THE HERO'S DREAM
SERIES II · EPISODE V
Around the sixteenth year they had come, first a few, then in swelling numbers until it seemed that every rough blooded adventurer in the Seven Islands was gathered under this single roof.
They ate all of the food that came into the house, and drank up the casks of wine in the cellars. They slept in all the palace beds, in the corridors and the great hall. They opened all the chests and dressed themselves in the fine clothes and coloured linen. They burned up all the wood in the great fireplace.
And even as they did, the Lady of this House awaited the return of her husband. She did this even though the thieves and pirates that now stalked their halls called her ‘The Widow’, and every day, taunted her and asked her: which one of them was she going to marry?
The Hero’s Dream is based on the mythological character of Bellerophon, whose story is recorded by a number of classical authors. Famed for riding Pegasus and defeating the monstrous Khimera, the figure of Bellerophon was later supplanted in Greek culture by the hero Theseus, who absorbed the Pegasus into his own legend of his confrontation with Medusa.
Bellerophon’s story ranges across the world of Ancient Greece. He is a native of Corinth in Aegean Greece, and in his exile, travels south-west to the territory of Argos and the Argolids. There he gains sanctuary at Tiryns, a fortified palace the east of Argos and a seat of power for several ancient kings. He is then dispatched to the kingdom of Lykia, a territory of Anatolia, in modern day Turkey. This the same region in which Endymion’s myth was set in the first episode. Xanthos, the ancient cultural, economic and political centre of Lykia, is situated on the Xanthus River, and famous for the royal tombs which are carved into the cliff-faces above the river. Several different locations for the stalking grounds of the Khimera were suggested by ancient authors. Some place the beast in a ravine by Mount Cragus; others point to the area near the ancient settlements of Phasis and Olympos. The region is marked by a field of volcanic geysers, and was the site of an temple to Hephaestus (another element which we worked into our telling of this story).
The beginning of Bellerophon’s story is incomplete and shrouded in mystery. Different proposed Translations of the name ‘Bellerophon’ or ‘Bellerophontes’ suggest it may mean ‘Slayer of Belleros’ or ‘Weilder of Missiles’. The hero was said to have been exiled from his home of Corinth for slaying either a brother, a Corinthian nobleman, or even a local daemon. Our telling combines these possibilities into a single character, a brother who is possessed by a malevolent daemon and becomes a tyrant. Some of the stories claim that Bellerophon’s killing was accidental or that he was ‘blameless’; in our interpretation, Bellerophon’s slaying of a tyrant is portrayed as purposeful, but his slaying of his brother is an ‘accident’ in as much as he is possessed or he has disclaimed his own identity. Several different names have been given for Bellerophon’s brother: Alkimenes , Deliades or Peiren. In our story, Alkimenes becomes Bellepheron’s given name before he is branded and exiled by the citizens of Corinth.
Bellerophon is also the subject of a lost play by Euripides, telling how Bellepheron, after falling into poverty, attempts to fly to Mount Olympus on the back of Pegasus. In the original mythology, Bellerophon is said not to have fallen into the sea, but instead fell upon the earth and into a bush of thorns, which broke his hip. Lamed and blinded, Bellerophon was said to have spent the remainder of his life wandering the Plains of Aleion (Wandering) in Cicilia - a territory even further east into Turkey than the Khimera’s stalking grounds. This seems difficult to square with a flight to Olympus, located on the border of Thessaly in Northern Greece, unless he fled there after his fateful fall.
The story of Byblis, who ran mad and was transformed by nymphs into a spring on account of her incestuous love for her brother, existed in several different versions and was connected to the Carian city of Miletus, a region which extended over the later kingdoms of Lydia and Lykia. Depending upon the version of the tale, Byblis’ incestuous passion is either unrequited or reciprocated by her brother Kaunas; in either case, he flees when he is unable to face the implications.
The Pirene spring is a large open air public basin in Corinth, fed by water spouts and a channel. The city of Corinth was said to have been founded by Sisyphus before his imprisonment and punishment in Tartarus. There were in fact two springs. The upper Pirene spring, was on the great promontory that overlooked the city called the acrocorinth, and was said to have been created by the River God Asopus. King Sisyphus has seen Zeus bearing Asopus’ daughter Aegina away in the shape of a Great Eagle, but when the God arrived seeking his daughter, the King refused to give this information to the River God until he created the spring. The lower spring may have flowed down from the upper spring, and flowed into a series of stone cisterns and basins at the heart of the city. One story states that the lower spring was itself created when Pegasus struck his hoof against the earth, but an older story says that Pirene was a nymph and lover of Poseidon who was transformed, like Byblis, into a spring on account of her unceasing tears.
