From Such Great Heights: Bellerophon and Pegasus

Imagine this: you are the grandson of Sisyphus, the king whose hubris (ego) resulted in eternal damnation. Sisyphus ended up having to spend eternity pushing a boulder uphill, just to have roll back down every time he reached the summit.

Your own hubris will catch up with you too…but not before becoming one of the greatest heroes of Greek (and by extension Etruscan and Roman) mythology.

You will ride the winged horse Pegasus into many battles.

You will slay the dreaded Chimera.

You will subdue the fierce Amazons.

You’ll marry a princess, and inherit a kingdom.

And finally, you will follow in your grandfather’s footsteps, and take on the Gods themselves…

But we’ll get to that part of the story in time.

Your name is Bellerophon, and this is one version of your story.

*

Bellerophon was exiled from Corinth for murder; whose murder it was is vague. He may have killed his brother, but there are differing accounts.

Regardless, he wandered to the stronghold of king Proteus.

Hospitality to guests was a mandate of the Gods; the lack of hospitality was one of the many sins that damned Sisyphus to the Underworld.

Proteus was hospitable to the young Bellerophon….even when things got complicated.

Complicated how, you ask?

Well, complicated in a Potiphar’s wife kind of way. In the Old Testament account of Joseph’s life, the wife of his benefactor, Potiphar, attempted to seduce him.  He denied her; she, in turn, accused him of trying to rape her (a parallel story can be found in the Egyptian myth, The Tale of Two Brothers).

However, despite his wife’s accusation, Proteus was bound to honor his guest.

In other words, he couldn’t kill him directly.

Instead, he sent Bellerophon on a mission, to take a sealed message to his father-in-law, King Iobates.

*

Iobates and Bellerophon feasted for nine days before Iobates unsealed the tablet.

The message from his son-in-law was clear:

“Pray remove the bearer from this world: he attempted to violate my wife, your daughter.”

King Iobates was no fool; to kill his guest would provoke the Erinyes, the Furies.

Instead he devised a plan, one that would absolve him of any direct involvement in the death of Bellerophon…

*

Iobates explained the situation: in the nearby countryside was fire-breathing beast with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent. Called the Chimera, it was terrorizing the local peasants.

Surely an up-and-coming hero like Bellerophon could handle slaying a monster, couldn’t he?

And so Bellerophon went out in search of the Chimera.

*

Who weeps for the Etruscans?

Well, I for one.

The Romans effectively wiped out most traces of their culture, which was one of the earliest societies to give women equal rights, including in matters of sexuality.

However, their mythology was very much Greek, as would be true for the Romans who destroyed them.

Bellerophon was a culture hero for the Etruscans, as evidenced by the bronze sculpture below, called the Chimera of Arrezo, after the location of its discovery.

The statue was dedicated to the God Tinia, cognate with the Greek Zeus. It dates from approximately 400 BCE.

chimera
Etruscan Chimera of Arrezo, 400 BCE; many art historians suspect that there was another half to the piece, depicting Bellerophon riding Pegasus, charging the beast.

Back to Bellerophon.

*

While moving through the countryside in search of the Chimera, he meet a seer, a prophet from his home city of Corinth. The prophet advised the young warrior that he needed the aid of the mythic winged horse Pegasus if he was to defeat the monster, and the best way to find Pegasus was to go and sleep in the temple of Athena.

Bellerophon was wise, and took the seer’s counsel.

There are several accounts as to what happened next, some of which involve the God Poseidon; let’s follow the simplest path: the Goddess Athena brought Bellerophon the Pegasus, bridled and tamed.

*

Even from the safety of the air, he couldn’t approach the beast because of its fiery breath. After several unsuccessful lunges, Bellerophon had an idea:

He mounted a shield-sized piece of lead to his spear, and steered Pegasus head long  towards the beast’s mouth, his lance held in front of him.

The inferno that came from monster’s mouth melted the lead; Bellerophon was able to shove it straight down the Chimera’s throat, suffocating it.

And that was the end of the Chimera.

However, Iobates was not impressed.

*

Other challenges were given; with the aid of Pegasus, Bellerophon was always successful.

He even managed to defeat the fierce Amazonian warriors – all female -which is interesting, because another group of woman were able to repel his attack, but not through weapons…

[unless you count sex as a weapon]

We’ll get there soon.

*

Every time Bellerophon succeeded in a quest, Iobates found him another one.

Finally, Bellerophoion had enough.

Invoking Poseidon, he raised a flood behind him, and went to attack Iobates’ palace.

*

Apotropaic magic is a type of magic intended to turn away harm or an evil influence.

Anasyrma refers to lifting up one’s skirt to display one’s genitals. Anasyrma can be used as an apotropaic device; to this day in certain regions of Africa it is still considered an efficacious group ritual.

It certainly worked against Bellerophon.

The ladies of the palace took to the top of the castle walls, and lifted their skirts, showing him their exposed vaginas.

He broke off his attack, and let the flood reside.

By this point, Iobates realized he had gone too far. He made peace with Bellerophon, offering him one of his daughters in marriage, and giving him half of his kingdom.

Time for a happy ending!

*

Of course not. This is a Greek myth.

*

Sisyphus was punished for his hubris.

With each victory, his grandson’s ego grew as well.

Finally, Bellerophon decided to take on the Gods Themselves. He flew Pegasus to the center of the world, Mt. Olympus, home of the Gods.

Zeus, King of the Olympians, was not amused.

He sent a gadfly to attack Pegasus. The winged horse bucked as the insect bit him, sending Bellerophon crashing to the ground.

Pegasus continued on course to Mt. Olympus, where Zeus used the winged horse to carry His thunderbolts.

Bellerophon woke up broken and blinded on the Plain of Wandering. He stumbled, angry and without vision, for the remainder of his days.

There are those that believe he is entombed in Tlos, Turkey (ancient Lykia), since there is a carving of a man riding a winged horse and inscriptions bearing his name, all related to a giant rock tomb complex.

Tlos-tomb-ruins
Bellerophon’s possible resting place, Tlos, Turkey.

*

But wasn’t it Perseus who rode Pegasus? That’s what I saw in Clash of the Titans!

Well, there is an association. Pegasus was born from the blood of Medusa, who Perseus did slay.

However, in Greek mythology,  Perseus never rode the winged horse.

The association between the two had become fixed by the Middle Ages; by the era of Renaissance art, it was most often Perseus who was depicted riding Pegasus.

So we can’t blame just Clash of the Titans…though I doubt Bellerophon would pay to watch either version…

Pegasus, on the other hoof, is probably all-in.

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