The first horse
There was a king of the olden time who heard a prophecy that the child of his only daughter would destroy him. This daughter was the loveliest princess in the world, and her name was Danae.
Her father loved her well, but when he heard that prophecy, he shut her up all alone in a brazen tower, and let no one come near her except himself, for he thought, “My daughter shall never marry, lest she have a child who brings me doom.”
The fair young princess was very lonely in her tower ; all day she had nothing to do but comb her golden hair and spin with her silver distaff, and gaze through barred casements at the hills and woods, where she longed to wander free. The stern King forbade her even to show herself on the roof of the tower by day, but at night she would often go there to weep and bewail her lot under the stars.
Now it chanced one midsummer night, that the King of all the Fairies saw her weeping, and heard her saying that she would not be so unhappy if only she had one living thing to love and to play with in her prison. He took pity on the captive princess, and when she lay down to sleep, he came and whispered in her ear, ” Danae, the Fairies have sent you a playfellow.”
Danae awoke, and behold, a shower of gold was falling round her and drifting into a heap upon her bed. But when she put out her hands to touch the Fairy gold, the heap turned into a beautiful little child, whose yellow hair was bright as sunshine. Overjoyed, she took him into her arms, and hushed him to sleep, but she herself could sleep no more that night for thinking of this wonderful gift the Fairies had sent her.
Next morning, the King came as usual to the tower to see how his daughter fared, and found her playing with the child. ” Daughter,” said he, ” whose child is this, and how came he here? “
“He is mine,” said the princess; “the Fairies have sent him to me, in pity for my loneliness.”
At these words, fear and wrath possessed the King, for it seemed to him that this must be the child spoken of in the prophecy. Moreover, he did not believe the Fairies had sent him, but thought that Danae had by some means contrived to have him brought into the tower so that she might rear up a child to slay her father and release her.
So that cruel King shut up the princess and the babe in a great chest, and had it thrown into the sea. But the gods did not suffer them to perish ; the chest drifted to an island, where certain fishermen drew it ashore in their nets, and, having opened it, ran to tell the King that a lovely lady and her child were cast in wondrous wise upon his shores.
The island King received Danae with all kindness, but when he asked her who she was, she would only tell him that she was a princess from a far country, who had escaped from shipwreck in that chest with her little son. For she feared the Fairy child would be taken from her, if she told all the truth.
Now, because of Danae’ s beauty, the island King would fain have wedded her, but she would have none of him, saying that all her love was given to her son, and when the King saw that his suit was vain, he began to hate Perseus, for so the child was called.
Yet he bided his time until Perseus was grown a lad, and then, with a show of friendliness, he said to him, ” Such a noble youth as you are should not be content to live in sloth at his mother’s side, when there are great deeds to be done. I know of an adventure that will bring you everlasting fame, if you can brave the peril of it.”
“Tell me what it is,” said Perseus, “for I long to win renown.”
“Far in the West,” said the King, “there dwell three wondrous sisters, called the Gorgons, who have the faces and forms of beautiful women, but they are winged, and instead of tresses black snakes grow on their heads. Two are immortal, but the third, whose name is Medusa, is mortaj, and to slay that dire creature were a feat worthy of the mightiest hero.”
Forthwith Perseus was fired with longing to achieve that enterprise, and he set out on the quest, in which he would have perished, as the King hoped, had not a goddess befriended him. Athena, who loves the brave, came to meet the youth as he drew near the lonely western mountain where the Gorgons dwelt, and he greeted her without fear, for in those days the Immortals walked freely among men.
“Prince,” she said, “how is it you are come without a shield to slay Medusa?”
“I have my sword,” said Perseus, ” and why should I need a shield?”
Then the goddess told him a thing that the King purposely kept hidden from him, namely, that Medusa’s eyes turned all who looked on them to stone. ” Take my burnished shield,” she said, ” and look thereon as on a mirror, while I lead you backwards to the Gorgons. She whom you will see in the shield, sitting between her sisters, is Medusa, and by help of that mirror you must make shift to smite off her head.”
Perseus did just as he was bidden, and with eyes still fixed on the bright shield, he cut off Medusa’s head at one blow. Then the other two Gorgons rose on their great wings into the air, and hovered above their dead sister, shrilling out a weird lament. There was strange beauty in that mournful strain ; tears filled the eyes of Perseus as he listened to it, nor did Athena herself hear it unmoved. And in after times she devised the first flute, that she might imitate the Gorgons’ wailing tones, and taught mortals to play thereon the tune which is still called “Medusa’s Dirge.”
