Pegasus: The Majestic White Horse of Olympus

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Pegasus is the majestic flying horse found in Greek mythology. This creature is traditionally depicted as a pure white horse with wings. The father of Pegasus is said to be the god of the sea, Poseidon, whilst its mother was the Gorgon Medusa. Pegasus is best known for its association with the heroes Perseus and Bellerophon. In the story of Perseus’ slaying of Medusa, one can find the narration of Pegasus’ birth. This winged horse later became the mount of Bellerophon, and can be found in the stories about this hero’s exploits, including the slaying of the chimera, and his flight to Mount Olympus.

Hesiod's Theogony

In Hesiod's Theogony, it is written that “with her [Medusa] the god of the Sable Locks [Poseidon] lay in a soft meadow among the spring flowers”. The union between Medusa and Poseidon resulted in Pegasus and Chrysaor, who were born when Medusa was decapitated by the hero Perseus,

“And when Perseus cut off her head from her neck, out sprang great Chrysaor and the horse Pegasus. He was so named because he was born beside the waters of Oceanus, while the other was born with a golden sword in his hands.”

Perseus with the head of Medusa, Benvenuto Cellini (1554)

Perseus with the head of Medusa, Benvenuto Cellini (1554) ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Hesiod also mentions that after Pegasus was born, the horse flew off to Mount Olympus, where it came to live in Zeus’ palace. There, Pegasus was given the job of carrying the god’s thunder and lightning. Alternatively, the stories in Greek mythology suggest that Pegasus spent some time on earth before flying to Mount Olympus. During this time, Pegasus served two heroes – Perseus and Bellerophon.

Following the death of Medusa, Perseus is said to have been travelling home when he caught sight of a maiden chained to a rock. This was Andromeda, the daughter of the King and Queen of Ethiopia. Andromeda’s mother had angered Poseidon by boasting that her daughter was more beautiful than even the Nereids. The god then punished the people of Ethiopia by first sending a flood, and then a sea monster to terrorize them. The only way to appease Poseidon was to sacrifice Andromeda, which was the reason for her being chained to a rock.

Pegasus emerges from the body of Medusa. ‘The Perseus Series: The Death of Medusa I’ by Edward Burne-Jones

Pegasus emerges from the body of Medusa. ‘The Perseus Series: The Death of Medusa I’ by Edward Burne-Jones ( Public Domain )

Perseus offered to rescue the princess, and deal with the monster, provided that he be given Andromeda’s hand in marriage. The king agreed to this, and when the monster came to claim the princess, it was turned to stone by Perseus with the severed head of Medusa. The connection between Pegasus and Andromeda may be seen in the sky, where their constellations can be found side by side.

Perseus saving Andromeda, 1596, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

Perseus saving Andromeda, 1596, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. ( Public Domain )

Bellerophon and Pegasus

Pegasus was also the mount of Bellerophon, who came to possess the flying horse during his quest against the chimera. According to one story, the hero had visited the city of Tiryns, where Proetus was king. The queen, Stheneboea, is said to have fallen in love with Bellerophon, though the hero rejected her advances. Feeling humiliated, Stheneboea went to her husband, and accused the hero of trying to seduce her. The enraged Proetus sent Bellerophon to his father-in-law, Iobates, the King of Lycia, with a letter. In the letter, the king was asked to kill the messenger.

Instead of putting Bellerophon to death, however, Iobates decided to dispatch the hero on a quest to kill the chimera, believing that he would not survive the encounter. To prepare for this quest, Bellerophon is said to have consulted the Corinthian seer, Polyeidos, who advised him to seek out Pegasus. In one version of the myth, Polyeidos knew where Pegasus alighted to drink, and shared the information with Bellerophon, thus allowing him to tame it. In another version, it was Poseidon (Bellerophon’s secret father) who brought Pegasus to him. The most popular version of the story, however, is that it was Athena who brought Pegasus to Bellerophon. With the help of Pegasus, Bellerophon succeeded in slaying the chimera.

Bellerophon on Pegasus spears the Chimera, on an Attic red-figure epinetron, 425–420 BC.

Bellerophon on Pegasus spears the Chimera, on an Attic red-figure epinetron, 425–420 BC. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Over time, Bellerophon’s pride grew, and he aspired to scale the heights of Mount Olympus on the back of Pegasus to take his place amongst the immortals. Zeus was aware of the hero’s ambition, and sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus. Bellerophon lost his balance, and fell back to earth. Pegasus, however, continued the journey to Mount Olympus, and went on to live in Zeus’ palace, and was given the task of carrying the god’s thunder and lightning.

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