Half-human half-beast creatures are found in myths and legends of nearly every, if not all, culture in the world. Although many of them made their first appearance in stories from ancient Greece, Mesopotamia and Egypt, these creatures are most likely a much older concept that was passed down over generations. Ancient Greek’s Pan, who symbolizes and rules over the untamed wild, is depicted with the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat while otherwise being mostly human in his appearance. One of the most popular representations of Anubis, the Egyptian god of death, depicts him as a figure with the body of a man and the head of a jackal with pointed ears holding a gold scale while a heart of the soul is being weighed against Ma’at’s truth feather. In Buddhist mythology, there is the Kalaviṅka, a divine bird with a human head who preached the Dharma through its songs and, in South east Asian mythology, two of the most beloved mythological characters are the benevolent half-human, half-bird creatures known as the Kinnara and Kinnari, celestial musicians who come from the Himalayas and watch over the well-being of humans in times of trouble or danger.
The ancient Greek Centaurs constitute an important part of early Greek mythology as they are connected with great mythological heroes such as Achilles and Heracles. The lyric poet Pindar (517 – 438 BC) tells us the story of Ixion, a rather sinister trickster figure. His biggest crime is that of violating xenia (“guest-friendship”), the ancient Greek concept of hospitality, particularly the generosity and courtesy shown to those who are far from home. Ixion invited his father-in-law to his home as his guest and proceeded to push the old man into a bed of burning coals.
Ixion then lived as an outlaw – half-mad and shunned by society. Zeus took pity on him and brought him to Olympus. However, Ixion grew lustful of Hera and tried to rape her. As Hera is the wife of his host, Ixion committed another violation of xenia. When Zeus found out about his intentions, he made a cloud in the shape of Hera which became known as Nephele. Ixion laid with Nephele and the union resulted in a deformed son who was named Centaurus. Centaurus later lived on the mountain of Pelion and mated with the Magnesian mares who resided there. This resulted in the birth of the Centaur race, with the mother’s features below, the father’s features above.
The children of Centaurus developed into a tribe of the half-human, half-horse people who inhabited the mountains and forests of Thessalian Magnesia. They led a savage life, hunting wild animals for food and arming themselves with rocks and tree branches. The Centaurs were invited to attend the wedding of their half-brother Pirithous, the King of the Lapiths of Larissa in Thessaly. However, they became drunk at the festivities and attempted to abduct the women in the party, including the bride. A battle ensued and most of the Centaurs were destroyed. The rest of the Centaurs were expelled from their country, taking refuge on mount Pindus on the frontiers of Epeirus.
This is only one of the many stories about the wild nature of the Centaurs and their lack of those qualities that characterize civilized mortals. This is apparent from the place where they live, as Homer calls them “mountain-bred animals” (for context, a Greek curse says “to the mountain or into the sea” to indicate the two places where it was impossible to return to humanity).
More research into the symbolism of the Centaurs started thousand years later in the 1870s, at a time in which nature was seen as the key to unlock Greek mythology. German scholar Wilhelm Mannhardt (1831–1880) collected the then available evidence and concluded that the Centaurs went back to a period even before Homer. Mannhardt also interpreted the Centaurs as the personifications of tornadoes. Around the same time, Wilhelm Roscher (1845–1923) interpreted them as the personifications of cascading mountain brooks. As both men associate Centaurs with “earthiness” and the wild qualities of nature, ancient and modern interpretations of Centaurs seem to agree that they are creatures of excess who disliked to be tethered and represent unbridled strength and passion.
Chiron, the most celebrated among the Centaurs, shows the same passionate nature of a Centaur which is more targeted to a particular purpose. In this case, the purpose was knowledge and wisdom. Chiron went on to instruct many Greek heroes, including Heracles, Achilles, Jason and Asclepius. Chiron later renounced his immortality after he was accidentally pierced by a poisoned arrow in favour of Prometheus and was placed among the stars as the constellation Centaurus.
Noi or Nok is the Lao term for “bird”. One would sometimes hear the children in Laos singing the repeated word “noi, noi, noi…” as the introduction of a song about “A lady who is a bird.” This song refers to the Kinnari. the divine bird with a human head, torso and arms, and a swan’s tail, wings, and feet. She inhabits the Himavanta forest, a legendary forest which surrounds the base of Mount Meru in Hindu mythology, home of legendary mythical creatures, such as the Kinnari and her mate (the Kinnara), Naga, and Garuda. Apart from her virtuosity in singing magical melodies and her ability to dance gracefully, her deep love and loyalty for her mate made her admired as a symbol of pure and virtuous femininity, as well as the epitome of the the ideal wife.
Thai mythology describes the Kinnaris as the offsprings of a human and a Hamsa, a divine swan. The most famous Kinnari, Manohara, is said to have been reborn as Yasodhara, wife to Prince Siddhartha before he left his home to become the Buddha. Manohara and her six Kinnari sisters lived on the slopes of Mount Meru. One day, the seven sisters traveled to the human realm. A hunter hid and watched the seven sisters remove their wings and tails and frolic in the river. Using a magic noose belonging to a Naga, the hunter managed to snare Manohara as her sisters escaped. He held her captive and presented her to Prince Sudhana, a renowned archer and heir to the Panchala kingdom. The prince fell in love with Manohara and married her.
The couple lived happily until the prince went away to battle. While her husband was away, the royal courtiers accused Manohara of bringing bad luck to the city and is threatened with death. She donned her wings and flew away to her home. However, she never forgotten her husband. She left a ring behind for Prince Sudhana, as well as and the directions to reach her home in Mount Meru so that he could find her.
Prince Sudhana returned and promptly tried to find her. His journey took seven years, seven months and seven days. Along the way, He confronts a yaksha (an ogre that haunts the wilderness and waylays and devours travelers) and a river of flames among many other dangers. His journey then led him to the Kinnara king, the father of Manohara, who asked him to prove his love for his daughter with various tests. After passing the final test, the king consented to his marriage to Manohara and sent them home to Panchala with his blessing.
Although the Centaurs’ passions are quickly apparent in their lust for life and love of drinking, there are also legends which describe their more tender side. For this, we turn to the Centaurides, the female Centaurs. Third century Greek rhetorician Philostratus the Elder (c. 190 – 230 AD) says “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 coat’s of others are dappled, but they glisten like those of horses that are well cared for.” Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, also mentions a Centauride named Hylonome and her last act of love for her husband Cyllarus, who was killed in the war with the Lapith, “A javelin came from the left and wounded Cyllarus, landing below the place where the chest joins neck – slight wound, but when the point was pulled away, cold grew his damaged heart and cold his limbs. Hylonome embraced him as he died, caressed the wound and, putting lips to lips, she tried to stay his spirit as it fled. And when she saw him lifeless, she moaned words that in that uproar failed to reach my ears; and fell upon the spear that pierced her love, and, dying, held her husband in her arms.” This passionate devotion to one’s mate is also shown in the relationship between the Kinnaras and the Kinnaris. A famous Burmese dance portrays a Kinnari who was inconsolable when a flood separated her from her mate for 700 nights.
The South Asian depictions of the Kinnaras and the Kinnaris also highlight their relationship by showing them in pairs noted for mutual love and devotion. In the Chanda Kinnara Jataka, the devotion of the Kinnari to her wounded Kinnara husband compelled Indra, the king of the gods himself, to cure him from the wound. The Kinnara seems to combine the elements of the South East Asian Kinnari and the ancient Greek Centaurs. Although the Jataka described them as “wild things”, they were also fond of music and were also elegant singers and dancers.