Creature Feature: Centaurs in 19th-century Greece


Today’s Creature is the Centaur, not the most common 20th-century cryptid and rarely found in the paranormal literature except as an astrological or allegorical figure. This is a tale from Violet Chambers Tweedale, who was the oldest daughter of the editor of Chamber’s Journal, Robert Chambers. She wrote several dozen books on  Spiritualism, Theosophy, and other supernatural topics. She herself claimed psychic sensitivity and often related the experiences of the members of the aristocratic, literary, and mystical circles in which she moved. She was a brilliant story-teller.

Many years ago there was much talk amongst a certain set of an experience that had come to a foreign Grand Duchess and her husband, who spent much of their time in England. This couple were traveling in the wilds of Greece, and one night they wandered out together on to a bare mountain side. Sitting down to rest they were enjoying the beauty and utter loneliness of the moonlit scene, when they suddenly heard the galloping of many horses’ hoofs approaching them. This astonished them greatly, as they were in so wild and unfrequented a part of the country. There was no road near them, and it seemed strange to hear horses galloping so fast on such rough ground at night, even though there was a moon.

Husband and wife stood up immediately in order to show themselves. The sound suggested a headlong rush, and they feared that in another second a whole regiment might ride over them.

They had not long to wait. A troop of creatures, half-men, half-horses, tore past them, helter-skelter. Fleet and sure-footed they thundered by, and they brought with them the most wonderful sense of joy and exhilaration. Neither the Grand Duchess nor her husband felt the smallest fear; on the contrary, both were seized by a wild elation, a desire to be one of that splendid legion. The thundering of their hoofs spread over the hills, and died away into the distance.

On returning to their camp the husband and wife found an uproar. Something had gone wrong with the Greek servants, who were shivering with terror, and struggling with equally terrified horses to prevent a stampede. All that could be learned from the Greeks was that they had heard something, something known of and greatly feared.

I happened to hear the Grand Duchess tell of her weird experience, and I have often wondered in later years if Algernon Blackwood had also heard the story, and founded upon it his fascinating book, “The Centaur.”

Ghosts I Have Seen: And Other Psychic Experiences, Violet Tweedale, 1919

What do we make of a herd of centaurs startling a pair of well-bred tourists in Greece? (It seems to me there is a better collective noun for “centaur,” but it escapes me.) I will point out that Tweedale’s collection was published in 1919 with only “many years ago” given as the date of the unnamed Grand Duchess’s centaur-spotting. Blackwood’s The Centaur was published in 1911.

Here is an evocative excerpt from Blackwood’s book:

The wind sprang up and rattled all the million leaves. That rattling filled the air, and with it came another, deeper sound like to a sound of tramping that seemed to shake the earth. Confusion caught him then completely, for it was as if the mountainside awoke, rose up, and shook itself into a wild and multitudinous wave of life.

At first he thought the wind had somehow torn the rhododendrons loose from their roots and was strewing them with that tramping sound about the slopes. But the groups passed too swiftly over the turf for that, swept completely from their fastenings, while the tramping grew to a roaring as of cries and voices. That roaring had the quality of the voice that reached him weeks ago across the Aegean Sea. A strange, keen odour, too, that was not wholly unfamiliar, moved upon the wind.

And then he knew that what he had been watching all along were not rhododendrons at all, but living, splendid creatures. A host of others, moreover, large ones and small together, stood shadowy in the background, stamping their feet upon the turf, manes tossing in the early wind, in their entire mass awful as in their individual outline somehow noble.

The light spread upwards from the east. With a fire of terrible joy and wonder in his heart, O’Malley held his breath and stared. The lustre of their glorious bodies, golden bronze in the sunlight, dazed the sight. He saw the splendour of ten hundred velvet flanks in movement, with here and there the uprising whiteness of a female outline that flashed and broke above the general mass like foam upon a great wave’s crest—figures of incomparable grace and power; the sovereign, upright carriage; the rippling muscles upon massive limbs, and shoulders that held defiant strength and softness in exquisite combination. And then he heard huge murmurs of their voices that filled the dawn, aged by lost thousand years, and sonorous as the booming of the sea. A cry that was like singing escaped him. He saw them rise and sweep away. There was a rush of magnificence. They cantered—wonderfully. They were gone.

That “certain set” discussing the Greek sighting could have been The Order of the Golden Dawn, of which Tweedale was a member. She was also close to Madame Blavatsky.  The Theosophists might have interpreted the centaurs as “elementals” reflecting the dual nature of man: the untamed beasts trying to carry off the Lapith women vs. the wise and noble teacher, Chiron.

Other 20th-century centaur sightings?  chriswoodyard8 AT

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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