COLLOQUIUM: Jeremy McInerney, University of Pennsylvania, "Centaurs and the Uses of Hybridity"

Thursday, January 29, 2015 - 4:30pm to 6:00pm

402 Cohen Hall

This paper is concerned with the figure of the centaur in the imagination of the Greeks. Beginning with the Lefkandi centaur, the Greeks manufactured centaur figures in a variety of media: terra cottas, pedimental sculpture, bronze figurines and vase paintings. The valence of these depictions, however, is not uniform. In some settings they clearly stand for unbridled male sexuality (as in the Olympia pediments.) Others, such as the early Red Figure depictions of Cheiron in himation with horse’s rump attached, or Pholos reclining at banquet seem almost parodies of the sympotic culture of the kaloi k’agathoi.

            Two aspects of this polyvalent figure are especially notable. The first is that many centaurs are actually human all the way to their feet, so that genitally they are human. The move to equine centaurs thus represents a ferocious development of the sexual threat they embody. To rape is added the horror of bestiality.

            A second feature concerns the posture of centaur bronzes, in which they are shown confronting their human adversaries. As observers we see them on a visual plane in which their animal form is obvious. Within the composition of the bronze group, however, the centaurs engage so closely and directly with the humans opposite that they could almost be mistaken for human.


            Building on this last feature I use Freud’s notion of the Unheimlich to suggest a reading of the centaur. They are not monstrous aliens like Typhoeus or Charybdis, but uncannily familiar and recognizable. They are demonstrate how hybridity is a  powerful tool for the Greeks to think with; that which is alien, either wild or non-Greek can be classified among the hybrids, creatures of the unexpected that fix our attention, shaping the experience of the uncanny into narratives of conflict and (Greek) triumph.