Read what writers of myth have written on the Centaurs on this page of the Theoi Project website.

The constellation Centaurus is depicted taking adjoining Lupus, the Therion, or wild animal, to Ara, the Altar, skewered on a pike as a sacrificial offering.

Centaurus represents the Centaurs who were a tribe of half-man, half-horse savages, living on the mountains of Thessaly. They were people who tamed horses and are depicted as having the torso of a human joined at the (human) waist to the horse’s withers where the horse’s neck would be. In earlier times a man on horseback was an uncommon sight, resembling at a distance a figure half man, half horse. “This half-human and half-animal composition has led many writers to treat them as liminal beings, caught between the two natures, embodied in contrasted myths, and as the embodiment of untamed nature, as in their battle with the Lapiths, or conversely as teachers, like Chiron” [].

How Centaurs came to be:

“Ixion fell in love with Hera and tried to rape her, but she reported his behavior to Zeus, who decided to test his wife’s testimony. For this purpose, the god made a Cloud Resembling Hera (this cloud was named Nephele), and laid it beside Ixion [Ixion on his wheel is identified with Corona Australis]. So when Ixion went around boasting that he had enjoyed Hera, Zeus bound him to a wheel, on which he is whirled by winds through the air. The cloud (Nephele) gave birth to Centaurus, and when he consorted with the Magnesian Mares, the Centaurs were born.” http://www.maicar.com/GML/CENTAURS.html

The word centaur might be related to the word century, hundredcent, and Centaury (the herb whose medical qualities are fabled to have been discovered by Chiron the centaur):

“Dromicrites in his Theologia writes that Ixion first aspired to the glory of a kingdom in Greece, and that he first of all men assembled for his use a hundred horsemen, whence the hundred armed men were called Centaurs (they ought to be called centippi, because they are depicted as part horses), but also as a real hundred armed men.” [Fulgentius, Mythologies, late C5th or early C6th AD]

The English word centaur comes from Latin Centaurus, from Greek Kentauros. Akkadian Habasiranu, Sumerian EN.TE.NA.BAR.HUM []. The Centaurs lived in the mountains of Thessaly and forests of Magnesia. Thessaly is a region of east-central Greece, and the Thessalians were renowned for their cavalry []. Poseidon was said to have produced the first horse by striking the ground in Thessaly with his trident (Virgil, Georgics, i. 12) [].

“Their appearance gave their name to the Centaurs, that is, a man combined with a horse. Some say that they were horsemen of Thessaly, but because, as they rushed into battle, the horses and men seemed to have one body, they maintained the fiction of the Centaurs” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.246.]

Chironis identified with this constellation, his name is related to the Greek word for hand,kheir, from the Indo-European root *ghes‘Hand’. Derivatives:chiro-,chirurgeon(surgeon),enchiridion(a handbook, a manual),surgeonsurgery(from Latinchirurgia, from Greekkheir, hand, to perform work with one’s hands),chiropractorchiroptera(the zoological name for the bat family, meaning ‘hand wing’),press²(conscription or impressment into service),presto(so suddenly that magic seems involved as in the expression ‘hey presto‘, also a very fast tempo in music),imprest(an advance or a loan of funds, from Latinpraesto, at hand),Chironchiral(used to describe a molecule whose arrangement of atoms is such that it cannot be superimposed on its mirror image) [Pokorny 1.ghesor– 447.WatkinsKleinsupplies more cognates: “Seeyard, ‘enclosure’, and compare words there referred to. Compare alsochorionchoruschronic, and the second element in Dashahara and in vihara.”

“A certain Greek, Chiron, invented medical practice for draft animals. For this reason he is pictured as half man, half horse. He was named Chiron from the term Keirizesthai (i.e. ‘operate by hand’), because he was a surgeon (chirurgus)” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.114.]

