Gateway to the Classics: The Wonder-Book of Horses by James Baldwin
The Wonder-Book of Horses by  James Baldwin

The Winged Horse of the Muses

I. The Fountain of the Horse

P EOPLE said that the gods sent him to the earth. Of course it was very desirable to account in some way for the appearance of so wonderful a creature, and there was no easier way to do it. But to this day nobody knows anything about his origin. When first seen he was simply a beautiful horse with wings like a great bird's, and he could travel with equal ease in the air and on the ground.

A good many years ago—so many that we shall not bother about the date—this wonderful animal, after a long and wearisome flight above the clouds, alighted at a pleasant spot near the foot of Mount Helicon, in Bœotia. He was hot and thirsty, and having seen some reeds growing at that spot, he hoped that he would find there a stream of water, or at least a small pool, from which he could drink. But to his disappointment there wasn't a drop of water to be seen—nothing but a little patch of boggy ground where the tall grass grew rank and thick. In his anger he spread his wings and gave the earth a tremendous kick with both of his hind feet together. The ground was soft, and the force of the blow was such that a long, deep trench was opened in the boggy soil. Instantly a stream of water, cool and sweet and clear, poured out and filled the trench and ran as a swift brook across the plain toward the distant river. The horse drank his fill from the pleasant fountain which he himself had thus hollowed out; and then, greatly refreshed, unfolded his wings again and rose high in the air, ready for a flight across the sea to the distant land of Lycia.

Men were not long in finding out that the waters of the new spring at the foot of Mount Helicon had some strange properties, filling their hearts with a wonderful sense of whatever is beautiful and true and good, and putting music into their souls and new songs into their mouths. And so they called the spring Hippocrene, or the Fountain of the Horse, and poets from all parts of the world went there to drink. But in later times the place fell into neglect, for, somehow, people were so busy with other things that they forgot the difference between poetry and doggerel, and nobody cared to drink from Hippocrene. And so the fountain was allowed to become choked with the stones and dirt that rolled down from the mountain; and soon wild grass and tall reeds hid the spot from view, and nobody from that day to this has been able to point out just where it is.

II. The Young Traveler

But the horse?

We left him poised high in the air, with his head turned toward the sea and the distant land of Lycia. I do not know how long it took him to fly across, nor does it matter; but one day, full of vigor and strength, and beautiful as a poet's dream, he alighted on the great road that runs eastward a little way from the capital city of Lycia. So softly had he descended, and so quietly had he folded his great wings and set his feet upon the ground, that a young man who was walking thoughtfully along the way did not know of his presence until he had cantered up quite close to him.

The young man stopped and turned to admire the beautiful animal, and when he came quite near reached out his hand to stroke his nose. But the horse wheeled about and was away again as quick as an arrow sent speeding from a bow. The young man walked on again, and the horse soon returned and gamboled playfully around him, sometimes trotting swiftly back and forth along the roadway, sometimes rising in the air and sailing in circles round and round him. At last, after much whistling and the offer of a handful of sweetmeats, the young man coaxed the horse so near to him that by a sudden leap he was able to throw himself astride of his back just in front of his great gray wings.

"Now, my handsome fellow," he cried, "carry me straight forward to the country that lies beyond the great northern mountains. I would not be afraid of all the wild beasts in Asia if I could be sure of your help."

But the horse did not seem to understand him. He flew first to the north, then to the south, then to the north again, and sailed hither and thither gaily among the white clouds. At the end of an hour he alighted at the very spot from which he had risen, and his rider, despairing of making any progress with him, leaped to the ground and renewed his journey on foot. But the horse, who seemed to have taken a great liking to the young man, followed him, frisking hither and thither like a frolicsome dog, not afraid of him in the least, but very timid of all other travelers on the road. Late in the afternoon, when they had left the pleasant farm-lands of Lycia behind them and had come to the border of a wild, deserted region, an old man, with a long white beard and bright glittering eyes, met them and stopped, as many others had already done, to admire the beautiful animal.

