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Image from Harry Thurston Peck,
Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)
Hubris. It's a great word. 'HUE-briss'. It can be simply defined as "keep your feet on the ground even if your head is in the sky", but it means much more than that. I promise that by the end of this splendid story you will know exactly what hubris means...And how to prevent it!
BELLEROPHON - A Tragic Hero
Bellerophon was the brave and handsome son of Glaucus and Eurymede, and the grandson of Sisyphus. Some even claimed that he was the son of Poseidon, god of the sea, for his sculpted body, quick wit and excellence of spirit hinted of divine origin. In addition, his mother Eurymede had been tutored by the great goddess Athena, lending more credence to the theory that his father was Poseidon.
He originally was called Hipponous, but supposedly was given the nickname Bellerophon after he killed a man named Belerus in Corinth. Thus his name can be translated as "killer of Belerus" (Bellerophontes) or "bearing darts" (Bellerophon for short). Some sources insist that the myth of the killing of Belerus was added later in an attempt to explain the hero's name.
In addition to the murder of Belerus, a further cloud hung over our hero's head because during a quarrel he had also accidently slain his own brother, Deliades. To atone for the murders Bellerophon fled to Proetus, King of Tiryns, where he planned to humbly request the king's purification by serving him loyally.
Hospitality, both to friends and strangers, was paramount in ancient Greece. To refuse hospitality or comfort to others was one of the highest forms of sacrilege, and often invited the wrath of the gods, who severely punished transgressors.
King Proetus was happy to receive the handsome youth but, as luck would have it, the king's young wife, Anteia (sometimes called Stheneboea), fell in love with Bellerophon the instant she laid eyes on him.
The infatuated queen tried every trick to get close to the gorgeous youth, hoping to seduce him with her wealth and beauty. Bellerophon, a guest in the royal palace, did the proper thing and completely rejected the amorous advances of Anteia. He went out of his way to avoid her, but when she finally cornered him, Bellerophon told the queen that he wasn't interested in having an affair with her, he had enough troubles already. Besides, he was a guest in the house of Proetus and it would be most dishonorable to thus deceive his gracious host, the king.
"You are very beautiful, your majesty, and I'm flattered that you like me, but, no thanks, I'll pass," he said.
The vain woman was stunned. She wasn't accustomed to rejection and had grown used to always getting her way. She turned on the charm to the max, but our hero held firm to his values. No matter how much Queen Anteia begged or threatened him, still he was resolved to act nobly, finally slithering free and taking his leave.
The queen was outraged! How dare he go? Did he not know the consequences of refusing to do the queen's bidding?
Ah, the wrath of a woman scorned...Queen Anteia did a terrible thing: Running to king Proetus disheveled and in tears, she informed her dumbfounded husband that their young guest had tried to violate her, and would have succeeded had she not fought him off.
"You must have him killed at once!" she commanded her husband.
The king was incensed but dared not tempt the wrath of the gods by causing harm to a suppliant. The rules of hospitality prevented him from blatantly ordering the death of this vile culprit, so he devised a sinister plan.
King Proetus summoned Bellerophon and told him that he was sending him to Lycia, a kingdom ruled by his father in law, King Iobates, who was his wife Anteia's father. He handed our hero a sealed note that Bellerophon was to carry as a letter of introduction, informing King Iobates that its bearer was to be treated like a royal guest.
Some letter of introduction. The note that Proetus sent with Bellerophon outlined the young man's supposed violation of his wife Anteia, and asked that King Iobates gain revenge for his daughter's ravishment. The visitor must be killed, it said.
Myth Man's note: That's where we get the phrase 'Bellerophontic Letters', meaning to unwittingly deliver information that can prove harmful to the bearer.
Bellerophon received a royal welcome in Lycia, and after he had bathed and refreshed himself he joined the king in a splendid feast. For nine days the young visitor was entertained, with every effort being made to please him. Eager to learn news of his daughter, king Iobates asked Bellerophon if he bore any tidings from Tyrins. Just then the young man remembered the letter given him by Proetus and handed it to Iobates.
The king grew pale as he digested the letter's content. This criminal must be punished, he thought, but Iobates didn't want to invite the fury of the gods by mistreating a royal guest. So he told Bellerophon that the letter instructed him to extend all hospitality to his young visitor, and in turn he would have to do the king's bidding.
"Then you can finally be purified for the unfortunate deaths back at your homeland," he lied to Bellerophon.
Fair enough. Bellerophon, heroic impulses surging throughout his being, was ready to tackle any challenge. Bring it on!
First up was the Chimaera. This fire-breathing creature, sporting a lion's head, the body of a goat and a serpent's tail, had taken up residence in Lycia, and in short time had managed to terrorize the entire area, killing and feasting on many innocent people.
