Minerva bringing Pegasus to Bellerophon
Minerva bringing Pegasus to Bellerophon

After Proitos became king of Argos (or in some versions while he was still in Tiryns), a young man named Bellerophon came to ask him for purification. Bellerophon had accidentally killed his brother and, even though it was not a deliberate murder, he still had to leave his home (Sikyon, near Corinth) and find a foreign king who would purify him. Proitos agreed to do this for Bellerophon, but while Bellerophon was staying in Argos Proitos’ wife Stheneboia attempted to seduce him. When Bellerophon refused her advances, she went to her husband and told him that Bellerophon had tried to seduce her. Proitos believed her lie and gave Bellerophon a sealed letter to deliver to his father-in-law Iobates, king of Xanthos (a mountainous peninsula in southern Turkey); apparently restrictions imposed on those involved in purification rites compelled Proitos to find an indirect means of punishing Bellerophon for his alleged crime. When Iobates opened the letter, the message was to kill the person who had brought it. Iobates therefore sent Bellerophon on a mission he was sure would cause his death, to kill the monster Chimaira.

The Chimaira was a composite beast: a lion in front, a serpent behind, and a goat in the middle. It had wings and could fly, and the middle of its three heads (a goat’s head) breathed fire. One of the horde of monsters born to Typhoeus (Typhon) and Echidna, it was raised, according to Homer, by Amisodaros, king of Karia (the region immediately west of Lykia). To fight against this monster Bellerophon needed divine assistance, and Athena now gave him a magic golden bridle which enabled him to ride the winged horse Pegasos; in some versions Bellerophon acquired Pegasos earlier, while still in Corinth. In the midair conflict between Bellerophon and the Chimaira, the hero was ultimately victorious (in one version by putting a lump of lead on the tip of his spear and thrusting it into the Chimaira’s fiery mouth, causing the monster to swallow the molten metal and die of lead poisoning).

Iobates then sent Bellerophon on a number of missions he hoped would prove fatal to the hero: helped only by Pegasos, Bellerophon had to fight the Solymoi (a warlike people north of Lykia), and then the Amazons, a fierce race of women who lived along the shore of the Black Sea. When Bellerophon returned alive and successful from each of these tasks, Iobates sent the best soldiers of the Lykian army to ambush him, but Bellerophon killed all of them. Realizing the futility of his intention, Iobates now gave his other daughter Philonoe to Bellerophon and named him as heir to his kingdom. Returning later to Tiryns, Bellerophon persuaded Stheneboia to ride with him on Pegasos, then threw her from the sky to her death.

Despite his apparent invincibility after acquiring Pegasos, Bellerophon was defeated on two occasions. The first occurred after he conquered the Amazons: after praying to his father Poseidon, who sent a great wave against the Lykian city of Xanthos, Bellerophon rode up to the city; the men stayed inside in helpless fear, but the women came out of the city, lifted up their dresses, and exposed themselves; the wave receded, Pegasos was frightened, and Bellerophon was forced to retreat in shame. His second defeat came at the end of his career: overly proud of his many victories, Bellerophon decided to fly up to Olympos to test the strength of Zeus. The god saw him coming and sent out the Oistros fly, which stung Pegasos “beneath the tail.” The frenzied horse began to buck, and Bellerophon was thrown off to the Lykian plain below.

The myth of Bellerophon is one of the few Greek myths which may plausibly have originated from the indigenous myths of Asia Minor.

On one hand the Bellerophon myth is a fairy tale, a wish-fulfilling story of a youth who receives supernatural help, defeats monsters and armies against all odds, and wins a princess from her unwilling father. On the other hand it is one of several “Potiphar’s Wife” incidents in Greek myth and, like the others, represents a psychological triangle of demanding mother, anxious son, and vengeful father (Stheneboia, Bellerophon, Proitos/Iobates). What differentiates this myth from the usual outcome of Potiphar’s Wife stories is precisely its fairy tale components: the fearful child, who cannot even admit his own desires, acquires the phallic emblem Pegasos and becomes a great hero, overcoming his paternal enemies and winning the sister of the woman he had earlier been compelled to reject. Finally, however, the fairy tale is negated and Bellerophon is conquered by the original objects of his fear, appearing now as the Xanthian women and Zeus. And, since Pegasos is the means by which Bellerophon achieves temporary success, it is appropriate that Pegasos is also the cause of his defeat; it is the horse who is frightened by the women’s sexual display and put to flight by Zeus’ sexual weapon.

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