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After Bellerophon’s triumph, Pegasus became a constellation

Posted in Ancient History, Legend, Myth on Thursday, 29 November 2012

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This edited article about originally Greek mythology appeared in Look and Learn issue number 789 published on 26th February 1977.

Bellerophon on Pegasus, picture, image, illustration

Bellerophon triumphant astride Pegasus by Fortunino Matania

Brave as he was, Bellerophon seemed to have no chance against the dread Chimaera. But mounted on the winged Pegasus he rode to triumphant victory

King Iobates of Lycia looked down from his high throne at the young man who stood before him.

“So you want to marry my daughter?” he said haughtily.

Young Bellerophon was certainly handsome enough, thought the king. He came from one of the best families in Greece and had been sent to Lycia by Iobates’ own son-in-law. King Proetus of Argos.

If Bellerophon and his daughter Philonoe loved each other, why should he, her father, stand in the way?

He smiled more kindly at the young man.

“You have brought a message from my son-in-law?”

Bellerophon drew the sealed letter from his belt. King Proetus had asked him to take it over the seas to Lycia.

There he had met Philonoe and knew his fate must be linked with her and Lycia forever. Surely Iobates would have no objection?

But the king’s face had become dark and angry as he read the letter.

“It’s not so easy to marry the King of Lycia’s daughter,” he told Bellerophon. And there was nothing friendly in his voice.

The young man looked up astonished.

“Why?” he asked, “What have I done?”

“Anyone who wants to marry my daughter,” he said, “must prove himself worthy.”

“For Philonoe,” said Bellerophon, “I will accomplish anything!”

Once more the king read the letter: If you love me, Proetus had written, and value my friendship, ask no questions but immediately put the bearer of this letter to death!

Iobates brooded. Here was the young man unaware that he had been carrying his own death warrant and, to add to the situation. Philonoe was in love with him.

But King Proetus had asked that the young man’s death should seem like an accident.

“Among the caves in the rocky country by the Carian border,” said Iobates, “lives the Chimaera. It is a monster with a head like a lion, the body of a great shaggy he-goat and a serpent’s head tail that can break a man in half.

“When it breathes, such blasts of fire and smoke come from its mouth that no one can stand against it.”

The king looked at Bellerophon. “If you want to marry my daughter, bring me the Chimaera’s head!”

Heavy-hearted, Bellerophon went to the temple of Athene, the goddess who had always protected him, and prayed.

He did not realise he had been betrayed by Proetus, whom he thought was his friend.

But Athene knew that Proetus’ wife Anteia, offended by Bellerophon’s indifference to her charms, had told lies about him to the king.

Proetus believed her lies but, being unwilling publicly to put Bellerophon to death, had sent him with the fatal letter to his father-in-law.

Determined to protect the innocent young man, Athene gave him a golden bridle.

“High on Mount Helicon,” she said, “where the nine Muses hold their dances, there is the sacred well, Hippocrene.

“Grazing there you will find a great white horse. His name is Pegasus. No man has ever sat upon his back.”

“Even if I saddle him with the help of your bridle, how can a mere horse help me to overcome the Chimaera?” asked Bellerophon.

“Take some lead with you,” Athene advised enigmatically, and refused to say any more.

Bellerophon made his way to Mount Helicon and when he reached the summit he saw a great white stallion. It approached him tamely when he held out Athene’s magic bridle.

Now he understood how the horse could help him. For folded back against its flanks were two immense white wings. Eagerly Bellerophon mounted the flying horse. Soon they were riding through the clouds like a meteor.

Burned and wasted country below them warned that they were approaching the Chimaera’s lair. Then from the rocky gullies came a fiery glow and dense smoke, as the Chimaera emerged.

Checking Pegasus, Bellerophon pounced down like a hawk on the monster. Its serpent tail writhed and the great jaws snapped.

Bellerophon poured arrows down into its goatlike flanks, while it snapped back helplessly.

But its poisonous breath still rose in choking fumes, and Pegasus had to draw away. Then Bellerophon remembered the lead which Athene had told him to take. He dropped it into the monster’s gaping mouth. The Chimaera’s fiery breath melted the metal, which entered its throat and choked it.

Pegasus swung down and Bellerophon leaned over and cut off the Chimaera’s head. He carried it to the king.

Iobates was delighted to be rid of so dangerous a menace. But the problem of Bellerophon still remained.

“Put the bearer to death,” King Proetus had written. Bellerophon’s crime must have been serious.

So, still refusing Bellerophon his daughter’s hand, Iobates sent him on a forlorn attack against the Solymians, and the fierce female warriors called Amazons.

Though the odds were overwhelming, Bellerophon, mounted on Pegasus, overcame them. Again he returned victorious. Desperate now, Iobates himself arranged an ambush; but Bellerophon escaped death.

Now Iobates confessed what he had done.

“I repent that I tried so hard to please King Proetus,” he told Bellerophon. “The gods would not have saved your life so often if you had not been innocent!”

For the first time Bellerophon became aware of Proetus’ true feelings towards him. Bellerophon and Iobates enquired into their cause, and Anteia’s wicked slanders were soon discovered.

Bellerophon became friendly with both kings. He married Philonoe and eventually became king of Lycia.

Pegasus was never again mounted by any human being. Zeus, king of the gods, set him as a constellation among the stars.

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