The Myth of Bellerophon, the Slayer of Monsters in Greek Mythology

Bellerophon

One mention of the name Bellerophon and instantly the story of the Greek hero attempting to make his way to the home of the gods on Mount Olympus comes to mind. However, there was more to Bellerophon than that botched endeavor. Greek poet Homer lets us know that Bellerophon was a mighty hero who accomplished many great things in Greek mythology. This is the exact reason why he is often ranked as one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology and religion.

In the article below WHE explores the myths surrounding Bellerophon origins, meaning, abilities, and symbols.

Meaning

It’s been theorized by some mythographers and scholars of ancient Greece that Bellerophon’s name possibly originated from the combination of ancient Greek words for “dart” or “projectile” and “to slay” or “slayer”.

Birth story

Born in Corinth, Bellerophon was believed to be the son of Glaucus and Eurynome. Upon a close look at the stories in Greek mythology, one immediately discovers that Bellerophon’s origin could be traced to the powerful mortal kings from Ephyra (known as Corinth, located in south-central Greece). Those kings in turn were said to be the descendants of Prometheus, the cunning Titan who stole fire from Mount Olympus and then gave that fire to mortals.

In this myth, Bellerophon’s father, King Glaucus, is the son of King Sisyphus and the Pleiad Merope. Thus, his grandfather Sisyphus was the very cunning king of Corinth who incurred the wrath of the gods for cheating death (Thanatos) twice.

Bellerophon’s mother, Eurynome, was Megarian princess and the daughter of King Nisus of Megara. The goddess Athena is said to have tutored Bellerophon’s mother, Eurynome of Megara, in a number of home crafts. Notable siblings of Bellerophon include Deliades (Alcimenes or Peiren).

Through his son Glaucus, King Sisyphus of Corinth is the grandfather of Bellerophon, one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology. Image: Sisyphus (1548–49) by Venetian painter Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

The son of Poseidon

In a different and perhaps more popular version of the myth, Bellerophon was the son of Princess Eurynome and Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, earthquakes, and horses. According to this myth, after Glaucus’ father, Sisyphus, had secured Eurynome’s hand in marriage for Glaucus, Zeus forbade Sisyphus from having any progeny. As result, Eurynome ended up lying with Poseidon. Homer notes that Bellerophon was borne out of that union.

Children of Bellerophon

By Philonoe, a princess and the daughter of King Iobates of Lycia, Bellerophon fathered Hippolochus, Isander (sometimes Peisander) and Laodamia (Hippodamia). His son Hippolochus fathered a son called Glaucus II, who fought on the side of the Trojans during the Trojan War. Bellerophon’s other son Isander was killed by the god Ares. Laodamia, mother of Sarpedon by Zeus, was killed by Artemis. Like Glaucus II, Sarpedon fought in the Trojan War as well.

Bellerophon’s adventures

After unintentionally killing his own brother Alcimenes, Bellerophon committed himself to exile in Argos. In Argos, he submitted himself to the service of Proetus, king in Tiryns, in order to atone for his misdeed. The story goes on to say that Proetus’ wife (either Anteia or Sthneboea) fell head over heels with Bellerophon, who outrightly rejected the Queen’s advances. Enraged by the rejection Proetus’ wife falsely accused Bellerophon of attempting to rape her.  Since Proetus could not bring himself to killing Bellerophon, he dispatched the young warrior to Lycia. Bear in mind, Lycia was the kingdom of King Iobates, the grandfather of Bellerophon.

Unbeknownst to Bellerophon, he carried a sealed letter which pleaded with King Iobates to kill the bearer. When Iobates eventually opened the letter, he too could not bring himself to kill Bellerophon as he feared the wrath of the gods. Therefore, Iobates handed Bellerophon an impossible task, a job no mortal at the time could have pulled off.

Killing the Chimera lion

Greek poet Homer describes the Chimera as a powerful beast with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent. The Chimera had a powerful breath in the form of a burning flame that could incinerate the target within seconds. Image: The Chimera on a red-figure Apulian plate, c. 350–340 BC (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

King Iobates sent Bellerophon on a difficult mission to slay the Chimera, a fierce creature that resided in the city of Caria in western Anatolia (present day Turkey). The poet Homer describes the Chimera, one of the most terrifying creatures, as a fire-breathing monster with the head of lion, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. Chimera was the offspring of Typhon and Echidna, both of who were father and mother of monsters respectively.

