Half Horse, Half Man, All Mystical Creature
Centaurs are one of those well known, mystical creatures that is easy to spot and most people assume that they have a grasp on the concept. Half horse, half man, the centaur strides through the forest the way it has since the Greeks and Romans first envisioned them. Sine the Greeks and Romans though them up, we will start with them.
The centaurs, it has been postulated, come from the encounter of a non-riding race with a race or with nomads in the desert that were mounted on horseback. For instance, the Minoans, a non-riding race encountered the dervishes that rode horses in the sands of the desert. They saw these people that rode horses and the horse seemed to be an extension of the rider. The way that the riders wielded the horse as a weapon and as an extension of themselves wormed its way into the minds of these early people.
In the myths where the centaurs make their first appearances, you see the centaurs trying to stop the wedding of some of their kinsman (Thessaly) to another group. Pindar is the first of these early writers to describe the half human, half horse conglomeration that we are used to and for some reason that idea stuck in the minds of the Greek people. And the Romans of course picked up much of the Greek Pantheon (even though they got renamed). The Romans spread this mythology and its creatures all over the world. So it is no wonder that we see the centaur pop up in Scottish and Russian tales. These two extremes give you an idea of the places that the centaur ended up
Either way, the centaur was the wilder side of human nature wherever it appeared in these ancient cultures. Wild and untamed, the centaur represented the connection to the wilder nature of man, the centaur was our connection to the wilder, pre-civilization part of our culture. We see centaurs abducting women and terrorizing settlements. We even eventually see female centaurs though they usually appear as less wild and far more thoughtful then their male counterparts.
In modern, popular culture, the centaur has become the all knowing denizen of the forest in some cases and still a wild part of fantastical society in others. In the MMORPOG, World of Warcraft, the cantaur live in small tribal groups and will attacks when they are invaded. That is unless they are female and a little bit Elvish in nature then we will call them Dryads and they are sentinels for the Elvish areas of the world. In the Harry Potter mythos, the centaurs are the rulers of the forested areas of Hogwarts and they have a special connection not only to the forest and the natural world but to the unknown world as well. And of course in the Chronicles of Narnia, the Centaurs fight both on the sides of good and bad throughout the books and in the movies.
Either way you go about it, the centaur is one of those mystical creatures that we can easily wrap our brains around. We can identify the half beast, half human nature in all of us. We can easily see the natural side in our nature and hope at times that we can be as natural as the centaur.