Our English word hand is related to Old Norse henda, ‘to grasp’, Gothic -hinthan, ‘to seize’, and also to the verb hunt, the obsolete hent (to take hold of; seize), hint, handsome (hand-some), handicap

The Latin word for hand is manus, and derives from the Indo-European root *man² ‘Hand’. Derivatives: manacle, manage, manège (the art of training and riding horses), manner, manners, manual, manubrium, manus (the wrist and hand of humans or the carpus and forefoot of other vertebrates), amanuensis (scribe), maintain (manu + tenere), maneuver, manicure, manifest, mansuetude (gentleness of manner, mildness which described Chiron and Pholus), manufacture, manure, manuscript, mastiff, quadrumanous (having four feet with opposable first digits, as primates other than humans, from Latin manus, hand), manipulate, manoeuvre, commandment, emancipate (ex– + mancipare), mandamus (an order from a high court), mandate (order), MaundyThursday (ceremony of washing the feet of the poor on this day), command, commando, commend, countermand, demand, recommend, remand (from Latin compound mandare, ‘to put into someone’s hand’). [Pokorny me-r 740. Watkins

“It is believed that Centaurs arose from a misinterpretation of horse and riders which seems to explain the origin of the name, Centaurus, –cento meaning ‘to goad or prick’ and –tauros meaning ‘bull’, which implies they were cattle herders” []. Greek kenteo means to goad, urge on, drive on, kenteo-tauros, ‘goad a bull’, ‘to prick a bull’. Centaurs had a similar occupation to modern cowboys, rounding up herds of cattle while on horseback, cowboys were also called cowpokes implying goading or pricking. The South Americans have gauchos. Greek kenteo comes from the Indo-European root *kent ‘To prick, jab’. Derivatives: center, centre, eccentric (‘out of the center’), –centric, concentrate, concentric, (these words from Greek kentein, to prick, kentron ‘needle’). Suffixed form *kent-to-; cestus¹ (a woman’s belt or girdle worn around the waist in ancient Greece, from Greek kestos, belt, girdle). [Pokorny kent– 567. Watkins

“Greek kentron is formed from the stem of kentein to prick, goad, stab, which is probably cognate with Old High German hantag, sharp, pointed, and Gothic handugs, wise (from Proto-Germanic *Handazas) [resembling the English word hand?], and with Old Icelandic hannarr, skillful, smart (from Proto-Germanic *Hantheraz), from Indo-European *kent/kont– prick (Pok.567)” [Chamber’s Dictionary of Etymology

“The Hebrew letter Lamed (Greek lambda, English L) signifies both Learning and Teaching. Most sources assert that its literal meaning was originally an ‘ox goad’ [].

lamed, lamedh, name of the 12th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. — Hebrew lamedh, literally probably ‘the rod of the teacher’, from the stem of lamadh, ‘he exercised, learned’, whence also malmadh, ‘ox goad’, talmidh, ‘scholar, pupil’. See Talmud and compare lambda” [Klein].

Horse-taming and horseback culture arose first in the Eurasian Steppes believed to be around 3,000 B.C.

“A spear (hasta) is a shaft (contus) with an iron head; its diminutive is ‘dart’ (hastilia). The name hasta comes from ‘craft’ (astus), whence also is the term ‘cunning’ (astutia)” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.362.]

Latin hasta, translated ‘spear’, is related to gad, a goad. Old Indian or Sanskrit has the word hasta or hastah, meaning ‘hand‘. Sanskrit hasta ‘hand’ is related to the chiro– root from *ghes ‘Hand’; “Latin praesto … as in the pre-Latin phrase praihestod, prai before + ablative case of a lost noun *hestos which is cognate with Sanskrit hasta hand, from Indo-European *ghestos” [Chamber’s Dictionary of Etymology].

