Bellerophon in Greek Mythology — The Rise and Fall of a Tragic Hero

Bellerophon in Greek Mythology

Who is Bellerophon in Greek Mythology?

BELLEROPHON was a Greek hero from the city of Corinth and the son of King Glaucus (or Poseidon in some instances) and Eurynome. He possessed a marvellous, winged horse named PEGASUS, which had sprung out of the Gorgon Medusa’s blood when she was beheaded by PERSEUS. The goddess ATHENA gave Bellerophon a special bridle in order to help him tame Pegasus.

When we think of Greek mythology’s most iconic stories and figures, outside of its gods and goddesses, there are plenty of heroes that come to mind. From Odysseus and his epic voyage to Heracles and his 12 labours, and that’s not even mentioning in the likes of Theseus, Achilles, Jason and, of course, Perseus—perhaps, Greek mythology’s most celebrated hero.

However, there are some heroes who never really get a share of the spotlight, despite having their own epic stories, and I think the rise and fall of Bellerophon is a perfect example.

Bellerophon’s Origin

Bellerophon or Bellerophontes is often described as the son of Poseidon and Eurynome, the wife of Glaucus, king of Corinth. However, there are some poets who disagreed, believing that Glaucus was actually his father. And though Glaucus’ mother was a daughter of the Titan Atlas, given him some kind of divinity, I personally like to look at Bellerophon as the demigod son of Poseidon.

The Story of Bellerophon—The Rise of Bellerophon

The Origin of Bellerophon
Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

His story begins with him being exiled from his home in Argos. He stood before King Proetus, having committed the crime of murder. Who exactly he killed is never really discussed in any detail; it can vary from his own brother to a shadowy enemy and even a ruler of the Corinthians. We don’t know who he killed and why; we just know that he committed the crime of murder.

For some unknown reason, King Proetus cleansed Bellerophon of his crime and gave him a royal pardon. The King’s wife, Queen Stheneboea, took a liking to Bellerophon. When her advances were rejected, she accused him of forcing himself upon her.

The King believed in the word of his wife was now furious, to say the least. Not only had Bellerophon taken his hospitality and thrown it back in his face, but the pardon he gave him now made him a guest in his kingdom, and to kill a guest in your own kingdom is to incur the wrath of Zeus.

The only solution Proetus had was to send Bellerophon to his father-in-law, King Iobates, accompanied by a sealed letter asking him to execute Bellerophon for violating his wife.

When he arrived in Lycia, he dined with the king for several days before reading the message. Even then, Iobates himself feared the Enrinyes would descend upon him for murdering a guest.

So, instead, he sent Bellerophon on a mission that he believed to be impossible. He sent him to slay the Chimera—a fire-breathing hybrid monster, with the head and body of a goat and lion and a serpent for a tail.

Bellerophon and the Chimera

Bellerophon and the Chimera

The Chimera had plagued the countryside of Lycia for what felt like an eternity. If it did indeed kill Bellerophon, then his death would no longer be at the hands of Iobates or Proetus.

If he managed to slay the Chimera by some means, then Iobates would have been seen as the hero-king who saved his people. He could see no downside to his plan.

Now, at this point in time, Bellerophon wasn’t an established hero who you will expect to just walk up to the Chimera, chop off its multiple heads and still head home in time for happy hour with Dionysus. No, he would need help and a lot of it.

He first travelled to the renowned seer Polyidos, who gave him crucial advice about his upcoming battle with the Chimera. He told Bellerophon that he would have to obtain the winged steed Pegasus services, which would give him a distinct advantage in battle.

This ties into the more classical depictions of the Chimera, where it didn’t have wings, meaning flying above the beast would help prevent him from being torn to pieces and burnt to cinders.

Pegasus, however, would not come quietly. He would have to be tamed, and in order to do this, he would have to spend the evening in the temple of Athena.

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

During his time in the temple, Athena appeared to him in a dream, and when he awoke, he was given a golden bridle that he would use to tame Pegasus. In some accounts, Athena appeared to him with Pegasus, and in others, he would have to take the bridle and find the horse himself. There are even versions where Poseidon appeared to him, and with Poseidon being the god of horses, he then presented Pegasus to his son. Bellerophon, at this point, unaware of his father’s true identity.

With the aid of Pegasus, he arrived in Lycia ready to face the Chimera. However, it didn’t take long for Bellerophon to realize that the volley of arrows that he rained down had no effect. And so, he was left flying around aimlessly, attempting to avoid the turret of fire being expelled by the Chimera.

