Centaurs are one of the mythic creatures most associated with Narnia, along with fauns and nymphs. They appear in four of the seven books (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Silver Chair, and The Last Battle) where they are renowned for being wise teachers, prophets, healers, and stargazers, as well as fierce warriors vital to Narnia’s defense. They are so integral the land can’t be imagined without them, and C. S. Lewis, in the books, has a lot to say about them in offhand, conversational details sprinkled throughout the books.
The original centaurs, those of Greek myth, were not as wise. They were coarse, bestial beings, like the original conception of satyrs/fauns, though more given to fighting than recreational sex. In psychological terms, they could be said to embody the animus, that part of Man that is still beast, and given to bestial urges. In most of the myths they made up their own tribe. That tribe, which had various semi-divine origins, went to war with a neighboring human tribe called the Lapiths, in which the centaurs, crazed with drink, attempted to abduct the human women of the tribe during the Lapith king’s marriage ceremony. Little did the centaurs know that the Lapiths had wily Theseus (he of the labyrinth and minotaur fame) on their side, and were defeated.
Another myth showing the centaur’s uncontrollable nature — and how they couldn’t handle their liquor — was how Pholus, one of the rare civilized centaurs, treated his friend Heracles (Hercules in Roman myth) to some wine in his cave. When the jar was uncapped, the neighboring centaurs smelled it and came rushing over, already driven mad by the alcoholic fumes. In the ensuing battle, Hercules slew many of them with his poisoned arrows — arrows which had been dipped in the blood of the Lernaean Hydra in the second of of his labors — including Chiron, who had blundered into the bloody scene, and his original friend Pholus, who had stayed back but picked up one of the poisoned arrows, wounding himself with the tip. This myth, not as widely known as the Labors, illustrates the hard-luck nature of Heracles, who is doomed to kill his friends even as he performs amazing deeds of strength. His own, in fact, death occurs at the hands of a centaur, Nessus, who tricks Deianera, his wife, into giving him an acid-laced shirt as a present.
But is Chiron who most casual readers of Greek myth will be the most familiar with. Chiron was one of the civilized centaurs, like Pholus and Asbolus, who were renowned for being prophets, seers and teachers, and in Chiron’s case, skilled in medicine and herbs, music, archery, hunting, and gymnastics. (I’d sure like to see a centaur do a flip and tumble.) Apollo himself was Chiron’s tutor, and Chiron in turn tutored many other Greek heroes, such as Achilles, Jason, Actaeus, and Asclepius, the god of Greek medicine. The go-to guy for mentoring, so to speak.
It was from wise Chiron that Lewis took his template, making his centaurs into grave, yet good, Renaissance men/warriors.
|At that moment there was a sound of horse-hoofs tapping on rock from the mouth of the cave, and the children looked up. The two Centaurs, one with a black and one with a golden beard flowing over their magnificent bare chests, stood waiting for them, bending their heads a little so as to look into the cave. Then the children became very polite and finished their breakfast very quickly. No one thinks a Centaur funny when he sees it. They are solemn, majestic people, full of ancient wisdom which they learn from the stars, not easily made either merry or angry; but their anger is terrible as a tidal wave when it comes.— From The Silver Chair, by C. S. Lewis|
How did myths of such centaurs arise in the first place? Some historians think it was a more primitive peoples’ reaction to humans mounted on horses, seeing them as hybrids, rather than two creatures. Others, that these are older myths from Indian civilizations, where human-horse mashups existed long before the Greek myths. One Greek myth gives a very logical origin for them: they were the offspring of Centaurus, a man who mated with a herd of mares. Obviously, that wouldn’t make it into Narnia.
(By the way, the name centaur, in Greek, means not man-horse, but bull-piercer, or bull-slayer. An excellent name for a hunter and warrior, but it also means all those fantasy staples of unitaurs, tigertaurs, or rabbitaurs are referring to cattle hybrids.)
In the Chronicles, Lewis names only four of the centaurs: Glenstorm, Cloudbirth, Roonwit, and Oreius. Only Oreius has a Greek name, which is odd. If you want more, here’s a list, culled from the centaur/Lapith battle I mentioned earlier.
Some Greek Names for Narnian Centaurs
Though Lewis did not mention female centaurs, the Greeks did: her name was Hylonome.