A goad is a sharp, pointed stick used in driving oxen. It comes from the Indo-European root *ghei ‘To propel, prick’. Derivative: goad (from Old English gad, goad, from Germanic *gaido, goad, spear). [Pokorny I. ghei– 424. Watkins] Klein says the word goad is also related to gore, ‘a triangular piece of land’, literally ‘a spear-shaped piece of land’, and gore, ‘to pierce’. These words come from the Indo-European root *ghaiso– ‘A stick, spear’. Derivatives: gore (to pierce or stab), garfish (a primitive freshwater fish), garlic (from Old English gar, spear, Old Norse geirr, also in personal names), Edgar (from Old English Eadgar, ‘happy spear, rich spear’), Osgar, Oscar, Gerald, Gerard, Gertrude, gyrfalcon, from Germanic *gaizaz, spear, gore (a triangular or tapering piece of cloth forming a part of something, as in a skirt or sail). [Pokorny ghaiso– 410. Watkins

[There are separate Indo-European roots for goad (from *ghei), and gad (also meaning a goad, from *ghazdh), but there does not seem to be a recognized link?] Goad comes from Old English gad, ‘goad’, and the word gad, a pointed tool or goad, comes from the Indo-European root *ghazdh ‘Rod, staff’. Derivatives: yard (unit of length, also a spar slung to a mast to support and spread the head of a sail, from Old English gierd, geord, staff, twig, measuring rod, from Germanic *gazdjo), gad (a goad, as for prodding cattle, from Old Norse gaddr, rod, goad, spike. A gadfly is literally ‘a goading fly’), attelet (a skewer), haslet (edible viscera of an animal), hastate (hastate shaped leaves), from Latin hasta, spear, gadfly. [Pokorny 1. ghasto– 412. Watkins

A gadflygoaded the goddess Io on, driving her to wander around the world. [Read what writers of myth say about Io here.] The Greeks called the gadfly oistros. Greek oistros is related to the word ‘estrogen’. The estrogen replacement hormone is made from mare’s urine.

The word yard (from *ghazdh) is a spar on a mast from which sails are set; sailyard. Centaurus is adjacent to Vela, the sails of the ship Argo Navis. Klein sees the word yard, an enclosure, as related to cheiro-.

“The general character of Centaurs is that of wild, lawless and inhospitable beings, the slaves of their animal passions. They are often represented drawing the car of Dionysus, or bound and ridden by Eros, in allusion to their drunken and amorous habits” []. The Centaurs had a problem with manners (related to Latin manus, hand) and one example shows appalling manners; they were invited to a wedding and after getting drunk assaulted the female guests (“laid hands upon them”), and attempted to carry off the bride. By contrast some were of mild manner (mansuetude means mildness of manner) and hospitable (describing Chiron, Pholos and some others).

The left and right hands are mirror images of each other, i.e. a left hand appears as a right hand in a mirror. The term chiral is used to describe an object that is non-superimposable on its mirror image, human hands being the most universally recognized example of chirality.

“The Kentauroi were spawned by the cloud nymph Nephele. Her double-formed brood were deposited on Mount Pelion where the daughters of the centaur-god Kheiron nursed and fostered them to adulthood” []. “They were begotten on a cloud or phantom, and are variously explained by a fancied resemblance to the shapes of clouds, or as spirits of the rushing mountain torrents or winds” []. The Centaurs have been identified with the Sanskrit Gandharvas (though a disputed identification, Allen in Starnames under Corona Australis, p.172, says “Gandharvas, the Aryan celestial horses that probably were the forerunners of the Centaurs”), ghost-like beings, known for their power to cast illusions, and their skill with horses”. The river Styx (see *teu above) was where the newly dead were ferried onto Hades. In Rome the constellation was Centaurus, the ‘duplici Centaurus imagine‘ of Manilius description. Chiron fashioned an image (an imago) of Actaeon after he died to comfort his dogs. A ghost is an image, an imago. The Manes were the “deified ghosts of the dead”, related to Latin mānus, ‘good’ (similar to Latin manus, ‘hand’, but not a recognized cognate).

Chiron, Cheiron or Kheiron (“hand”) is identified with this constellation, Centaurus. During a battle, the centaur,  Chiron, was accidentally wounded by one of Hercules’ arrows that had been treated with the blood of the Hydra (an adjacent constellation). To avoid a life of excruciating pain from this arrow’s poison, Chiron gave up his immortality to Prometheus and died. Crux, the Cross, is a modern constellation that was once part of Centaurus. In this drawing of Centaurus taken from a picture by Hyginus (Roman, ca. A.D. 1, from The New Patterns in the Sky, Staal). Crux is placed on the hind feet of the Centaur. One of these hind feet may have been the place where Chiron was wounded, perhaps the left hind foot with the star Acrux. The words crux, cross, Acrux, and excruciating, are related. Ovid (on this page) says he was wounded in the left foot.

An adjoining constellation Circinus, is the Pair of Compasses that draws a circle, and the needle of that pair of compasses shoud be here in Centaurus. Ayto (Dictionary of Word Origins) explains:

“The word centre came originally from the spike of a pair of compasses which is stuck into a surface while the other arm describes a circle round it. Greek kentron meant ‘sharp point,’ or more specifically ‘goad for oxen’ (it was a derivative of the verb kentein ‘prick’), and hence was applied to a compass spike; and it was not long before this spread metaphorically to ‘midpoint of a circle.'”

The glyph in astrology for the sun is a circle with a dot in the center: ☉

The astrological influences of the constellation given by Manilius:

“The Centaur, from his own nature assigns qualities to his progeny. Such a one will either urge on asses with the goad and yoke together quadrupeds of mixed stock or will ride aloft in a chariot; else he will saddle horses with a fighter or drive them into the fight (translator’s note: “he will load horses with arms or drive them into arms”, that is yoked to war-chariots).  

“Another knows how to apply the arts of healing to the limbs of animals [translator’s note; “these endowments reflect the identification of Centaurus as Chiron”] and to relieve the dumb creatures of the disorders they cannot describe for his hearing.

“His is indeed a calling of skill, not to wait for the cries of pain, but recognize betimes a sick body not yet conscious of its sickness”. [Astronomica, Manilius, 1st century A.D, book 5, p.329].

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Centaurus
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 2000 Lat Mag Sp
b Centaurus 18LIB41 20LIB04 11h 51m 8.7s -45° 10′ 25″ -41 24 54 4.71 K4
pi (π) 20LIB49 22LIB12 11h 21m 0.4s -54° 29′ 28″ -51 48 27 4.26 B5
delta (δ) 26LIB06 27LIB29 12h 8m 21.5s -50° 43′ 21″ -44 30 22 2.88 B3
rho (ρ) 28LIB01 29LIB24 12h 11m 39.1s -52° 22′ 7″ -45 34 43 4.20 B3
gamma (γ) 00SCO57 02SCO20 12h 41m 31s -48° 57′ 35″ -40 09 26 2.38 A0
iota (ι) 01SCO45 03SCO08 13h 20m 35.8s -36° 42′ 44″ -26 00 33 2.91 A2
lambda (λ) 03SCO10 04SCO33 11h 35m 46.8s -63° 1′ 11″ -56 47 04 3.34 B9
xi (ξ) 05SCO20 06SCO43 13h 6m 54.6s -49° 54′ 22″ -38 50 36 5.02 A0
nu (ν) 09SCO47 11SCO10 13h 49m 30.3s -41° 41′ 16″ -28 15 46 3.53 B2
mu (μ) 10SCO09 11SCO32 13h 49m 37s -42° 28′ 26″ -28 58 27 3.32 B2
Menkent theta (θ) 10SCO56 12SCO19 14h 6m 41s -36° 22′ 12″ -22 03 57 2.26 G9
zeta (ζ) 13SCO34 14SCO57 13h 55m 32.4s -47° 17′ 18″ -32 56 15 3.06 B3
epsilon (ε) 14SCO11 15SCO34 13h 39m 53.2s -53° 27′ 59″ -39 34 50 2.56 B2
eta (η) 18SCO52 20SCO15 14h 35m 30.4s -42° 9′ 28″ -25 30 26 2.65 B3
Agena beta (β) 22SCO25 23SCO48 14h 3m 49.4s -60° 22′ 23″ -44 07 53 0.61 B3
kappa (κ) 23SCO47 25SCO10 14h 59m 9.7s -42° 6′ 15″ -25 01 41 3.35 B2
Toliman alpha (α) 28SCO10 29SCO33 14h 39m 35.9s -60° 50′ 7″ -42 34 41 0.27 G4

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

The Centaur’s arrow ready seems to pierce

Some enemy; far forth his bow is bent

Into the blue of heaven.

