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Ch. 10: Sphinx, Pegasus and the Chimaera, Centaurs, Griffin, Pygmies

Monsters, in the language of mythology, were beings of unnatural
proportions or parts, usually regarded with terror, as possessing
immense strength and ferocity, which they employed for the injury
and annoyance of men. Some of them were supposed to combine the
members of different animals; such were the Sphinx and the
Chimaera; and to these all the terrible qualities of wild beasts
were attributed, together with human sagacity and faculties.
Others, as the giants, differed from men chiefly in their size;
and in this particular we must recognize a wide distinction among
them. The human giants, if so they may be called, such as the
Cyclopes, Antaeus, Orion, and others, must be supposed not to be
altogether disproportioned to human beings, for they mingled in
love and strife with them. But the superhuman giants, who warred
with the gods, were of vastly larger dimensions. Tityus, we are
told, when stretched on the plain, covered nine acres, and
Enceladus required the whole of Mount AEtna to be laid upon him
to keep him down.

We have already spoken of the war which the giants waged against
the gods, and of its result. While this war lasted the giants
proved a formidable enemy. Some of them, like Briareus, had a
hundred arms; others, like Typhon, breathed out fire. At one
time they put the gods to such fear that they fled into Egypt,
and hid themselves under various forms. Jupiter took the form of
a ram, whence he was afterwards worshipped in Egypt as the god
Ammon, with curved horns. Apollo became a crow, Bacchus a goat,
Diana a cat, Juno a cow, Venus a fish, Mercury a bird. At
another time the giants attempted to climb up into heaven, and
for that purpose took up the mountain Ossa and piled it on
Pelion. They were at last subdued by thunderbolts, which Minerva
invented, and taught Vulcan and his Cyclopes to make for Jupiter.


Laius, king of Thebes, was warned by an oracle that there was
danger to his throne and life if his new-born son should be
suffered to grow up. He therefore committed the child to the
care of a herdsman, with orders to destroy him; but the herdsman,
moved to pity, yet not daring entirely to disobey, tied up the
child by the feet, and left him hanging to the branch of a tree.
Here the infant was found by a herdsman of Polybus, king of
Corinth, who was pasturing his flock upon Mount Cithaeron.
Polybus and Merope, his wife, adopted the child, whom they called
OEdipus, or Swollen-foot, for they had no children themselves,
and in Corinth OEdipus grew up. But as OEdipus was at Delphi,
the oracle prophesied to him that he should kill his father and
marry his own mother. Fighting against Fate, OEdipus resolved to
leave Corinth and his parents, for he thought that Polybus and
Merope were meant by the oracle.

Soon afterwards, Laius being on his way to Delphi, accompanied
only by one attendant, met in a narrow road a young man also
driving in a chariot. On his refusal to leave the way at their
command, the attendant killed one of his horses, and the
stranger, filled with rage, slew both Laius and his attendant.
The young man was OEdipus, who thus unknowingly became the slayer
of his own father.

Shortly after this event the city of Thebes was afflicted with a
monster which infested the high-road. It was called the Sphinx.
It had the body of a lion, and the upper part of a woman. It lay
crouched on the top of a rock, and stopped all travellers who
came that way, proposing to them a riddle, with the condition
that those who could solve it should pass safe, but those who
failed should be killed. Not one had yet succeeded in solving
it, and all had been slain. OEdipus was not daunted by these
alarming accounts, but boldly advanced to the trial. The Sphinx
asked him, "What animal is that which in the morning goes on four
feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?" OEdipus
replied, "Man, who in childhood creeps on hands and knees, in
manhood walks erect, and in old age with the aid of a staff."
The Sphinx was so mortified at the solving of her riddle that she
cast herself down from the rock and perished.

The gratitude of the people for their deliverance was so great
that they made OEdipus their king, giving him in marriage their
queen Jocasta. OEdipus, ignorant of his parentage, had already
become the slayer of his father; in marrying the queen he became
the husband of his mother. These horrors remained undiscovered,
till at length Thebes was afflicted with famine and pestilence,
and the oracle being consulted, the double crime of OEdipus came
to light. Jocasta put an end to her own life, and OEdipus,
seized with madness, tore out his eyes, and wandered away from
Thebes, dreaded and abandoned hy all except his daughters, who
faithfully adhered to him; till after a tedious period of
miserable wandering, he found the termination of his wretched


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 Muses' 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 mounting, rose with him into the air, and
soon found the Chimaera, and gained an easy victory over the

After the conquest of the Chimaera, Bellerophon was exposed to
further trials and labors 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 favorite 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 o 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,
Up-led 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 sphere,)
Dismounted on the Aleian field I fall,
Erroneous there to wander, and forlorn."

Young in his Night Thoughts, speaking of the skeptic, 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.1,12.

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
splendor of his wings and soared towards heaven. Our own poet
Longfellow also records an 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 his 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."


The Greeks loved to people their woods and hills with strange
wild people, half man, half beast. Such were the Satyrs men
with goats' legs. But nobler and better were the Centaurs, men
to the waist, while the rest was the form of a horse. The
ancients were too fond of a horse to consider the union of his
nature with man's as forming any very degraded compound, and
accordingly the Centaur is the only one of the fancied monsters
of antiquity to which any good traits are assigned. The Centaurs
were admitted to the companionship of man, and at the marriage of
Pirithous with Hippodamia, they were among the guests. At the
feast, Eurytion, one of the Centaurs, becoming intoxicated with
the wine, attempted to offer violence to the bride; the other
Centaurs followed his example, and a dreadful conflict arose in
which several of them were slain. This is the celebrated battle
of the Lapithae and Centaurs, a favorite subject with the
sculptors and poets of antiquity.

But all the Centaurs were not like the rude guests of Pirithous.
Chiron was instructed by Apollo and Diana, and was renowned for
his skill in hunting, medicine, music, and the art of prophecy.
The most distinguished heroes of Grecian story were his pupils.
Among the rest the infant Aesculapius was intrusted to his
charge, by Apollo, his father. When the sage returned to his
home bearing the infant, his daughter Ocyroe came forth to meet
him, and at sight of the child burst forth into a prophetic
strain (for she was a prophetess), foretelling the glory that he
was to achieve. Aesculapius, when grown up, became a renowned
physician, and even in one instance succeeded in restoring the
dead to life. Pluto resented this, and Jupiter, at his request,
struck the bold physician with lightning and killed him, but
after his death received him into the number of the gods.

Chiron was the wisest and justest of all the Centaurs, and at his
death Jupiter placed him among the stars as the constellation


The Pygmies were a nation of dwarfs, so called from a Greek word
which means the cubit (a cubit was a measure of about thirteen
inches), which was said to be the height of these people. They
lived near the sources of the Nile, or according to others, in
India. Homer tells us that the cranes used to migrate every
winter to the Pygmies' country, and their appearance was the
signal of bloody warfare to the puny inhabitants, who had to take
up arms to defend their cornfields against the rapacious
strangers. The Pygmies and their enemies the cranes form the
subject of several works of art.

Later writers tell of an army of Pygmies which finding Hercules
asleep made preparations to attack him, as if they were about to
attack a city. But the hero awaking laughed at the little
warriors, wrapped some of them up in his lion's-skin, and carried
them to Eurystheus.

Milton used the Pygmies for a simile, Paradise Lost, Book I:

"----------like that Pygmaean race
Beyond the Indian mount, or fairy elves
Whose midnight revels by a forest side,
Or fountain, some belated peasant sees,
(Or dreams he sees), while overhead the moon
Sits artibress, and nearer to the earth
Wheels her pale course; they on their mirth and dance
Intent, with jocund music charm his ear.
At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds."


THE Griffin is a monster with the body of a lion, the head and
wings of an eagle, and back covered with feathers. Like birds it
builds its nest, and instead of an egg lays an agate therein. It
has long claws and talons of such a size that the people of that
country make them into drinking-cups. India was assigned as the
native country of the Griffins. They found gold in the mountains
and built their nests of it, for which reason their nests were
very tempting to the hunters, and they were forced to keep
vigilant guard over them. Their instinct led them to know where
buried treasures lay, and they did their best to keep plunderers
at a distance. The Arimaspians, among whom the Griffins
flourished, were a one-eyed people of Scythia.

Milton borrows a simile from the Griffins, Paradise Lost, Book

"As when a Gryphon through the wilderness,
With winged course, o'er hill and moory dale,
Pursues the Arimaspian who by stealth
Hath from his wakeful custody purloined
His guarded gold."

Thomas Bulfinch

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