"Who are you, young man," he inquired, "and what are you doing with so handsome a steed here in this lonely place?"

"My name is Bellerophon," answered the young man, "and I am going by order of King Iobates to the country beyond the northern mountains, where I expect to slay the Chimæra, which lives there. But as for this horse, all I know is that he has followed me since early morning. Whose he is and from whence he came I cannot tell."

The old man was silent for a few moments as if in deep thought, while Bellerophon, very weary with his long walk, sat down on a stone to rest, and the horse strolled along by the roadside nipping the short grass.

"Do you see the white roof over there among the trees?" finally asked the old man. " Well, under it there is a shrine to the goddess Athena, of which I am the keeper. A few steps beyond it is my own humble cottage, where I spend my days in study and meditation. If you will go in and lodge with me for the night, I may be able to tell you something about the task that you have undertaken."

Bellerophon was very glad to accept the old man's invitation, for the sun had already begun to dip below the western hills. The hut contained only two rooms, but everything about it was very clean and cozy, and the kind host spared no pains to make his guest comfortable and happy. After they had eaten supper and were still reclining on couches at the side of the table, the old man looked Bellerophon sharply in the face and said:

"Now tell me all about yourself and your kindred, and why you are going thus alone and on foot into the country of the Chimæra."

III. Bellerophon's Story

"My father," answered Bellerophon, "is Glaucus, the king of far-off Corinth, where he has great wealth in horses and in ships; and my grandfather was Sisyphus, of whom you have doubtless heard, for he was famed all over the world for his craftiness and his fine business qualities, that made him the richest of men. I was brought up in my father's house, and it was intended that I should succeed him as king of Corinth; but three years ago a sad misfortune happened to me. My younger brother and I were hunting among the wooded hills of Argos, and we were having fine sport, for we had taken much game. We had started home with our booty, and I, who was the faster walker, was some distance ahead of my brother, when, suddenly, a deer sprang up between me and the sun. Half-blinded by the light, I turned and let fly an arrow quickly. The creature bounded swiftly away, unhurt, but a cry of anguish from the low underbrush told me that I had slain my brother.

"Vainly did I try to stanch the flow of blood; vainly did I call upon the gods to save him and me. He raised his eyes to mine, smiled feebly, pressed my hand as in forgiveness, and was no more.

"I knew that I dared not return home, for the laws of our country are very severe against any one who, though by accident, causes the death of another. Indeed, until I could be purified from my brother's blood, I dared not, as you know, look any man in the face. For a long time I wandered hither and thither, like a hunted beast, shunning the sight of every human being, and living upon nuts and fruits and such small game as I could bring down with my arrows. At length I bethought me that perhaps old King Prœtus of Tiryns, in whose land I then was, might purify me; or if not, he might at least slay me at the altar, which would be better than living longer as a fugitive; and so, under the cover of night, I went down into Tiryns, and entering the temple with my cloak thrown over my head, knelt down at the shrine where penitent men are wont to seek purification.

"I need not tell you how the king found me and purified me and took me into his own house and treated me for a long time as his own son; it would make my story too long. . . . But a few weeks ago I noticed that a great change had come over him, for he no longer showed me the kind attention which I had learned to expect of him. The queen, too, seemed to have become my enemy, and treated me with the haughtiest disdain. Indeed, I began to suspect that she was urging her husband to put me out of the way, and I should not have been surprised if he had banished me from his court. I was, of course, uncomfortable, and was trying to think of some excuse for leaving Tiryns, when the king, very early one morning, called me into his private chamber. He held in his hand a wooden tablet, sealed with his own signet, and he seemed to be greatly excited about something.

" 'Bellerophon,' he said, 'I have written on this tablet a letter of very great importance, which I wish to send to my father-in-law, King Iobates, of Lycia, beyond the sea. You are the only man whom I can trust to carry this letter, and so I beg that you will get ready to go at once. A ship is in the harbor already manned for the voyage, and the wind is fair. Before the sun rises you may be well out at sea.'