    —  John Keats Endymion

Centaurus, the Centaur, is from the Kentauros that Aratos used, probably from earlier times, for it was a universal title with the Greeks; but he also called it Ippota pher, the Horseman Beast, the customary term for a centaur in the Epic and Aeolic dialects. This, too, was the special designation of the classical Pholos, son of Silenus and Melia, and the hospitable one of the family, who died in {Page 149} consequence of exercising this virtue toward Hercules. Apollodorus tells us that the latter’s gratitude caused this centaur’s transformation to the sky as our constellation, with the fitting designation Eumeneus, Well-disposed [Eumaneus was the Swineherd in Homer].

Eratosthenes (around 200 BC) asserted that the stellar figure represented Cheiron, a title that, in its transcribed forms Chiron and Chyron, was in frequent poetical use in classical times, and is seen in astronomical works even to Ideler’s day. This has appropriately been translated the Handy One, a rendering that well agrees with this Centaur’s reputation. He was the son of Chronos and the ocean nymph Philyra, who was changed after his birth into a Linden tree, whence Philyrides occasionally was applied to the constellation; although a variant story made him Phililyrides, the son of Phililyra, the Lyre-loving, from whom he inherited his skill in music. He was imagined as of mild and noble look, very different from the threatening aspect of the centaur Sagittarius; and Saint Clement of Alexandria wrote of him that he first led mortals to righteousness. His story has been thought in some degree historic, even by Sir Isaac Newton. As the wisest and most just of his generally lawless race he was beloved by Apollo and Diana, and from their teaching became proficient in botany and music, astronomy, divination, and medicine, and instructor of the most noted heroes in Grecian legend. Matthew Arnold wrote of him in EmpedoclesonEtna

On Pelion, on the grassy ground,

Chiron, the aged Centaur lay,

The young Achilles standing by.

The Centaur taught him to explore – 

The mountains where the glens are dry

And the tired Centaurs come to rest,

And where the soaking springs abound.

…He told him of the Gods, the stars,

The tides.

Indeed, he was the legendary inventor of the constellations, as we see in Dyer’s poem TheFleece

Led by the golden stars as Chiron’s art

Had marked the sphere celestial;

and the father of Hippo, mentioned by Euripides as foretelling events from the stars.

The story of Pholos is repeated for Chiron: that, being accidentally wounded by one of the poisoned arrows of his pupil Hercules, the Centaur renounced his immortality on earth in favor of the Titan Prometheus, and was raised to the sky by Jove. His name and profession are yet seen in {Page 150} the mediaeval medicinal plants Centaurea, the Centaury, and the still earlier Chironeion

Prometheus evidently inherited Chiron’s astronomical attainments, as well as his immortality, for Aeschylus, who thought him the founder of civilization and “full of the most devoted love for the human race,” made him say in PrometheusBound

I instructed them to mark the stars,

Their rising, and, a harder science yet,

Their setting.

The conception of a centaur’s figure with Homer, Hesiod, and even with Berossos, probably was of a perfect human form, Pindar being the first to describe it as semi-ferine, and since his day the human portion of the Centaur has been terminated at the waist and the hind quarters of a horse added. William Morris thus pictured him in his LifeandDeathofJason

at last in sight the Centaur drew,

A mighty grey horse trotting down the glade,

Over whose back the long grey locks were laid,

That from his reverend head abroad did flow;

For to the waist was man, but all below

A mighty horse, once roan, but now well-nigh white

With lapse of years; with oak-wreaths was he dight

Where man joined unto horse, and on his head

He wore a gold crown, set with rubies red,

And in his hand he bare a mighty bow,

No man could bend of those that battle now.

