A centaur is a mythical Greek creature with the body of a horse and the head and torso of a man. For people who are curious about anatomy, typically the creatures are depicted with the torso of a man appearing where the neck of a horse normally would. The half man, half horse is depicted in numerous works of Greek art, and the mythical creatures are also featured in many Greek epic poems and songs. The curious creatures are among the more well known of mythical beasts, and they hold a special meaning for some people because they are half human and half animal, rather than being strange hybrid animals.
The story of the centaurs begins with Ixion, the King of Lapithe, who arranged a tryst with Hera. Zeus got wind of the scheme, and he transformed a cloud so that it would take her form. The result of Ixion's rendezvous with the cloud was the first centaur. The Greeks sometimes called the centaurs Ixionidae, in a reference to their human forefather.
According to Greek mythology, the centaurs lived on Mount Pelion, and they were closely associated with Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. Centaurs fed on wine and meat, and they were well known for their bestial, violent, and often brutal natures. In addition to participating in Dionysian revels, the creatures also carried off maidens and young women, sometimes sparking bitter wars with their behavior.
The exception to this rule was Cheiron, a centaur who acted as a mentor and teacher. Cheiron illustrates the very dualistic nature of centaurs, since he managed to overcome his bestial side in the interests of being more human. Cheiron is a respected and revered figure in mythology, and many fictional centaurs appear to be modeled after him, rather than on his more rambunctious brethren. Many books, poems, and films feature centaurs in advisory roles, offering wisdom and assistance to young heroes.
The blend of animal and man in the centaur is particularly interesting to some mythologists, since the creatures illustrate the conflicted nature of humans themselves. In most Greek myths, the centaurs were unable to assert their basic humanity, and they reverted to an intensely bestial and often horrifying nature. These traits classify centaurs as liminal creatures, meaning that they are on a threshold between two existences. This conflict is reflected in their belligerent nature, and in the occasional individual centaur who manages to overcome it, suggesting that savages are still capable of redemption.