Bellerophon from Fragments to Falling to the Ground

Bellerophon is an interesting figure to consider from Greek myth because his story changes over time (and because we have mostly only fragments and hints about his narrative). In early accounts he is clearly a classic beast-slayer who kills a princess, but he is also an over-reacher who suffers for hubris.

The most famous account of Bellerophon (typically called the first as well) is in the Iliad (6.152-206) where Glaukos describes his grandfather’s flight from Proitos the ruler of the Argives whose wife accused Bellerophon of rape. Bellerophon goes to Lykia and defeats three challenges (the Khimaira, Amazons and Solymoi) and also evades an ambush. Bellerophon wins a princess and a kingdom. Cryptically, Glaukos describes Bellerophon as falling out of favor with the gods and wandering alone.

Bellerophon

Homer, however, does not mention Pegasos. In Hesiod, there is a close connection between the monster, the flying horse, and the Hero:

Theogony, 319-325

“She gave birth to the Khimaira who breathes unquenchable fire,
A terrible, large beast who is swift and strong.
She has three heads: one from a sharp-toothed lion,
The other of a goat, and the third is from a powerful serpent.
The lion is in front, the snake at the end, with the goat in the middle:
She exhales the terrible fury of burning fire.
Pegasos and noble Bellerophon killed her.”

ἡ δὲ Χίμαιραν ἔτικτε πνέουσαν ἀμαιμάκετον πῦρ,
δεινήν τε μεγάλην τε ποδώκεά τε κρατερήν τε.
τῆς ἦν τρεῖς κεφαλαί• μία μὲν χαροποῖο λέοντος,
ἡ δὲ χιμαίρης, ἡ δ’ ὄφιος κρατεροῖο δράκοντος.
[πρόσθε λέων, ὄπιθεν δὲ δράκων, μέσση δὲ χίμαιρα,
δεινὸν ἀποπνείουσα πυρὸς μένος αἰθομένοιο.]
τὴν μὲν Πήγασος εἷλε καὶ ἐσθλὸς Βελλεροφόντης•

This fragment does not tell a significant part of this heroic narrative witnessed elsewhere by Hesiod, Bellerophon’s magical birth. This is recounted in the fragmentary Catalogue of Women (Hes. Fr. 43a 81-91).

“She [Eurynomê, daughter of Nisus] after having sex in Poseidon’s embrace
Gave birth to Glaukos blameless Bellerophon
Who excelled all men on the boundless earth in virtue.
His father […] gave him the horse Pegasos,
The swiftest one […]
Everywhere […]
With him he [overcame the] fire [of the Khimaira]
And he married the child […]
Of the revered king […]
The master […]
She gave birth to […]”

ἣ δὲ Ποσε[ιδάωνος ἐν] ἀγκοίνηισι μιγεῖ[σα
Γλαύκωι ἐν̣[….. …]ἀμύμονα Βελλε[ροφόντην,
ἔξοχον ἀνθ̣[ρώπων ἀρ]ε̣τῆι ἐπ’ ἀπείρονα γ[αῖαν.
τῶι δὲ καὶ η[…… πα]τὴρ πόρε Πήγασο[ν ἵππον
ὠκύτατον [….. ….. ….]μ̣ινεπτε[
πάντηι ἀν[….. ….. ….]ε̣.τα…[
σὺν τῶι πῦρ̣ [πνείουσαν Χίμαιραν.
γῆμε δὲ πα̣[ῖδα φίλην μεγαλήτορος ᾿Ιοβάταο
αἰδοίου βασ[ιλῆος
κοίρανος α[
ἣ τέ[κε

In this fragment we find the core elements of his story (Pegasos and the killing of the Khimaira) combined with two typical elements of the heroic narrative (divine parent, winning of princess) but without the elaborations of the Homeric narrative where Bellerophon is an exile and eventually falls out of divine favor.

Bellerophon’s fall from grace becomes a major aspect of his narrative presentation in the fifth century. The Epinician poet Pindar from Thebes presents him as an example to be avoided:

Pindar, Isthmian 7.40-49

“In seeking whatever pleasure each day gives
I will arrive at a peaceful old age and my allotted end,
For we all die the same, though
Our luck is unequal. If someone gazes
Too far, he is too brief himself to reach the bronze threshold of the gods.
This is why winged Pegasos threw his master
When he wanted to ascend the terraces of the sky.
When Bellerophon reached for Zeus’ assembly.
The bitterest end lies in wait
for injustice however sweet.”

ὅτι τερπνὸν ἐφάμερον διώκων
ἕκαλος ἔπειμι γῆρας ἔς τε τὸν μόρσιμον
αἰῶνα. θνᾴσκομεν γὰρ ὁμῶς ἅπαντες•
δαίμων δ’ ἄϊσος• τὰ μακρὰ δ’ εἴ τις
παπταίνει, βραχὺς ἐξικέσθαι χαλκόπεδον θεῶν
ἕδραν• ὅ τοι πτερόεις ἔρριψε Πάγασος
δεσπόταν ἐθέλοντ’ ἐς οὐρανοῦ σταθμούς
ἐλθεῖν μεθ’ ὁμάγυριν Βελλεροφόνταν
Ζηνός. τὸ δὲ πὰρ δίκαν
γλυκὺ πικροτάτα μένει τελευτά.

