Pegasus is the majestic flying horse of Greek mythology , best known for its association with the heroes Perseus and Bellerophon. Traditionally depicted as a pure white horse with wings, the Pegasus of Greek mythology was said to have been the child of Poseidon, god of the sea and tamer of horses, and the Gorgon Medusa. In the story of Perseus’ slaying of Medusa, one can find the narration of Pegasus’ birth. This winged horse later became the mount of Bellerophon, and can be found in the legendary stories about this hero’s exploits, including the slaying of the Chimera and his flight to Mount Olympus.
In Greek mythology Pegasus is depicted as a majestic, white, winged horse in the service of the Gods, said to have emerged from the body of Medusa. The Perseus Series: The Death of Medusa I, by Edward Burne-Jones. Public domain
The Story of Pegasus in Hesiod’s Theogony
In Hesiod’s Theogony, it is written that “with her [Medusa] the god of the Sable Locks [Poseidon] lay in a soft meadow among the spring flowers.” The union between Medusa and Poseidon resulted in Pegasus and Chrysaor, who were born when Medusa was decapitated by the hero Perseus, the Greek hero:
“And when Perseus cut off her head from her neck, out sprang great Chrysaor and the horse Pegasus. He was so named because he was born beside the waters of Oceanus, while the other was born with a golden sword in his hands.”
According to Hesiod, Perseus flew off to Mount Olympus after birth, where the flying horse came to live in Zeus’ palace. There, Pegasus was given the job of carrying the god’s thunder and lightning. Alternative stories in Greek mythology suggest that Pegasus spent some time on earth before flying to Mount Olympus , home of the Greek gods. During this time, Pegasus served two heroes – Perseus and Bellerophon.
Perseus frees Andromeda, by Giuseppe Cesari. ( Public domain )
Following the death of Medusa, Perseus is said to have been travelling home when he caught sight of a maiden chained to a rock. This was Andromeda, the daughter of the King and Queen of Ethiopia. Andromeda’s mother had angered Poseidon by boasting that her daughter was more beautiful than even the Nereids.
In retaliation, the god punished the people of Ethiopia by first sending a flood, and then a sea monster to terrorize them. The only way to appease Poseidon was to sacrifice Andromeda, which was the reason for her being chained to a rock.
Perseus offered to rescue the princess, and deal with the monster, provided that he be given Andromeda’s hand in marriage. The king agreed to this, and when the monster came to claim the princess, Perseus turned it to stone using the severed head of Medusa. Perseus then marries Andromeda and they go on to have many children.
Illustration of Bellerophon riding Pegasus by Mary Hamilton Frye, from the 1914 publication Myths Every Child Should Know. ( Public domain )
Bellerophon and Pegasus: Vanquishing the Chimera in Greek Mythology
Pegasus was also the mount of Bellerophon, who came to possess the flying horse during his quest against the Chimera, a fire-breathing monster. According to one story, the hero had visited the city of Tiryns, where Proetus was king. The queen, Stheneboea, is said to have fallen in love with Bellerophon, though the hero rejected her advances.
Feeling humiliated, Stheneboea went to her husband and accused the hero of trying to seduce her. The enraged Proetus sent Bellerophon to his father-in-law, Iobates, the King of Lycia, with a letter. In the letter, the king was asked to kill the messenger.
Instead of putting Bellerophon to death, however, Iobates decided to dispatch the hero on a quest to kill the monstrous Chimera, believing that he would not survive the encounter. To prepare for this quest, Bellerophon is said to have consulted the Corinthian seer, Polyeidos, who advised him to seek out Pegasus.
Bellerophon on Pegasus spears the Chimera, on an Attic red-figure epinetron, 425–420 BC. (Marsyas / CC BY-SA 2.5 )
In one version of the myth, Polyeidos knew where Pegasus alighted to drink, and shared the information with Bellerophon, thus allowing him to tame the winged horse. In another version, it was Poseidon (Bellerophon’s secret father) who brought Pegasus to him. The most popular version of the story, however, is that it was Athena who brought Pegasus to Bellerophon. With the help of Pegasus, Bellerophon succeeded in slaying the Chimera.
Over time, Bellerophon’s pride grew, and he aspired to scale the heights of Mount Olympus on the back of Pegasus to take his place amongst the immortals. Zeus was aware of the hero’s ambition, and sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus as he flew up to the heavens. Bellerophon lost his balance and fell back to earth. Pegasus, however, continued the journey to Mount Olympus, went on to live in Zeus’ palace and was given the task of carrying the god’s thunder and lightning.
The constellation of Pegasus, by Jogannes Hevelius. ( Public domain )
Reflections of Greek Mythology and the Story of Pegasus in the Stars
As the faithful winged horse of Greek mythology, Pegasus was later honored by having a northern constellation named after it. Pegasus is one of the oldest and largest constellations in the sky, and was first recorded by the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy in his 2nd century astronomical work Almagest.
Legend has it that after Zeus caused Bellerophon to plunge to his death, he placed Pegasus into the heavens as a reward faithfulness to the gods. The connection between Pegasus and Andromeda is visible in the night sky, where their constellations can be found side by side, with Andromeda located to the north and east.
This was nothing new for the ancient Greeks, who used the stars as a way to tell the stories from Greek mythology. For them, each of the constellations was connected to the tales of mythological monsters and heroes who were placed amongst the stars as a means of tribute for their service to the Greek gods .
Top image: Pegasus of Greek mythology is depicted as a majestic, white, winged-horse. Source: Viks_jin / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren