Phaethon, a young man, travels to the Palace of the Sun to meet Apollo and find out if the sun god is in fact his father. Apollo says he is. To prove it, he will give Phaethon anything he wants, swearing by the River Styx that he will grant Phaethon his wildest dream. The boy's dream is to ride Apollo's chariot. Although his father warns him that no god (let alone a human) can control the horses and safely ride the chariot across the sky, Phaethon will not listen. Apollo seems to have no choice but to let his son drive the chariot and watch as the horses run recklessly through the sky, crashing into stars and even setting the earth on fire. To prevent the entire planet from burning, Zeus sends a thunderbolt which kills Phaethon and drives the horses into the sea.
In the city of Corinth, Glaucus is King. But the gods dislike him because he feeds his horses human flesh. Eventually the gods throw him from his chariot and have his horses eat him. It is thought that Glaucus's son is a beautiful young man named Bellerophon, but it is also rumored that the boy's father is Poseidon. More than anything, Bellerophon wants to ride Pegasus, a winged horse, so he goes to Athena's temple to pray. Athena comes to him in a dream and gives him a golden bridle which, she says, will tame the horse. It does, and Pegasus becomes Bellerophon's loyal beast.
Later, Bellerophon kills his brother entirely by accident. He goes to King Proteus for purification, which the king grants. But Bellerophon's situation becomes complicated when the king's wife takes an interest in him. Bellerophon denies the queen's advances, but the evil woman tells her husband that the boy has wronged her and must die. Proteus does not want to kill Bellerophon personally because the boy has eaten at his table, so instead he asks the boy to deliver a letter to the Lycian king.
On the back of Pegasus, Bellerophon travels easily, meets the Lycian king, and stays with him for nine wonderful days. When the king opens his letter, it has clear instructions to kill Bellerophon. But like Proteus, the Lycian king does not want to offend Zeus by acting violently towards a guest, so instead he sends Bellerophon on an impossible journey to kill a monster, Chimaera. With the help of Pegasus, however, Bellerophon kills the beast with no harm to himself. He returns to Proteus, and Proteus sends him on many more challenging adventures.
Eventually, the victorious Bellerophon wins Proteus's respect, and the king even gives the man his daughter's hand in marriage. Unfortunately, Bellerophon loses favor with the gods when he attempts to become more than human and take a place on Mount Olympus. When he tries to take the journey up to the gods’ kingdom, Pegasus throws Bellerophon off his back. Bellerophon wanders alone, "devouring his own soul," until he dies. Pegasus becomes Zeus's favorite animal, residing in the stalls of Mount Olympus and bringing thunder and lightning to him.
The tragic tale about Phaethon and his father perfectly explicates the dynamic between elders and youth. Apollo wants to do right by his son, but in meeting his son’s heart’s desire, he becomes the agent of his son’s tragic death. He becomes helpless in the face of his son's brazen confidence. The myth teaches sons to be humble and reminds fathers that when they send their sons out into the world, it is normal to fear great dangers that their sons must face on their own. The instability caused by the deal between father and son ultimately requires the intervention of Zeus.
It is interesting that in this myth and in that of Bellerophon, there is a question about which son belongs to which father. This is a question that often is of interest to human beings, who cannot always be sure who is the father of a child. By what evidence can a father prove that he really is the father?
Once again, Zeus is associated with a natural element, the thunderbolt. In this story, the association of Zeus's power with lightning is quite clear--what natural element is more powerful than lightning? As in other stories, Zeus acts as an authority who must maintain order when no one else can. His decision to kill the young man reveals the god's rational mindset and priorities.
Wildly courageous and headstrong, Bellerophon is a complex hero. He seems to be close to godlike status, but Zeus puts him in his place at the end of the tale. As for Pegasus, it is a horse above horses. They are a good match. In both cases, they raise the recurring question of what separates humans from gods. The Greek heroes, such as Bellerophon, often achieve a status somewhere in between. Heroism clearly plays a role in the tale, as Bellerophon defeats Chimaera and performs seemingly impossible tasks. But unlike Hercules, Theseus, or Odysseus, Bellerophon loses favor with the gods at the end of the tale.
One interesting element in this tale is the ritual of hospitality. Neither king feels able to kill Bellerophon because the man has dined with him at the table, and it seems that the gods would punish a king who so poorly treated a guest. The other myth that most directly concerns hospitality is Baucis and Philemon, and in both tales the moral lesson is the same: hospitality is essential to win or keep divine favor.
The tale of Bellerophon also concerns a recurring theme in Greek mythology: a tragic mistake. Like Apollo, who accidentally kills Hyacinthus, Bellerophon kills his brother by mistake. It is interesting to note that the nature of the accident does not relieve him of his guilt: Bellerophon goes on his quest to achieve purity in order to win back the favor of the gods.
When pride emerges in this story, we see the disastrous effects it may have on a once heroic character. As he "devours his own soul," Bellerophon appears shockingly pathetic at the end of the story. After his amazing adventures, the gods have placed him in this state because of his egoism. The story thus serves as a warning against believing one is more than human.
Conversely, the tale reveals the rewards that come with dutiful prayer to the gods. Athena steps in to essentially save Bellerophon by giving him Pegasus, and she does so precisely because the young man has prayed at her temple. The gods seldom reveal themselves to be greatly eager to help humans for the humans' own sake, but in this case it seems clear that praying to her increased Bellerophon's chances.
Finally, the story of Bellerophon illustrates the important theme of loyalty. As soon as they team up, Pegasus is Bellerophon's dutiful beast and best friend. Like Prometheus and Io, the two make a connection that goes far beyond the differences in their natures. Although ultimately Pegasus (like the gods) rejects Bellerophon because of his egoism, the relationship illustrates the power and value of loyalty.