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Pegasus - The Greek Divine Horse

Sucheta Pradhan Mar 20, 2020
Pegasus, the divine horse from Greek mythology, has inspired the myths of several countries the world over. Here is an insight on the mythology of the creature that was Pegasus.
The Pegasoi Aithiopes were a herd of winged horses bearing a pair of horns in the Ethiopian myth. These were inspired by Pegasus who, according to the regional mythology, was born on an island near Ethiopia.
One of the best known mythical creatures, Pegasus (Greek: Pégasos), the divine winged stallion of Greek mythology, always tends to occupy a special place. The horse has been associated with almost every type of being and/or creature of the Greek myth, right from the gods to monsters, and even mortal heroes.
It is perhaps this all-inclusive nature of the divine beast that is responsible for its popularity. In other words, because the beast is often associated with so many mythical beings, it tends to make its appearance in more mythological tales than other divine animals.
Owing to this, numerous facets of Pegasus' nature have been unfolded, and because most of them symbolically help in the betterment of humankind, Pegasus is not only the most venerated of the mythical creatures, but its tale has also seemed to travel to faraway lands, the mythological traditions of which also bear similar mythical creatures.

The Birth of Pegasus

✢ The 3rd century BCE Hellenistic Greek poet Lycophron, in his famed poetic work, Alexandra, mentions that Medusa, the famed Gorgon (a creature having vicious snakes on its head instead of hair) was already pregnant at the time when the Greek hero Perseus advanced to kill her.
✢ The Greek myth has established that she carried the offspring of Poseidon (God of the Sea) in her womb.
** Some sources tell us that Medusa was raped by Poseidon in the temple of Athena. It was only after this episode that she was cursed by the goddess and became a Gorgon. Some later sources tell us that Medusa had a brief love affair with Poseidon.
✢ When Perseus decapitated Medusa with his mighty sword, her two children popped out of her neck. One of them was, obviously, Pegasus. The other one was Chrysaor, meaning "one who bears a golden armament."
** This story of the birth of Pegasus is very similar to that of Athena herself. Even the goddess had popped out of her father, Zeus' neck―fully-grown and armed.
Hesiod, the 8th century BCE Greek poet, in his treatise, Theogony, has mentioned that Pegasus was born from the Earth, when a droplet of Medusa's blood fell on the ground. This happened near pegai (springs) of Oceanus (personification of World Ocean), from which the beast got its name.
✢ Another account of Pegasus' birth likens its birth with that of Aphrodite (Goddess of Love). According to this account, Pegasus and Chrysaor were born when Medusa's blood got mixed with the foam of the sea (symbolizing Poseidon).
Nonnus, a 5th century CE Greek poet, in his verse composition, Dionysiaca, says that the sword of Perseus was actually Eileithyia (Goddess of Childbirth) in disguise, who helped Medusa deliver her children even as she was dying.

Bellerophon and Pegasus

✢ It has been established by the Greek and later by the Roman myth that Bellerophon, "the greatest hero and slayer of monsters, alongside Cadmus and Perseus, before the days of Heracles", was the master of Pegasus.
✢ When Bellerophon set out to kill the chimera, a deadly, fire-breathing monster of Lycia in Asia Minor, Polyeidos, a Lycian seer, told him that it would be impossible for the hero to defeat Chimera alone.
✢ The seer further told Bellerophon that he would only be successful in the task he had taken up, if he managed to tame Pegasus, the divine stallion.