This passage assumes some basic knowledge on the part of its audience, for instance: the connection between Bellerophon and Pegasos and how the former was in a position to fall from the latter. It is clear from the use of the figure as a negative example that the story had both broad currency and a typical understanding. A Scholiast in writing on Pindar’s 13th Olympian ode elaborates on the details of the fall (Schol. In Pindar Ol. 13.130c)

“For it is reported that when he planned to fly up on Pegasos and put himself in danger on high, he fell when Pegasos was bitten by a fly according to Zeus’ plan and he was crippled. So Homer says that he wandered crippled on the Alêion plain (Il. 6.201).

λέγεται γὰρ ὅτι ἀναπτῆναι βουληθεὶς τῷ Πηγάσῳ, κούφως παρακινδυνεύσας, κατὰ βούλησιν τοῦ Διὸς οἰστρωθέντος τοῦ Πηγάσου ἐκπίπτει καὶ χωλοῦται•
καὶ ἐπλανᾶτο κατὰ τὸ ᾿Αλήιον χωλός. καὶ ῞Ομηρός φησιν (Ζ 201).

The story of Bellerophon’s exile, told in Homer, is clarified or re-envisioned with the story of his downfall as articulated as a moral in Pindar. In Athenian Tragedy, Bellerophon became a popular figure (we have fragmentary plays by Sophocles and Euripides). Bellerophon’s eventual vengeance upon Sthenboia (an alternative for Anteia, Proitios’ wife) is the man story in Euripides’ play of that name that starts with a rumination on the trouble women cause for men:


Euripides, Stheneboia Fr. 661-662

“There is no man who is lucky in all things.
Either a man born noble has no livelihood
Or the baseborn ploughs fertile fields.
And many who boast of their wealth or birth
Are shamed by a foolish woman in their homes.”

Οὐκ ἔστιν ὅστις πάντ’ ἀνὴρ εὐδαιμονεῖ•
ἢ γὰρ πεφυκὼς ἐσθλὸς οὐκ ἔχει βίον,
ἢ δυσγενὴς ὢν πλουσίαν ἀροῖ πλάκα.
πολλοὺς δὲ πλούτῳ καὶ γένει γαυρουμένους
γυνὴ κατῄσχυν’ ἐν δόμοισι νηπία.

Just as Pindar uses Bellerophon as a vehicle to deliver a moralizing message, so too Euripides uses the hero to voice general concerns. In a second play on Bellerophon, Euripides returns to the moral content of Pindar’s complaint but, rather than simply portraying an instance of hubris, he offers a hero challenging the nature of divinity.

Here are two fragments from the lost Euripidean Bellerophon in which the eponymous hero denies that the gods exist. He does not seem to say that there are no gods at all, but his complaints are like those of Xenophanes who complains about the misbehavior of Homer’s gods.

Instead, Bellerophon’s complaints are based on the fact that since the world seems unjust and the gods are supposed to ensure justice, therefore they must not exist (either totally or in the form man makes them).

Euripides, fr.286.1-7 (Bellerophon)

“Is there anyone who thinks there are gods in heaven?
There are not. There are not, for any man who wishes
Not to be a fool and trust some ancient story.
Look at it yourselves, don’t make up your mind
Because of my words. I think that tyranny
Kills so many men and steals their possessions
And that men break their oaths by sacking cities.
But the men who do such things are more fortunate
Than those who live each die piously, at peace.
I know that small cities honor the gods,
Cities that obey stronger more impious men
Because they are overpowered by the strength of their arms.”

φησίν τις εἶναι δῆτ’ ἐν οὐρανῷ θεούς;
οὐκ εἰσίν, οὐκ εἴσ’, εἴ τις ἀνθρώπων θέλει
μὴ τῷ παλαιῷ μῶρος ὢν χρῆσθαι λόγῳ.
σκέψασθε δ’ αὐτοί, μὴ ἐπὶ τοῖς ἐμοῖς λόγοις
γνώμην ἔχοντες. φήμ’ ἐγὼ τυραννίδα
κτείνειν τε πλείστους κτημάτων τ’ ἀποστερεῖν
ὅρκους τε παραβαίνοντας ἐκπορθεῖν πόλεις•
καὶ ταῦτα δρῶντες μᾶλλόν εἰσ’ εὐδαίμονες
τῶν εὐσεβούντων ἡσυχῇ καθ’ ἡμέραν.
πόλεις τε μικρὰς οἶδα τιμώσας θεούς,
αἳ μειζόνων κλύουσι δυσσεβεστέρων
λόγχης ἀριθμῷ πλείονος κρατούμεναι.

Euripides, fr. 292.6 (Bellerophon)

“If the gods do a shameful thing, they are not gods.”

εἰ θεοί τι δρῶσιν αἰσχρόν, οὐκ εἰσὶν θεοί.

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