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The Hero Bellerophon in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 1, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The Greek Hero Bellerophon

The surviving stories of Greek mythology tend do with the actions of gods or the adventures of heroes. It was of course essential for the religious connotations of Greek mythology but the actions of the heroes also play an important part in the guiding people about how the could lead a worthy life.

Today many of these Greek heroes remain famous for the deeds, and most people are likely to have heard of Heracles and Theseus; there were though dozens more less famous Greek heroes, and fewer will have heard of the likes of Meleager and Bellerophon.

The Bellerophon Story

The story of Bellerophon is famously told in the Iliad by Homer, but also appears in the Bibliotheca (Pseudo-Apollodorus) and the works of Hesiod. Each source does have a slightly different variation on the Bellerophon myth though.

Bellerophon Born and Exiled

Bellerophon was raised as the son of King Glaucus of Corinth, and his wife, Queen Eurymede. Glaucus was a common name in Greek mythology, but this Glaucus was the son of Sisyphus. Zeus had punished Glaucus for the sins of the father, and this punishment was said to have involved being unable to sire children; so Bellerophon is often thought of as actually been the son of the sea god Poseidon.

Bellerophon would be sent into exile from Corinth though when he killed his brother Deliades (Alcimenes). The actually events surrounding the death of Deliades are not alluded to by ancient writers, but it was said that Bellerophon ended up in Argos. In Argos, Bellerophon went to the court of King Proetus, in order that he could ask for absolution for his crime. In Ancient Greece, absolution was something that kings could offer. Indeed King Proetus welcomed Bellerophon, the prince of Corinth into his home.

Intrigue in Argos

King Proetus though was not the only one taken with the young Bellerophon, for the wife of the king, Queen Stheneboia, was also attracted to him.

Bellerophon rejected the advances of his host’s wife, but this only angered Stheneboia, and the queen went to the king to complain about the unwanted attentions of Bellerophon. The thought of killing his guest did pass the mind of Proteus, but this would have brought down the fury of the Erinyes, for to murder a guest was a great sin.

Bellerophon Sent to Lycia

King Proteus therefore dispatched Bellerophon to the court of his father-in-law, King Iobates of Lycia; Proteus believing that Iobates would kill Bellerophon for interfering with his daughter. King Iobates though was no more willing to risk the wrath of the Furies than Proteus had been; and so the king instead set the Corinthian prince an impossible task, the slaying of the monstrous Chimera.

Bellerophon and Pegasus

Bellerophon and Pegasus - Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov - PD-art-100
Bellerophon and Pegasus - Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov - PD-art-100 | Source

Bellerophon and the Chimera

The Chimera was a fire-breathing monster found in Lycia. The Chimera was part lion, part goat and part snake, and was known for killing all those that passed near.

Bellerophon though had a secret weapon for facing the Chimera, for the Greek hero had access to Pegasus, the famed winged horse of Greek mythology.

Just how Bellerophon had access to Pegasus is not entirely clear. Some ancient writers would say that Bellerophon had harnessed the winged horse whilst still a youth; the goddess Athena directing Bellerophon to a well where Pegasus drank. Alternatively the capture of the horse was aided by the Lycian seer Polyeidos, whilst Bellerophon was in Lycia. Of course, if Poseidon was Bellerophon’s father, then the Greek hero may have had a natural way with the charming of horses.

In any event it was upon the back of Bellerophon that Bellerophon went to do battle with the Chimera.

Bellerophon started by flying above the Chimera, out of reach of the breathed fire, and let loose with bow and arrows. The arrows though proved ineffective against the monster. Bellerophon though would return, this time with a lance tipped with a lead block. The fire of the Chimera started to melt the lead, and the molten metal would flow down the throat of the beast, ultimately suffocating it.

Bellerphon Airborne

Bellerophon takes up his lance - Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) - PD-art-100
Bellerophon takes up his lance - Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) - PD-art-100 | Source

Further Attempts on the Life of Bellerophon

So, Bellerophon would return to the court of Iobates victorious and unharmed. The shocked king would therefore set Bellerophon another seemingly deadly task. This time the Greek hero was to face the Amazons, the warrior women of Greek mythology, who had invaded part of Lycia. Again, with Pegasus beneath him, Bellerophon would easily best the Amazons, driving them back out of Lycia.

Rather than being grateful for ridding his land of the invaders, Iobates tried for a third time to do away with the Greek hero. This time Iobates sent his own elite warriors to kill Bellerophon. Having already bested the chimera and the Amazons though, the Lycian warriors were no match for Bellerophon and Pegasus.

Bellerophon Marries

Iobates then figured that Bellerophon was being protected by the gods of Mount Olympus, and so rather than attempting another try on the life of the hero, Iobates married him off to one of his own daughters, Philonoe. Additionally, Bellerophon was also made heir to the Lycian throne.

Philonoe would give birth to three children for Bellerophon, Hippolochus, Isander and Laidameia; and at Troy his grandsons, Sarpedon and Glaucus, were amongst the defenders.

In some versions of the Bellerophon myth, the story of the Greek hero ends at this point with a happy ending; but of course, few Greek heroes were destined for such an end, and so the story of Bellerophon does continue.

Bellerophon Falls to Earth

Bellerophon Falls to Earth - Walter Crane (1845-1915) - PD-art-100
Bellerophon Falls to Earth - Walter Crane (1845-1915) - PD-art-100 | Source

The Downfall of Bellerophon

Bellerophon’s successes gave the hero an inflated sense of worth, and so Bellerophon climbed upon the back of Pegasus once again. Bellerophon’s target this time was to visit the palaces of Mount Olympus.

Zeus observed the impudence of the mortal; Bellerophon attempting to visit Mount Olympus uninvited, and so the supreme god sent forth a gadfly which stung Pegasus. The winged horse bucked, unseating Bellerophon, and sending the Greek hero plummeting downwards.

The fall and landing did not kill Bellerophon, but it left him blind and crippled; and for the rest of his life, Bellerophon wander the Plains of Aleion, shunned by god and man alike.

A legend arose of the tomb of Bellerophon being found in Tlos, and the story of Bellerophon has also been linked with that of George and the Dragon. The icon image of Bellerophon on Pegasus with lance in hand, is indeed very similar to that of George on horseback with a spear facing the dragon.

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