✢ Owing to this, Bellerophon attempted to capture the horse numerous times by applying all kinds of tactics, but in vain.
✢ One afternoon, frustrated by his yet another unsuccessful attempt, Bellerophon retired to the nearby temple of Athena, in order to get some rest for a short while. Before going to sleep, he prayed to the goddess of war to give him power so that he can be successful in taming the seemingly uncontrollable beast.
Pindar, the 5th century BCE Greek poet, in his verse, Olympian Ode, writes that as Bellerophon was slumbering in Athena's shrine, the goddess went into his dream and gave him a golden bridle. She asked the hero to use the bridle to tame the horse.
✢ When Bellerophon woke up, he actually found the bridle lying next to him. He used it to tame Pegasus, and became his master since that time.
Hesiod, in his treatise, Catalogue of Women, however, narrates a completely different story. According to him, Pegasus and Bellerophon were half-brothers, fathered by Poseidon. Poseidon gave Pegasus to Bellerophon so that the hero could roam around the earth easily, and without getting tired.
** Despite the huge discrepancies in the accounts narrating the nature of relationship between Pegasus and Bellarophon, one thing is for sure. The horse did aid the hero to fight and defeat chimera.
However, Ovid, the 1st century CE Roman poet, in his book, Fasti, mentions that Pegasus was highly disturbed and unhappy with its strange bridling, and registered its protest from time to time. 
Nonnus supports the view of Hesiod with regard to Pegasus and Bellerophon being half-brothers. But, he also narrates how Pegasus made Bellephoron fall off its back a number of times, to register its protest against being tamed.
Pseudo-Hyginus, a 2nd century CE Roman mythographer, in his account, Astronomica, narrates an instance wherein, after the chimera was killed, Bellephoron tried to fly to heaven with Pegasus. They had almost reached heaven, when the hero looked down at the earth, fell off, and died instantly.

Legend of the Hippocrene

✢ The Hippocrene was the spring that belonged to the Muses (Goddesses of music, song, and dance).

✢ Literally translated as "Horse's Fountain", it was located on Mt. Helicon in the Thespiai region of Boeotia in ancient Greece. Mt. Helicon is believed to be the earthly abode of the Muses.
✢ According to the 1st century BCE Greek geographer, Strabo, the Hippocrene was formed when Pegasus struck hard with its hoof on the mountain, in order to take flight.

✢ The 2nd century CE Greek traveler and geographer, Pausanias, tells us that the water from the Hippocrene was considered to be sacred. It was used for the purpose of cleansing.

Pegasus on Mt. Olympus

✢ It is believed that after the death of its master, the stallion flew to Mt. Olympus, where it received a warm welcome from all the gods and goddesses.
✢ Zeus was particularly impressed with the horse. He kept it in his household stables, and made sure that Pegasus was well-cared for.

✢ One of the two winged horses, driving the chariot of Zeus across the sky, was Pegasus.
✢ Moreover, Pegasus also carried Zeus' thunderbolts from the workshop of Cyclops, the one-eyed giant. Owing to this, Pegasus was also often referred to as the "thundering horse of Jove (Zeus)" in the Roman myth.
✢ Pleased with the services that Pegasus gave to Zeus, the king of Gods placed it in the heaven forever as the constellation of stars.
Aratus, a first century CE Greek poet, in his astronomical poem, Phaenomena says that the constellation in the northern sky that resembles a horse is actually Pegasus, who roams around in the realm of Zeus.

Pegasus and Perseus

✢ The association of Pegasus with Perseus, other than in the story concerning the horse's birth, seems to be a later addition to the ancient Greek myth.

✢ A trend of depicting Pegasus and Perseus together began primarily during the Renaissance era. Several works of art depicted the relationship between the two.
✢ Especially, the later versions of the rescue of the Ethiopian princess Andromeda from the clutches of a horrendous sea monster by Perseus, often mention that the hero was accompanied by Pegasus.
The earlier mythological accounts say that Hermes gave his winged sandals to Perseus, which helped him fly to Ethiopia.
Right from its inception, the legend of Pegasus has been a subject of rich symbolism as well as iconography. The horse has been depicted very vividly, especially on the ancient Greek pottery, sculptures, and paintings. Even in the Middle Ages, Pegasus seems to have been one of the favorite subjects of artists and writers-painters, sculptors, and poets alike.
But, what is most awe-inspiring in the personality of Pegasus is that the creature that stood for wisdom and fame in the beginning, now symbolizes a spiritual energy that has access to the realm of Gods.