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Pegasus: the Winged Horse

Pegasus: the Winged Horse, 1914 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is within the nature of the human mind to invent what is lacking. We cannot fly, but birds fly. Flying is so powerful a wish that we have invented angels and archangels who inhabit not only the Old and the New Testaments, but also belong to other cultures. For instance, there are Islamic angels and their role is that of messengers, or oracles. According to the Old Testament, Gabriel is the archangel who announced to Mary that she was bearing Jesus. In Islam, Gabriel (Jibra’il) is one of four archangels whose duty it is to deliver God’s messages to prophets. We also have “pagan” angels.

The Wish to Fly

The wish to fly has led to the invention of aircrafts. Humans can now fly to the moon. However, this post is not about the history of aviation. It is about the wish to fly as expressed in Greco-Roman mythology. Not that such a wish begins with Greco-Roman mythology but that Greco-Roman mythology tells the story of Pegasus and Icarus and, by the same token, that of their entourage: Bellerophon, who rode Pegasus, Daedalus, who crafted wings for Icarus, not to mention Medusa and Chimera, female monsters.  

Medusa, by Caravaggio

Medusa by Caravaggio (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Chimera

The Chimera on a red-figure Apulian plate, c. 350–340 BCE (Musée du Louvre) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pegasus & Bellerophon

Pegasus is the son of Poseidon, a god, and the Gorgon Medusa, a monster
Medusa was slain by Perseus 
Pegasus, a winged horse, was tamed by Bellerophon 
Bellerophon, a slayer of monsters, tamed Pegasus
Pegasus helped Bellerophon kill the Chimera, also a monster

There are many winged creatures in Greek mythology, but the most famous are  Pegasus and Icarus.

Pegasus,[1] is a winged horse who “carrie[d] the thunder and lightning of Zeus [Jupiter].”[2] He is the son of Poseidon,[3] the “god of the sea, earthquakes, storms, and horses.” (See Poseidon, Wikipedia.) His mother, however, is Medusa,[4] a mortal Gorgon and a monster. She had living venomous snakes in place of hair. The coupling of gods and mortals sometimes led to the birth of “monsters.”

Medusa was killed by Perseus, who, like Bellerophon, was also a slayer of monsters. In order to destroy Medusa, Perseus was provided with “winged sandals, Hades‘ cap of invisibility and a sickle.” As mentioned above, Hades is the god of the Underworld, but he is also capable of making himself invisible, another one of mankind’s wishes.

Pegasus was born from the blood flowing from the severed head of Medusa, his mother. A lesser sibling, Chysaor, was also born from the blood pouring out of Medusa’s head. Both were Poseidon’s offsprings. (See Gorgon, Wikipedia, and Gorgo/ Medusa, the Oxford Classical Dictionary.)


Perseus, bronze sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini, 1545–54 (Photo credit: Art Resource, NY, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Bellerophon and Chimera

Pegasus was tamed by Bellerophonwho slayed monsters. In fact, Pegasus helped Bellerophon kill Chimera, a female and mortal sibling of Cerberus/ Kerberos (GR), the three-headed dog who guarded the entrance to the Underworld.

Bellerophon’s story 

Bellerophon was falsely accused of trying to rape Anteia (later called Stheneboea). Anteia’s husband, Proetus, sent him to Iobates, king of Lycia and Anteia’s father. Bellerophon was to deliver a sealed letter in which Proetus was requesting that Iobates kill the bearer of the letter, Bellerophon.

Convinced that Bellerophon would not survive what seemed an impossible mission, Iobates asked him to slay Chimera. He also asked him to fight the Solymi and the Amazons. With the help of Pegasus, Bellerophon performed the tasks assigned to him successfully. Iobates therefore married him to his daughter.

Bellerophon died when he flew Pegasus to Olympus, home of the twelve Olympians. Flying to Olympus was hubris, or “extreme pride and self-confidence,” on the part of Bellorophon. (See Hubris, Wikipedia.) The gods of antiquity always punished hubris. Pegasus, a zoomorphic being, did not perish because he was born a winged creature. No god would punish him for being what he was. After Bellerophon’s death, Pegasus became a constellation and was made a symbol of immortality in Latin Mythology. 

“In late antiquity Pegasus’s soaring flight was interpreted as an allegory of the soul’s immortality; in modern times it has been regarded as a symbol of poetic inspiration.”[5]


Daedalus and Icarus by Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), c. 1645,  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Icarus and Daedalus

Master craftsman Daedalus had a son named Icarus. Daedalus had built the labyrinth inside which the Minotaur, part bull, part man, was held. Daedalus crafted wings for his son Icarus who wanted to fly, which was hubris. Icarus defiantly flew so close to the sun, the god Helios, that the wax used to attach wings to his body melted. He therefore fell to his death into the sea of Icarus, named after him. Mere mortals cannot fly.

Daedalus had accompanied Icarus, but managed to land in Sicily and he became an Etruscan, ancient Italy, celebrity. His image appears on a gold coin or seal called a bulla. However, there are divergent accounts of Daedalus’ fate. Greek historians differ. According to one account, Daedalus became jealous of Talos, his nephew and apprentice, who invented the saw, thereby surpassing his mentor, Daedalus.

Daedalus was known as the best craftsman. Talos’ invention therefore aroused Daedalus’ jealousy. So envious was Daedalus that he pushed Talos off the Acropolis. The goddess Athena saved Talos by turning him into a partridge, a metamorphosis. Talos acquired a new name, Perdix (partridge or une perdrix [FR]). As for Daedalus, he left Athens. (See Daedalus, Wikipedia.)


Pegasus could fly. He was a beautiful white and winged horse. But in Greek mythology, one does not defy the gods with impunity. Bellerophon tried to fly Pegasus to mount Olympus, attracting the wrath of the gods. He therefore fell to his death. For his part, Icarus soared so high that the sun, Helios, melted the wax that kept his wings attached to his body. So he too fell to his death.

The story of Pegasus is an interesting case of zoomorphism. Only his wings differentiate Pegasus from a horse. Similarly, only their wings differentiate angels from human beings. However, Chimera combined many features and was viewed as a monster. She was in fact grotesque but not in the same way as gargoyles and the large number of figures ornamenting misericordsThe Medieval Bestiary is its own world. Or is it the other way around? Greco-Roman Mythology is its own world?

I should note that:

“Chimera, or chimère, in architecture, is a term loosely used for any grotesque, fantastic, or imaginary beast used in decoration.”[6]

Zoomorphism is a complex subject. For instance, we have yet to discuss shapeshifting  beings: lycanthropy or the werewolf (le loup-garou), a dual incarnation with a human literary counterpart, Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.


The Chimera of Arezzo, bronze, Etruscan, 5th century BCE; in the Museo Archeologico, Florence. (Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, New York & Britannica)

Sources and Resources


[1] “Pegasus”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 15 nov.. 2014

[2] Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, revised and edited, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd edition (Oxford University Press, 2003).

[3] “Poseidon”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 15 nov.. 2014

[4] “Medusa”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 19 nov.. 2014

[5] “Pegasus”. op. cit.

[6] “Chimera”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 19 nov.. 2014

Christoph Willibald Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice, 1774
Luciano Pavarotti (12 October 1935 – 6 September 2007), tenor
© Micheline Walker
19 November 2014