Polyeidas, who appeared in our last episode, plays a pivotal role in Bellerophon’s story by instructing the hero to pray to Athena and Poseidon. From the available sources, it is not immediately clear where Polyeidas resides in the myth. He was a Corinthian, however His legend shows that as a seer he travelled widely. He worked in the service of King Minos in Crete: some accounts of the myth suggest that Bellerophon met Polyeidas in Lykia. However, since the Pirene spring where Bellepheron captured the Pegasus was in Corinth, we chose to locate Polyeidas in Corinth, where Bellerophon has returned seeking knowledge of how to defeat the Khimera.
THEMES & FOLKLORE
The Law of Hospitality
One prevalent moral code in this story is the concept of Xenia, the sacred law of hospitality. This custom prescribed a religious obligation to uphold a sacred bond of friendship and protection between guests and their hosts. Once hospitality was offered, it was a religious taboo to violate these obligations. The primacy of this custom is demonstrated by the fact Bellerophon is twice protected by it, in spite of the fact he has been accused of attempting to rape Queen Stheneboae.
The custom and concept of theoxenia was underpinned by myths and folklore; the idea was that kindness should be extended to any guest or stranger, since the gods themselves sometimes visit us in disguise. This idea was previously expressed in our telling of the Endymion myth, when Endymion entertained Zeus at his fire.
Bellepheron’s attempted ascent to Olympus is a prime example of the motif of hubris in Greek myth. Hubris was defined as a form of ‘outrage’ - an offence against the natural order of the world, which was how challenging the gods was perceived. It was associated with foolishness, arrogance and over-confidence, and particularly a lack of humility toward others, an attempt to establish one’s own authority or dominance over them, or an encroachment upon the established rights of others. This gives nuance to Bellerophon’s offence in flying to Olympus; not simply in flying to Olympus to challenge the gods, but also thinking himself superior to them, or as competent to question their agency in establishing natural and moral laws.
The surviving fragments of the Euripides play in which Bellepheron commits his act of hubris are famous for placing atheistic sentiments in Bellerophon’s mouth. This is a difficult idea to work into the legend of a hero who has such overtly powerful encounters with the gods, including Athena’s gift of a golden bridle out of a dream, his capture of the Pegasus and calling on Poseidon to flood the plain of Xanthos.
Greek philosophy and literature sometimes criticised traditional notions of the gods, and certainly the gods as portrayed in mythology. In the Euripides fragment, Bellerophon questions belief in the gods and calls calls them a ‘fable’. In the satyr play Sisyphus, the claim is made that gods were invented to frighten men into moral action. And the philosophical thinker Xenophanes famously said that if cows and horses had hands, "then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, and cows like cows". In Plato’s writings, he depicts Socrates as disbelieving traditional myths because they depicted the gods in immoral acts. Indeed, Socrates was eventually executed for atheism, or more precisely, for disbelieving in the gods as the state defined them. But these critics were not true atheists in the modern and secular sense; they maintained a belief in divine entities and order, but didn’t believe that the traditional religious beliefs or stories told the truth about them. Socrates himself protested the charge of atheism, and observed the religious practises of Athens.
In this vein, in our story, I’ve reconciled Bellerophon’s fantastical history with his scepticism by making his doubts a critique of the supposed nature of the gods; they can’t be gods in the sense of upholding moral law, if they don’t uphold moral law amongst themselves or in their rule over our world.
Depictions of Female Sexuality and Power
It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that Bellerophon’s story shows he has issues with women. To begin with, his journey is bound up with a negative female archetype which appears in other myths; the unfaithful Queen who tries to seduce the hero, and then makes a false accusation of assault against him. The same character appears in the Biblical story of Joseph in the shape of Zuleikha (zoo-LAY-kah), the wife of the Pharoah Potiphar; it also shows up in other Greek myths. In our sources, Bellerophon’s heroic victories are apparently supposed to vindicate him and prove his innocence of this crime. The Queen is ritually humiliated by Bellerophon, and the Queen’s daughters are also made to suffer by being driven mad. It is said that some later commentators disclaimed this part of the myth because it cast Bellerophon in a bad light; but frankly, all of the logic at play here is problematic. When I read these myths, the mysoginistic assumptions of Greek culture are on full display here, and Bellerophon’s anger, entitlement and contempt for women seem baked into the legend. In 2020, I don’t think we should give Bellerophon the full benefit of the doubt. So in this telling, Bellerophon may profess his innocence, but I rather think that he protests too much.
But Bellerophon’s myth contains another interesting symbolic and thematic depiction of female sexuality: when the women of Xanthos halt his march across the plain by lifting their skirts and exposing their vulvas to him. This is a beguiling incident, and it’s difficult to know exactly how to interpret it. My first thought about this was that it must resemble the Biblical story of Sodom, when Lot and his friends offered up their daughters to be raped instead of them. Once again, the idea that this offended Bellerophon’s modesty would make it another sexist trope that advances ideas about the hero’s virtue. However, there does seem to be another idea implied here; the idea of some kind of inherent power in female sexuality, contemptuous of and capable of un-manning the masculine power of the hero. This is most clearly signalled by the fact that not only Bellerophon but Poseidon is turned back by the display, even though respect for female sexuality isn’t exactly a hallmark of the gods.
