Though the world has seen many difficult births, there were none so difficult as Pegasus' arrival to the world. For the rare person totally unfamiliar with Pegasus, he's the fabulous winged horse of Greek mythology beloved by adolescent girls everywhere. He began his immortal existence when Medusa, his snake-haired mother, was efficiently beheaded by the hero Perseus. It's perhaps not so well known the great white horse had a twin. Pegasus sprang from Medusa's headless neck accompanied by his brother, the giant Chrysaor. Sadly, the gigantic twin didn't resemble a horse.
The Birth of Pegasus and Chrysaor
Artist: Edward Burne-Jones
By emerging from Medusa's neck, Pegasus and Chrysaor's birth, like Athena's from the head of Zeus, was considered higher than a common birth. Like many myths, there are other versions of Pegasus' birth. One variant confirms Chrysaor's delivery from Medusa's neck, but states Pegasus manifested from Medusa's blood murging with sea foam. The sea foam accounted for the white coat of Pegasus. Regardless of details, immediately after birth Pegasus flew to Mount Helicon, thrilling the muses by striking the ground and creating a well called Hippocrene (horse spring). Pegasus' name actually means "spring" in the Greek language. It seems everywhere he struck a hoof a spring would form.
If Medusa was Pegasus' mother, who was his father? That gentleman was Poseidon, in his persona as a horse god. Before Medusa developed her permanent hair trouble, she was considered an extremely beautiful, but vain, woman. So beautiful, that Poseidon had a torrid affair with her concluding in a soap opera worthy love scene on the floor of Athena's temple. Poor Athena was understandably upset, and punished Medusa by transforming her hair into snakes. The former beauty queen was now so ugly, a mere glance would turn men to stone. Though you may think Medusa's punishment enough for Athena, never underestimate the anger of an offended god. Athena's anger would lead directly to Pegasus' birth.
Once, an evil intentioned King named Polydectes, sent Our Hero Perseus away on the impossible task of retrieving Medusa's head. Polydectes wished to aquire Perseus' lovely mother unhindered by the suspicious son. The wily Athena saw her chance. She helped Perseus gather the magical equipment needed to defeat the stony-gazed Medusa. Perseus collected a knapsack from Hesperides to contain the severed head, an extremely durable sword and helmet of invisibility from Zeus, winged sandals from Hermes and a mirrored shield from Athena herself. By looking at Medusa's reflection in the shield, Perseus avoided a granite future and freed Pegasus from Medusa's body. With the exception of Polydectes, and the now headless Medusa, everyone was happy with the outcome.
Bellerophon, Pegasus and Chimaera
Date: ca 570-565 BC
Location: J. Paul Getty Museum
The Woes of Bellerophon
Perseus wasn't the only exile sent away for being inconvenient. Our next hero, named Bellerophon, approached King Proetus of Tiryns to absolve his crime of accidentally killing either his brother, or a mysterious man called Belleros. While there, the king's wife took a liking to the youthful Bellerophon, but to her disappointment, the liking wasn't mutual. Angry and vindictive, she accused Bellerophon of molestation. Since the king didn't want to kill a guest, he sent Bellerophon to his father-in-law (Iobates). This behavior is usually referred to as "passing the buck." The father-in-law, on learning his appointed task, didn't want to kill a guest either, so he sent Bellerophon on the impossible quest of dispatching the terrifying Chimera. The Chimera was a fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, body of a goat and a tail like a serpent. As the appalling creature was wreaking havoc in local villages, Iobates didn't hold much faith in Bellerophon's surviving its onslaught. Satisfied the troublesome Bellerophon was taken care of, father-in-law went to bed for a much needed rest. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to father-in-law Iobates, a seer told Our Hero that defeating the Chimera required the aid of Pegasus.
Pegasus with Athena
The helpful seer also informed Bellerophon that acquiring the untamed Pegasus demanded sleeping in the temple of Athena. While Bellerophon slept, Athena appeared in a dream. Placing a golden bridle next to the snoozing hero, she instructed him to sacrifice a white bull to Poseidon and approach Pegasus with the bridle. Upon waking, Bellerophon did as told and captured the wild Pegasus. A second version of this story relates that Athena tamed Pegasus herself, and gave the bridled Pegasus to Bellerophon in preparation for his Chimera showdown. In any case, Bellerophon had Pegasus in hand and was off to dispatch a monster. After a pitched battle the Chimera was defeated, but Bellerophon's victory was not enough for Iobates. The unsatisfied father-in-law sent the pair to fight fearsome Amazons. Eventually, a weary Bellerophon complained about the woefully ungrateful Iobates to Poseidon. After withstanding the resulting flood, Iobates concluded Bellerophon was innocent of molestation and gave him a daughter to marry.
Bellerophon and Pegasus
Artist: Mary Hamilton Frye
Our Hero's victories made him so disgustingly proud he tried riding Pegasus to Mount Olympus, the home of the gods. The annoyed Zeus sent a fly to sting Pegasus, who bucked causing Bellerophon's sudden fall to earth. Though Athena cushioned his fall with soft ground, he was crippled and spent the rest of his life a begger. Pegasus, without Bellerophon, continued flying to Olympus and became the thunder bearer for Zeus. It's interesting the origin of Pegasus may have been Pihassassa, the ancient Hittite god of thunderstorms. Later, as a reward for faithful service, Zeus sent Pegasus to the sky as a constellation. On that day, a single white feather fell from Pegasus and landed near the city of Tarsus.
The constellation of Pegasus