There are many ancient accounts and commentaries about the origin of the centaurs, a mythological race of half-horse, half-man beings supposedly located in the mountainous regions of Thessaly and Arcadia. Writers such as Pindar, Diodorus Siculus, Cicero and Plutarch all traced the origin of the centaurs to a scandalous incident that allegedly occurred on Olympus, the home of the ancient Greek gods.
As the tales tell, there lived a man named Ixion, who was a king of the Lapiths, in ancient Thessaly. He was a demigod, whose lineage varied depending on the source, but it often connected in some way or other to Ares, the god of war and aggression. Ixion was not a good man—his misadventure began when he murdered his father-in-law, a crime that required purification. So, seeking to be purified, Ixion used his divine parentage to be received as a guest to Olympus, where he mingled with the gods.
During his stay on Olympus, Ixion became obsessed with one particular goddess and was determined to seduce her. He could not have set his sights on a more dangerous target. She was one half of Olympus’ most powerful and most jealous couple—her name was Hera, queen of the gods.
Ixion’s desires did not go unnoticed by Hera, and he was so pushy with his feelings that the queen of the gods brought up the troubling matter in conversation with her husband, Zeus. The mighty sky-god was skeptical of the claim, but he was curious enough to put Ixion to the test.
In an ethically questionable move, Zeus created a new female life, a nymph, made from the clouds and shaped to look exactly like Hera. The cloud creature, however, was not a lifeless puppet; her name was Nephele and she had a mind and personality of her own. Nevertheless, Zeus ensured that this newly born deity crossed Ixion’s path. Some accounts claimed that Zeus went as far as putting Nephele directly in Ixion’s bed. According to the tales, when Ixion finally came into contact with Nephele, he lost all control of his desires and raped the unsuspecting nymph.
Zeus, who was watching the events unfold, promptly had Ixion detained and sentenced him to an eternity of being bound to a spinning wheel. Although the case was closed for Zeus, events were not over for Nephele—she was pregnant. According to some sources, she gave birth directly to the race of centaurs, or, in other accounts, she birthed only Centaurus, who fathered the centaurs with the mares of Mount Pelion.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Public Domain: (Image of centaurs fighting predator cats, photographed by Nina Aldin Thune, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- On Sparta, by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.