Bellerophon: the Tragic Hero of Greek Mythology

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes.

In Greek mythology, there is no shortage of such heroes. From Heracles to Perseus, tales of six packed hunks wielding superweapons to slay monsters of yore are familiar across ancient Greek myths. 

However, every now and then, these heroes in the limelight often overshadow the ones lurking in the dark. Their exponential feats of greatness and happy-ever-after endings trump the stories of the ones that came before. And rightfully so. 

The downside to this? People miss out on a rather entrancing and more human part of Greek mythology where its deuteragonists could be swooned over by modernity just as other characters are. 

Today’s article is about one such Greek hero that simply evaporated into thin air because of the ravages of time and stories of other heroics.

A hero that rose and fell not because of septic wounds or the crushing weight of a boulder above him.

But because of himself.

It is about Bellerophon, a hero in Greek mythology who faced tragedy in the absence of his own humility. 

Who Wrote the Tales of Bellerophon?

Like Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho,” Bellerophon was very much like you and me. 

Jokes aside, the story of the Corinthian hero Bellerophon was compiled from the fragments of work by different writers, namely Sophocles and Euripides. Bellerophon’s story was the primary theme around which the three plays of these two writers revolved around. 

However, Bellerophon also appears in the works of Homer and Hesiod.

His story, however, has humble yet morbid beginnings.

Perhaps that’s precisely what makes Bellerophon’s story such an appealing one. He was a mere mortal that dared to challenge the gods of Greece themselves. 

Meet the Family

Though he was no dragon slayer, the young hero was born to Eurynome, the Queen of Corinth. If the name sounds familiar to you, it is probably because she was the sister of none other than Scylla, the faithful lover of King Minos. 

Eurynome and Scylla were born to Nissus, the King of Megara. 

There have been disputes surrounding Bellerophon’s father. Some say that Eurynome was impregnated by Poseidon, from which Bellerophon stepped foot on this world. However, one widely accepted figure is Glaucus, Sisyphus’s son. 

Often attributed to having been Poseidon’s own son, he indeed carried the willpower of the gods through sheer mortal resilience, as you’ll see later in this article.

Portrayal of Bellerophon

Bellerophon, unfortunately, gets mixed up with other Greek heroes.

You see, Bellerophon riding the flying horse Pegasus considerably affected his infamy. Guess who else rode Pegasus? That’s right. None other than Perseus himself.

As a result, Perseus and Bellerophon were often portrayed similarly. A young man riding a winged horse ascending to the heavens. Before Bellerophon was replaced by the mighty feats of Perseus, though, he was portrayed in various forms of art.

For instance, Bellerophon shows up in Attic fabrics called epinetrons as riding Pegasus and stomping the Chimera, a fire-breathing beast in his tale that is soon to be introduced in this article. 

Bellerophon’s fame also led him to be immortalized in the wartime posters of Britain’s Airborne Forces in World War I. Here, a white silhouette of him riding Pegasus is rampant against a pink field. This tragic Greek hero was also frequently represented in various Greek and Roman mosaics throughout the ages, some of which are still preserved in museums. 

How Bellerophon’s Story Starts

Let’s get to the more exciting chunks of this madlad’s story.

The tale begins with Bellerophon being exiled from his abode in Argos. Contrary to popular belief, his name wasn’t Bellerophon; he was born as Hipponous. On the other hand, the name “Bellerophon” is closely connected to his exile.

You see, Bellerophon was exiled because he had committed a serious crime. The victim of this crime, however, is disputed by literary figures. Some say it was his brother that he had killed, and others say that he merely slayed a shadowy Corinthian nobility, “Belleron.” That is precisely where his name comes from.  

Regardless of what he did, it is inevitable that it led him to be shackled and exiled. 

Bellerophon and King Proetus 

After getting his hands bloody, Bellerophon was brought to none other than King Proetus, an absolute hotshot of Tiryns and Argos. 

King Proetus was believed to be a man who emphasized human morality. Unlike certain kings in “Game of Thrones,” King Proetus’ heart remained as golden as the fleece Jason and his Argonauts set out for. 

Proetus ended up pardoning Bellerophon for his crimes against humanity. We don’t know precisely what made him do this, but it could have been the latter’s dashing looks. 

In addition, Proetus went one step further and declared him a guest at his palace. 

And this is precisely where it all starts. 

The King’s Wife and Bellerophon 

Buckle up; this one is going to hit really hard.

You see, when Bellerophon was invited to Proetus’ palace, someone was crushing hard on this man. It happened to be none other than Proetus’ own wife, Stheneboea. This royal woman took a great liking to Bellerophon. She wanted to get intimate (in every sense of the word) with this newly freed prisoner. She asked Bellerophon for company. 

You won’t ever guess what Bellerophon does next.