Eventually, the fire gave him an idea. On the end of his spear, he attached a large block of lead. He then approached the Chimera with his spear pointed head-on. The Chimera continued to breathe fire, but this time the lead began to melt, causing the block of lead to break off and fall into the Chimera’s throat, where it lodged itself.

The lead continued to melt and burn the Chimera from the inside, blocking its air passage and causing it to suffocate. All of a sudden, Bellerophon had done the impossible. He had slain the Chimera!

Upon returning, the king was shocked, but Iobates had taken all of the credit despite his heroics. He refused to acknowledge that it was Bellerophon who had slain the Chimera. Instead, he sent him on another quest in order to prove himself.

Bellerophon and the Amazons

He was sent to quell the uprising of the Amazons and the Solymi, tribes of warriors who had not accepted Iobates as their king.

Flying high above them on Pegasus, he would then drop boulders on them down below, literally squashing the rebellion. Iobates was now sure that Bellerophon could not have been a mere mortal, and fearing him now more than ever, he decided to have him assassinated.

Bellerophon and the Assassins

The last task he was given was to find a group of pirates who had stolen from the crown. It was during this encounter that the assassins would strike. Sadly for the King, he had waited too long, and now Bellerophon was more than aware of his strength and divine nature. Upon being ambushed, he then killed all of the assassins that were sent after him.

Iobates then sent his palace guards to finish the job, but Bellerophon looked to his father for assistance, and Poseidon did indeed answer by flooding parts of the city when the guards approached him.

With no one to turn to, Iobates finally conceded and presented Bellerophon with a new sealed letter stating that he would marry his youngest daughter and be given half of the kingdom. Bellerophon was now given the recognition that he felt he deserved and riches beyond his wildest dreams.

He was now Bellerophontes, the slayer of monsters, the man who saved Lycia.

However, even a reasonably exciting human life now seemed mundane. He had defeated the Chimera after all and proven himself. He felt he now belonged on Mount Olympus, he’s rightful home.

The Tragic Fall of Bellerophon

The Tragic fall of Bellerophon in Greek Mythology

Eventually, he was so overcome with boredom, he took Pegasus and began his ascent to Olympus. Zeus watching from above, took his actions as an insult.

Zeus would then send a gadfly to sting Pegasus, causing him to buck and Bellerophon to be thrown off, falling back down to earth where he belonged. Pegasus eventually recovered and continued his journey to Olympus, where he will be greeted and welcomed by Zeus. He was then given the job of carrying Zeus’s thunderbolts across the sky.

Bellerophon, however, did not share the same fate. In some stories, the fall down to earth killed him, which in this case, oddly enough, seems to be the happy ending.

In other stories, the fall merely crippled him, leaving him barely able to walk. He was cursed to roam the earth for eternity, a shell of the man that he used to be hated by both mortals and gods alike.

He was no longer the slayer of monsters; he was Bellerophon the nobody, the living example of what happened to those who let their hubris dictate their action. The great hero that he was once was no longer.

The tales of Bellerophon arguably paved the way for many of the Greek heroes that followed. The story of Heracles performing labours to earn his Redemption is honestly very similar, if not the exact same, as Bellerophon’s journey.

As the years past, Bellerophon’s tales were slowly phased out and replaced by the likes of Perseus. When we think of a hero riding Pegasus, many of us today immediately think of Perseus, and it’s this fading memory of a once-great hero that makes Bellerophon a tragic hero.

In Conclusion

Everybody seems to enjoy a good rise and fall story. Still, I think the reason I enjoy Bellerophon’s story is because of how human it is. The gods and goddesses are often presented as flawed, and Greek mythology heroes are really no different.

It’s quite a straightforward story to relate to. Obviously, not in terms of flying around on the horse, killing monsters and dropping boulders on people. But in terms of how we handle fame and success.

The story serves as a reminder of the importance of humbleness and humility, not being overcome by our own arrogance—almost the idea of knowing your capabilities and place in society. But then again, like Bellerophon, we should always be challenging these things as you never really know your limits, capabilities and even your place in society until you challenge them, regardless of the outcome is positive or negative.

We can make mistakes and even do bad things and choose to learn from them and ultimately better ourselves, or like Bellerophon, we can start off with good intentions and end up losing ourselves, and that is when you fall the hardest.

Image Sources: Brendon Schumacker, Works of Chivalry, Wikimedia Commons.

Scroll to Top