This extraordinary combination of man and animal is very ancient--and
the first I can find is Assyrian. Mr. W. St. Chad Boscawen, in one of
his British Museum Lectures (afterwards published under the title of
From under the Dust of Ages), speaking of the seasons and the zodiacal
signs, in his lecture on The Legend of Gizdhubar, says:--"Gizdhubar
has a dream that the stars of heaven are falling upon him, and, like
adnezzar, he can find no one to explain the hidden meaning to
him. He is, however, told by his huntsman, Zaidu, of a very wise
creature who dwells in the marshes, three days' journey from Erech....
The strange being, whom this companion of the hero is despatched to
bring to the Court, is one of the most interesting in the Epic. He is
called Hea-bani--'he whom Hea has made.' This mysterious creature is
represented on the gems, as half a man, and half a bull. He has the
body, face, and arms of a man, and the horns, legs, hoofs, and tail of a
bull. Though in form rather resembling the satyrs, and in fondness for,
and in association with the cattle, the rustic deity Pan, yet in his
companionship with Gizdhubar, and his strange death, he approaches
nearer the Centaur Chiron, who was the companion of Heracles.
"By his name he was the son of Hea, whom Berosus identifies as Cronos,
as Chiron was the son of Cronos. Like Chiron, he was celebrated for his
wisdom, and acted as the counsellor of the hero, interpreting his
dreams, and enabling him to overcome the enemies who attacked him.
Chiron met his death at the hand of Heracles, one of whose poisoned
arrows struck him, and, though immortal, he would not live any longer,
and gave his immortality to Prometheus.... Zeus made Chiron among the
stars a Sagittarius. Here again we have a striking echo of the Chaldaean
legend, in the Erech story. According to the arrangement of tablets, the
death of Hea-bani takes place under the sign of Sagittarius, and is the
result of some fatal accident during the combat between Gizdhubar and
Khumbaba. Like the Centaurs, before his call to the Court of Gizdhubar,
Hea-bani led a wild and savage life. It is said on the tablets 'that he
consorted with the wild beasts. With the gazelles he took his food by
night, and consorted with the cattle by day, and rejoiced his heart
with the creeping things of the waters.'
"Hea-Bani was true and loyal to Gizdhubar, and when Istar (the Assyrian
Venus), foiled in her love for Gizdhubar, flew to heaven to see her
father Anu (the Chaldaean Zeus), and to seek redress for the slight put
upon her, the latter created a winged bull, called 'The Bull of Heaven,'
which was sent to earth. Hea-Bani, however, helps his lord, the bull is
slain, and the two companions enter Erech in triumph. Hea-Bani met with
his death when Gizdhubar fought Khumbaba, and 'Gizdhubar for Hea-Bani
his friend wept bitterly and lay on the ground.'"
Thus, centuries before the Romans had emerged from barbarism, we have
the prototype of the classical Centaur, the man-horse. The fabled
Centaurs were a people of Thessaly--half-men, half-horses--and their
existence is very cloudy. Still, they were often depicted, and the two
examples of a male and female Centaur, from a fresco at Pompeii, are
charmingly drawn. It will be seen that both are attended by Bacchantes
bearing thyrses--a delicate allusion to their love of wine; for it was
owing to this weakness that their famous battle with the Lapithae took
place. The Centaurs were invited to the marriage of Hippodamia with
Pirithous, and, after the manner of cow-boys "up town," they got
intoxicated, were very rude, and even offered violence to the women
present. That, the good knights, Sir Hercules and Sir Theseus, could not
stand, and with the Lapithae, gave the Centaurs a thrashing, and made
them retire to Arcadia. They had a second fight over the matter of wine,
for the Centaur Pholus gave Hercules to drink of wine meant for him, but
in the keeping of the Centaurs, and these ill-conditioned animals
resented it, and attacked Hercules with fury. They were fearfully
punished, and but few survived.
Pliny pooh-poohs the mythical origin of the Centaurs, and says they were
Thessalians, who dwelt along Mount Pelion, and were the first to fight
on horseback. Aldrovandus writes that, according to Licosthenes, there
were formerly found, in the regions of the Great Tamberlane, Centaurs of
such a form as its upper part was that of a man, with two arms
resembling those of a toad, and he gives a drawing from that author,
so that the reader might diligently meditate whether such an animal was
possible in a natural state of things; but the artist seems to have
forgotten the fore-legs.
"The Onocentaur is a monstrous beast;
Supposed halfe a man, and halfe an Asse,
That never shuts his eyes in quiet rest,
Till he his foes deare life hath round encompast.
Such were the Centaures in their tyrannie,
That liv'd by Humane flesh and villanie."