The Centaur

This extraordinary combination of man and animal is very ancient--and

the first I can find is Assyrian. Mr. W. St. Chad Boscawen, in one of

his British Museum Lectures (afterwards published under the title of

From under the Dust of Ages), speaking of the seasons and the zodiacal

signs, in his lecture on The Legend of Gizdhubar, says:--"Gizdhubar

has a dream that the stars of heaven are falling upon him, and, like

adnezzar, he can find no one to explain the hidden meaning to

him. He is, however, told by his huntsman, Zaidu, of a very wise

creature who dwells in the marshes, three days' journey from Erech....

The strange being, whom this companion of the hero is despatched to

bring to the Court, is one of the most interesting in the Epic. He is

called Hea-bani--'he whom Hea has made.' This mysterious creature is

represented on the gems, as half a man, and half a bull. He has the

body, face, and arms of a man, and the horns, legs, hoofs, and tail of a

bull. Though in form rather resembling the satyrs, and in fondness for,

and in association with the cattle, the rustic deity Pan, yet in his

companionship with Gizdhubar, and his strange death, he approaches

nearer the Centaur Chiron, who was the companion of Heracles.

"By his name he was the son of Hea, whom Berosus identifies as Cronos,

as Chiron was the son of Cronos. Like Chiron, he was celebrated for his

wisdom, and acted as the counsellor of the hero, interpreting his

dreams, and enabling him to overcome the enemies who attacked him.

Chiron met his death at the hand of Heracles, one of whose poisoned

arrows struck him, and, though immortal, he would not live any longer,

and gave his immortality to Prometheus.... Zeus made Chiron among the

stars a Sagittarius. Here again we have a striking echo of the Chaldaean

legend, in the Erech story. According to the arrangement of tablets, the

death of Hea-bani takes place under the sign of Sagittarius, and is the

result of some fatal accident during the combat between Gizdhubar and

Khumbaba. Like the Centaurs, before his call to the Court of Gizdhubar,

Hea-bani led a wild and savage life. It is said on the tablets 'that he

consorted with the wild beasts. With the gazelles he took his food by

night, and consorted with the cattle by day, and rejoiced his heart

with the creeping things of the waters.'

"Hea-Bani was true and loyal to Gizdhubar, and when Istar (the Assyrian

Venus), foiled in her love for Gizdhubar, flew to heaven to see her

father Anu (the Chaldaean Zeus), and to seek redress for the slight put

upon her, the latter created a winged bull, called 'The Bull of Heaven,'

which was sent to earth. Hea-Bani, however, helps his lord, the bull is

slain, and the two companions enter Erech in triumph. Hea-Bani met with

his death when Gizdhubar fought Khumbaba, and 'Gizdhubar for Hea-Bani

his friend wept bitterly and lay on the ground.'"

Thus, centuries before the Romans had emerged from barbarism, we have

the prototype of the classical Centaur, the man-horse. The fabled

Centaurs were a people of Thessaly--half-men, half-horses--and their

existence is very cloudy. Still, they were often depicted, and the two

examples of a male and female Centaur, from a fresco at Pompeii, are

charmingly drawn. It will be seen that both are attended by Bacchantes

bearing thyrses--a delicate allusion to their love of wine; for it was

owing to this weakness that their famous battle with the Lapithae took

place. The Centaurs were invited to the marriage of Hippodamia with

Pirithous, and, after the manner of cow-boys "up town," they got

intoxicated, were very rude, and even offered violence to the women

present. That, the good knights, Sir Hercules and Sir Theseus, could not

stand, and with the Lapithae, gave the Centaurs a thrashing, and made

them retire to Arcadia. They had a second fight over the matter of wine,

for the Centaur Pholus gave Hercules to drink of wine meant for him, but

in the keeping of the Centaurs, and these ill-conditioned animals

resented it, and attacked Hercules with fury. They were fearfully

punished, and but few survived.

Pliny pooh-poohs the mythical origin of the Centaurs, and says they were

Thessalians, who dwelt along Mount Pelion, and were the first to fight

on horseback. Aldrovandus writes that, according to Licosthenes, there

were formerly found, in the regions of the Great Tamberlane, Centaurs of

such a form as its upper part was that of a man, with two arms

resembling those of a toad, and he gives a drawing from that author,

so that the reader might diligently meditate whether such an animal was

possible in a natural state of things; but the artist seems to have

forgotten the fore-legs.

"The Onocentaur is a monstrous beast;

Supposed halfe a man, and halfe an Asse,

That never shuts his eyes in quiet rest,

Till he his foes deare life hath round encompast.

Such were the Centaures in their tyrannie,

That liv'd by Humane flesh and villanie."