A centaur ( /ˈsɛntɔːr,_ˈsɛntɑːr/; in classical Greek: κένταυρος; romaniz.: kéntauros; in Latin: centaurus), or occasionally hypocentaur, is a creature in Greek mythology with the upper body of a human and the lower body and legs of a horse.
Centaurs are considered in many Greek myths to be as wild as untamed horses, and are said to have inhabited the Magnesia region and Mount Pelion in Thessaly, the Foloi oak forest in Elis, and the Malean peninsula in southern Laconia. Centaurs are later introduced in Roman mythology, and were familiar figures in medieval bestiary. They remain a staple of modern fantastic literature.
The Greek word kentauros is generally considered to be of obscure origin.
The etymology of ken + tauros, 'piercing bull', was an evemerist suggestion in Palephatus' streamlining text on Greek mythology, On Incredible Tales (Περὶ ἀπίστων), which included mounted archers from a village called Nephele eliminating a herd of bulls that were the scourge of the kingdom of Ixion. Another possible related etymology may be "slayer of bulls."
Origin of the myth
The most common theory holds that the idea of centaurs came from the first reaction of a non-equestrian culture, as in the Minoan world of the Aegean, to nomads who were mounted on horses. The theory suggests that such riders would appear as half man, half animal.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo reported that the Aztecs also had this misconception about Spanish horsemen. The Lapita tribe of Thessaly, who were the relatives of the centaurs in myth, were described as the inventors of horsemanship by Greek writers. The tribes of Thessaly also claimed that their horse breeds were descended from the centaurs.
Robert Graves (drawing on the work of Georges Dumézil, who suggested tracing the origin of centaurs to the Indian Gandarva), speculated that the centaurs were a vaguely remembered pre-Hellenic fraternal cult that had the horse as a totem. A similar theory was incorporated into Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea.