They were an Aeolian tribe. Like the Myrmidons and other Thessalian tribes, the Lapiths were natives of Thessaly. The genealogies make them a kindred people with the Centaurs: in one version, Lapithes (Λαπίθης) and Centaurus (Κένταυρος) were said to be twin sons of the god Apollo and the nymph Stilbe, daughter of the river god Peneus. Lapithes was a valiant warrior, but Centaurus was a deformed being who later mated with mares from whom the race of half-man, half-horse Centaurs then came. Lapithes was the eponymous ancestor of the Lapith people, and his descendants include Lapith warriors and kings, such as Ixion, Pirithous, Caeneus, and Coronus, and the seers Idmon and Mopsus.
In the Iliad the Lapiths send forty manned ships to join the Greek fleet in the Trojan War, commanded by Polypoetes (son of Pirithous) and Leonteus (son of Coronus, son of Caeneus). The mother of Pirithous, the Lapith king in the generation before the Trojan War, was Dia, daughter of Eioneus or Deioneus; Ixion was the father of Pirithous, but like many heroic figures, Pirithous had an immortal as well as a mortal father. Zeus was his immortal father, but the god had to assume a stallion's form to cover Dia for, like their half-horse cousins, the Lapiths were horsemen in the grasslands of Thessaly, famous for its horses. The Lapiths were credited with inventing the bridle's bit. In fiction, the Lapith king Pirithous was marrying the horsewoman Hippodameia, "tamer of horses", at the wedding feast that made a battle, the Centauromachy, famous.
In the Centauromachy, the Lapiths battle with the Centaurs at the wedding feast of Pirithous. The Centaurs had been invited, but, unused to wine, their wild nature came to the fore. When the bride was presented to greet the guests, the centaur Eurytion leapt up and attempted to rape her. All the other centaurs were up in a moment, straddling women and boys. In the battle that ensued, Theseus came to the Lapiths' aid. They cut off Eurytion's ears and nose and threw him out. In the battle the Lapith Caeneus was killed, and the defeated Centaurs were expelled from Thessaly to the northwest.
The Lapith Caeneus was originally a girl named Caenis and the favorite of Poseidon, who changed her into a man at her request and made her an invulnerable warrior. Such warrior women, indistinguishable from men, were familiar among the Scythian horsemen too. In the Centaur battle, Caeneus proved invulnerable, until the Centaurs simply crushed him with rocks and trunks of trees. He disappeared into the depths of the earth unharmed and was released as a sandy-headed bird.
In later contests, the Centaurs were not so easily beaten. Mythic references explained the presence into historic times of primitive Lapiths in Malea and in the brigand stronghold of Pholoe in Elis as remnants of groups driven there by the Centaurs. Some historic Greek cities bore names connected with Lapiths, and the Kypselides of Corinth claimed descent from Cæneus, while the Phylaides of Attica claimed for progenitor Koronus the Lapith.
As Greek myth became more mediated through philosophy, the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs took on aspects of the interior struggle between civilized and wild behavior, made concrete in the Lapiths' understanding of the right usage of god-given wine, which must be tempered with water and drunk not to excess. The Greek sculptors of the school of Pheidias conceived of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs as a struggle between mankind and mischievous monsters, and symbolical of the great conflict between the civilized Greeks and Persian "barbarians". Battles between Lapiths and Centaurs were depicted in the sculptured friezes on the Parthenon, recalling Athenian Theseus' treaty of mutual admiration with Pirithous the Lapith, leader of the Magnetes, and on Zeus' temple at Olympia (Pausanias, v.10.8). The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs was a familiar symposium theme for the vase-painters.
A sonnet vividly evoking the battle by the French poet José María de Heredia (1842-1905) was included in his volume Les Trophées. In the Renaissance, the battle became a favorite theme for artists: an excuse to display close-packed bodies in violent confrontation. The young Michelangelo executed a marble bas-relief of the subject in Florence about 1492. Piero di Cosimo's panel Battle of Centaurs and Lapiths, now at the National Gallery, London, was painted during the following decade. If it was originally part of a marriage chest, or cassone, it was perhaps an uneasy subject for a festive wedding commemoration. A frieze with a Centauromachy was also painted by Luca Signorelli in his Virgin Enthroned with Saints (1491), inspired by a Roman sarcophagus found at Cortona, in Tuscany, during the early 15th century.
- "Lapithes made his home about the Peneius river" (Diodorus Siculus, iv.69.2).
- Homer, Iliad xii.128; Diodorus Siculus iv. 69; v. 61.
- For such superfecundation, compare the siring of Theseus or Heracles. Of a supposed Parnassos, founder of Delphi, Pausanias observes, "Like the other heroes, as they are called, he had two fathers; one they say was the god Poseidon, the human father being Cleopompus." (Descriprion of Greece x.6.1).
- Diodorus Siculus, iv.70
- Poésie Française - Centaures et lapithes (José María de Heredia) La foule nuptiale au festin s'est ruée, Centaures et guerriers ivres, hardis et beaux; Et la chair héroïque, au reflet des flambeaux, Se mêle au poil ardent des fils de la Nuée. Rires, tumulte... Un cri !... L'Epouse polluée Que presse un noir poitrail, sous la pourpre en lambeaux Se débat, et l'airain sonne au choc des sabots Et la table s'écroule à travers la huée. Alors celui pour qui le plus grand est un nain, Se lève. Sur son crâne, un mufle léonin Se fronce, hérissé de crins d'or. C'est Hercule. Et d'un bout de la salle immense à l'autre bout, Dompté par l'oeil terrible où la colère bout, Le troupeau monstrueux en renâclant recule.
- Art Renewal Center - The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs by Michelango[dead link]
- "NG4890 National Gallery: ''Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs'', Piero di Cosimo". Nationalgallery.org.uk. Retrieved 2012-12-17.
- William Smith, ed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) vol.11 p. 721 (on-line text)
- Ovid Metamorphoses XII passim; Odyssey XXI, 330 – 340; Iliad xii. 128, 181; Pausanias 1.17.2, 5.10.8; Strabo ix.39; Horace Carmine i. 18. 5 ; Pliny's Natural Historyiv. 8, 15, xxxvi. 5, 4.
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