Bellerophon: The Hero Who Rode Pegasus
Greek mythology is known for its great heroes. Names like Heracles, Perseus, and Jason are remembered thousands of years after their stories were first told.
A few heroes seem to have been largely forgotten, however. Among these is Bellerophon, whose name is rarely listed among those of the legendary heroes even if his exploits are remembered well.
Bellerophon’s most famous adventure was the slaying of the great monster Chimera, which he accomplished by being the first man to tame and ride the famous winged horse Pegasus.
With such a famous legend, why is Bellerophon’s name not remembered as fondly as those of his fellow heroes? One reason is his decidedly unheroic end, in which hubris and ambition overcame his deference to the gods.
Bellerophon is rarely mentioned in surviving literature and often forgotten even in art. Even if you were unaware of his name, though, you have almost certainly heard parts of his legend.
Keep reading to fill in the blanks and learn all about Bellerophon, the forgotten hero with a famous quest!
The earliest, and most complete, story of the hero Bellerophon comes from a source that is usually associated with other heroes of a later age. In Homer’s Iliad, one of the allies of the Trojan army tells an embedded story of his famous grandfather.
Homer’s Glaucus was the grandson of the Corinthian prince Bellerophon, who himself was one of the sons of the infamous King Glaucus. The elder Glaucus, the son of the notorious Sisyphus, had been known for feeding his horses the flesh of men to win chariot races.
Such an ancestry may seem unlikely for a great hero, but writers found a basis for his goodness in his mother. Eurynome was a wise and virtuous woman who had learned weaving from Athena herself.
The lineage of both the terrible line of Sisyphus and the nobility of Eurynome set the stage for a character that would be exceptionally heroic, but also deeply flawed.
Bellerophon’s story began with exile. According to some sources he had murdered a stranger, while others said that he had accidentally killed his own brother.
Greek law made little distinction between intentional murder and accidentally causing a death. In either case, the killer would be exiled from their city until they could be ritually absolved of their crime.
Bellerophon presented himself to King Proetus of Tiryns. As a king, Proetus had the authority to absolve the prince of his crime.
Proetus welcomed Bellerophon into his home as a guest. While there, however, the young man attracted the attention of the king’s wife.
Stheneboea, or Anteia as she was named in other sources, made several romantic advances toward her husband’s guest. As a noble man, however, Bellerophon rejected the queen’s affections.
Stheneboea was infuriated at the rejection and devised a lie to get back at Bellerophon. She told her husband that Bellerophon had attempted to assault her.
Proetus wanted to kill Bellerophon for this, but was prevented by one of the highest laws of the Greek gods. The murder of a guest, even one who had committed an offense in your home, was forbidden by Zeus’s laws of hospitality.
Instead, the king sent Bellerophon away to the city of his father-in-law, King Iobates of Lycia. He also sent a letter detailing Bellerophon’s supposed crime and asking Iobates to get revenge for his daughter’s sake.
When Bellerophon arrived in Lycia, however, the king did not read the letters. He welcomed the prince into his court for nine days before he learned that Proetus sought the man’s death.
Iobates was now held by the same laws that had prevented Proetus from seeking revenge. Bellerophon had been made a welcomed guest in his home and killing him would attract the anger of the gods.
Instead of sending him on, however, Iobates devised a clever way to see the man’s death without directly causing it. He sent Bellerophon on a quest to kill the vicious Chimera.
The monster had been terrorizing the neighboring lands, burning fields and destroying most of the landscape. No one had been able to kill it, and Iobates was certain Bellerophon would die in the attempt as well.
Bellerophon was sent to the land of Caria on a quest that would be almost certainly fatal.
On his way to confront the Chimera, and probably meet his doom, Bellerophon happened to meet a famous seer, Polyeidus. This soothsayer was famous for the aid he gave the royal family of Crete, but had since left the island and given aid to many throughout the Greek world.
Polyeidos told Bellerophon that in order to win the fight against the Chimera he would need the aid of Pegasus. The offspring of Poseidon and Medusa, the winged horse had been living in the wild since its birth.
Athena would help him tame the wild horse if he asked for her favor. Polyeidos told the heroic prince to sleep in the goddess’s temple the next night to entreat her for aid.
Polyeidos also told him where to find the horse. Pegasus was fond of a particular spring near Bellerophon’s own city, Corinth, and stopped there often to drink.
Bellerophon did as the seer recommended and spent the next night in the nearest temple of Athena. The goddess who had once taught his mother appeared to him in a dream and laid a golden bridle next to him.
According to some sources, this was the first bridle ever invented. Bellerophon would still need the help of another god to tame the wild flying horse, though.
Athena told the hero to make a sacrifice to Poseidon, who in some versions of the story is Bellerophon’s father as well as that of Pegasus. As he sacrificed a white bull he was to hold up the bridle so the god could see it.
