The Story of Pegasus: More than a Winged Horse

An immortal winged horse with the name Pegasus is still widely known today. From popular games like Assassin’s Creed, to television shows like Yu-Gi-Oh!, to several Marvel movies, the winged horse is a widely used creature that speaks to the imagination.

But, not many people might be aware of the fact that Pegasus has a much wider influence than just a couple of movies and some video games. The creature actually tells us a lot about creativity, imagination, and the arts. In fact, he might be at the very basis of these things. 

His sacred springs and place in the stars make the winged horse one of the characters of Greek mythology that is too influential to be left over to the popular culture of our contemporary society. 

Pegasus in Greek Mythology

While the creature was mostly characterized by the body parts of a horse, Pegasus was actually considered magical because of his beautiful wings. He is known to be created by Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea

The Birth and Upbringing of Pegasus

There are many Greek gods, but the Greek god of the sea is not necessarily a god that you would relate to a creature that lives anywhere but the sea. Still, the ancient Greeks thought that when he created Pegasus, father Poseidon drew inspiration from waves that looked like horses’ manes. 

Perseus and Medusa

Poseidon ‘created’ Pegasus in a sense that it didn’t really happen through the most biological means. So while you might say that he birthed Pegasus, that wouldn’t tell the whole story.

For the actual story we have to turn to one of Zeus‘ sons, Perseus. Long story short, at one point Perseus was deemed to be the perfect fit to battle the only gorgon that was considered mortal. She went by the name of Medusa. You might’ve heard of her.

While most beings would turn into stone by looking at Medusa, Perseus didn’t. He was actually capable of killing Medusa with a single swing of his sword when he found her in her cave. Unknowingly, Perseus would be the initiator of Pegasus’ birth.

After Medusa was killed, Perseus put her head away and eventually used it to kill the astronomical sea monster Cetus. But, the blood of Medusa would interact with the sea water in the cave (or, Poseidon), which would eventually lead to the birth of Pegasus. 

Birthing by an interaction between blood and an entity like the sea is something which actually happens in several Greek myths. For example, the Furies had a similar way of being born.

So, indeed, god Poseidon can be considered the father of Pegasus while gorgon Medusa can technically be considered the mother here. But, of course, Pegasus wouldn’t be able to be brought up by his mother since she was dead even before she would be able to conceive the winged stallion. Pretty strange, if you ask me. Well, it’s Greek mythology after all.

Athena tamed Pegasus on Mount Olympus

Because Poseidon was a mighty figure on Mount Olympus, Pegasus was allowed to live with him in the place where all Olympians reside. So, too, did Athena

Goddess Athena saw that Pegasus was indeed beautiful, but still a wild horse with its occasional tantrums. Therefore, the god of war decided to tame Pegasus with a golden bridle. 

How the mighty goddess Athena obtained the golden bridle is a bit unclear, but at least it helped with avoiding Pegasus to bring terror to Mount Olympus. 

Bellerophon, Zeus, and Pegasus

One particular story relating to the myth of the flying horse is in the myth of Bellerophon. 

Bellerophon was the son of Poseidon and the mortal Eurynome, but also a renowned hero. He was banned out of Corinth after he murdered his brother. While desperately searching for a place, he eventually moved to Argos. However, Bellerophon would accidentally seduce the wife of the king of Argos: queen Anteia.

The hero Bellerophon was so thankful for being able to stay in Argos, however, that he would deny the presence of the queen. Anteia didn’t agree with it, so she made up a story about how Bellerophon tried to ravish her. Because of this, the king of Artos sended him to the kingdom of Lycia to see the father of queen Ateia: king Iobates.

The Fate of Bellerophon

So, Bellerophon was sent away with the task to deliver a message to the king of Lycea. But what he didn’t know was that this letter would contain his own death sentence. Indeed, the letter explained the situation and said that Iobates should kill Bellerophon. 

However, king Iobates felt bad for the Greek hero and wasn’t able to kill the young man himself. Instead, he decided to let something else decide the fate of Bellerophon. That is, he would give the hero the task to kill a creature that destroyed the surroundings of Lycia. King Iobates assumed, however, that the creature would kill Bellerophon first. 

Not a lot of faith by the king indeed. Yet, this is pretty justifiable. Bellerophon was, after all, tasked with the killing of the Chimera: a fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, a dragon, and a goat. After he got an idea of how powerful the monster was, Bellerophon knew that he had to pray to the war goddess Athena for advice.

Winged Horses to the Rescue

After praying to goddess Athena, he would obtain the very golden bridle that the Athena used herself to tame Pegasus. Therefore, Pegasus allowed Bellerophon to climb on his back and use the winged horse in the battle.

After catching Pegasus, Bellerophon would fly off to fight the Chimera. While riding the flying horse, he was able to stab the monster until it was dead

Killing the monster was so easy that Bellerophon would begin to believe that he was a god himself and should gain a higher place in Greek mythology. Actually, he thought deserved a spot right next to some of the most fundamental gods on Mount Olympus. 

Making Zeus Angry

So what did he do?

Bellerophon rode Pegasus to the skies, higher and higher, searching for the mountain where all the gods reside. But, the ruler of all gods saw him coming. Zeus, indeed, became very angry with the thought process of the hero. He would therefore send a huge fly that apparently is able to hurt winged horses like Pegasus.

