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Winged Pegasus from Greek Mythology

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Pegasus is arguably the most famous creation from Greek mythology; and its story has been told, retold, and seen the story itself evolve over thousands of years. The legendary winged horse though is one of the icons of Ancient Greece, and its likeness is still widely used today.

When thinking of Pegasus and Ancient Greece it is hard not to think of the role of the winged horse in Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans (1981); the storyline of the film is far removed from the stories of antiquity.

Death of Medusa and Birth of Pegasus

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) PD-art-100

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) PD-art-100

Pegasus Springs Forth

Ancient sources would normally tell of Pegasus being the offspring of the Gorgon Medusa; although his conception and birth were unusual. In one version of the myth, Medusa was a beautiful woman, who was a priestess in a temple dedicated to Athena. Poseidon so desired Medusa that he raped her in the temple; as a result of the rape Medusa became pregnant.

Athena, angry at the desecration of her temple, cursed Medusa, making her into the monstrous Gorgon, and also cursed Medusa that she could not give birth.

Medusa was of course hunted down by the Greek hero Perseus, and when he finally cornered Medusa, he used his shield to protect him from her gaze, and then used his sword to decapitate her.

Pegasus would then spring forth from the open neck wound.

Born at the same time as Pegasus, and in the same method, was Chrysaor. Chrysaor was normally depicted as a giant, but also was on occasion also depicted as a winged boar.

Pegasus on Mount Olympus

The storyline of Pegasus subsequent to his birth is not clear cut, but at some point the winged horse flew to Mount Olympus. There he was taken in hand by the goddess Athena, who tamed and trained it.

Once tamed Pegasus was often stabled with the other chariot pulling horses of the gods; and so Pegasus was normally near to hand when needed by a god. Pegasus was though most closely associated with Zeus, and the winged horse would bring the Cyclopes crafted weapons of thunder and lightning when Zeus required them. The role of weapon carrier was also undertaken by a gigantic eagle in other stories.

On Mount Olympus, Pegasus would find a mate in the form of Ocyrhoe. Ocyrhoe was a daughter of the centaur Chiron, who had been transformed into a horse by Zeus, or Apollo, for her indiscretion of revealing the future. The coupling of Pegasus and Ocyrhoe would bring forth a whole race of winged horses, including the first generation of Celeris and Melanippe.

Pegasus and Four Muses

Caesar van Everdingen (1616/1617–1678) PD-art-100

Caesar van Everdingen (1616/1617–1678) PD-art-100

Pegasus and the Muses

In later mythology, especially Roman mythology, Pegasus was also closely connected with the nine Younger Muses; the winged horse acting as a source of inspiration for mortals and immortals.

In connection with the Muses, Pegasus appears in the story of the contest with the Pierides. The daughters of King Pierus were bested by the music and song created by the Muses, but as the Muses sang, to Mount Helicon swelled in rapture. Poseidon bade Pegasus to gallop over the mountain to relieve the swelling, and where Pegasus touched the mountain, a spring, the Hoppocrene, was created.

Other springs in Ancient Greece were also linked to the movements of Pegasus.

Bellerophon is sent to the campaign against the Chimera

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov PD-art-100

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov PD-art-100

Pegasus and Bellerophon

In antiquity, Pegasus was most famous for appearing in the story of the Greek hero Bellerophon.

Bellerophon was seeking to overcome the Chimera, and the hero realised that riding on the back of Pegasus would be to his advantage; but Bellerophon had no way of capturing Pegasus, or inducing the winged horse to help. After taking the advice of Polydius, Bellerophon spent the night in a temple dedicated to Athena; and the goddess visited the hero.

Athena presented Bellerophon with a golden bridle, and advised the hero to make a sacrifice to Poseidon. This Bellerophon did, and then the hero found Pegasus drinking at the Pirene well, within the Acrocotinth; on seeing the golden bridle, Pegasus allowed himself to be ridden by Bellerophon.

The Chimera was easily bested by Bellerophon and his flying mount.

Beating the Chimera though started the downfall of Bellerophon, and now with an inflated sense of his own worth, the hero decided to fly uninvited to Mount Olympus. Zeus though would not allow any mortal to be so presumptuous, and so a gad-fly was sent to sting the winged horse.

Pegasus would buck in flight, and Bellerophon was unseated, the hero fell to earth, alive but crippled, and Bellerophon would spend the rest of his life shunned by god and man.

Perseus and Andromeda

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) PD-art-100

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) PD-art-100

Pegasus and Perseus

Today, Pegasus is most closely associated with Perseus and his adventures, but aside from his birth, the role of Pegasus in the story is generally considered to be later embellishments.

Perseus is often said to have rode Pegasus when rescuing Andromeda when she was due to be sacrificed to the sea monster Cetus. In the original stories of Ancient Greece though, Perseus has no need for a flying horse, as he was already in possession of the winged sandals of Hermes.

The Constellation of Pegasus

Sidney Hall (1788–1831)  PD-art-100

Sidney Hall (1788–1831) PD-art-100

The Constellation Pegasus

For his assistance to Zeus and the other deities of Mount Olympus, Pegasus was placed amongst the night sky, so that he can be remembered for all time. Historically, the rising of the Pegasus constellation occurred at the same time as warmer temperatures of spring started to envelop the Mediterranean area. This was also the time when seasonal thunderstorms commenced; and so Pegasus was linked back to the thunderbolts of Zeus.

Neighbouring constellations of Pegasus include Perseus, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Cetus and Cepheus; hence why Pegasus became more involved in the Perseus myth than it once was.

Pegasus King of Horses