When Bellerophon awoke on the floor of the temple, the golden bridle was laying next to him just as it had been in the dream. He had won the favor of Athena.
On the following day Bellerophon made the sacrifice of a white bull to Poseidon as Athena had instructed him to do. He also built an altar to Athena to thank her for guiding him.
Having pleased both gods, he set out for Corinth and waited by the spring for Pegasus. Soon, he saw the immortal horse come down from the sky and stop to drink, just as Polydeimos had told him.
He slowly approached the horse and threw the bridle over its head. Pegasus resisted for a moment, but soon the combined influence of both Athena and Poseidon calmed him.
With little difficulty, Bellerophon was able to mount the previously wild horse. The first man to ever capture Pegasus was ready to ride him into battle against a horrible monster.
Riding on Pegasus, Bellerophon quickly made his way back to Asia Minor and the land of Caria. It did not take long to spot the lands that had been destroyed by the Chimera.
The monster had burned great swathes of land, leaving lasting flames in many places. At the center of the destruction was the Chimera itself.
The Chimera was a grotesque monster. It had the front parts of a lioness, the torso of a goat, and the tail of an enormous serpent. Later writers and artists added that it had three heads corresponding to each of its sections, with the goat head protruding from its back and the snake’s head at the end of its tail.
Most dangerous, though, was the Chimera’s fiery breath. The flames that came from its lion mouth were so hot they could melt swords and shields in moments.
Most accounts of Bellerophon’s story give few details as to how he managed to kill the monster. A few, however, note his ingenuity and the assistance provided by the flying horse.
Pegasus helped Bellerophon to dodge the monster’s fiery breath, using its agility and great speed to dodge the bursts of fire. Bellerophon could not manage to damage it, though.
The Chimera’s hide was too thick for arrows to pierce and even his spear did not break its skin. No matter how he attacked it, the monster remained unwounded.
The spear’s failure to stab the Chimera gave Bellerophon an idea, though. While the weapon’s point could not harm the monster, the clever hero realized that it could still prove useful.
Urging Pegasus to top speed, Bellerophon flew directly at the Chimera’s primary head, that of the lion. He aimed his spear at the monster’s open mouth, even though he knew it would cause no damage.
Bellerophon jabbed the spear into the Chimera’s throat just as Pegasus veered away. The weapon broke, leaving the lead tip of the spear lodged in the monster’s mouth.
When the Chimera attempted to breathe fire at them, the lead melted and blocked its airway. The Chimera suffocated on its own flames, falling dead without taking a single wound.
Bellerophon is usually remembered for his great victory against the Chimera. According to Homer, however, he had many other adventures of note.
When Bellerophon returned to King Iobates, the Lycian king was disappointed that he had survived the encounter. He sent Bellerophon on many other quests in an attempt to destroy him.
Next after this he fought against the glorious Solymoi (Solymi), and this he thought was the strongest battle with men that he entered; but third he slaughtered the Amazones (Amazons), who fight men in battle. Now as he came back the king spun another entangling treachery; for choosing the bravest men in wide Lykia he laid a trap, but these men never came home thereafter since all of them were killed by blameless Bellerophontes. Then when the king knew him for the powerful stock of the god, he detained him there, and offered him the hand of his daughter, and gave him half of all the kingly privilege. Thereto the men of Lykia cut out a piece of land, surpassing all others, fine ploughland and orchard for him to administer.
-Homer, Iliad 6. 144 – 221 ff (trans. Lattimore)
Finally, Iobates could not deny that Bellerophon had the favor of the gods. The Corinthian prince was given land in Lycia, which in his grandson’s time would be allied with Troy.
Even in Homer’s writing, Bellerophon is described as the “powerful stock of a god.” Like many heroes, Bellerophon was often thought to be the son of a deity instead of his mother’s human husband.
Bellerophon’s human father and grandfather were known for their cruelty and the punishments they earned from the gods. By making him the son of Poseidon ancient writers not only explained his heroism, but also separated him from a line of wickedness.
According to some writers, Glaucus had been doomed by Zeus to never have sons of his own. This was due to either an offense against Aphrodite or his family’s evil behavior, depending on the source.
Aside from simply being described as Poseidon’s son, the character of Bellerophon had many links to the sea god. Some were original to the earliest tellings of the story, while others may have been added later to strengthen his connection to the god.
- Bellerophon was originally given the name Hipponous, but was renamed after his exile. The horse, hippo in Greek, was associated with Poseidon and said to have been created by him.
- His human father, Glaucus, was associated with horses and chariot racing.
- His birthplace, Corinth, had Poseidon as its patron god.
- In later stories, the guards of Lycia were defeated when Poseidon sent a flood to wipe them out and protect Bellerophon.
- Bellerophon initially wished to marry Aethra, a princess of Troezen. She eventually became the mother of Theseus by Poseidon.
- Pegasus was a child of Poseidon by the Gorgon Medusa.
