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.
The centaurs were usually said to have been born of Ixion and Nephele (the cloud made in the image of Hera). Another version, however, makes them children of a certain Centaurus, who mated with the Magnesian mares. This Centaurus was either the son of Ixion and Nephele (instead of the Centaurs) or of Apollo and Stilbe, daughter of the river god Peneus. In the latter version of the story his twin brother was Lapithus, ancestor of the Lapiths, thus making the two warring peoples cousins.
The Centaurs are best known for their fight with the Lapithae, caused by their attempt to carry off Hippodamia and the rest of the Lapith women, on the day of her marriage to Pirithous, king of the Lapithae, himself the son of Ixion. The strife among these cousins is a metaphor for the conflict between the lower appetites and civilized behavior in humankind. Theseus, a hero and founder of cities, who happened to be present, threw the balance in favour of the right order of things, and assisted Pirithous. The Centaurs were driven off or destroyed. Another Lapith hero, Caeneus, who was invulnerable to weapons, was beaten into the earth by Centaurs wielding rocks and the branches of trees. Centaurs are thought of in many Greek myths as wild as untamed horses. Like the Titanomachy, the defeat of the Titans by the Olympian gods, the contests with the Centaurs typify the struggle between civilization and barbarism.
The most common theory holds that the idea of centaurs came from the first reaction of a non-riding culture, as in the Minoan Aegean world, to nomads who were mounted on horses. The theory goes that such riders would appear as half-man, half-animal (Bernal Díaz del Castillo reported that the Aztecs had this misapprehension about Spanish cavalrymen). Horse taming and horseback culture arose first in the southern steppe grasslands of Central Asia, perhaps approximately in modern Kazakhstan.
The Lapith tribe of Thessaly, who were the kinsmen of the Centaurs in myth, were described as the inventors of horse-back riding by Greek writers. The Thessalian tribes also claimed their horse breeds were descended from the centaurs.
Of the various Classical Greek authors who mentioned centaurs, Pindar was the first who describes undoubtedly a combined monster. Previous authors (Homer, etc.) only use words such as Pheres (Beasts) that could also mean ordinary savage men riding ordinary horses. However, contemporaneous representations of hybrid centaurs can be found in archaic Greek art.
Lucretius in his 1st century BC philosophical poem On the Nature of Things denied the existence of centaurs based on their differing rate of growth. He states that at three years old horses are in the prime of their life while at three humans are still little more than babies, making hybrid animals impossible.
Writer Robert Graves has speculated that the Centaurs of Greek myth were a dimly-remembered, pre-Hellenic fraternal earth cult who had the horse as a totem. A similar theory was incorporated into Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea.
The Greek word kentauros could be etymologized as ken - tauros = "piercing bull". Another possible etymology can be "bulls slayer". Some say that the Greeks took the constellation of Centaurus, and also its name "piercing bull", from Mesopotamia, where it symbolized the god Baal who represents rain and fertility, fighting with and piercing with his horns the demon Mot who represents the summer drought. (In Greece, Mot became the constellation of Lupus.) Later in Greece, the constellation of Centaurus was reinterpreted as a man riding a horse, and linked to legends of Greece being invaded by tribes of horsemen from the north. The idea of a combined monster may have arisen as an attempt to fit the pictorial figure to the stars better.
Alexander Hislop in his book The Two Babylons theorized that the word is derived from the Semitic Kohen and "tor" (to go round) via phonetic shift the less prominent consonants being lost over time, with it developing into Khen Tor or Ken-Tor, and being transliterated phonetically into Ionian as Kentaur.
"How beautiful the Centaurides 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.
Centaurs preserved a Dionysian connection in the 12th century Romanesque carved capitals of Mozac Abbey in the Auvergne, where other capitals depict harvesters, boys riding goats (a further Dionysiac theme) and griffins guarding the chalice that held the wine.
A centaur is one of the symbols associated with both the Iota Phi Theta and the Delta Lambda Phi fraternities. Whereas centaurs in Greek mythology were generally symbolic of chaos and unbridled passions, Delta Lambda Phi's centaur is modeled after Chiron and represents honor, moderation and tempered masculinity.
In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series centaurs are aggressive creatures that live in the Forbidden Forest. The centaurs tend to be violent if people intrude on their territory. They study the stars and planets, and can also sometimes see the future - although they may speak in very indirect and ambiguous terms about it.
In C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, centaurs are noble, loyal, and brave. They help Aslan's army fight against the White Witch, in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," but they gain a more prominent role in the second book, "Prince Caspian" where a centaur named Glenstorm (who also studies the stars and reads the future) is an important character.
The American poet May Swenson wrote a poem called "The Centaur," which appeared in her book A Cage of Spines in 1958, and which portrays a girl riding a make-believe horse (actually a willow branch) who comes to feel that she is the horse.
Centaurs have appeared in the Harry Potter film series and in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with Patrick Kake playing Oreius.