Folklore

Pegasus: The Father of the Winged Horses #Folklore

The image of the winged horse has been iconic in fiction of all kinds since forever. Some have mixed it with the image of the unicorn (see more below). Some have turned the winged horse into a subspecies of mythical creature. But the original winged horse, feathers and all, comes from Greek Mythology. (We’ll look at the serpentine winged horse from Chinese mythology at a later time.)

Folklore

The History of the Knights Templar by Charles G. Addison [1842]

When the lawyers came into the Temple, they found engraved upon the antient buildings the armorial bearings of the Knights Templars, which were, on a shield argent, a plain cross gules, and (brochant sur le tout) the holy lamb bearing the banner of the order, surmounted by a red cross. These arms remained the emblem of the Temple until the fifth year of the reign of queen Elizabeth, when unfortunately the society of the Inner Temple, yielding to the advice and persuasion of Master Gerard Leigh, a member of the College of Heralds, abandoned the antient and honourable device of the Knights Templars, and assumed in its place a galloping winged horse called a Pegasus, or, as it has been explained to us, “a horse striking the earth with its hoof, or Pegasus luna on a field argent!” Master Gerard Leigh, we are told, “emblazoned them with precious stones and planets, and by these strange arms he intended to signify that the knowledge acquired at the learned seminary of the Inner Temple would raise the professors of the law to the highest honours, adding, by way of motto, volat ad æthera virtus, and he intended to allude to what are esteemed the more liberal sciences, by giving them Pegasus forming the fountain of Hippocrene, by striking his hoof against the rock, as a proper emblem of lawyers becoming poets, as Chaucer and Gower, who were both of the Temple!”

The Stories of the Months and Days by Reginald C. Couzens [1923]

On the thirteenth of this “ninth” month the Romans held a feast in honour of Jupiter, the ruler of gods and men. From the clouded top of Mount Olympus he held sway over the whole world, and even the gods had to bow to his supreme will. Terrible indeed was it to anger any of the gods, but no punishment was more swift and sure than that sent by Jupiter when he was enraged. We have seen how with his thunderbolt he slew the proud and reckless Phaeton, and we have another example in the story of Bellerophon. This hero, who was staying at the court of a Grecian king, was set the task of killing the Chimaera, a terrible monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, a dragon’s tail, and breath of fire. While sorrowfully wondering how he could possibly perform so difficult a task, Bellerophon suddenly found before him the goddess Minerva, who asked him the cause of his trouble. As soon as she had learnt of his task she promised to help him, and, giving him a golden bridle, told him to bridle the horse Pegasus.

Now Pegasus was a winged horse which the sea-god Neptune had made from the drops of blood that fell into the sea from the head of the Gorgon Medusa, slain by Perseus. He was perfectly white and of great speed, and, as Bellerophon well knew, came down to earth to drink at a certain spring. Bellerophon waited in hiding by this spring, and taking Pegasus by surprise, jumped upon his back. The winged horse at once flew up to a great height, trying to unseat Bellerophon; but the hero succeeded in putting on Minerva’s golden bridle, when Pegasus at once became gentle. Bellerophon then set off on his task, and suddenly swooping down from the sky upon the Chimaera, overcame and killed the dreadful monster. His task accomplished, he might now have lived in happiness, but he became filled with pride because of the wonderful flights he had made on Pegasus. One day, as he soared up higher and higher, he began to think himself equal to the gods, and wished to join them on Mount Olympus. This angered Jupiter, who sent a gadfly which stung Pegasus. Suddenly rearing up, the winged horse threw the proud Bellerophon far down to the earth beneath.

BULFINCH’S MYTHOLOGY, THE AGE OF FABLE, OR STORIES OF GODS AND HEROES by Thomas Bulfinch [1855]

PEGASUS AND THE CHIMAERA.

When Perseus cut off Medusa’s head, the blood sinking into the earth produced the winged horse Pegasus. Minerva caught and tamed him and presented him to the Muses. The fountain Hippocrene, on the Muse’s mountain Helicon, was opened by a kick from his hoof.

The Chimaera was a fearful monster, breathing fire. The fore part of its body was a compound of the lion and the goat, and the hind part a dragon’s. It made great havoc in Lycia, so that the king, Iobates, sought for some hero to destroy it. At that time there arrived at his court a gallant young warrior, whose name was Bellerophon. He brought letters from Proetus, the son-in-law of Iobates, recommending Bellerophon in the warmest terms as an unconquerable hero, but added at the close a request to his father-in-law to put him to death. The reason was that Proetus was jealous of him, suspecting that his wife Antea looked with too much admiration on the young warrior. From this instance of Bellerophon being unconsciously the bearer of his own death warrant, the expression “Bellerophontic letters” arose, to describe any species of communication which a person is made the bearer of, containing matter prejudicial to himself.

Iobates, on perusing the letters, was puzzled what to do, not willing to violate the claims of hospitality, yet wishing to oblige his son-in-law. A lucky thought occurred to him, to send Bellerophon to combat with the Chimaera. Bellerophon accepted the proposal, but before proceeding to the combat consulted the soothsayer Polyidus, who advised him to procure if possible the horse Pegasus for the conflict. For this purpose he directed him to pass the night in the temple of Minerva. He did so, and as he slept Minerva came to him and gave him a golden bridle. When he awoke the bridle remained in his hand. Minerva also showed him Pegasus drinking at the well of Pirene, and at sight of the bridle the winged steed came willingly and suffered himself to be taken. Bellerophon mounted him, rose with him into the air, soon found the Chimaera, and gained an easy victory over the monster.