Some ancient artists and mythologists changed these hind quarters to those of a bull, thus showing the Minotaur, and on the Euphrates it was considered a complete Bull. The Arabians drew the stellar figure with the hind parts of a Bear, but adopted the Greek title in their AlKentaurus, that has been considered as the original of the otherwise inexplicable Taraapoz, used in Reduan’s Commentary for our constellation.

Some of the Centaur’s stars, with those of Lupus, were known to the early Arabs as AlKadbalKarm, the Vine Branch; and again as AlShamarih, the broken-off Palm Branches loaded with dates which Kazwini described as held out in the Centaur’s hands. This degenerated into Asemarik, and perhaps was the origin of Bayer’s word Asmeat. He also had Albeze; and Riccioli, Albezze and Albizze, — unintelligible unless from the Arabic AlWazn, Weight, that was sometimes applied to alpha (Toliman or Bungula) and beta (Agena).

Hyde is our authority for another title (from Albumasar), Birdun, the Pack-horse.

{Page 151} Ptolemy described the figure with Lupus in one hand, and the Thyrsus in the other, marked by four 4th-magnitude stars, of which only two can now be found; this Thyrsus being formed, Geminos said, into a separate constellation by Hipparchos as thursologkos, in the Manitius text as thursos,   and Pliny wrote of it in the same way, but their selection of such small stars seems remarkable.

The Centaur faces the east, and the Farnese globe shows him pointing with left hand to the Beast and the adjacent circular Altar; but in the Hyginus of 1488 the Beast is in his outstretched hands, the Hare on the spear, and a canteen at his waist; the AlfonsineTables have the Thyrsus in his right hand and Lupus held by the fore foot in his left, which was the Arabian idea. The LeydenManuscript gives a striking delineation of him with shaven face, but with heavy mustache (!), bearing the spear with the Hare dangling from the head, and a Kid, instead of the Beast, held out in his hands towards the Altar (Ara), the usual libation carried in the canteen. Bayer shows the Centaur with Lupus; Burritt has him in a position of attack, with the spear in his right hand and the shield on his left arm, the Thyrsus and vase of libation depicted on it; Grotius calling this portion of the constellation Arma. The CenturyDictionary illustrates a Bacchic wand with the spear.

In Rome the constellation was Centaurus, the dupliciCentaurusimagine of Manilius, and theGeminusbiformis of Germanicus; Minotaurus; SemiVir, the Half Man, and SemiFer, the Half Beast; Pelenor and Pelethronius from the mountain home of the centaurs in Thessaly; AcrisVenator, the Fierce Hunter; and Vergil had Sonipes, the Noisy-footed. The AlfonsineTables designated it as Sagittariustenenspateramseucrateram to distinguish it from the other Sagittarius with the more appropriate bow.

Robert Recorde, in 1551, had the CentaureChiron, but Milton, in 1667, wrote Centaur for the zodiac figure, as so many others have done before and since his day; in fact, Sagittarius undoubtedly was the original Centaur and from the Euphrates, the Centaur of the South probably being of Greek conception. But in the classical age confusion had arisen among the unscientific in the nomenclature of the two figures, this continuing till now; much that we find said by one author for the one appearing with another author for: the other. During the 17th century, however, distinction was made by English authors in calling this the GreatCentaure

In some mediaeval Christian astronomy it typified Noah, but Julius Schiller changed the figure to AbrahamwithIsaac; and Caesius likened it to Nebuchadrezzar when “he did eat grass as oxen.”

This is one of the largest constellations, more than 60° in length, its {Page 152} centre about 50° south of the star Spica below Hydra‘s tail; but Aratos located it entirely under the Scorpion and the Claws, an error that Hipparchos criticized. It shows in the latitude of New York City only a few of its components in the bust, of which theta, a variable 2nd-magnitude on the right shoulder, is visible in June about 12° above the horizon when on the meridian, and 27° southeast from Spica, with no other star of similar brightness in its vicinity. It was this that Professor Klinkerfues of Gottingen mentioned in his telegram to the Madras Observatory, on the 30th of November, 1872, in reference to the lost Biela comet which he thought had touched the earth three days previously and might be found in the direction of this star.

Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]