In the end, it probably amounts to both. It turns out there are examples of this phenomenon scattered throughout mythology and history, where women shame or express their contempt for male aggressors by exposing themselves. In some cultures the vulva was believed to be Apotropaic - as having talismanic power to ward off evil. In China, there was a belief that menstrual blood was an effective deterrent against enemies during a seige. In some cases it seems the idea was bound up with the idea that there was something special about the sexuality of women who belonged to the royal family, or were priestesses or otherwise bound by a religious taboo.
So there is an idea of sacred feminine power here, but it’s not exactly free of sexism; in many cases it’s based on sacred ownership of female sexuality, or fear of women’s sexuality. But certainly, some are keen to celebrate this act of feminine defiance and claim it's spirit for the feminist movement. This year, the writer Catherine Blackledge published a book called Raising the Skirt which was inspired by this incident in the Bellerophon myth. The artist Nicola Hunter has also developed a collaborative arts project called ‘Raising the Skirt’ which draws on similar material. Fair warning if you choose to google that - it is not safe for work!
Demons, Spirits and Horse Haunts
This tale includes a number of references to daemons, as spiritual entities which existed in the Greek world but were different from gods and nymphs, and indeed the later, primarily Christian concept of a ‘demon’, though the Greek concept if the daemon directly informed it.
In the Greek mythos, daemons (pronounced di-mons) were incorporeal spirits of nature, less than a deity, but capable of influencing and sometimes possessing individuals. According to Hesiod, Zeus transformed the humans of the Golden Age into daemons who served as guardians and guiding spirits for the later ages of humanity. Sometimes great heroes were transformed into daemons after their death. Shrines were constructed to daemons to anchor them to particular places and for their worship.
They were often thought of as benevolent, and as attaching themselves to human beings and acting as guides, which would become the ‘genius’ in Roman thought. The philosopher Plato believed that individuals possessed a daemon in their souls, and that they also had a guiding daemon which accompanied them from their birth. However, daemons could be benevolent or malicious, and in this they resembled the Arabic djinn or the Christian angels and demons, which act as intermediaries between the gods and mortals. The Greek word daemon was applied to translations of the Hebrew Bible, leading to the use of the word ‘demon’ to describe evil spirits in Christianity. A daemon could also be thought of or defined not as entity in its own right, but any spiritual drive or energy which was directed at a human being and which influenced their behaviour; so that a god, spirit or ghost could all as daemons. .
It seems that daemons were sometimes identified with ghosts, and we see this in the story that the ghost of Glaucus, Bellerophon’s father, haunted one of the sacred racetracks in the city of Corinth. There was a specific name for these spirits, which were said not to haunt men but to unnerve and unstartle horses - a taraxippus, which means ghost-frightener. The creature was usually described as the angry spirit of a minor mythical hero, such as Myrtilos of Olympia and Glaukos of Korinthos (Corinth), and every major festival site where races took place were said to have one.
demons were lesser spiritual entities which were said to be spirits of nature. In the Greek kosmos, many of them were held to be the deified spirits of heroes, and Zeus was said to have transformed the whole human race of the Golden Age into daemons. Local shrines were established for the worship of daemons and to give them a home in a particular place, lest they leave.
Gods and Monsters
The Khimera is one of a pantheon of fantastical beasts and creatures which were said to spring from the titans and other cthonic, primal Greek gods. This aligns them with the destructive forces of nature. Khimera was the offspring of the serpentine giant Typhon and the serpentine goddess Echidna, who birthed many of the most famous and deadly monsters in Greek mythology, including Kerberos, the Hydra, the Sphinx, and sometimes the Harpies and the Dragon of Colchis.
In contrast, Pegasus, is a noble creature said to be born from the blood of the medusa, sometimes from the foam of Poseidon’s sea. It's ability of flight, and its eventual ascension to Olympus or into the constellations, made it powerful metaphor for the wind of divine inspiration. Thus the spring, where it watered, was visited by poets and philosophers.
Athena’s gift of the golden bridle could be an example of something called an ‘apport’ - an object which crosses from a spiritual realm or plane into our own reality - in this case, from a dream into waking reality. However, objects like the golden bridle in this myth are sometimes described as apports, this term is primarily associated with the objects and tokens produced by spiritualist practitioners in the 19th century at seances, which they claimed came to them through their contacts with spirits. The word is hence strongly connected to the deceptive practises that spiritualists used to hide these objects on their person during their performances, which were discovered on many occasions by investigators.
Story interpreted by Rick Scott.
Sound editing, audio design and original illustrations by Rick Scott.
Lore & Legend Series Themes composed and performed by Robert Bentall.
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Additional sound and effects sourced from the community at Freesound.org.
Incidental music, background ambience and sound effects by multiple authors sourced from Freesound.org. See below for the full list of audio files and attribution credits: