous biformities or even multiformities in rituals that he too, like van Gennep, describes as rites of passage. In such rituals, biform or multiform monstrosities are imagined as constructs that challenge the mind by way of their purposeful non-realism. As distinct from the world of reality, there is a world of non-realism that must be faced by the “novices” who are to be initiated—whom most anthropologists prefer to call the “neophytes” or “initiands.” In the words of Turner (1967:205), “monsters startle neophytes into thinking about objects, persons, relationships, and features of their environment they have hitherto taken for granted.” For an example, Turner (p. 96) cites various practices of initiation where the initiand “may be forced to live for a while in the company of masked and monstrous mummers.” The reason for my highlighting this particular example cited by Turner—an example involving the use of masks—is that it helps us appreciate the picturing of Medusa the Gorgon at the moment when her head is being severed by the hero Perseus: the Gorgon’s gaze, which needs to be averted so that this hero may avoid being turned into stone, is a stylized form of a mask.

§3. In this connection I rely also on the anthropological perspectives of A. David Napier (1967), whose book Masks, Transformation, and Paradox highlights correspondences between the practice of wearing masks in ritual and the picturing of the Gorgon’s face in myth (at p. 110, we see that Gorgons are traditionally pictured as “facing out” even when running at top speed; also, at pp. 61–62, we are shown the image, already cited above, of Medusa as a “Gorgon-horse,” along with other such examples as well). Napier also highlights correspondences between ritual performances of mummers’ plays and mythological narratives about theriomorphic goblins (pp. 18–19), including the Modern Greek Kallikantzari (p. 56). I should add that attempts to provide etymologies for names like Kallikantzari—or even for the ancient Greek name Kentauroi—are impeded by a factor known to linguists as “taboo-deformation.”

§4. Returning to the work of Victor Turner (1967), I should stress the value of his applying the relevant formulations of Mary Douglas as he found them in her first edition of Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1960). As Turner observes (p. 97), her formulations confirm his own finding that “liminal personae nearly always and everywhere are regarded as polluting to those who have never been, so to speak, ‘inoculated’ against them, through having been themselves initiated into the same state.” Turner goes on to say (p. 98): “since neophytes are not only structurally ‘invisible’ (though physically visible) and ritually polluting, they are very commonly secluded, partially or completely, from the realm of culturally defined and ordered states and statuses.”

§5. Corresponding to such practices of periodic seclusion—in ritual—are narratives about the permanent disappearance—in myth—of liminal personae. Relevant here is a concern expressed by a scientific thinker who flourished in the first century BCE/CE: in commenting on stories he learned about the disappearance of Centaurs from their mythological habitat in Thessaly, the geographer Strabo (9.5.12 C434–435) poses this question: is it that the Centaurs have become extinct? Well, the answer is yes, if you think of them as a species. But they are not a real species of beasts. Mythologically, you can hybridize them with Gorgons, as we have already seen, or even with beasts other than horses, such as goats: for example, as Napier (1986:58) points out, Centaurs can be pictured with elongated goat-like ears or even with horns. Nor, for that matter, are Centaurs a real society of humans. Here I follow the interpretation of Jan Bremmer (2012:40–41), who cites the archaizing narrative of “Apollodorus” (Library 2.5.4). The story has it that the solitary Centaur Pholos revealed his human side by being a good host to Herakles and offering cooked meat to the hero, but he himself still chose to eat his own meat raw at the same occasion; also, the Centaur was reluctant to open a jar of wine for Herakles, since he feared that the other Centaurs, who along with Pholos shared joint ownership of the jar, would be attracted by the aroma and “crash” the party, thus disrupting a would-be civilized symposium. In the end, Pholos fails to prevent the disruption, and Herakles is as much at fault as are the gang of Centaurs, since the hero urges the solitary beast to open the jar. So now all the Centaurs are doomed to become extinct. But such a permanent separation in myth corresponds merely to periodic separation in ritual. Examples of many different patterns of ritualized separation are surveyed by Napier (1986:63–71), with reference to practices that are conventionally placed in handbooks under such headings as Fasnacht and Shrovetide carnivals, where a common feature is the festive wearing of masks and other markers of invisibility.

§6. In the light of such correspondences between myth and ritual with reference to Greek traditions about Centaurs, what do I think in general about the relationship of myth and ritual? In arriving at an answer, I can say in advance that I agree with Jan Bremmer (2005) when he points out, following Claude Calame (1991), that the Greek language has no single word that corresponds to the idea of “ritual” as used by anthropologists as well as by historians of religion. That said, I still think that it is viable to use the term ritual as well as the term myth with reference to Greek traditions—and to a vast variety of other traditions expressed in languages that are not even historically related to Greek.

§7. I add two relevant observations:

§7a. First, I offer a quick working definition of myth and ritual together (Nagy 2013 00§13):

Ritual is doing things and saying things in a way that is considered sacred. Myth is saying things in a way that is also considered sacred. So, ritual frames myth.

