Immortal Horses

Balius and Xanthus

Balius and Xanthus—offspring of the god Zephyrus and the Harpy Podarge—were immortal horses who belonged to the hero Achilles. Known for their incredible speed and spirited nature, they famously drew Achilles’ chariot during the Trojan War.

Automedon with the Horses of Achilles by Henri Regnault

Automedon with the Horses of Achilles by Henri Regnault (1868)

Museum of Fine Arts BostonPublic Domain

Top Questions

  • Who were Balius and Xanthus’ parents?

    Balius and Xanthus were born from the union of Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, and Podarge, a Harpy.

  • Who did Balius and Xanthus belong to?

    Balius and Xanthus are best remembered as the horses of Achilles, the greatest hero of the Trojan War. Achilles received the immortal horses from his father Peleus, who in turn had received them from the sea god Poseidon. After Achilles’ death, Balius and Xanthus were passed down to Achilles’ son Neoptolemus.

  • How did Balius and Xanthus die?

    As the children of two deities, Balius and Xanthus were immortal and therefore did not die.

Etymology

The names “Balius” (Greek Βάλιος, translit. Bálios; also spelled Βαλίας, translit. Balías) and “Xanthus” (Greek Ξάνθος, translit. Xánthos) were quite appropriate for horses, as they referred to their coloration. “Balius” means “dapple,” coming from the Greek word βαλιός (baliós), which itself seems to have originated in a non-Greek (probably Illyrian) word used to designate a dappled or spotted horse.[1] Xanthus’ name is even more straightforward and means “yellow, blonde, reddish-brown.”

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    Balius, XanthusΒάλιος (Bálios)/Βαλίας (Balías); Ξάνθος (Xánthos)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [BAH-lee-uhs]; [ZAN-thuhs]/ˈbɑ li əs/; /ˈzæn θəs/

Attributes

Balius and Xanthus were immortal horses, known for their remarkable speed; Homer describes them as “swift as the winds.”[2] They were the most formidable of all the horses that took part in the Trojan War. Fittingly, they also belonged to the greatest hero of the war: Achilles.[3]

Family

Balius and Xanthus were born to the Harpy Podarge after she mated with Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, in the form of a mare.[4]

Mythology

Achilles and the Trojan War

The immortal horses Balius and Xanthus seem to have first belonged to Poseidon, the horse-loving god of the sea. Poseidon gave them to the hero Peleus as a wedding present when he married Thetis. Later, Peleus gifted the horses to his son Achilles when he went off to fight in the Trojan War.[5]

Balius and Xanthus drew Achilles’ chariot as the hero wreaked havoc on the plains of Troy. Sometimes they were yoked together with a third horse, Pedasus, who acted as a trace horse (Pedasus was mortal, but he was speedy enough to keep up with his immortal brethren). Balius and Xanthus were notoriously spirited and unwieldy, and only Achilles could fully master them—though Achilles’ charioteer, Automedon, also knew how to steer the beasts.[6]

Achilles’ horses were admired by all who fought in the Trojan War, Greek and Trojan alike. In one tradition, the Trojan warrior Dolon asked the Trojan commander Hector to award him Balius and Xanthus in exchange for going out to spy on the Greeks (Hector agreed, but poor Dolon did not survive to collect his reward).[7]

After Achilles ceased fighting because of his quarrel with the Greek commander-in-chief, Balius and Xanthus carried his best friend Patroclus into battle—clad in Achilles’ divine armor—to save the Greeks from annihilation. When Patroclus was killed by the Trojan champion Hector, Balius and Xanthus were inconsolable. They wept and refused to move until Zeus breathed vigor into them so that they could dash away to safety.[8]

When Achilles returned to battle in order to avenge his friend, he rebuked Balius and Xanthus for letting Patroclus die and charged them with keeping better watch over him. Remarkably, Balius and Xanthus understood their master’s words; Xanthus, temporarily granted the power of speech by the goddess Hera, even spoke to Achilles in response, promising that he and Balius would keep Achilles safe. But the horse also prophesied his master’s impending death:

“Aye verily, yet for this time will we save thee, mighty Achilles, albeit the day of doom is nigh thee, nor shall we be the cause thereof, but a mighty god and overpowering Fate… But for us twain, we could run swift as the blast of the West Wind, which, men say, is of all winds the fleetest; nay, it is thine own self that art fated to be slain in fight by a god and a mortal.”[9]