Instead of giving in to Stheneboea’s seduction, Bellerophon pulls off an alpha male move and rejects her offer remembering how Proetus had officially pardoned him for his crimes. He sent Stheneboea away from his chambers and probably continued honing his sword as the night went by. 

Stheneboea, on the other hand, smelled blood in the water. She had just been insulted, and there was no way she would let it all go this easily.

Stheneboea’s Accusation

Stheneboea took Bellerophon’s rejection as an immense humiliation and was already cooking up a plan to ensure his downfall.   

She went to her husband, Proetus (somehow managing to do so with a straight face). She accused Bellerophon of attempting to force himself on her the night earlier. Not even kidding; this would make for a fascinating plot for the most dramatic Netflix series ever produced.

The King didn’t, obviously, take his wife’s accusation lightly. Naturally, any husband would be mad knowing his wife was harassed by some lowlife prisoner that he chose to forgive the other day. 

However, even though Proetus was furious, his hands were actually bound. You see, the rights of hospitality remained more prevalent than ever. This was known as “Xenia,” and if anyone were to break the sacred law by harming his own guest, it would most definitely incur the wrath of Zeus.

This is sort of hypocritical, considering Zeus was known to violate women left and right as if they were playthings.

Bellerophon had been a guest in his kingdom since Proetus pardoned him. As a result, he couldn’t do anything about Stheneboea’s accusation, even if he really wanted to.

It was time to figure out another way to strike Bellerophon down.

King Iobates 

Proetus had a royal lineage backing him up, and he decided to utilize this. 

Proetus wrote to his father-in-law King Iabotes who ruled over Lycia. He mentioned Bellerophon’s unforgivable crime and pleaded with Iabotes to execute him and end this once and for all.

Iabotes paid close attention to the request of his son-in-law as his daughter was closely involved in this sticky situation. However, before he opened Proetus’ sealed message, the latter had already sent Bellerophon to his stead.

Iabotes even fed and watered Bellerophon for nine days before getting to know that he was actually supposed to execute the new guest in cold blood instead of honouring him. We could only guess his reaction. 

The laws of Xenia came into play once again. Iabotes feared invoking the wrath of Zeus and his vengeful subordinates by smothering his own guest. Stressed, Iabotes sat down, thinking hard about how to best get rid of the man who dared attack a king’s daughter.

Iabotes the King and vengeful father-in-law smiled when he found the answer.

The Chimera

You see, ancient Greek tales have had their fair share of monsters. 

Cerberus, Typhon, Scylla, you name it.

However, one stands out quite a bit in terms of raw form. The Chimera was something that went beyond physical embodiment. His portrayal has varied across the pages of history as this terrifying tyrant is a product of bizarre perception and the wildest of imaginations. 

Homer, in his “Iliad”, describes the Chimera as follows:

“The Chimera was of divine stock, not of men, in the fore part a lion, in the hinder a serpent, and in the midst, a goat, breathing forth in terrible wise the might of blazing fire.”

The Chimera was a hybrid, fire-breathing monster that was part goat and part lion. It was gargantuan in size and terrorized anything within its close proximity. As such, it was the perfect bait for Iobates to send Bellerophon hurling towards.

To learn more about this vengeful beast, you might want to check out this extremely detailed article on the Chimera.

Iobates believed that Bellerophon couldn’t ever get rid of this monstrous threat looming over the frontiers of Lycia. As a result, sending him to get rid of the Chimera would result in him dying. The trick was not to anger the gods by butchering Bellerophon.

Instead, he would die under the devilish leer of the Chimera itself. The Chimera would kill Bellerophon, and the gods wouldn’t bat an eye. Win-win.

Talk about an effective setup. 

Bellerophon and Polyidus

After Iobates’ constant flattery and honeyed compliments, Bellerophon immediately budged. He would do anything to get rid of the Chimera, even if it resulted in his downfall. 

Bellerophon geared himself up with his preferred weapons thinking it would be enough to slay the Chimera. No doubt Iobates’ eyes twinkled when he saw Bellerophon packing a mere blade and a half; he must’ve been pretty satisfied. 

Bellerophon set off towards the frontiers of Lycia, where the Chimera resided. When he stopped for fresh air, he came across none other than Polyidus, the famous Corynthan sybil. It is basically the Greek equivalent of coming across Kanye West while you were drinking at your closest Starbucks. 

Upon hearing Bellerophon’s absurd ambition to slay the Chimera, Polyidus might’ve suspected foul play. However, he considered Bellerophon killing the Chimera a possible deed and instead provided critical counsel to him.

Polydius hooked Bellerophon up with quick tips and tricks to defeat the Chimera. He was the one cheat code that Bellerophon never knew he needed. 

Basking in the glory of gaining the upper hand, Bellerophon continued on his way.