"I took the tablet and embarked, as he wished, without so much as bidding good-by to any of his household. A good ship and fresh breezes carried me over the sea to Lycia, where I was welcomed most kindly by your good king Iobates. For he had known both my father and my grandfather, and he said that he owed me honor for their sakes. Nine days he held a great feast in his palace, and all the most famous philosophers, merchants, and warriors were invited to his table, in order that I might meet them and hear them talk. I had not forgotten the tablet that King Prœtus had given me, and several times I had made a start to give it to Iobates; but I knew that it would be bad taste to speak of business at such a time. On the tenth day, however, after all the guests had gone home, he said to me:

" 'Now tell me what message you have brought from my son-in-law Prœtus and my dear daughter Anteia. For I know that they have sent me some word.'

"Then I gave him the tablet. He untied the ribbon which bound the two blocks of wood together, and when he had broken the seal he lifted them apart and read that which was engraved on the wax between them. I do not know what this message was, but it must have been something of great importance, for the king's face grew very pale, and he staggered as if he would fall. Then he left the room very quickly, and I did not see him again until this morning, when he called me into his council-chamber. I was surprised to notice how haggard and worn he was, and how very old he seemed to have become within the past three days.

"Young man,' he said, speaking rather sharply, I thought,—'Young man, they tell me that you are brave and fond of hunting wild beasts, and that you are anxious to win fame by doing some daring deed. I have word, only this morning, that the people who live on the other side of the northern mountains are in great dread of a strange animal that comes out of the caves and destroys their flocks, and sometimes carries their children off to its lair. Some say it is a lion, some a dragon, and some laugh at the whole affair and call it a goat. I think myself that it must be the very same beast that infested the mountain valleys some years ago, and was called by our wise men a Chimæra; and for the sake of the good people whom it annoys, I should like to have it killed. Every one to whom I have spoken about it, however, is afraid to venture into its haunts.'

" 'I am not afraid,' said I. 'I will start to the mountains this very hour, and if I don't bring you the head of the Chimæra to hang up in your halls, you may brand me as a coward.'

" 'You are a brave young man,' said the king, 'and I will take you at your word, but I would advise you to lose no time in starting.'

"I was surprised at the way in which the king dismissed me, and the longer I thought about the matter the stranger it all seemed. But there was only one thing to do. I walked out of the king's palace, found the shortest road to Mount Climax, and—here I am!"

IV. The Dream and the Gifts

"Do you have any idea what it was that King Prœtus wrote to King Iobates?" asked the old man.

"Why should I?"

"Then I will tell you. He wrote to say that you had been accused of treasonable crimes in Tiryns, and that, not wishing to harm you himself, he had sent you to Lycia to be put to death. King Iobates was loath to have this done, and so he has sent you out against the Chimæra, knowing that no man ever fought with that monster and lived. For she is a more terrible beast than you would believe. All the region beyond the mountains has been laid waste by her, hundreds of people have been slain by her fiery breath alone, and a whole army that was lately sent out against her was routed and put to flight. The king knows very well that she will kill you."

"But what kind of a beast is this Chimæra?" asked Bellerophon.

"She is a strange kind of monster," was the answer. "Her head and shoulders are those of a lion, her body is that of a goat, and her hinder parts are those of a dragon. She fights with her hot breath and her long tail, and she stays on the mountains by night, and goes down into the valleys by day."

"If I had only a shield, and my bow and arrows, and could ride the good winged horse whithersoever I wished him to go, I would not be afraid of all the Chimæras in the world," said Bellerophon.

"Let me tell you something," said the old man. "Do you go out to the little temple in the grove before us and lie down to sleep at the foot of the shrine. Everybody knows that to people who are in need of help Athena often comes in dreams to give good advice. Perhaps she will favor you with her counsel and aid, if you only show that you have faith in her."