But now, as the Gorgons sang, Perseus saw a wondrous sight. Forth from the ground where Medusa’s blood lay in a dark pool, sprang a four-legged creature, the like of which neither he nor any man had ever seen. For it was the First Horse. Perseus ran to the beautiful, prancing beast to seize him by the mane, but the First Horse had wings, and straightway he soared aloft and passed from sight. Then Athena took Medusa’s head and fixed it in the centre of her shield, and she covered it with her veil. ” Take this home with you,” she said to Perseus, “and use it as you shall see need, but remember that to look on it is death.”
Now when Perseus came home, he found that the island King had bound Danae in chains and cast her into a dungeon because she would not wed him. So he uncovered the shield, and brandished it before the eyes of the King and his servants, and they were turned to stone. After that, he achieved many adventures by help of the Gorgon shield, before Athena took it to herself again, because the power of it was too great to be left in mortal keeping, and in the end he slew Danae’s father, yet he did that by mischance.
Thus the prophecy was fulfilled, and thereafter Danae and her Fairy child lived happy to their lives’ end. But now hear the story of the First Horse.
That day he was born from the Gorgon’s blood, he flew over land and sea to a high mountain, nigh to a city called Corinth. There was no water on the mountain for him to drink, but he stamped with his shining hoof upon the ground, and a clear spring gushed forth. This was seen by certain woodcutters, who went hastily to the city and told the King that a marvellous beast had appeared on the mountain.
Then the King’s son, whose name was Bellerophon, went to hunt the beast, but when he saw the First Horse, he wished to take him alive, for he seemed as gentle as he was beautiful, and showed no fear of man. But the Horse, though he let Bellerophon come near, and stroke his neck, broke away whenever he tried to hold him, or to jump on his back, till at last the King’s son went home discouraged. And the people of Corinth called the strange new creature Pegasus, which means “Wellspring” in their language, because he made the water flow.
Now Bellerophon thought for many days how he might catch the Horse and tame him, and at length he asked the seer of the city what to do, saying, ” If I could but master this Pegasus, he would carry me swifter than the wind.” “My counsel is,” said the seer, “that you go this night to the temple of Athena and pray the goddess to help you. Then lie down to sleep on the altar, and it may be she will show you some device in a dream.”
Bellerophon followed his counsel and scarcely had he fallen asleep when Athena appeared to him in a dream, and said, “Awake, King’s son of Corinth. Behold, I bring you a golden charm which will tame Pegasus as soon as you bind it about his jaws. And when you are lord of him, offer a white bull to Poseidon, the Earth-shaking god, and hang up the charm over my altar, for we two, in love to this city, sent the First Horse hither to be the servant of man.”
Bellerophon awoke, and he was alone, but he knew he had had a true vision, for behold a golden thing lay beside him, the like of which was never seen on earth before. He showed it to the seer, and told the vision, and then joyfully he hastened to the mountain with the charm. Pegasus stood still as though enchanted while he slipped it over his head and between his teeth, and from that moment the King’s son could guide him at will.
Thus, ever after, Corinth had renown as the place where the First Horse was tamed by help of the First Bit and Bridle. And two memorials of the wonder remained there to later ages, even the Fountain Pirene, which Pegasus made to flow from the hillside, and that golden gift of Athena, which Bellerophon, as she bade him, dedicated in her temple.
Now Bellerophon rode his winged steed far and wide over land and sea, wherever he heard of monsters to be slain, or wicked kings to be overthrown, and he ridded the earth of many such, shooting his arrows upon them from the bosom of the air.
But at last, in the pride of his heart, he boasted that he would mount up to Heaven and enter the abode of the gods, and so he came to no good end.
For Zeus caused a gadfly to sting Pegasus as he soared upward, and his sudden plunge threw Bellerophon from his back. No mortal eye saw rider or horse again, and of the rash prince’s fate those who were wisest spoke the least, but of Pegasus it was told that he rested thenceforth in those shining stalls where the horses of the gods feed from golden mangers.
Collected and edited by Winifred Margaret Lambart Hutchinson.