Fantastical Creatures of Greco-Roman Mythology: The Hippalektryon
For the fourth instalment of this series about lesser-known creatures and beasts of Classical mythology, we’re going to take a little bit of a lighter spin on things. While this series is certainly intended to provide a bit of insight into monsters that you may not be familiar with—and which hold parallel to many of the popular creatures and monsters of today’s fantasy books and film—there’s no need to dwell solely on the angry, hero-slaying beasts of old!
Forget your long-toothed, claws-like-knives, guardian monster of Classical myth. Today, we’re going to look at a critter who’d be more at home in a comedy film—or maybe a Piers Anthony or Terry Pratchett novel—than guarding any kind of treasure or skulking about in a dark forest!
Ah, winged horses… who doesn’t love winged horses? Their poise, their grace, their elegance… not to mention their strength and power and resilience, proven through their role in heroic tales such as Bellerophon’s battle against Medusa! And of course, don’t forget their spindly little chicken legs… wait, what?
It appears that not all winged horses are created equal. In fact, the grace and elegance that one might expect from, say, a Pegasus, is… slightly lost on this creature.
The hippalektryon has, as one might expect, the forequarters of a horse: Head, front legs, and withers. However, instead of also having the hindquarters of a horse and a pair of glorious wings, this creature’s back half is… rooster. Yes, it is a half-horse, half-rooster. With bright yellow feathers.
If that sounds incredibly bizarre, it is. The Greek comic playwright Aristophanes mentioned the creature in three of his plays, and not necessarily in the way one might expect. Here’s one example from around the 5th-century B.C.:
“Indeed I grow a great deal fatter passing the summer in this way than in watching a cursed captain with his three plumes and his military cloak of a startling crimson (he calls it true Sardian purple), which he takes care to dye himself with Cyzicus saffron in a battle; then he is the first to run away, shaking his plumes like a great yellow prancing cock [hippalektryon].” (Peace 1175 ff)
Not exactly the most flattering description of the creature (or the gentleman being discussed), but that’s what makes for great comedy. In another of Aristophanes’ plays, The Frogs, the characters of Euripides (yes, a comic representation of another real-life playwright who was a contemporary of Aristophanes) and the god Dionysus make fun of Aristophanes—directly in the play’s dialogue—for putting the hippalektryon in his plays.
The most noble of mythical creatures, it is not.
The Hippalektryon’s Legacy
The name for the creature comes directly from Ancient Greek, and as we’ve seen with the naming of other creatures mentioned in this series, the compound word that comprises the term hippalektryon is extremely literal. The word hippos means horse, and alektryon means rooster.
And while this not-exactly-majestic creature has no known associated myths or legends—which may be why a comedian was the only playwright to bother mentioning the beast on a regular basis—depictions of the winged rooster-horse stretch back into the 9th-century B.C. on the island of Knossos, where the oldest known representation of the creature was discovered on a pottery vessel known as an askos.
Depictions of the hippalektryon continued to appear during the 6th- and 5th-centuries B.C. on Attic black-figure pottery, though some historians believe that earlier versions of the creature may have been attempts to depict the more traditionally popular winged horse, Pegasus—or maybe they were just “alternate” versions.
As time passed, however, it’s clear that this particular rooster-horse became more distinct, often depicting an unarmed rider. Typically, this rider was a young boy. Does this suggest that the hippalektryon actually had its own myth at one time, one that’s now lost in history? It’s entirely possible. The other suggestion often made is that the rider is an early depiction of the hero Bellerophon, whose mythos is directly linked to Pegasus’, as previously mentioned.
Other mentions of the creature by playwrights give it a naval association. Aristophanes’ play The Frogs speaks of painting the hippalektryon on ship galleys, which would give the beast a protective role—divine powers to protect ships, perhaps. And considering that Pegasus was sired by Poseidon, the sea god… it’s entirely possible that the lesser-known hippalektryon had similar origins and associations with the sea.
The Hippalektryon’s Future
Modern fantasy literature and film makes good use of the standard, Pegasus-inspired winged horse trope. These fantastical beasties show up here and there, sometimes in the context of myth, but typically as a standard magical creature. Now, that’s not a bad thing—Pegasus has some incredible ancient roots as well—but it’s a bit of a shame that the bizarre-but-similar rooster-horse seems to have drawn the short end of the stick.
It’s not pretty, or graceful—and who wants to tame and ride a flying rooster-horse?—but it’s interesting and different, and certainly spurs on the imagination.