By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Surely the most famous horse in all of classical myth is Pegasus, the flying horse. But who was Pegasus and how did he come about? And what is the significance of this myth? Let’s take a closer look at the story of Pegasus and what it means – from the significance of the flying horse motif to the links to poetic creativity and inspiration which Pegasus has.
Pegasus myth: summary
In probably the most familiar origin-story of Pegasus, he is the offspring of a god and a Gorgon: in this narrative, Pegasus was the offspring of the sea-god Poseidon, who sired the horse with one of the Gorgons. In some versions of the story, when Perseus slew the Gorgon Medusa, Pegasus sprang from Medusa’s neck when Perseus chopped her head off.
In other accounts, Pegasus sprang from the earth, which was fertilised by Medusa’s blood when it fell on the ground. This earthbound association is important for the legend of the flying horse, as we discuss below.
Pegasus flew to Mount Olympus to serve Zeus: among other things, he brought the king of the gods thunderbolts from the heavens for Zeus to use against those who angered him (which tended to be a lot of people).
But the most famous story involving Pegasus was the tale involving Bellerophon.
Bellerophon was a rather unlucky hero. As a young man, he accidentally killed his brother; true, this was even more unlucky for the brother, whose name is given as Bellerus in some accounts (making Bellerophon’s name a kind of nickname, given to him in honour, or rather dishonour, of his inadvertent fratricide), but it seems to have cursed Bellerophon to a lifetime of misery.
After this incident, Bellerophon went into exile to King Proetus of Tiryns, but the king’s wife tried to seduce the hapless youth. When he turned her down, saying there was no way he could have an affair with the wife of the man who had taken him into his kingdom, she accused him of trying to seduce her.
Proetus believed his wife and wanted to have Bellerophon put to death, but didn’t want to do the deed himself, so he sent the man to Proetus’ father-in-law, Iobates, the King of Lycia, with a letter asking him to carry out the execution.
But Iobates, having welcomed Bellerophon into his land, was also reluctant to kill a man who was his guest, so he decided to give him an impossible task: kill the Chimera, the fire-breathing monster that was part-goat and part-lion (and with the tail of a serpent, in many accounts), which was laying waste to whole regions of Iobates’ kingdom.
Bellerophon used Pegasus as his steed during this campaign. Because of Pegasus’ ability to fly, Bellerophon was able to fly above the Chimera and then swoop down and kill the monster. Victorious, he returned to Iobates who showed him Proetus’ letter calling for Bellerophon’s death and tore it up, giving the young hero one of his daughters for a wife. Bellerophon is also often said to have ridden Pegasus during his subsequent adventures, including his war against the Amazons.
Bellerophon’s story has a happy ending (for a while) and then, at the very end, a not-so-happy one. He had his revenge on Proetus and his wife, and married one of Iobates’ daughters, of course. But his success clearly went to his head: one day, he tried to ride Pegasus up to Mount Olympus to reach Zeus, but such hubris was misplaced: Zeus sent him hurtling back to the earth and Bellerophon was killed.
As for Pegasus, after Bellerophon died, he returned to Olympus to serve Zeus again. One day, on Mount Helicon, a singing contest took place between the Nine Muses and the Pierides (Nine wannabe Muses who thought they could outsing the more famous nonet). Poseidon ordered Pegasus to stamp his hoof when the mountain swelled thanks to the singing. A spring of water, named Hippocrene (‘horse-spring’), sprang up at the point where Pegasus’ hoof stamped the earth. John Keats references this in his poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
Pegasus was turned into a constellation: the fate of many figures from classical myth.
Pegasus myth: analysis
In classical mythology, horses are often depicted pulling chariots of important deities. Because of their speed and strength, horses were the ideal animals to pull the sun across the sky for Phoebus Apollo, although similar chariot-stories surround Mithras in ancient Rome and Elijah in the Old Testament. In the Second Book of Kings, it is said that Elijah was taken up into heaven on a chariot of fire. So Pegasus is, in many ways, an extension of this idea.
Horses were also hugely important to the ancient Greeks and, later, the Romans. But what would be better than riding a horse across the land? Being able to ride a horse into the sky and fly, of course. Pegasus represents this union between earth and sky, gods and men, and his ancestry – being born from a god but springing out of the earth, in many renditions of the tale – supports this symbolism.
Pegasus is surely the most famous horse in classical myth. Horses were often associated with the Underworld and, by association, with dark primal forces (including the beastlike energies residing in humans). Pegasus joins this symbolism with divine and skyborne connotations of flight and the heavens. Pegasus represents man’s ability to rise above his base origins and attain creative and imaginative flight.
Indeed, the winged horse is often used as a symbol of poetic inspiration, perhaps because of the story involving Mount Helicon and the Muses.
Curiously, the name of Pegasus is close to the word pege, meaning ‘spring’, and Pegasus is often said to have been born at the ocean springs; here ‘ocean’ means the Mediterranean, so ‘ocean springs’ means the far western Mediterranean, the other side from Greece. Pegasus thus symbolically combines water with air: springs and wings both suggest creativity and elevation.