When stung, Pegasus began to jerk heavily. Because of this, Bellerophon fell off its back and fell down to earth. 

The Springs of Pegasus

Pretty savage. But, Pegasus should definitely not only be known as the little helper of Bellerophon. A winged horse obviously speaks to the imagination of any ordinary person. As already indicated in the introduction, Pegasus is still a figure that inspires many contemporary stories.

For many ancient Greeks, Pegasus was also a highly inspiring figure. Mostly this was the case for ancient Greek poets. The bodies of water that would open when Pegasus struck down in a particular place  epitomize this very idea. In particular, the one on Mount Helicon is a spring the Pegasus is most famous for. 

Pegasus and the Muses

Pegasus was believed to be very thoroughly linked to figures that are known as the personifications of the arts and knowledge in ancient Greek mythology. The nine sisters go by the name of the Muses. It is believed that without them, there would be a distinct lack of creation and discovery made by humankind. 

The relationship between Pegasus and the Muses is very thorough, to the point that the Muses are referred to as Pegasides. This latter term literally means ‘originating from or linked with Pegasus’.

But, as you can see, it is either originating from or linked with Pegasus. It is indeed true that the relationship between the winged horse and the Pegasides is a bit contested. It is even questionable if the Muses should be seen as Pegasides in general, or just as a category on their own. 

Originating from Pegasus?

In one tale, it is believed that the hoof of Pegasus would touch down so hard that it would create a spring or a fountain, as mentioned earlier. Out of these springs, the water nymphs that became known as the Pegasides would sprout. The Muses are, in this sense, known as water nymphs and hence Pegasides. 

So in this sense, Pegasus would come first, create the springs, and allow the Pegasides to exist. Nine particularly interesting Pegasides would live around the springs and often immersed themselves in the waters when tired or in need of fresh inspiration. 

After bathing and obtaining their new inspiration, they would dance and sing on the tender greensward that bordered the springs. Because of their excellent skills, they would become known as the Muses: the archetypes for creativity and discovery. 

This story, too, implies that Pegasus is somewhat the god of springs. This would make sense, since it was birthed by Poseidon, the god of the seas. Being a god of springs obviously relates better to a god of seas than just a creature that lives can live anywhere but the water. However, if Pegasus should be considered a god to begin with is something that is not particularly clear.

Or linked to Pegasus?

However, another myth goes that the Muses already existed and only later became related to Pegasus. It is a story that might be a bit more celebrated in modern times than it was in antiquity. So, really, it is a  bit unclear which story was actually believed to be true in ancient Greece. But, this version is definitely more entertaining.

The story goes as follows. The nine Muses engaged in a singing contest with the nine daughters of Pierus at Mount Helicon. As soon as the daughters of Pierus began to sing, all became darkness. But, as soon as the Muses began to sing, the heaven, the sea, and all the rivers stood still to listen. The mountain on which the contest was held would rise to heaven. 

Pretty intense. And also, how can a mountain rise to heaven?

It can’t, actually. It would just kind of swell up and was doomed to explode at one point. Poseidon recognized this, so he sended Pegasus to fix the problem. He flew from Mount Olympus to the swelling mountain and kicked his hoof to the earth. 

From this kick arose Hippocrene, literally translated to the horse spring. This spring became later known as the source of poetic inspiration. Many poets traveled to the spring to drink its water, and enjoy its inspiration. So in this case, only after the creation of Hippocrene the Muses would become linked to Pegagus and referred to as Pegasides.  

Constellation Pegasus

The stories of Greek gods and Greek myths taking their places among the stars are ample. Take a look, for example, at Castor and Pollux, or Cetus. The god of thunder, Zeus, was at the basis of their promotion into a star constellation. Pegasus, too, became known to take a place in the stars. Nowadays, it is known as the seventh largest constellation in the sky.

Two Narratives

Indeed, there are two narratives surrounding the promotion of Pegasus into the stars. The first of the two myths tells that the winged horse was allowed to continue his ride to heaven, after Bellerophon believed it was possible to ride Pegasus to reach Olympus. By doing so, Zeus basically granted him a place amongst the stars  

The second of the two myths is based on a story that isn’t covered yet in this article, but also includes Pegasus. It is more focussed on the story of Zeus itself, who is normally known as the god of thunder and lightning. 

In this myth, Pegasus was believed to carry the lightning bolts that Zeus would throw at his enemies during a war. Sometimes during battles, the enemy would be very strong and Zeus’ army would get scared. Still, the winged horse always stayed with Zeus, even when the enemy fought very hard. 

For the loyalty and bravery of Pegasus, Zeus rewarded his companion with a place in the sky as a constellation.  

More than a Figure

The stories that surround Pegasus are ample, and one could go on for days writing about the flying horse. 

What is especially striking, is that Pegasus is considered to be quite a positive magical animal. One that was actually allowed to live on a place where many other gods live. Other magical figures in Greek mythology don’t enjoy this privileged and are often doomed to reside in the underworld

The very idea that Pegasus was inspiring to many gods indicates his significance in the ancient mythology of the Greeks. A story that deserves to be told. 

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