Pegasus and Bellerophon

You see, Polydius had actually advised Bellerophon on how to obtain the ever-famous winged steed Pegasus. That’s right, the same Pegasus that Perseus had once ridden years earlier. 

Polydius had also instructed Bellerophon to sleep in the Temple of Athena to ensure Perseus’ eventual arrival. The addition of Pegasus as a weapon in Bellerophon’s inventory would undoubtedly give him a notable advantage, as flying above the Chimera (who was literally a fire-breathing monster) would help in him not being roasted alive.

Like Polydius had instructed, Bellerophon arrived in the Temple of Athena, ready to begin his slumber overnight with his fingers crossed. This is precisely where the story gets thrown around a little bit.

Some tales say that Athena had appeared to him as a pale visage, setting a golden bridle beside him and assuring him that it would bring him closer to Pegasus. In other accounts, it is said that Athena herself came down from the heavens with the winged horse Pegasus already prepared for him. 

Regardless of how it actually went down, it was Bellerophon who had benefitted the most. After all, he had the chance to finally ride Pegasus. This truly overpowered beast was the equivalent of a bomber plane in the historic Greek world. 

Hopeful, Bellerophon mounted Pegasus, ready to dash straight into the confines of the Chimera come daybreak. 

Bellerophon and Pegasus vs. the Chimera

Get ready for the ultimate showdown.

Flying abroad Pegasus Express, Bellerophon swooped down from the skies to the edges of Lycia, searching for the Chimera to end its reign once and for all. Once he did, Bellerophon found the raging beast underneath him, ready to reduce him to cinders.

What followed was a battle that would stand the test of time.

Bellerophon and Pegasus charted the sky effortlessly. Meanwhile, the Chimera breathed fire and spat venom at them, trying to bring them back to the ground. However, Bellerophon quickly realized that his flying around on Pegasus had little to no effect on the absolutely stuffed health bar of the Chimera.

Desperate for a solution, he suddenly had a eureka moment.

Staring at the flames, Bellerophon figured out that the key was to get close to the beast as much as possible. This would allow him to make contact and slay the Chimera at its weakest point.

But for that, he needed to get close first. So Bellerophon attached a piece of lead to his spear. As the Chimera continued to breathe fire, Bellerophon riding on Pegasus, swooped down on the beast. 

The fire caused the lead to melt but the spear remained unburnt. By the time the lead had entirely melted, Bellerophon was already near the Chimera’s mouth.

Fortunately, this was a double-edged sword. The vaporized lead caused the Chimera’s air passages to suffocate. At the same time, Bellerophon found the perfect opportunity to slay this jalapeno-flavoured monstrosity. 

As the dust settled, Bellerophon and his lovely winged horse stood victorious. 

And the Chimera? Poor thing was cooked mutton and grilled lion meat by then. 

Bellerophon Returns

Swiping the dirt away from his shoulders, there came Bellerophon riding Pegasus through the clouds. 

Safe to say, King Iobates was mad when he found out that his plot to kill Bellerophon had simply failed. He was bewildered to see that not only had Bellerophon survived this impossible task, but he had also come riding a winged horse down from the heavens. 

Crazed at the thought, King Iobates granted Bellerophon no bonus vacation; instead, he sent him on yet another apparently impossible task: to fight against the Amazons and the Solymi. Both were elite tribes of fighters, and Iobates was confident it would turn out to be Bellerophon’s last ride. 

Bellerophon, brimming with confidence, happily accepted the challenge and took off to the skies upon Pegasus. When he finally found the incoming troops of the Amazons and the Solymi, it didn’t take much effort at all for him and his beloved horse to subdue their forces. 

All Bellerophon had to do was stay airborne and drop boulders upon boulders on the enemy to simply smash them to their death. Bellerophon did this, which was hugely successful as the forces had no chance but to retreat when they saw a heavenly horse dropping rock bombs from the skies. 

Iobates’ Final Stand

Iobates was already ripping off hairs from his scalp when he saw Bellerophon swoop down from the clouds with his winged horse. 

Enraged by Bellerophon’s constant success in accomplishing seemingly impossible deeds, Iobates decided to fire on all cylinders. He commanded his assassins to take Bellerophon’s life to end it once and for all.

When the assassins arrived, Bellerophon was two steps ahead of them. He counter-attacked the killers and what insinuated was a fight that crowned Bellerophon the victor once again. 

All this had occurred when Iobates sent Bellerophon to his final task of slaying a corsair, which was yet another setup and an opportunity for the assassins to strike. Safe to say, his plan failed horribly, yet again. Poor man.

As a desperate measure, Iobates sent his palace guards after Bellerophon, commanding them to corner him and tear him to pieces. Bellerophon soon found himself backed against the wall after his recent fight.

