Chimera

The origins of the chimera from Greek mythology.

The twisted child of the Greek gods Typhon and Echidna, the chimera is a truly formidable creature. It is the sister of monsters such as the Hydra and Cerberus. It has the head and body of a lioness, a goat’s head that rises from its back and at the end of its tail is a snake’s head. It is a grotesque hybrid creature that not only has the ferociousness of a lion but also is also able to breathe fire. It was known to devastate the land Lycia on the southern coast of modern day Turkey before it was killed.

The earliest known literary mention is in the Iliad by Homer. He calls it “of divine stock, not of men, in the fore part a lion, in the hinder a serpent, and in the midst a goat, breathing forth in terrible wise the might of blazing fire”. Hesiod, another Greek poet, also mentions the chimera in his poem Theogony. His description is very similar to that of Homer, saying the chimera is “a creature fearful, great, swift footed and strong, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion, another of a goat, and another of a snake, a fierce dragon; in her forepart she was a lion; in her hinder part, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire.”

A man named Bellerophon eventually defeated the chimera. He was sent on the quest to slay the chimera by a Lycian king. Bellerophon consulted a seer before going, he was told that to defeat the monster he would need the winged horse Pegasus. After obtaining the horse, he went to fight the chimera. He was able to fly safely above the chimera’s vicious heads and shoot arrows down at the creature. When these failed to pierce the animal’s hide, some say Bellerophon affixed a lump of lead to the tip of an arrow and shot it into the chimera’s open mouth. Others say he attached the lead to a spear and thrust it down into its mouth. The effect was the same for both, the lead melted from the chimera’s fiery breath, oozed down its throat and suffocated the creature.

Though the chimera is often depicted with a mane like a male, it is considered to be a female. It is said that the chimera mated with her brother Orthus (a two-headed dog) and gave birth to the Sphinx and the Nemean Lion. The chimera was once associated with the constellation Capricorn, the serpent tailed goat, with the constellation Pegasus driving it from the sky during the spring. Seeing a chimera is a bad omen of storms, shipwrecks, and natural disasters, especially volcanoes.

Some believe that the chimera was not an actual monster at all but an area in Lycia where gas vents are constantly on fire. It is not known which area in Lycia is referred to as Mount Chimera, but it is said that it was on fire in some places, had lions on the mountain peaks, goat pastures in the middle and snakes around the base of the mountain. Bellerophon did not slay the chimera as he did in the story, but made the mountain habitable for others.

Chimera have been portrayed more in Greek art than in their writing, especially that of vases and wall paintings. It first appeared painted on pottery alongside various animals as well as other mythological hybrids such as lions, bulls, sphinxes, and griffons. Early variations of how the chimera is represented suggest it had multiple origins of influence. One possible influence is an early Ancient Egyptian deity that was represented by a fire-breathing lioness.