Bellerophon went at once to the little temple and stretched himself out on the floor close to the shrine of the goddess. The winged horse, who had been feeding on the grass, followed him to the door, and then lay down on the ground outside.

It was nearly morning when Bellerophon dreamed that a tall and stately lady, with large round eyes, and long hair that fell in ringlets upon her shoulders, carne into the temple and stood beside him.

"Do you know who the winged steed is that waits outside the door for you?" she asked.

"Truly, I do not," answered Bellerophon. "But if I had some means of making him understand me, he might be my best friend and helper."

"His name is Pegasus," said the lady, "and he was born near the shore of the great western ocean. He has come to help you in your fight with the Chimæra, and you can guide him anywhere you wish if you will only put this ribbon into his mouth, holding on to the ends yourself."

With these words, she placed a beautiful bridle in Bellerophon's hands, and, turning about, walked silently away.

When the sun had risen and Bellerophon awoke, the bridle was lying on the floor beside him, and near it were a long bow with arrows and a shield. It was the first bridle that he had ever seen—some people say that it was the first that was ever made—and the young man examined it with great curiosity. Then he went out and quickly slipped the ribbon bit into the mouth of Pegasus, and leaped upon his back. To his great joy, he saw that now the horse understood all his wishes.

"Here are your bow and arrows and your shield," cried the old man, handing them to him. "Take them, and may Athena be with you in your fight with the Chimæra!"

V. The Fight with the Chimaera

At a word from Bellerophon, Pegasus rose high in the air, and then, turning, made straight northward toward the great mountains. It was evening when they reached Mount Climax, and quite dark when they at last hovered over the spot which the Chimæra was said to visit at night. Bellerophon would have passed on without seeing her, had not a burning mountain sent out a great sheet of flame that lighted up the valleys and gave him a plain view of the monster crouching in the shadow of a cliff. He fitted an arrow quickly in his bow and, as Pegasus paused above the edge of the cliff, he let fly directly at her fearful head. The arrow missed the mark, however, and struck the beast in the throat, giving her an ugly wound. Then you should have seen the fury of the Chimæra, how she reared herself on her hind feet; how she leaped into the air; how she beat the rocks with her long dragon's tail; how she puffed and fumed and roared and blew her fiery breath toward Pegasus, hoping to scorch his wings or smother both horse and rider with its poisonous fumes. Bellerophon, when he saw her in her mad rage, could no longer wonder that the whole country had been in terror of her.


"Pegasus rose high in the air."

"Now, my good Pegasus," he said, stroking the horse's mane, "steady yourself just out of her reach, and let me send her another keepsake!"

This time the arrow struck the beast in the back, and instead of killing her, only made her more furious than ever. She attacked everything that was in her reach, clawed the rocks, knocked trees down with her tail, and filled all the mountain-valleys with the noise of her mad roarings. The third arrow, however, was sent with a better aim, and the horrid creature, pierced to the heart, fell backward lifeless, and rolled over and over down the steep mountain side, and far out into the valley below.

Bellerophon slept on the mountain that night, while his steed kept watch by his side. In the morning he went down and found the Chimæra lying stiff and dead in the spot where she had rolled, while a score of gaping countrymen stood around at a safe distance, rejoicing that the monster which had laid waste their fields and desolated their homes had at last been slain. Bellerophon cut off the creature's head, and remounting Pegasus, set out on his return to King Iobates.

Of course old Iobates was astonished to see Bellerophon come back with the monster's head in his arms. All that he did was to thank the young hero for the great service which he had done for his country; and then he began to study up some other means of putting him out of the way.

At length, Bellerophon bethought him that, since this world was beset with so many distressing things, worse even than Chimæras, he would leave it and ride on the back of Pegasus to heaven. There is no knowing what he might have done, had not Zeus, just in the nick of time, sent a gadfly to sting the horse. Pegasus made a wild plunge to escape the fly, and Bellerophon, taken by surprise, was tumbled to the earth. Strange to say, the hero was not killed, but only blinded by his fall; and he never heard of Pegasus again.

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