After he had said this, Xanthus’ voice was stopped by the Erinyes, the goddesses of fate, whose duty it was to prevent any transgressions against the natural order of things (such as talking horses).[10]

As predicted, it was not long before Achilles, too, was killed in battle. Balius and Xanthus mourned his death and even wished to leave the mortal realm forever; but the gods explained that it was their fate to serve one more master, Achilles’ son Neoptolemus, and to carry him to Elysium when he died.[11] Alternatively, another tradition claimed that Poseidon took the horses back after Achilles’ death.[12]

Vase painting showing Neoptolemus (left) killing Priam (center)

Attic red-figure amphora by the Nikoxenos Painter (ca. 500 BCE)

The Metropolitan Museum of ArtPublic Domain

Other Myths

There were a handful of other, more obscure traditions about Balius and Xanthus. According to Diodorus of Sicily, Balius and Xanthus had originally been Titans. But when the Titans fought against the Olympians in the Titanomachy, Balius and Xanthus decided to switch sides and help the Olympians, asking first that they be changed into horses so that their brothers would not recognize them.[13]

In another strange account, Balius and Xanthus were originally either Giants or the horses of Giants. As in Diodorus’ account, Balius and Xanthus did not want to join the Giants in warring against the Olympians and allied themselves with the gods instead.[14]

References

Notes

  1. See Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 1:196; s.v. “βαλιός (baliós).”

  2. Homer, Iliad 16.149, trans. A. T. Murray; cf. Euripides, Rhesus 184ff; Apollodorus, Library 3.13.5; etc.

  3. Homer, Iliad 2.769–70.

  4. Homer, Iliad 16.149ff; Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 3.750–51, 8.156.

  5. Homer, Iliad 23.276ff; Euripides, Rhesus 184ff; Apollodorus, Library 3.13.5; Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 3.743ff.

  6. Homer, Iliad 16.148ff.

  7. Homer, Iliad 10.229ff; Euripides, Rhesus 184ff.

  8. Homer, Iliad 17.426ff.

  9. Homer, Iliad 19.408–17, trans. A. T. Murray.

  10. Homer, Iliad 19.418.

  11. Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 3.743ff.

  12. Scholia B on Homer’s Iliad 14.149.

  13. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 6.3; cf. Eustathius on Homer’s Iliad 19.404 (1190/1260).

  14. Ptolemaeus Chennus, New History 5 (from the epitome in Photius, Library 190).

Primary Sources

Balius and Xanthus’ first (and most important) literary appearance is in Homer’s Iliad (eighth century BCE), where they are described as the spirited and loyal immortal horses of Achilles: they carry Achilles into battle, mourn the death of Patroclus, and even prophesy Achilles’ death (16.148ff, 17.426ff, 19.400ff).

Balius and Xanthus also feature in subsequent literature, though less prominently. In the Rhesus, a tragedy traditionally (but incorrectly) attributed to Euripides (ca. 480–406 BCE), the Trojan spy Dolon asks to be awarded Achilles’ horses in exchange for his services (184ff). In Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica (late second/third century CE), Balius and Xanthus pass on to Achilles’ son Neoptolemus after Achilles falls in battle (3.743ff).

Other versions of the immortal horses’ origins (as Titans or Giants) are recorded by Diodorus of Sicily (before 90–after 30 BCE) in his Library of History (6.3) and by Ptolemaeus Chennus (ca. 100 CE) in his New History (now lost, but helpfully summarized in an epitome by Photius).

More information on Balius and Xanthus can be found in texts, commentaries, and scholia from late antiquity, the Byzantine period, and the Middle Ages. For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

Bloch, René. “Balius.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e212100.

Escher-Bürkli, Jakob. “Balios (1).” In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, edited by Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, vol. 2.2, 2828. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1896.

Johnston, Sarah Iles. “Xanthus, Hera and the Erinyes (Iliad 19.400–418).” Transactions of the American Philological Association 122 (1992): 85–98. https://www.jstor.org/stable/284366.

Schultz, A. “Balios (1).” In Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, edited by W. H. Roscher, vol. 1, 748–49. Leipzig: Teubner, 1884–1890.

Theoi Project. “Balios and Xanthos.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Ther/HippoiBaliosXanthos.html.

Citation

“Balius and Xanthus.” Mythopedia, January 12, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/balius-and-xanthus.

“Balius and Xanthus.” Mythopedia, 12 Jan. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/balius-and-xanthus. Accessed on 13 Jan. 2023.

(2023, January 12). Balius and Xanthus. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/balius-and-xanthus