After the conquest of the Chimaera Bellerophon was exposed to further trials and labours by his unfriendly host, but by the aid of Pegasus he triumphed in them all, till at length Iobates, seeing that the hero was a special favourite of the gods, gave him his daughter in marriage and made him his successor on the throne. At last Bellerophon by his pride and presumption drew upon himself the anger of the gods; it is said he even attempted to fly up into heaven on his winged steed, but Jupiter sent a gadfly which stung Pegasus and made him throw his rider, who became lame and blind in consequence. After this Bellerophon wandered lonely through the Aleian field, avoiding the paths of men, and died miserably.

Milton alludes to Bellerophon in the beginning of the seventh book of “Paradise Lost”:

        “Descend from Heaven, Urania, by that name
         If rightly thou art called, whose voice divine
         Following, above the Olympian hill I soar,
         Above the flight of Pegasean wing.
                                     Upled by thee,
         Into the Heaven of Heavens I have presumed,
         An earthly guest, and drawn empyreal air
         (Thy tempering); with like safety guided down
         Return me to my native element;
         Lest, from this flying steed unreined (as once
         Bellerophon, though from a lower clime),
         Dismounted, on the Aleian field I fall,
         Erroneous there to wander and forlorn.”

Young, in his “Night Thoughts,” speaking of the sceptic, says:

          “He whose blind thought futurity denies,
           Unconscious bears, Bellerophon, like thee
           His own indictment; he condemns himself.
           Who reads his bosom reads immortal life,
           Or nature there, imposing on her sons,
           Has written fables; man was made a lie.”
                                           Vol. II., p. 12.

Pegasus, being the horse of the Muses, has always been at the service of the poets. Schiller tells a pretty story of his having been sold by a needy poet and put to the cart and the plough. He was not fit for such service, and his clownish master could make nothing of him. But a youth stepped forth and asked leave to try him. As soon as he was seated on his back the horse, which had appeared at first vicious, and afterwards spirit-broken, rose kingly, a spirit, a god, unfolded the splendour of his wings, and soared towards heaven. Our own poet Longfellow also records adventure of this famous steed in his “Pegasus in Pound.”

Shakespeare alludes to Pegasus in “Henry IV.,” where Vernon describes Prince Henry:

        “I saw young Harry, with his beaver on,
         His cuishes on this thighs, gallantly armed,
         Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury,
         And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
         As if an angel dropped down from the clouds,
         To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus,
         And witch the world with noble horsemanship.”

Further Reading

The Summary:

Poseidon and Medusa got together, she got pregnant and Athena cursed her to be unable to give birth. Perseus cut off Medusa’s head and Pegasus got born – fully grown. Pegasus spent some time on Mount Olympus as Zeus’s bolt carrier and then had some fun on earth with various heroes from Greek Mythology. It’s not clear if he had anything to do with his father the sea god Poseidon, his mother’s Gorgon relatives or the woman who cursed her (Athena, goddess of wisdom). It is clear, though, that he is a winged horse, typically depicted as being pure white.

Modern Culture

In the Percy Jackson series (and other spin-offs in this world), pegasi are winged horses from Pegasus’s bloodline. They are warriors and in service of demigods.

You can read more about this creation of Rick Riordan here.

In Disney’s Hercules (1997), Pegasus is Hercules’s best friend.

Check out their history here.

Though the winged unicorn cannot be found in folklore, unlike the winged horse (Pegasus) and unicorns, it is rife in fiction. The winged unicorn was even imagined by the Irish poet WB Yeats in “The Unicorn of the Stars”.

My Writing

I love using these magnificent creatures in my writing.

Origin of the Fae: Pegasus

Related to the original Pegasus, the pegasi are magical winged horses. Pegasus = singular. Pegasi = plural.
Much like unicorns, horses and others related to them, the pegasi live in herds. They are matriarchal. Though some come in rainbow colours, most resemble the colouring of regular horses.
Their wings can be used for different magical things. Different parts, different uses. Crushed feather tips = cure for all poisons. Wings can be attached to someone = they can fly.
They become very attached to certain humans. This attachment helps them to harness their powers. Like transformation. Some pegasi can change colour (e.g. from black to white), grow a horn like a unicorn’s and have fiery red eyes – all which magnifies their power over lightning, storms and nature itself.
They are fierce warriors when called for, but they prefer a simple life of grazing.

Do you like horses? What about the winged variety? Where did you encounter Pegasus and his kind for the first time? Check out my board dedicated to the subject on Pinterest.

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6 thoughts on “Pegasus: The Father of the Winged Horses #Folklore”

  1. Thanks for the amazing history lesson.

    The first one I saw was on a broken wall, the paint chipped and faded. I had no idea if it was something real or not, because I was too young to know many species. It was probably ten years later until I discovered the lore and remembered the wall art.

  2. Horses have been part of my life since childhood, and before I retired, I was an equestrian journalist and photographer. When I’m not writing or reading, I’m a gamer, currently playing a game set in Ancient Greece, in which my character has two pegasi; the game has many references to Greek myths, including quests including slaying Medusa and the Minotaur. Greek mythology is something I lapped up as a kid.

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