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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Bellerophon: Heroic Hubris

Bellerophon is a hero of Greek mythology considered to be one of the greatest slayers of monsters, alongside Cadmus and Perseus, before the days of Heracles. His greatest feat was killing the Chimera, a monster that Homer depicted with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail: "her breath came out in terrible blasts of burning flame."
Bellerophon, is said to have been born in Corinth and was the son of the mortal Eurynome and either her husband Glaucus, king or Corinth, or Poseidon. Bellerophon was exiled after murdering his brother or another ruler of the Corinthians and was sent to Proetus, king in Tiryns, a Mycenaean stronghold of the Argolid. Proetus cleansed Bellerophon of his crime but when Proetus' wife took a fancy to Bellerophon ans was rejected, she accused the young man of ravishing her.
Proetus dared not satisfy his anger by killing a guest (who is protected by xenia), so he sent Bellerophon to King Iobates his father-in-law, in the plain of the River Xanthus in Lycia, bearing a sealed message in a folded tablet: "Pray remove the bearer from this world: he attempted to violate my wife, your daughter." Before opening the tablets, Iobates feasted with Bellerophon for nine days. On reading the tablet's message Iobates too feared the wrath of the Erinyes if he murdered a guest.
So he sent Bellerophon on a mission that he deemed impossible: to kill the fearsome Chimera, living in neighboring Caria. Polyeidos told Bellerophon that he would have need of Pegasus, the untamed winged horse, and told him to sleep in the temple of Athena where Bellerophon dreamed that Athena gave him a magical golden bridle to charm the steed.
Using the bridle, Bellerophon captured and mounted Pegasus and flew off to slay the chimera. When he arrived in Lycia, the Chimera was truly ferocious, and he could not harm the monster even while riding on Pegasus. He felt the heat of the breath the Chimera expelled, and was struck with an idea. He got a large block of lead and mounted it on his spear. Then he flew head-on towards the Chimera, holding out the spear as far as he could. Before he broke off his attack, he managed to lodge the block of lead inside the Chimera's throat. The beast's fire-breath melted the lead, blocked its air passage, and suffocated the monster.
When he returned to King Iobates, though, the king would not believe him and, as with Heracles, gave Bellerophon many other challenges. But, As Bellerophon's fame grew, so did his arrogance. Bellerophon felt that because of his victory over the Chimera, he deserved to fly to Mount Olympus, the home of the gods.
However, this act of hubris angered Zeus and he sent a gadfly to sting the horse, causing Bellerophon to fall off the horse and back to Earth. Pegasus, though, completed the flight to Olympus where Zeus used him as a pack horse for his thunderbolts. On the Plain of Aleion ("Wandering") in Cilicia, Bellerophon (who had fallen into a thorn bush causing him to become blind) lived out his life in misery, grieving and shunning the haunts of men until he died.

Bellerophon Roman mosaic from Autun (Saône-et-Loire, France) at the Musée Rolin courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Félix Potuit

Bellerophon and the Chimera on the surface of an Attic red-figure epinetron (thigh-protector used by a woman when weaving), ca. 425–420 BCE at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marsyas

Bellerophon pebble mosaic at the Archaeological Museum in Rhodes by Wikimedia Commons contributor Speravir,

Bellerophon relief photographed at Karacasu, Aydin, Turkey courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor William Neuheisel


Image: Wine Cup with Bellerophon Fighting the Chimera Greek made in Lakonia 570-565 BCE Terracotta photographed at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch.

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