Half-men, half-horses, the Centaurs were a race of violent and brutish creatures who lived in the forests of Thessaly. Next to them lived the Lapiths, a legendary law-abiding Aeolian tribe. After the death of Ixion – ruler of the Lapiths and grandfather of the Centaurs – a power vacuum was created; even though the new king, Ixion’s son Pirithous, successfully dealt with it at first, at his marriage with Hippodamia, the drunken Centaurs started a vicious fight. Often portrayed as a metaphor for the struggle between civilization and barbarism, this fight is now remembered as the Centauromachy.
With the exception of Chiron, the famed tutor of heroes, and Heracles’ hospitable friend, Pholus, all of the other Centaurs were savage and lascivious creatures. This should come as a surprise to nobody, since, after all, the Centaurs were the unfortunate progeny of an unwholesome union: either between Ixion and the Hera-shaped cloud Nephele, or between the offspring of this union, Centaurus, and the Magnesian mares. The latter seems more probable since it explains better why the Centaurs had the head and arms of a man and the body and legs of a horse; and also why they could be typically found roaming through the mountains and forests of Thessaly.
Now, Thessaly was also the home of a legendary Greek tribe of which Ixion himself was a member: the Lapiths. By all accounts, most of them were as civilized as the Centaurs were barbaric. Moreover, Ixion was no ordinary member of this tribe: for most of his life, he was, in fact, the king of the Lapiths. Also, Centaurus wasn’t his only son: he had also fathered, and by none other than the heavenly Dia, a brave young man named Pirithous.
After the death of Ixion, the Lapiths chose Pirithous to be their king and proclaimed him the ruler of the region. This, however, irked the Centaurs who claimed that they deserved a share in the rule as well, on account of them being the grandchildren of Ixion. Pirithous proved a wise leader with his very first decision: not wanting to have any trouble with the Centaurs, he gave them Mount Pelion as their territory. Everything was going well for the next few years, and when Hippodamia agreed to marry Pirithous, the king of the Lapiths saw no reason not to invite the Centaurs to his wedding.
The Centaurs arrived at the wedding of Pirithous as friends of the Lapiths and behaved as such for the most part of the ceremony. However, they were unused to wine, and this was not the moment to switch from their regular drink, milk, to an alcoholic beverage. But they did, almost as soon as they sensed the sweet-smelling wine, and, soon enough, all of them were drunk; and when Hippodamia was presented to greet the guests, “the wildest of the wild centaurs,” Eurytion, suddenly grabbed her and tried to carry her away. Many Centaurs followed suit, each one of them taking at will the girl he longed for the most. “The palace,” wrote Ovid describing the gruesome sight, “seeming like a captured town, resounded with affrighted shrieks of women.” The Lapiths responded almost immediately, and a violent battle broke out; one of the bloodiest and most brutal in all of Greek mythology, the Centauromachy saw numerous casualties on both sides.
An esteemed guest at the wedding was none other than the greatest Athenian hero, Theseus, the closest friend of Pirithous. No wonder he felt the attack on Hippodamia as a personal insult: the second he saw Eurytion dragging away Pirithous’ wife by her hair, Theseus jumped at the Centaur and rescued the bride from his uncouth hands. The angered Eurytion replied with ferocious blows to Theseus’ face; visibly shaken, Theseus reached for an ancient bowl near him and managed to smash it in the Centaur’s face. Thick drops of blood spewed out of Eurytion’s neck and, before too long, the creature turned up his toes, his brains mixed with the wine and the blood-soaked sand. He was merely the first of the numerous Centaurs which diet at the hands of Theseus, without whose substantial help, the Lapiths would have had a much more difficult time emerging victorious.
In fact, the Lapiths suffered dozens of injuries and numerous fatalities themselves, the most significant among the latter that of Caeneus, originally born a woman by the name of Caenis. Long before the Centauromachy and after having slept with her, Poseidon granted Caenis her wish to be changed into a man and made this youth impenetrable to weapons. Aware only of the first part of this story, the Centaur Latreus mocked Caeneus and his skill upon encountering him during the Centauromachy. He was unpleasantly surprised, however, after his great pike rebounded of Caeneus’ body, and his sword shattered on his unyielding skin.
“Oh, what a shame,” cried Monychus. “It is unbecoming for a godly race to be conquered by an enemy, who is but half a man. Wake up! And let us heap tree-trunks and stones and mountains on him! Crush his stubborn life! Let forests smother him to death! Their weight will be as deadly as a hundred wounds!” And before too long, Mount Pelion was bared of trees, all of its oaks mounted upon the head of Caeneus. A golden-winged bird flew out of the pile and high into the air. “Glory to the Lapithean race,” shouted Mopsus, their most famous prophet, upon seeing the bird. “Our greatest hero has turned into a most unique bird!”
Overwhelmed with grief and optimism, the Lapiths gathered their ranks and rallied for one final counterattack. And they didn’t pull back until half of the Centaurs were dead. Only flight and darkness – writes Ovid – saved the rest, who had no option but to leave Thessaly and move to Peloponnese. However, there they happened upon Heracles who finished what the Lapiths had started. Very few Centaurs managed to survive both battles. One of them was Nessus. Against all odds, he will eventually have his revenge.
In the twelfth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Nestor – himself a participant in the battle – retells the Centauromachy at great length and with much detail. He refers to it in the first book of Homer’s Iliad as well.
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