All Bellerophon had to do was slay the beast. "Oh, by the way," said the king, "thus far everybody else who tried to kill the Chimaera has been devoured by the monster."
Good luck, and good riddance, thought king Iobates, certain that he was sending the young man to his doom.
Before setting out on this impossible task, Bellerophon was astute enough to consult the seer Polyeidus, who advised him to catch and tame the winged horse Pegasus. The young hero spotted this marvelous horse as it drank at the well of Peirene, on the Acropolis of Corinth. Some say that the great goddess Athena provided a magic golden bridle that Bellerophon slipped over Pegasus, instantly taming him, while others maintain that Athena delivered Pegasus already bridled, while yet others claim that the flying horse was presented by Poseidon, who they say was Bellerophon's real father.
Can we get a consensus here, folks? Just asking...
Regardless, astride Pegasus, Bellerphon flew above the fire-breathing Chimaera and rained arrows on it safely out of its reach. He then attached a piece of lead on the tip of his spear and swiftly thrust it down the creature's throat. The monster's fiery breath melted the lead, which coursed down its throat and painfully killed it.
Imagine the king's surprise when the hero returned, not only alive, but successful. Rather than reward his incredible bravery, however, Iobates sent him at once on another suicide mission, this one against the warlike Solymians and their ruthless allies, the feared nation of warrior women called the Amazons.
Let's see him return from this adventure, thought revenge-minded Iobates.
It was no match. Mounted on Pegasus and flying high above the battle field, well out of reach of his enemies' arrows, Bellerophon rained down large boulders on their heads. Outmatched, stunned and demoralized by the bombardment, the Solymians and the Amazons were soon conquered.
Next up was a band of Carian pirates led by a rude ogre named Cheimarrhus. This bandit sailed in a ship adorned with a lion figurehead and a serpent stern and no one dared challenge him. Needless to say, Bellerophon made mincemeat of Cheimarrhus and his crew, much to the delight of the people of Lycia.
You would think that all these exploits would be enough to redeem the young man in the eyes of the king, but still Iobates persisted in exacting revenge. He sent his elite palace guard to lay an ambush and slay Bellerophon upon his return. Instead it was the palace guard that soon lay dead, dispatched to Hades by the hero.
Enough already! Bellerophon by now had realized that king Iobates meant to harm him and prayed to Poseidon for assistance. He dismounted Pegasus and slowly advanced towards the palace, while behind him the Xanthian Plain was flooded by Poseidon. The waters threatened to overwhelm the entire region and everyone begged Bellerophon to stop the flood. He heeded no man, but when the Xanthian women hoisted up their skirts and rushed at him running backwards, offering themselves if only he would stop the waters, the modest hero blushed and ran away, taking the receding waters with him.
That was enough to convince king Iobates that the Bellerophontic letter must have been wrong, for he now had proof of the young man's virtuous character. Besides, anyone who could command floods had to be of divine origin. Iobates produced the letter from Proetus and asked Bellerophon for an explanation. When he learned the truth the king implored his guest's forgiveness, offered him his daughter Philonoe (also known as Anticlea or Cassandra) in marriage, and made him heir to the Lycian throne.
Wouldn't it be great if the story ended right there, and everyone lived happily ever after?
Hey, what do you think this is, a fairy tale? :)
Bellerophon had it made. His hero status had been established and his deeds had been sung about throughout Greece. His adoring wife was gorgeous and his kingdom prospered and grew. What else could a man want?
How about immortality?
Oh yeah? How about a dose of hubris?
As often happens to those who enjoy great fortune, Bellerophon got way too full of himself and began to fancy himself a god. And gods lived on Olympus, not earth.
That is called 'hubris'. This overweening pride in his own achievements convinced Bellerophon that he deserved to live with the gods, being one himself. After all, Athena and Poseidon both had come to his assistance, proving that they were his equals. Mounting Pegasus, the fool set off on a flight to Olympus.
Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, would have none of that. No uninvited guests allowed. Just as Bellerophon neared the gates of Olympus, Zeus sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus. The startled horse reared, hurling Bellerophon off his back and sending him plunging back to earth where he belonged.
That is called 'hubris'. Scornful and presumptuous ambition that leads to a downfall. Hubris led to the doom of this tragic hero. He had it made but wanted more.
Now crippled and blind, alone and destitute, having lost Pegasus, his kingdom and his wife, Bellerophon traveled the earth, a bitter and broken man until his dying breath.
Sad, yes? So what's the moral of this story? No doubt the myth of Bellerophon teaches us to remain humble, to give thanks for our good fortune, and, above all, to always remember that we are human.
Here's the Chimaera Homework Page
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