Bellerophon’s link to Pegasus has given rise to the theory that he was not only the son of Poseidon, but may have originally been the brother of the winged horse.
According to the legends, Medusa was impregnated by Poseidon before her transformation into a monster. When she was beheaded, Pegasus sprang forth from her neck.
He was not alone, though. She also gave rise to a humanoid son named Chrysaor.
Chrysaor was rarely mentioned again in mythology. Hesiod had him as the father of the giant Geryon who was slain by Heracles, but otherwise Chrysaor virtually disappeared from the mythology.
Some scholars believe that the myth of Bellerophon may have originally involved Chrysaor. Before being the exiled prince of a powerful city, the rider of Pegasus may have been his own brother.
Before the time of Homer, Medusa’s sons may have worked together. Later, as the founders and heroes of the Greek city-states were incorporated into mythology to further their authority and lineage, Chrysaor was replaced with a mortal hero who could be claimed by Corinth and Lycia.
Bellerophon was noted as the slayer of the Chimera, but he was also remembered for his tragic end. Like many mortals in Greek mythology, he fell victim to his own hubris.
As Bellerophon’s fame grew, he began to think of himself as more than an ordinary mortal. Whether the son of a human king or a god, he had distinguished himself from other men.
Bellerophon believed he had earned a place among the gods on Mount Olympus.
He would not be the first or last hero to have been immortalized among the gods. Heracles famously became fully divine upon his death and ascended to sit at his divine father’s side.
Heracles had been taken to Olympus by the gods, however. Bellerophon decided to make his own way.
Throughout all his adventures, Pegasus had been both his mount and his companion. On his last great adventure, he once again mounted the flying horse.
He urged Pegasus toward Olympus, flying higher and higher to reach the home of the gods.
What happened next was open to some interpretation by different sources.
According to some, Zeus saw the hero approaching the heights of Olympus and was enraged by his arrogance and presumption. He sent a thunderbolt that threw Bellerophon from the back of the winged horse.
According to others, Zeus instead attacked Pegasus. He sent a gadfly that stung the flying horse so badly that he reared, throwing Bellerophon from his back.
A few others leave Zeus out entirely. Pegasus himself, knowing the wrong of Bellerophon’s actions, shook the hero off.
Pegasus continued on, being welcomed to Olympus and taking a place within the stables of the immortal horses. Bellerophon, however, fell to earth.
He was not killed by the fall but was badly injured. Some said he was blinded, while others claimed he suffered a hip injury that left him with permanent pain and a limp.
The once-great prince and hero ended his life alone and in pain. He wandered the barren fields of Aleus, avoiding other men.
The story of Bellerophon is usually pieced together from a few texts that survive in fragments. He was highly regarded as one of the early heroes in Corinth, but in other areas was more infrequently invoked.
There was a play written about him by Euripedes, but it has been lost. Only thirty lines remain, preserved as quotes in other sources.
His heroic reputation was also marred by his dishonorable and shameful end. Bellerophon’s story was not one of great heroism, but rather was a warning against hubris.
For those reasons, the legend of Bellerophon largely fell out of favor. In later eras, it was often glossed over entirely.
Pegasus and the Chimera remained popular figures, however. With little documentation and a poor reputation, the man who rode Pegasus was often changed.
By the Middle Ages, it was common to replace Bellerophon entirely. Perseus often took his spot on the back of the winged horse, although his only association with Pegasus had been in killing Medusa.
Thus, Bellerophon is often excluded from the stories of the great heroes of Greek mythology. The character that illustrated both the heights of ingenuity and the perils of arrogance is one of the hidden figures of ancient legend.
Like many ancient heroes, Bellerophon was a prince who was sent into exile. His father was either the wicked king Glaucus who kept man-eating horses, or the great god Poseidon.
Having been falsely accused of attempting to violate his host’s queen, Bellerophon was made an enemy of the kings of Asia Minor. They could not kill him outright, however, without angering Zeus.
Instead, they sent him on an impossible quest to slay the monstrous Chimera. With the help of a legendary seer, Athena, and Poseidon, Bellerophon was able to capture and tame the flying horse Pegasus to aid him.
Bellerophon killed the Chimera by ramming his spear into its throat. The lead tip melted when the fire-breathing monster attacked, suffocating it.
Bellerophon was sent on many more quests and even directly attacked by the king’s guards, but was always victorious. Eventually, he was given land and a wife, becoming the ancestor of one of the leading allies of Troy.
Bellerophon was undone by his hubris, though. Believing himself to be greater than other men on account of his heroic deeds, he attempted to fly on Pegasus to Olympus to demand a place alongside the gods.
For this presumption, Bellerophon was thrown back to earth. He died alone and disabled, shunned by both men and the gods.
Bellerophon’s story was one of both heroism and the dangers of hubris. Because of both his unheroic end and a lack of surviving literature, Bellerophon is a Greek hero who is often forgotten.