Bellerophon

Bellerophon kills the Chimera
Cesare Fiaschi, Traité de la maniere de bien emboucher, manier et ferrer les chevaux, Paris, chez Adrien Perrier, 1564 (frontispiece)

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Son of Glaucus and grandson of Sisyphus, the king and founder of the city of Corinth, the hero was actually called Ipponoo and assumed the name of Bellerophon after he inadvertently killed Bellero. On this point, however, the classical sources are not definitive. According to some, Bellero was the despot of Corinth, according to others, he was the ruler of Syracuse, and according to still more, Bellerophon would not have killed him, but rather his brother, Deliade. However, all sources agree that, as a result of a crime committed involuntarily, Bellerophon had to leave his hometown and came to the city of Tiryns, where he was a guest of the king, Proitos. The king’s wife, Stheneboia, fell in love with him, but when the hero rejected her advances, she accused him, to her husband, of trying to seduce her. Proitos, to which the laws of hospitality forbade killing Bellerophon, sent him to his father in law, Iobates king of Lycia, under the pretext of delivering a message. In fact, in the letter, Proitos asked to his father in law to kill the young man. However, even Iobates felt bound by the laws of hospitality. So, instead of killing him directly, he decided to send him against the Chimera, a monster spitting fire who was terrorizing his kingdom, whose body was composed of the parts of three animals..

Chimera of Arezzo (V sec. a. C)
Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Florence (bronze)

According to the majority of the sources, excluding Homer, Bellerophon faced the combat  riding Pegasus. Thanks to the speed of his horse, he was then able to avoid the attacks of the monster and then to kill her with a trick. On the tip of his lance, the hero put a piece of lead, which was melted by the flames that sprang from the jaws of the Chimera. Bellerophon then poured the molten metal into the creature’s throat, suffocating her. Iobates then asked him to face the barbarous tribe of the Solymoi, followed by the Amazons. In both of these challenges, Pegasus contributed significantly to the victory of the hero. At this point, however, Iobates recognized the virtue and courage of Bellerophon. He revealed the request from Proitos and, as a sign of his esteem and friendship, he gave Bellerophon his daughter in marriage, sharing with him the kingdom.

The last part of the life of Bellerophon, however, was unhappy. Homer says that when the gods conceived a strong aversion toward him, he began to wander the plain of Alea, avoiding meeting other men. According to other sources, Bellerophon would be filled with pride for his achievements and aspired to challenge the gods. For this reason, Zeus sent a gadfly to harass the winged horse who, annoyed by his bite, finally unseated his rider.

Giovan Battista Tiepolo, Bellerophon kills the Chimera (detail) – 1723 – Palazzo Sandi-Porto (Cipollato) -Venice

The figures of Bellerophon and Pegasus are linked to the god Poseidon. In his Theogony, Hesiod claims that the winged horse originated from the neck of Medusa at the time when she was decapitated by Perseus with a scythe. Actually, Medusa had previously mated with the god Poseidon who took the form of a horse. Immediately after her death, the winged horse was raised to the heavenly abode of the gods, where he took on the task of bringing the lightning to Zeus. Also according to Hesiod, as well as Hyginus, the same Bellerophon was the son of Poseidon. The struggle that opposed them against the Chimera proposes the theme of the fight between a heavenly  knight and a hellish monster, which already occurred in the religions of Asia Minor and was then transposed in the Christian legend of St. George slaying the dragon. Having been able to reduce to obedience Pegasus, the terrible winged horse born from the blood of Medusa, Bellerophon especially fascinated the Renaissance authors of treatises about horsemanship.

Bibliography

HOMER, Iliad, VI

PINDAR, Olympic Odes, XIII.

HESIOD, Theogony, v. 281-286 e 325

HYGINUS, Fabula, 157

OVID, Metamorphoses, V, 250-268

TACCONE, Angelo, Bellerofonte, in AA. VV., Enciclopedia Italiana, Roma, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Treccani, 1930.

WAGNER, Marc-André, Dictionnaire mythologique et historique du cheval, Monaco, Éditions du Rocher, 2006.

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The bit that tamed the flying horse: Pegasus and Bellerophon

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In the thirteenth of his Olimpyan odes, Pindar tells that the prince of Corinth, Bellerophon, suffered for a long time in the attempt to ride the untamed winged horse, Pegasus. It is not hard to imagine why he wanted to mount him at all costs. He was a prodigious animal, born from the ground bathed in the blood of Medusa or, according to others, even sprung from his neck when Perseus cut it with a sickle, killing her. The horse immediately flew to the abode of immortals and from then on lived in the house of Zeus, bringing the lightning and the thunder to the Father of the Gods. One day, however, he stopped  near the Peiréne source, not far from the city of Corinth. The prince saw him and tried to approach him, but the horse defended himself wildly. And yet his violence and arrogance increased the desire of the young man to ride him.

Athena, Pegasus and Bellerophon
Pompei – Casa dei Dioscuri, (fresco)

Exhausted, Bellerophon turned to the diviner, Polido, who advised him to sleep in Athena’s temple. As soon as he fell asleep, the goddess appeared to him in a dream. Handing a bit made of gold rings, she whispered him to take it and to sacrifice a bull to Poseidon. Immediately the hero awoke and found the divine instrument at his side. He ran to Polido to tell him what happened and he told him to obey the dream and dedicate an altar to Athena Hippia.

The power of the gods, says Pindar, does easily what would be sworn impossible. So, thanks to the prodigious bit, Bellerophon immediately subdued the fiery flying horse. As soon as he put the bit in his mouth, he could jump on his back, wearing his bronze weapons, and they immediately performed a warrior dance. Then, on his back, the hero defeated the Amazons, killed the Chimera and routed the Solimi.

Jan Boeckhorst , Pegasus (around 1675-1680)
Museu Nacional de Belas Artes – Rio de Janeiro (oil on canvas)

The story of the taming of Pegasus presents several points of interest. Besides in Pindar, it occurs in Hesiod (Theogony) and in several other authors, while Homer, who speaks of Bellerophon (in the sixth canto of the Iliad), does not mention the winged horse. Poseidon is qualified with the name of damaios, which means “tamer”, to emphasize the intimate connection of this deity with the horses, which makes him the protector of riders and charioteers, as well as the tutelary deity of the equestrian games. Athena also appears there as the goddess of Equestrian Art, bestower of the instrument that, by the force of an enchantment, can “win the mind” of the wild animal. Above all, however, the taming of the horse is seen here as a unique moment in which, thanks to a divine instrument, the hero manages to subdue the animal, that from unruly and violent, becomes immediately docile. Especially striking is the role of the bit as an essential tool of communication between man and horse. This anticipates a trend that will have a particular development during the Renaissance, when the art of “bridling”, which is the ability to choose the correct bit for each horse, will be considered “the true touchstone of the horseman” (Claudio Corte, Il cavallarizzo, 1562, p. 80r).

Bibliography

PINDAR, Olympic Odes, XIII.

HESIOD, Theogony, v. 281-286 e 325

PAUSANIAS, Guide to Greece, II, 31, 9 e IX, 31, 3

OVID, Metamorphoses, V, 250-268

WAGNER, Marc-André, Dictionnaire mythologique et historique du cheval, Monaco, Éditions du Rocher, 2006.