It is well said that “Centaurs stand in the gates,” because things contrary to nature, if they can be produced at all, die at once.
—Maurus Servius Honoratus
Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil
Human-horse hybrids, better known as centaurs, spend most of their time trotting through mythological scenery, and very rarely set hoof in the realm of observational science. Hence, given that the evidence for hybrids of this sort is by no means demonstrative, this article may say more about human beliefs than about human hybrids.
Historian of biology Conway Zirkle (1941: 487) states that the existence of centaurs was accepted until late medieval times. He mentions the Byzantine scholar Manuel Philes (c. 1275-1345) as a proponent of this notion, and also cites the Roman Catholic saint Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280), quoting him as follows (De Animalibus, Bk. XXII, Tr. 2, Ch. 24):
Onos is Greek for ass, so the name onocentaur means “ass-centaur.” Vincent of Beauvais (c. 1190-1264?) in his Speculum Naturale (Vol. II, Bk. 20, Ch. 97) states that
This, incidentally, is the form (ass’s head and human body) that the bewitched Bottom takes on in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (see image below).
But in truth, belief in these creatures persisted to a much later date than Zirkle suggests. The Renaissance physician Ambroise Paré (1510-1590) seriously reported that a mare had foaled a colt at Verona which had the “well-formed head of a man, while the rest of him was a horse” (Paré 1982, p. 6). And in his encyclopedia of equine medicine (Adlersflügel 1703), the renowned equine veterinarian Georg Simon Winters von Adlersflügel speaks of this centaurian prodigy as if it were something to be believed, and he even provides a good quality illustration (see figure, above right).
These assertions refer to a report that first appeared in Albertino Mussato’s history of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII (see Mussati 1536, p. 52), which in translation reads,
In a letter appearing in an appendix of Paul Zacchias’ Quaestiones medico-legales, the Italian physician and botanist Pietro Castelli comments in the same vein, stating that in 1634 a woman in the city of Messina gave “birth to a being that looked like a donkey” (see: de Ceglia 2014).
And such beliefs persisted to a much later date than is commonly supposed. Douthwaite (1997) says that “accounts of animal-human interbreeding abound in eighteenth-century natural histories and reveal a curiosity mixed with repulsion for hybrids of all kinds.” Such comments appear in the writings of the most enlightened writers of the era. For example, Voltaire says the following in his Essay on the Customs and Spirit of Nations (1756):
Elsewhere he writes (Voltaire 1768, vol. VIII, pp. 120-121):
Jonas Lillequist (2006, pp. 159-162) documents an interesting Swedish court case in which the accused supposedly encountered a human-horse hybrid. In 1706, a Colonel Anders Sparfeldt served as head of a military tribunal trying a soldier named Sven Jönsson who had left his regiment without leave. Jönsson claimed that during his time away he had had sexual intercourse with a being who was “a woman in every aspect except that she had “shaggy legs and a mare’s tail.” By the end of the trial, Colonel Sparfeldt, who had closely interrogated Jönsson, reached the conclusion that this event had in fact occurred, and that the creature in question was the product of a mating between a man and a mare. Sparfeldt had a portrait (shown at right) drawn of the “woman” after the soldier’s description. Certainly, this case does not in any way demonstate that horses and human beings can produce hybrids together. It does however show that only a couple of centuries ago, even some of the more sober members of society, in this case the head justice of a military court, accepted that such things occur.
And Douthwaite should not have implied that such beliefs died out by 1800. Throughout the nineteenth century the idea was widespread, even among the educated, that sexual relations between a human and an animal could result in the production of hybrid offspring. For example, an 1827 report in a German medical journal (quoted in translation elsewhere on this website) describes a supposed human-cow hybrid.
