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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Minotaurs and Centaurs

Todd Fischer, Aug. 21st, 2009

I was thinking about centaurs and minotaurs the other day, and the etymology behind those names intrigued me. Both use the root –taur, but each are a human-hybrid with a different animal (a horse and a bull respectively).

So, doing some light research I found the obvious first. The Minotaur was a son of King Minos with a cow, so the taxonomy is rather apparent. Mino (for Minos) + taur (short for Taurus, or bull) = Minotaur.

The Minotaur was a singular creature, names after its parents.

Now the origin of the word centaur is more speculative. The most obvious option is that they are named after Centaurus, who is oft credited with their creation. (So then, like the Minotaur, centaurs would be named after their parent.) In this case, the root –taur is not a root at all.

However, there are those who think that centaur is a combination of –cento and –taurus (or in modern English “bull piercers” or “goad bull”). Proponents of this taxonomic approach say that the centaurs were so named as they were cattle herders. In this case the –taur would refer to animals under their care, and not themselves.

You see, this intrigues me, as the suffix –taur is often used today in fantasy, Furrydom, role-playing and other venues to mean a body form/body plan for any human-animal hybrid (though usually of a centauroid composition—that is, a human torso on a four-limbed animal body).

Considering the nature of the origins of the Minotaur’s and the centaurs’ names, this would seem to be a flawed practice (as for both the –taur either refers to bulls and/or their parents), making this a case of metanalysis.

So taurs (also called tauric) such as cervitaurs (deer-like centaurs) and felitaurs (cat-like centaurs) are misnamed, since neither are being named after their parentage, nor are they associated with bulls in any way.

(Unless we look at the history of so-called centauroid creatures of legend, back to the lamassu and alad of Sumerian mythology. They had a human head on a bull’s body, so were not what we normally consider centauroid. However, they were also known as urmahlullu, which was a name shared by the shedu of Mesopotamian mythology, who had a human torso atop of lion’s body. Is I possible that the Greeks used –taur to denote such hybrid creatures because of the sheddu and lamassu?)

Centauroid still seems to me to be a useful word, as it describes exactly how a hybrid animal’s body is constructed (just like a centaur’s). Likewise, centaurine.

However, simply slapping –taur onto the end of other animal species still seems fundamentally flawed to me (unless the –taur is to mean ‘bull-like’, in that the lower body has four legs, like a bull). The problem with that of course is our old friend the Minotaur, who is the exact opposite—an animal head on a human body (though modern depictions tend to make a Minotaur look more like a bipedal bull).

A better word might be ‘–quad’ (meaning “four footed”, though it admittedly sounds redundant. (‘Leoquad’ for instance. We know lions have four legs. This doesn’t seem descriptive enough.)

Liminal is a possibility, as most centauroid creatures are considered liminial beings (that is, a creature whose nature a conflict between their human and animal components). Leoliminal? Ursaliminal? Sounds good taxonomically but doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.

Perhaps a new suffix could be created using one of the earliest cases of centauroid creatures on file? ‘-alad’ would seem the easiest. Leo-alad. Ursa-alad. No. How about ‘-ssu’ from lamassu? Leossu. Ursassu. Dracossu. That one’s not bad.

This intellectual exercise aside, it may just be simplest to go with the flow and the metanalyzed term of ‘taur’ to mean any human-animal hybred, no matter how it body is constructed, or whether it is a quadruped, biped or other type of tetrapod.

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