Where the Centaurs Graze

SCOTT CORBETT iS a native Missourian now living in East Dennis on Cape Cod. He has written several books, the latest of which is MIDSHIPMAN CRUISE.

The April Atlantic Monthly carried a poem by P. Tremayne which brought me up short with the following lines:

the hallowed woods, the voiceless bays,
the cool hills where the centaurs graze . . .

This last image hit me in the eye like a grapefruit squirt, completely disrupting the mood our poet was striving for. I could only wonder if she had really stopped, as I did, to conjure up a picture of centaurs grazing.

Spurred by this experience, I have gone into the centaur picture pretty thoroughly, and my findings have convinced me it is just as well they died out. Taken as a whole, the centaur was not a very sound idea.

First, let’s get clear on exactly what a centaur was: where the man left off and the horse began, so to speak. As Bulfinch describes them, “These monsters were represented as men from the head to the loins, while the remainder of the body was that of a horse.”

A centaur is thus stuck with the major portions of two totally different bodies to feed. The poor man has to cat like a horse to keep himself fit. And there’s only one way for it. Like it or not, hay fever or no, he’s got to stick his head down in the prickly, tickly grass and start chewing up the stuff.

A little of this would go a long way with most of us, I should think. Furthermore, if you will dig out some reference books or an old Grecian vase and take a good look at a centaur, you will see that the resulting position would be one best left to a trapeze artist. Maybe you’ve never tried to hang head down and cat grass, but just out of curiosity I checked the position out in our side yard. It’s not easy. Worse yet, straightening up time after time from that position would soon catch most of us in the small of the back, right where man meets horse in a centaur. It was probably a centaur who first suffered from nagging backache, not to mention achingnag back.

Of course I might add that you’ll have to imagine all this for yourself. You won’t find any vase paintings showing centaurs grazing. You’ll see them doing practically everything else, including a few things I feel are in rather bad taste, but you won’t see them grazing. Those old frieze painters knew that if they ever showed one centaur in that ridiculous position the whole centaur-painting business (a very profitable line) would blow up in their faces. As a result we have centaurs fighting and centaurs running and centaurs chasing women (they never seemed to chase fillies, or vice versa), but we never see them having a bite to eat.

Perhaps I’m being difficult, but I’d like to know how a centaur sorted out his appetites. After he got through with all the exercise involved in providing fodder for the horse part, the man part must have been ready to sit down to — or, rather, trot up to — a square meal on the order of a thick sirloin steak and some French fries. Yet how did he keep this type of food from disagreeing with the horse part? And for that matter, how come the man part didn’t get a bad case of chlorophyll poisoning from passing all that clover along to the horse part?

I have tried to imagine how I’d handle these problems if I were a centaur. With me it would definitely be a case of first come, first served. In other words, steak first, and worry about the horse afterwards. And since I don’t care for grass, I’d try to solve the horse problem with an enormous side order of salad, and hope that French dressing agreed with horses.

Besides the drawbacks already outlined, the centaurs had a number of personality problems that bother me. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has this to say about them: “In later times they are often represented drawing the car of Dionysus, or bound and ridden by Eros, in allusion to their drunken and amorous habits. Their general character is that of wild, lawless, and inhospitable beings, the slaves of their animal passions.”

Hardly the sort of horse or man you’d care to have around for any extended period. Of course, the ancient Greeks did not necessarily look at it that way. As Bulfinch is quick to point out, “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 I’m sure Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and a host of others would agree with this even today — “and accordingly the Centaur is the only one of the fancied monsters of antiquity to which any good traits are assigned.”

This broad-minded attitude on the part of the ancients is all very well, but let’s take a look at the record. When we do, it is hard to see where the average centaur ever merited such toleration. Take for example the disgraceful things that went on at the marriage of Pirithoüs with Hippodamia, which Bulfinch goes on to describe next.

The centaurs were invited to be among the guests. Well, everybody else behaved like perfect ladies and gentlemen, but a centaur named Eurytion, “becoming intoxicated with the wane,” began horsing around with the bride. Immediately all the other drunken centaurs also “attempted to offer violence to the bride.” This annoyed the bridegroom — men were proud in those days — and resulted in a dreadful conflict in which several of the centaurs were slain. In short, the whole atmosphere of the wedding grew quite strained.

The only thing I do wonder about a little is the bride’s name, Hippodamia. After all, hippos is the Greek word for horse. Was she perhaps one of the horsy set by inclination, and should a man like Pirithoüs have gotten mixed up with her in the first place? The more I think about it, the more I think there were a few things that should have been straightened out before the wedding.

Be that as it may, the centaur’s physical setup and his notorious weakness for wine and women combine to convince me that he has no place in our modern world of togetherness. Except for Sloan’s Liniment, which claims to be good for man and beast, there hasn’t been a product marketed in the last fifty years that really hits his needs squarely. As for making a living — well, other than in the inevitable trained-centaur act that would turn up on Ed Sullivan’s show, I don’t see where the average centaur could find work today. On the other hand he would unquestionably find his way into a lot of Third Avenue bars, and then we’d be in for a tiresome spate of shaggy-centaur stories. We can very well do without those.

About the only centaur for whom anybody had a really good word to say was Chiron, of whom the Britannica remarks, “He dwelt at the foot of Mount Pelion, and was famous for his wisdom and knowledge of the healing art.” I suppose you might say he was the first horse doctor. “He offers a remarkable contrast to the other centaurs in manners and character. Many of the most celebrated heroes of Greece were brought up and instructed by him.” Chiron stood out from the herd all the way. When he died he was placed by Zeus among the stars and became the constellation Sagittarius. He was survived by a human widow and three little creatures it would be hard to put a name to.

One last thought concerning centaurs should be enough to convince you, as I am convinced, that we are well rid of them. Supposing we still had a lot of centaurs around, and they began to get middle-aged? It’s bad enough to think how one of them would look as he grew swaybacked and spavined, but suppose he also started developing a paunch? It would be so oddly situated on a centaur that I can hardly imagine anything more grotesque. Worse yet, he’d still think he was as attractive as ever, and he’d still chase the girls. You know very well he would. That type always does.