Bellerophon and Pegasus

Bellerophon and the winged horse Pegasus |Image (from left to right): Bellerophon, Pegasus, and the goddess Athena, fresco of the 3rd style from Pompeii, first half of the 1st century

For many years, the Chimera had been a thorn in the flesh of inhabitants in Caria and neighboring towns. Sensing how extremely dangerous the mission was, Bellerophon sought the advice of Polyidus, the well-known Corinthian seer. Polyidus advised Bellerophon to seek out and tame Pegasus, the winged horse. To do this, Bellerophon would need to acquire Greek goddess Athena’s charmed bridle. Therefore the seer further instructed Bellerophon to sleep in the temple of Athena.

With the magical bridle in his hands, Bellerophon slowly approached Pegasus while the divine horse was drinking from a well. Calling on every ounce of courage in him, the young hero was able to tame the horse.

In a different version of the story, Athena walked Pegasus, who was already tamed and bridled, to where Bellerophon was. Other accounts state that Poseidon was the one who brought Pegasus to Bellerophon. Bear in mind, Poseidon was also the god of horses. And as stated above Bellerophon was sometimes depicted as the son of Poseidon.

Read more: The myth of Cadmus – the founder and first king of the Greek city of Thebes

How did Bellerophon slay the Chimera lion?

Bellerophon then rode atop the divine winged horse to Caria to face the Chimera. As expected the creature was terrifying and powerful. Initially, he struggled to deal with the Chimera’s fiery breath and serpentile tail. It was as if the Chimera could predict his every movement. It was in this moment that an idea dawned upon young hero. Bellerophon picked up a sizable portion of lead nearby and placed it on top of his spear. He then charged head on towards the fire-breathing creature. A few seconds before clashing with the Chimera, he swerved and hurled his spear straight into the throat of the monster. Once lodged in the throat, the Chimera’s fire began melting the lead. The toxic fume from the burning lead ultimately suffocated the beast to death.

Bellerophon and the Chimera Lion | Image: Bellerophon riding Pegasus and slaying the Chimera, central medallion of a Roman mosaic from Autun, Musée Rolin, 2nd to 3rd century AD

Bellerophon then took the body of the Chimera and headed back to King Iobates. The king was not expecting Bellerophon to make it out alive; therefore, he sent Bellerophon on a series of difficult missions. In all those missions, Bellerophon proved successful – be it fighting against the Amazon warrior women or the Carian pirate Cheirmarrhus. In the former mission, he rode up (on Pegasus) and then dropped heavy boulders on top of the Amazons.

In the end, Iobates was left with no other option than to sought of eat a humble pie and honor Bellerophon, acknowledging the sheer might of hero. The King also allowed him to marry his daughter Philonoe. Half of Iobates’ kingdom was also given to Bellerophon to rule.

Bellerophon’s attempted ride to Mount Olympus

Bellerophon riding Pegasus (1914)

Bellerophon’s failed attempt to make it to the home of the gods on Mount Olympus is a classic case of a character biting more than he could chew. With his new found ability of flight, kind courtesy of Pegasus, Bellerophon perhaps got carried away as he thought he could fly all the to Mount Olympus. He also reasoned that he deserved to reside with the gods considering the fact that he had just slain the Chimera. And if the accounts of him being a demigod were to be taken serious then Bellerophon wholeheartedly believed that he should reside nowhere other than Mount Olympus.

Well, hubris was not something that the gods took lightly, be it from a hero as powerful as Bellerophon. So, just as Bellerophon was about to reach Mount Olympus, the horse that he was flying on got stung by a gadfly. Apparently Zeus had sent the little insect to disrupt Bellerophon’s ride to Mount Olympus.

With Pegasus shrieking in pain, Bellerophon struggled to maintain his grip to the horse. The Corinthian hero and slayer of the Chimera fell off the horse and came crashing down to earth. He fell on top of a thorny hedge in Cilicia. As a result he sustained a number of injuries, including losing his eyesight. Distraught and pained about the failed journey to Mount Olympus, Bellerophon spent the remainder of his life a pale shadow of himself until he passed away.

So what happened to Bellerophon’s horse, Pegasus? According to the myths, Pegasus managed to recover from the gadfly sting and made his way to Olympus, where he was used by Zeus as a kind of courier for Zeus’s thunderbolts.

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