And, if truth be told, even later in that century, in the newspapers read by those supposedly staid Victorians, such accounts were still being published. For example, the following is a verbatim transcript of an article that appeared on page 3, col. 3 of the Nashville Daily Union, Nashville, Tennessee, on Nov. 2, 1865:
We recently noted the discovery, at Nashville, Tenn., of a remarkable Lusus naturae. The monstrosity has a human head and features, while the body and legs are of the brute creation. It is called half horse and half man, and these dual characteristics are said to be singularly prominent and well defined. To what class or order of conformation does this wonder belong? With our limited knowledge of animal monstrosities, we are totally unable to assign it a connective place with any known phenomena of nature. It belongs to none of the tribes or families enumerated and discussed by the historians of teratology, but seems to be the actual representation of that species of deformity which had only a fabulous existence in and prior to the seventeenth century. In those days of superstition, the Minotaur, the centaurs, satyrs, dragons, tritus, siren, and mermaids were regarded as creatures half human half animal, but this mythological belief is no longer shared by any but the hopelessly ignorant and credulous. The astounding fact is established beyond cavil that such a freak (the unity of man and beast) does exist in the form now on exhibition at Nashville. It surely is a subject for philosophical and medical study, and we hope some of the modern Hippocrateses, Aristotles, Plinys, Galens, or St. Hilaires will investigate it for the enlightenment of our own country and the world. This great phenomenal curiosity is in the possession of Dr. L. L. Coleman, a prominent physician of Nashville. As a man of superior attainments in the sciences of anatomy and embryology, he treats it as the veritable wonder of the times. The attention of the medical world will be attracted to it and result in the most remarkable demonstration of fetal mystery.
The above mentioned "monstrosity" is attracting considerable attention in this city. The exhibition is visited daily by hundreds of deeply interested spectators, who take part in the discussion as to what it can be. Go and see it, if you have not already done so.
Another example, involving a woman giving birth to a horselike animal, appears in the May 5, 1847 issue of the Viennese newspaper Der Humorist, eine Zeitschrift für Scherz und Ernst, Kunst, Theater, Geselligkeit und Sitt:
Yet another Victorian case appears on page 3, column 3 of the June 14, 1878 issue of The Findlay Jeffersonian, a newspaper published in Findlay, Ohio (source):
And in 1892, we have the following brief notice about a centaur being born in the town of Guthrie, Oklahoma. It appears on page 2, column 2 of the February 5 issue of Bismarck Weekly Tribune, a newspaper published in Bismarck, North Dakota (source):
Guthrie, O. T., Jan. 28.—A remarkable freak of nature is attracting universal attention here. It is a colt born on the farm of W. H. Dysart with the perfect head of a human being and the body of a horse.
The next quotation, from a notice about a foal born with hands, takes news stories about centaurs into the twentieth century. It appeared on page 5, col. 7, of the August 26, 1909 issue of The Times-Dispatch, a newspaper published in Richmond, Virginia (source). The relevant passage reads as follows:
CAPE CHARLES, VA., August 25.—C. W. Lord, a farmer of Camden, has a few freaks of nature on his Jones Neck farm. A few days ago a black mare gave birth to a mule colt that, instead of hoof, feet, had four hands each with fingers. The colt was perfect in every other way and very healthy, but it could not stand up, and died three days after birth. …
So the above are all the reports from the post-medieval era that diligent search has as yet revealed. But there are probably others out there. If you know of one, please contact the website.
From the above it can be seen that people were taking the existence of centaurs seriously at least as late as the early twentieth century. But such beliefs date back to very early times (King 1912). For example, Lacouperie (1892, p. 186) states that “Babylonian boundary stones exhibit figures of hippocentaurs half-man half-horse. Such, for instance, is the stone of Meli-sihu, a king whose date has been approximately fixed to 1107 B.C.”
Among the Greeks and Romans, the notion of human-animal hybrids was widely accepted. Ovid (Metamorphoses, Book 6, ll. 100-121) lists various animal forms in which Zeus, the lord of the gods, seduced women, including an eagle, a swan, a ram, a snake and a dolphin. As a bull, he seduced Europa and carried her away to Crete, where she gave birth to the Minotaur, half man, half bull. In another version of the myth, Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos of Crete, Europa’s son by Zeus, lusted after a white bull sent by Poseidon. Again, the Minotaur was the result.
There are many Graeco-Roman accounts of gods in animal form ravishing mortals. According to the Greek historian Apollodorus (Library, 2), the first centaur, Chiron, was born when the titan Kronos took on the form of a horse and made love to the nymph Philyra.
