Pegasus, the flying horse, is often associated with Perseus. While the Greek hero was present for the creature’s birth, however, he was never its rider.
Pegasus had only one human rider according to most sources. That was the often-forgotten Corinthian hero Bellerophon.
Bellerophon’s myth begins like those of many other heroes. Exiled from his homeland for a crime he did not commit, the prince of Corinth sought absolution in the court of a foreign king.
There, too, he was falsely accused of a crime. Like many heroes, he was given a supposedly impossible quest by those who wished to see him die in the attempt.
Bellerophon’s faith and just cause, however, won him an invaluable ally. With the help of Athena and Poseidon, he was able to tame the famous flying horse.
Bellerophon rode Pegasus on many adventures. With speed and agility, the horse allowed him to attack from high above his enemies for an easier victory.
The flying horse would also play a role in Bellerophon’s fall from grace, however. In a cautionary tale against the dangers of hubris and impiety, Bellerophon’s end was one of the most inglorious in all of Greek mythology.
According to legend, Pegasus was born when the Gorgon Medusa was beheaded by Perseus.
Poseidon had fathered two children with the monster, the flying horse and a golden giant named Chrysaor. When Perseus killed the Gorgon, both lept from her severed neck.
From there, Pegasus became a wild creature. He was impossible for any man to catch and the gods allowed him to remain free.
The horse spent most of his time in the air. Whenever his hooves touched down on land, a clear spring formed at the site.
The people of Corinth believed that the flying horse kept the spring outside their city running at all times. On Mount Helicon, the springs formed by his footfalls were graced by the Muses and gave inspiration to those who drank from them.
It was one of these springs that led to Pegasus getting a rider.
Bellerophon was a Corinthian prince who had been tasked with the impossible feat of killing the Chimera. The fire-breathing monster was thought to be invulnerable and the attempt to kill it was meant to destroy the disgraced prince instead.
A seer, however, told Bellerophon how he might defeat the monster and survive. To do this, he would need the help of Pegasus.
Bellerophon slept in the temple of Athena to receive the goddess’s favor. She visited him in a dream and presented him with the first bridle.
To use the equipment, however, he still needed the blessing of Poseidon. By sacrificing a white bull, Bellerophon earned the favor of the flying horse’s divine father.
With Athena’s gift and Poseidon’s blessing, Bellerophon returned to Corinth to find Pegasus at his favorite stream. When he placed the bridle over the horse’s head, Pegasus became docile and obedient.
Bellerophon rode Pegasus back to Asia Minor, where the Chimera made its home. The horse’s speed and agility in the air gave the hero an advantage in an otherwise impossible fight.
Pegasus dove and dodged adeptly enough to avoid the Chimera’s fiery breath, but Bellerophon’s weapons were still no match against the monster’s tough hide. Struck with an idea, he urged Pegasus into a dive toward the creature’s open mouth.
Bellerophon stuck his spear into the Chimera’s throat. He knew he could not stab the monster, but he succeeded in breaking off the weapon’s lead point.
When the Chimera tried to breathe fire again, the lead melted and blocked its airway. The monster suffocated on its own fire.
Bellerophon continued to ride Pegasus through his later adventures. He fought the armies of the Solymi and the Amazons and eventually destroyed the forces of the king who had sent him on his first, most dangerous, adventure.
After many heroic deeds, Bellerophon began to think that he had earned the greatest honor a man could aspire to. He believed he should be welcomed to Mount Olympus.
Rather than ask the gods for their favor, however, Bellerophon again made use of Pegasus. He rode toward Olympus, urging the flying horse higher and higher in hopes of reaching the mountain’s peak.
A few different legends exist to tell what happened during Bellerophon’s ambitious flight.
According to some writers, Zeus saw the hero as he approached the home of the gods and was enraged by his hubris. He sent a thunderbolt that threw Bellerophon from the back of the winged horse for the presumption to assume he could come to Olympus on his own.
According to others, Zeus instead targeted Pegasus by sending a gadfly to sting the horse’s haunches. Pegasus reared back as the fly stung him, throwing Bellerophon from his back.
