Myth of the Week: Pegasus and Bellerophon


Monday, January 22nd, 2012

Last week I talked about Medusa, from whose neck the winged horse Pegasus was born.  This week, I thought it would be only fitting to return to Pegasus’ story, along with his most famous rider, Bellerophon.  As I sat down to write, my significant other Nathaniel (a fellow myth-lover) told me that Pegasus and Bellerophon was one of his favorite myths, and offered to do a guest post for the week.  I happily accepted–though you see I couldn’t resist adding a few of my own thoughts at the end.  Take it away, Nathaniel!

“As a child, there was no one in Greek myth I envied more than Bellerophon. You may not have heard of him—he doesn’t have the name recognition of a Heracles or a Theseus. But you’ve heard of the reason I envied him: Pegasus.

Pegasus Vase-Painting, image from

To befriend a horse, to tame him, and to ride: this is the fantasy that countless novels and movies are made of.  So what could be more thrilling than a horse that could go even further, bear you beyond the bounds of gravity itself? Perseus may have had winged sandals, but they were nothing compared to the visceral pleasure of a living, breathing companion that could lift you into the sky.

Bellerophon came to Pegasus from a typically nasty Greek myth situation.  Born in Corinth to King Glaucus (or sometimes the god Poseidon), Bellerophon accidentally killed a man, and found himself exiled to the court of King Proitos—where he was then falsely accused of rape by the Queen. Proitos packed him off to his father-in-law, King Iobates in Lycia, bearing a sealed message with instructions that he should murder Bellerophon immediately upon arrival.  But Iobates was reluctant to do the deed himself, fearing the wrath of Zeus, and so sent Bellerophon off to fight, and be killed by, the local rampaging monster: the Chimera.


The fearsome Chimera

One of the wonderful things about Greek myth is that the monsters tend to combine primal terror with a touch of total absurdity.  Take Medusa: a woman whose gaze turns you to stone.  In this we can see ancient fears about female power and sexuality—the ability of a woman to rob a man of his will with a glance.  Snakes too, are primal horrors.  But snakes for hair? This seems to invite all sorts of overly literal question like: Does she have to give them haircuts?  Do they bite her?  Does she have to feed them separately?

Similarly, the Chimera: a fearsome lion-headed creature that breathes fire, with a snake for a tail.  If the ancients had stopped there it would have been all right.  But they didn’t.  For along with its lion-head and snake-tail, the Chimera has a goat head sprouting from its middle (see above).  Yes, a goat, that fearful predator that haunted the sleep of dawn age humanity. The Oxford Classical Dictionary notes that the goat “may be made less risible by allowing it to perform the fire-breathing.” Fear the now less-risible goat!  But I suppose the very improbability of this combination is part of what makes the Chimera frightening: it’s a loathsome hybrid, a perversion of all logic and natural order.

In despair at ever defeating such a thing, Bellerophon went to sleep in Athena’s temple, hoping for the goddess’ advice and aid.  She appeared to him in a dream, and told him where he might find the horse Pegasus. When he woke, there was a golden bridle waiting at his side.

If ever a horse deserved gilded tack, it’s Pegasus.  With it, Bellerophon was able to successfully tame him, and the two flew off to do battle with the Chimera.  But because of the fire-breathing, Bellerophon and Pegasus couldn’t get close enough to the monster to stab it.  So Bellerophon attached a piece of lead to his spear, then rammed it into the Chimera’s mouth on his next fly-by.

Bellerophon Killing the Chimera

The lead melted and filled the beast’s throat, suffocating it. I’m not sure why it suffocated, with two other apparent windpipes to draw on, but let’s not look too closely. The lesson is clear: clever thinking and a flying horse are tough to beat.

This is Greek myth, and there are no happy endings. Not content with his status as a great hero and rider of the most wondrous horse ever to live, Bellerophon yearned for more: to see Olympus itself, the home of the gods. So Bellerophon urged Pegasus to fly higher and higher still, all the way up to Olympus’ gleaming gates.  Just as he was about to reach them, Pegasus bucked, and Bellerophon fell back to earth.  His death, at this point, would have been merely tragic.  But the gods, in punishment for his hubris, devised something far worse.  Bellerophon lived, but crippled and blinded, stumbling over the earth for the rest of his days in search of his beloved Pegasus–who never appeared to him again.  It always seemed far worse to me than Heracles’ fate, or Achilles’ or Icarus’.  The once-great hero forced to live the rest of his life with his regrets, “devouring his own soul,” as Homer puts it.  And Pegasus?  He goes to live in Olympus with the gods.

Hi, Madeline again.  I agree, I’ve always found the story so sad.  And Bellerophon’s love for Pegasus reminds me of the ancient appreciation of horses in general, even ones that couldn’t fly: Alexander the Great named cities after his steed Bucephalus, while Caligula made his horse a senator.  In the Iliad, Achilles’ immortal horses weep for the death of Patroclus, and later try, in vain, to warn Achilles about his fate.  Flying or not, horses were magic in the ancient world.

Bellerophon’s story also plays an important role in the history of literacy. In the Iliad, Glaucus of Lycia tells us that his grandfather Bellerophon was sent to King Iobates from King Proitus with a message scratched on a tablet.

As scholars have long noted, this is Homer’s only mention of writing, and the first reference to it in the history of Greece letters.  It’s also tantalizingly vague: Homer doesn’t say that the tablet has words on it—rather, he says that it contains semata lugra “sad signs.”  The sad part refers to the note’s murderous content, but the semata is fascinating.  Does it imply some earlier, more rudimentary form of writing, like pictographs?  Or is it merely that written messages were so new in Homer’s age that there wasn’t a more elegant way to describe them?  It’s unclear.   Scripts did exist in the Greek world before Homer’s time (like Linear B), but they were used largely for clerical things–keeping track of sacrificial offerings, for instance, not messages.

Sarpedon’s body, carried off by Death and Sleep, while Hermes looks on

By the way, Glaucus isn’t the only grandson of Bellerophon who makes a notable appearance in the Iliad.  There’s also Sarpedon, the son of Zeus, who helps Hector lead the charge against the Greek camp, and tears down its protective palisade with his bare hands.  He was one of my favorite cameo parts to write in The Song of Achilles—he’s the only  son of Zeus who fights in the war, and he’s from the exotic (to the Greek eye) Lycia.  He’s killed by none other than Patroclus himself.

Have a favorite myth?  I’d love to hear about it!  Drop me a line either on my contact page or twitter (@MillerMadeline).

Circe - US Edition
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The Song of Achilles UK Edition
The Song of Achilles UK Edition