In fact, such behavior seems often to have been perceived in a sacred light. As Oliver Goldsmith put it, “fornication, incest, rape, and even bestiality, were sanctified by the amours of Jupiter, Pan, Mars, Venus and Apollo.” Thomas Mann went so far as to claim that “In the religions of antiquity, very often indeed, the sacred and the obscene were one.” To the Romans, says Salisbury (1994, p. 86),
Suetonius, in his life of Julius Caesar, says, “He rode a remarkable horse, too, with feet that were almost human; for its hoofs were cloven in such a way as to look like toes. This horse was foaled on his own estate, and since the soothsayers had declared that it foretold the rule of the world for its master, he reared it with the greatest care, and was the first to mount it, for it would endure no other rider. Afterwards, too, he dedicated a statue of it before the temple of Venus Genetrix.”
Indeed, in the antique mind, humans were close enough to horses that one might change into the other, as did Ocyroe the human daughter of Chiron. The Fates punished her for revealing the future by making her a mare. In the Metamorphoses (Book II), Ovid has her bemoan her fate:
Philostratus the Elder (Imagines, II.3), describes female centaurs and their lives:
You used to think that the race of centaurs sprang from trees and rocks or, by Zeus, just from mares—the mares which, men say, the son of Ixion covered, the man by whom the centaurs, though single creatures, came to have their double nature. But after all they had, as we see, mothers of the same stock and wives next and colts as their offspring and a most delightful home; for I think you would not grow weary of Pelion and the life there and its wind-nurtured growth of ash which furnishes spear-shafts that are straight and at the same time do not break at the spearhead. And its caves are most beautiful and the springs and the female centaurs beside them, like Naïads if we overlook the horse part of them, or like Amazons if we consider them along with their horse bodies; for the delicacy of their female form gains in strength when the horse is seen in union with it. Of the baby centaurs here some lie wrapped in swaddling clothes, some have discarded their swaddling clothes, some seem to be crying, some are happy and smile as they suck flowing breasts, some gambol beneath their mothers while others embrace them when they kneel down, and one is throwing a stone at his mother, for already he grows wanton. The bodies of the infants have not yet taken on their definite shape, seeing that abundant milk is still their nourishment, but some that already are leaping about show a little shagginess, and have sprouting mane and hoofs, though these are still tender.
How beautiful the female centaurs are, even where they are horses; for some grow out of white mares, others are attached to chestnut mares, and the coats of others are dappled, but they glisten like those of horses that are well cared for. There is also a white female centaur that grows out of a black mare, and the very opposition of the colours helps to produce the united beauty of the whole.
In his Cyropaedia (4.3.17-20), the Greek historian Xenophon quotes a Persian nobleman, Chrysantas:
Now the creature that I have envied most is, I think, the Centaur (if any such being ever existed), able to reason with a man’s intelligence and to manufacture with his hands what he needed, while he possessed the fleetness and strength of a horse so as to overtake whatever ran before him and to knock down whatever stood in his way. Well, all his advantages I combine in myself by becoming a horseman. At any rate, I shall be able to take forethought for everything with my human mind, I shall carry my weapons with my hands, I shall pursue with my horse and overthrow my opponent by the rush of my steed, but I shall not be bound fast to him in one growth, like the Centaurs. Indeed, my state will be better than being grown together in one piece; for, in my opinion at least, the Centaurs must have had difficulty in making use of many of the good things invented for man; and how could they have enjoyed many of the comforts natural to the horse? But if I learn to ride, I shall, when I am on horseback, do everything as the Centaur does, of course; but when I dismount, I shall dine and dress myself and sleep like other human beings; and so what else shall I be than a Centaur that can be taken apart and put together again?
Pliny the Elder (Naturalis Historia, VII, iii) tells of a centaur sent to Claudius Caesar (Roman emperor 41-54 A.D.) from Egypt preserved in honey and claims to have seen it himself. In the same place, Pliny mentions the birth of another centaur as if it were an historical event. It had been born in Saguntum, he says, in the year the city was destroyed by Hannibal (218 BCE).
In his paradoxography, On Marvels (34-35), a later writer, Phlegon of Tralles wrote of an embalmed centaur in the imperial collection of the Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138 A.D.). He says this creature was originally sent to Emperor Claudius, so whatever this specimen might actually have been, it seems it was the same one mentioned by Pliny. It was known as the Centaur of Saune (a place in Arabia where it was supposedly caught). Phlegon, a literary freedman who served on Hadrian’s staff, says it had a face more fierce than a human’s, hairy arms and fingers, and a human torso that merged with a horse’s body and limbs. He says (see Hansen 1996, p. 49) other centaurs had been reported, but
By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).