A few others claimed that Zeus was uninvolved in Bellerophon’s end. Pegasus himself, knowing that Bellerophon was wrong to demand entry to Olympus, bucked and reared to shake the rider off his back.
Some sources blamed Bellerophon himself for the fall. They claimed that he began to question whether the gods truly lived on Mount Olympus as he approached its summit, and he lost his hold on Pegasus as doubt overtook him.
Bellerophon was not killed outright when he fell from the flying horse’s back, but he was badly injured. Some said he was blinded, while others claimed he suffered a hip injury that left him with permanent pain and a severe limp.
The once-great prince and hero ended his life alone and in pain. He became a nomadic outcast, stripped of all privilege and fame.
Pegasus, however, continued to fly upward. Poseidon’s equine son was welcomed to Olympus and was given a place within the stables of the immortal horses.
In later years, the story of Bellerophon became less popular. The hero who had dared to go to Olympus uninvited was overshadowed by more idealized figures like Theseus and Heracles.
Pegasus, however, remained popular in art. Some later artists and writers who were less familiar with Bellerophon’s legend instead showed Perseus as the horse’s rider.
The story of Pegasus and Bellerophon is one of great daring and courage, but it also served as a warning against hubris and disrespecting the gods.
Bellerophon began his legend as a righteous young prince who was falsely accused of a crime he did not commit. The quest to kill the Chimera was given to him so that the king of Lydia, who had welcomed Bellerophon into his home, did not break the law in executing a guest himself.
As a lawful and just man, Bellerophon had won the favor of the gods. Athena particularly only helped those whose cause was righteous and she gave the young hero the equipment needed to secure the flying horse’s assistance.
Bellerophon made sacrifices to the gods and even went beyond what he was instructed to do. He built a new shrine to Poseidon to further thank the god of the sea for his aid.
Had the hero continued on this path, he would have been remembered more fondly by the Greek people, and later generations. Instead, however, he strayed from the pious and just course he had held in his youth.
Bellerophon’s attempt to ride Pegasus to Mount Olympus was more than just a display of ambition. It was an offense against the gods.
According to the laws that governed the world, the gods were unreachable by mortal men. While the Olympians could choose to make themselves known to certain individuals, only the most arrogant and misguided man would dare to demand an audience with the gods.
Bellerophon’s hubris was, quite literally, his downfall.
In some stories, Zeus had actually been prepared to invite the man to Olympus as a reward for his heroism. Bellerophon’s crime was not in believing he belonged among the gods, but for trying to reach them on his own terms instead of waiting to be invited.
In stories in which Bellerophon fell from Pegasus because of his own doubts, hubris was not his only crime. The lack of faith he displayed on the flight caused his fall, not the actions of the gods.
Pegasus, however, was not guilty of any such deficiencies. The horse had been obedient and helpful to its master and, according to some sources, had been the one to recognize the unlawfulness of Bellerophon’s ambitions.
The flying horse was therefore welcomed to Olympus and remembered fondly in art and literature, while his rider was all but forgotten.
While often associated with Perseus in post-classical art, the flying horse Pegasus was actually tamed and ridden by the hero Bellerophon.
The exiled prince of Corinth had been sent on a seemingly impossible quest to kill the fire-breathing Chimera. He proved his piety and the righteousness of his cause, however, to win the favor of both Athena and Poseidon.
The gods gave him the tools needed to tame Pegasus, whose swift flying was instrumental in defeating the Chimera and many other foes.
Eventually, however, Bellerophon lost the reverence for the gods he had possessed in his youth. He believed he had a right to go to Mount Olympus and tried to fly there on Pegasus’s back.
The stories varied as to why Bellerophon fell, whether it was a punishment for his hubris or due to a lack of faith, but the hero never completed his flight. He fell back to Earth and lived out his days crippled, alone, and impoverished.
Pegasus, however, was welcomed into the stables of Olympus for his divine heritage and noble service.
The story of Bellerophon and Pegasus was, unlike some other legends, not just a simple tale of heroic adventures. It was also a cautionary tale against arrogance and disrespect to the gods.