§7b. Second, with reference to ritual, I will quote a most elegant formulation once made by my late friend Stanley Tambiah. The first time I ever quoted this formulation was in a book published some time ago (Nagy 1990 1§49), at which time, I am fairly certain, most other classicists were not yet reading Tambiah. And then, so many years later, I quoted him again, in the context of an analysis of the Greek word mīmēsis. What follows is an epitomized version of my analysis, featuring my quotation from Tambiah (Nagy 2013 III §§9–10):

The word mīmēsis, as used by Aristotle in his Poetics 1449b24–28, designates the enactment of mythical action in tragedy. More generally, this word designates the reenactment, through ritual, of the events of myth. In the case of a highly stylized ritual complex like Athenian tragedy, the reenactment is equivalent to acting out the roles of mythical figures. The acting out can take place on the level of speech alone, or else, on the level of speech combined with bodily movement, that is, dance: it is in this broader sense of acting that we can understand the force of pros, ‘corresponding to’, in the expression pros ta pathea autou, ‘corresponding to his sufferings [pathea, plural of pathos]’, in Herodotus 5.67.5, describing the singing and dancing by tragikoi khoroi, ‘tragic choruses’, at the city-state of Sikyon in the time of the tyrant Kleisthenes, in reenactment of the pathea, ‘sufferings’, of the hero Adrastos. The fundamental meaning of mīmēsis, to repeat, is that of reenacting the events of myth. By extension, however, mīmēsis can designate not only the reenacting of the myth but also the present reenacting of previous reenactments. So, mīmēsis is a current ‘imitation’ of earlier reenactments. That is because the newest instance of reenacting has as its model, cumulatively, all the older instances of performing the myth and not just the oldest and supposedly original instance of the myth itself.

This line of thought corresponds to the celebrated description of mīmēsis in the Poetics of Aristotle as the mental process of identifying the representing ‘this’—in the ritual of acting the drama—with the represented ‘that’ in the myth that is being acted out by the drama. In Greek this mental process is expressed thus: houtos ekeinos / touto ekeino ‘this is that!’ (Aristotle Poetics 1448b / Rhetoric 1.1371b); such a mental process, Aristotle goes on to say, is itself a source of pleasure. This pleasure is not incompatible with an anthropological understanding of ritual as defined by Tambiah (1985:123):

Fixed rhythm, fixed pitch are conducive to the performance of joint social activity. Indeed, those who resist yielding to this constraining influence are likely to suffer from a marked unpleasant restlessness. In comparison, the experience of constraint of a peculiar kind acting upon a collaborator induces in him, when he yields himself to it, the pleasure of self-surrender.

This anthropological formulation by Tambiah, I argue, corresponds to Aristotle’s idea of catharsis (Poetics 1449b24–28):

ἔστιν οὖν τραγῳδία μίμησις πράξεως σπουδαίας καὶ τελείας μέγεθος ἐχούσης, ἡδυσμένῳ λόγῳ χωρὶς ἑκάστῳ τῶν εἰδῶν ἐν τοῖς μορίοις, δρώντων καὶ οὐ δι’ ἀπαγγελίας, δι’ ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν.

Tragedy, then, is the re-enactment [mīmēsis] of a serious and complete action. It has magnitude, with language embellished individually for each of its forms and in each of its parts. It is done by performers [drôntes] and not by way of narrative, bringing about through pity [eleos] and fear [phobos] the purification [katharsis] of such emotions [pathēmata].

§8. Such purification, to take things one step further, is comparable to an anthropological understanding of “purity” as formulated by Mary Douglas in her Purity and Danger.



Bremmer, J. N. 2005. “Myth and Ritual in Ancient Greece: Observations on a Difficult Relationship.” In Griechische Mythologie und Frühchristentum, ed. R. von Haehling, 21–43. Darmstadt. The author has kindly shared with me an updated version, to appear in Bremmer 2019.

Bremmer, J. N. 2012. “Greek Demons of the Wilderness: the Case of the Centaurs.” In Wilderness Mythologies, ed. L. Feldt, 25–53. Berlin and New York.

Bremmer, J. N. 2019. The World of Greek Religion and Mythology = Collected Essays II. Tübingen. Forthcoming.

Calame, C. 1991. ‘“Mythe” et “rite” en Grèce: des catégories indigènes?’ Kernos 4:179–204. Reprinted in Calame 2008:43–62.

Calame, C. 2008. Sentiers transversaux. Entre poétiques grecques et politiques contemporaines (ed. D. Bouvier, M. Steinrück, and P. Voelke), Grenoble.

Douglas, M. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London.

Nagy, G. 1990. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore.

Nagy, G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA.

Napier, A. D. 1986. Masks, Transformation, and Paradox. Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Tambiah, S. J. 1981. “A Performative Approach to Ritual.” In Proceedings of the British Academy, London 65:113–169. Reprinted in Tambiah 1985:123–166.

Tambiah, S. J. 1985. Culture, Thought, and Social Action: An Anthropological Perspective. Cambridge, MA.

Turner, V. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY.

van Gennep, A. 1909. Les rites de passage. Paris. Translated 1960 by M. B. Vizedom and G. L. Caffee (with introduction by S. T. Kimball) as The Rites of Passage. Chicago.