The Centaurs (from Bullfinch’s Mythology): “These monsters were represented as men from the head to the loins, while the rest of the body was that of a horse. The ancients were too fond of a horse to consider the union of his nature with man’s as forming a very degraded compound, and accordingly the Centaur is the only one of the fancied monsters of antiquity to which any good traits are assigned. The Centaurs were admitted to the companionship of man, and at the marriage of Pirithous with Hippodamia they were among the guests. At the feast of Eurytion, one of the Centaurs, becoming intoxicated with the wine, attempted to offer violence to the bride; the other Centaurs followed his example, and a dreadful conflict arose in which several of them were slain. This is the celebrated battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs, a favorite subject with the sculptors and poets of antiquity.
“But not all the Centaurs were like the rude guests of Pirithous. Chiron was instructed by Apollo and Artemis, and was renowned for his skill in hunting, medicine, music, and the art of prophecy. The most distinguished heroes of Greek history were his pupils. Among the rest the infant Asklepios was intrusted to his charge by Apollo, his father. When the sage returned to his home bearing the infant, his daughter Ocyroe came forth to meet him, and at sight of the child burst forth into a prophetic strain (for she was a prophetess), foretelling the glory that he was to achieve. Asklepios when grown up became a renowned physician, and even in one instance succeeded in restoring the dead to life. Hades resented this, and Zeus, at his request, struck the bold physician with lightning, and killed him, but after his death received him into the number of the gods.
“Chiron was the wisest and most just of all the Centaurs, and at his death Zeus placed him among the stars as the constellation Sagittarius.”
From Plutarch’s Banquet of Seven Wise Men (Ch. 11): “As Thales was talking after this fashion, in comes a servant and tells us it was Periander’s pleasure we would come in and inform him what we thought of a certain creature brought into his presence that instant, whether it were so born by chance or were a monster and omen; — himself seeming mightily affected and concerned, for he judged his sacrifice polluted by it. At the same time he walked before us into a certain house adjoining to his garden-wall, where we found a young beardless shepherd, tolerably handsome, who having opened a leathern bag produced and showed us a child born (as he averred) of a mare. His upper parts as far as his neck and his hands, was of human shape, and the rest of his body resembled a perfect horse; his cry was like that of a child newly born. As soon as Niloxenus saw it, he cried out, 'The gods deliver us!' and away he fled as one sadly affrighted. But Thales eyed the shepherd a considerable while, and then smiling (for it was his way to jeer me perpetually about my art) says he, I doubt not, Diocles, but you have been all this time seeking for some expiatory sacrifice, and meaning to call to your aid those gods whose province and work it is to avert evils from men, as if some great and grievous thing had happened. Why not? quoth I, for undoubtedly this prodigy portends sedition and war, and I fear the dire portents thereof may extend to myself, my wife, and my children, and prove all our ruin; since, before I have atoned for my former fault, the goddess gives us this second evidence and proof of her displeasure. Thales replied never a word, but laughing went out of the house. Periander, meeting him at the door, inquired what we thought of that creature; he dismissed me, and taking Periander by the hand, said, 'Whatsoever Diocles shall persuade you to do, do it at your best leisure; but I advise you either not to have such youthful men to keep your mares, or to give them leave to marry.'”
From Aelian’s De Natura Animalium (Bk. XVII, ch. 9): “Indeed, it is now in my mind to describe the onocentaur, relating the things I have learned through hearsay and fable. This onocentaur undoubtedly has a face similar to a man’s but surrounded by long hair. Its neck and chest also have a human appearance. It also has on its chest distended breasts. It has shoulders, arms, elbows and hands and a chest and even loins like a human’s. Its back, stomach, sides and hind legs are similar to those of an ass, and are ash colored as an ass, but the lower part of the stomach (over toward the side) is of a lighter shade. Its hands perform a double duty, for when there is need for speed, they run ahead of the hind feet and consequently cannot be overtaken by other four-footed animals. Moreover, when it finds it necessary to seize food or to raise, place, seize or bind anything, the hands, which formerly were feet, are brought forth and then it does not walk but sits. It is an animal of a serious, sad spirit, for, if it is captured, not enduring confinement, it refuses all food because of its desire for liberty and starves to death. Crates of Mysian Pergamon testifies that Pythagorus tells these things concerning the onocentaur.”
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