But he was not ready to give up.

Bellerophon’s Ultimate Power-Up

After months of slaying monsters and men, Bellerophon had figured out one simple truth: he was not just a mortal. Rather, he was the living embodiment of the wrath of the gods. Bellerophon realized that he had attributes that only a god could possess, which he definitely took to heart.

Perhaps he was a god, after all. 

Cornered, he looked towards the skies and let out a shout for help that would put his theory to the test. The answer came from the Greek sea god Poseidon himself, Bellerophon’s alleged father. 

Poseidon flooded the city to halt the onslaught of the guards and stopped them from ever reaching Bellerophon. Smirking with smug satisfaction, Bellerophon turned towards Iobates, ready to hold him accountable for his betrayal. 

What followed next was a major plot twist.

Iobates’ Offer and Bellerophon’s Rise

Convinced that Bellerophon was no simple mortal, Iobates the King decided to end all his attempts to eliminate Bellerophon. In fact, he decided to go even further.

Iobates offered Bellerophon the hand in marriage to one of his daughters and granted him shares of half his kingdom. Bellerophon would be able to live out his days happily ever after in his own empire and have songs written about him till the end of time. 

Bellerophon was rightfully touted as a true Greek hero for his actions. After all, he had slain the Chimera, quelled the rebel forces and guaranteed himself a seat in the hall of heroes due to all his other adventures. Like his swift footed agility, Bellerophon’s rise to the top was fast; it was all smooth sailing. 

That was where it should’ve ended. 

Bellerophon’s Downfall (Literally)

Bellerophon’s Vengeance

Once Bellerophon tasted what true success felt like, he decided it was time for vengeance. 

He returned back to Tiryns and confronted Stheneboea. Under the guise of forgiveness, Bellerophon took her aboard Pegasus to lead her to her doom. This is where accounts seem to differ the most. 

Some tales say that Bellerophon had thrown Stheneboea off from Pegasus, where she fell to death. Others say that he had married Stheneboea’s sister, which rendered her initial allegations of him attacking her false. Driven by the fear of exposure, she took her own life. 

Regardless of what happened, vengeance was exacted on the King’sKing’s daughter that day.

Bellerophon Ascends

As for Bellerophon, he continued to live on as if nothing had happened. However, something had changed inside him the day Poseidon came to his aid. Bellerophon believed that he was no mortal and his place was amongst the high gods in Mount Olympians as a legitimate son of Poseidon himself.

He also believed that he had proven his worth through his heroic deeds. And that solidified his idea of applying for a permanent residency in Mount Olympus without a second thought.  

Bellerophon decided to mount his winged horse again and settle matters by himself. He hoped to ascend to the heavens themselves, and he would succeed no matter what. 

Alas, the King of the skies himself was on watch that day. Insulted by this bold move, Zeus dispatched a gadfly in Bellerophon’s wake. It immediately stung Pegasus, which caused Bellerophon to freefall straight down to Earth.

This has a strange parallel to the myth of Icarus, where the young boy attempts to ascend to the heavens with his waxen wings but gets struck down by the might of Helios. Icarus, like Bellerophon, fell to his subsequent and immediate death. 

Bellerophon’s Fate and Pegasus’ Ascension

Shortly after the son of Poseidon had fallen from the skies, his destiny changed forever.

Once again, the accounts vary from writer to writer. It is said that the fall had been Bellerophon’s last, and he had died subsequently. Other tales say that Bellerophon fell on a garden of thorns, ripping his eyes away while he eventually started decomposing to death.

A truly morbid ending for th

As for Pegasus, he managed to enter Mount Olympus without Bellerophon. Zeus granted him a slot in the heavens and awarded him the title of his official thunder-bearer. The winged beauty would go on to provide years of service to Zeus, for which Pegasus was immortalized in the night sky as a constellation that would last till the end of the universe. 

Conclusion

Bellerophon’s story is one that has been overshadowed by incredible feats of power and mental strength by later Greek characters. 

However, his story also revolves around what happens when a hero has too much power and confidence at his disposal. Bellerophon’s tale was of a man who went from rags to riches to ditches because of his hubris.

In his case, divine judgment wasn’t the only thing that had brought Bellerophon down. It was his lust for the celestial power he wouldn’t ever be able to control. All because of his arrogance, which would only come back to bite his hand. 

And he only had himself to blame. 

References:

https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0134%3Abook%3D6%3Acard%3D156

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0033.tlg001.perseus-eng1:13

Oxford Classical Mythology Online. “Chapter 25: Myths of Local Heroes and Heroines”. Classical Mythology, Seventh Edition. Oxford University Press USA. Archived from the original on July 15, 2011. Retrieved April 26, 2010.

https://www.greek-gods.org/greek-heroes/bellerophon.php

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