Lion. Snake. Dragon. Goat. Which one doesn’t belong in this group of animals?
In theory, there are two ways to go about this. One way is to identify the ones that are actual animals, meaning that the dragon doesn’t belong in the group. The other way is to reason that a goat isn’t necessarily believed to be a deadly animal, something which is moreso attributable to the other three figures.
But, in fact, all the beings belong in this group of animals if we follow the story of the mythical or fictional creature by the name of Chimera. Terrorizing the mountains of Lycea, the fiery monster is known as one of the earliest depiction in Greek art. Yet, it is also relevant to the biologist of this day and age. How can these two ever go hand in hand?
What is the Chimera?
Both women and men can be fiery. But, in this specific case it is the former that embodies a fiery existence.
The Chimera of Greek mythology is one of the most ancient Greek myths about a female monster that breathes fire. It’s not just a fire breathing monster because it is angry most of the time, it predominantly breathes fire because it happens to be a mind bending combination of a lion, a goat, and a dragon. In some depictions, a snake is also added to the mix.
How does that work? Well, the lion is the forepart of the hybrid monster. The middle part is attributed to the goat, while the dragon takes his place at the animal’s rear.
That is not to say that only the lion is allowed to show his teeth, since all three animals can enjoy the convenience of their own head, face, and brain. Indeed, it is a three headed creature and also had the head of a goat and that of a dragon.
Depictions where a snake is also included place the last venomous animal in the tail of our monster. The goat seems a bit out of place here, but I won’t argue with the Greek legend. After all, many of the stories in Greek mythology inform how we shape society to this day.
Of course, any being copies and learns a great bit from its parents. Therefore, to get a better view about Chimera, we should dive a bit deeper into the creatures that birthed her.
Chimera’s Mother: Echidna
Chimera was birthed by a beautiful maiden that goes by the name of Echidna. While she was a beautiful maiden with a human head, she was also half snake. Hesiod, a Greek poet, described Chimera’s mother as a flesh eating monster who wasn’t bound to categorization. That is to say, she could neither be seen as a mortal man nor as an immortal god.
What, then, was she? Hesiod described her as half nymph, who neither dies or grows old. While other nymphs eventually do grow old, Echidna wasn’t about that life. Maybe it was because of the raw flesh that she ate because her other half was related with a snake. But, most likely, it was because she lived in the underworld: a place that people dwelled in forever.
Chimera’s Father: Typhon
The creature that fathered Chimera went by the name of Typhon. He is known as a giant that was buried in Sicily, after Zeus put him there. Typhon was the son of Gaia and was known to have a hundred fire breathing snake heads.
So yeah, a giant with about a hundred flamethrowers on his head. Doesn’t seem like someone you want to share the bed with. But then again, a half-snake half-nymph like Echidna probably has a different scoring table when it comes to beauty.
Anyway, not only would Typhon have a myriad of snakes on his head, he was also so big that his head would reach the stars as soon as he stood up. When he stretched his arms properly, he would be able to reach all the way from east to west. At least, that’s the story in Hesiod’s epic poem that was published around the seventh century BC.
But, by around 500 BC, most Greeks believed that the earth was round. As you might have noticed, perceiving the world as a sphere is a bit problematic when one of its creatures is believed to reach from east to west. Hesiod, however, wrote his poem just before the societal epiphany as just described, potentially explaining the reasoning by the ancient Greek poet.
Origin of the Early Greek Myth
While her mother and father are first described by Hesoid, the myth of the Chimera appears first in the epic poem Iliad by the Greek Homer. This poem actually tells a lot of stories that relate to Greek mythology and the many Greek gods and goddesses. Indeed, while the stories where already there, we only known about many mythological figures because they were described in text by Homer.
Afterwards, Hesoid would also elaborate on the story of Chimera, mainly by describing her birth as just described. The stories of Homer and Hesiod therefore make up the core of the Greek legend on the Chimera.
How the Chimera Came Into Existence
In the first century AD, there were some speculations about how the Chimera became the myth as described by the two Greek poets.
A Roman philosopher by the name of Pliny the Elder reasoned that the myth must’ve something to do with the volcanoes in the Lycia area in southwest Turkey. One of the volcanoes had permanent gas vents and later became known as Chimaera. So it’s not hard to see the connections there.
Later accounts also related the story to the volcanic valley near Cragus, another mountain in modern day Turkey. Mount Cragus was connected to the events that were connected to the volcano Chimaera. The volcano is active to this day, and in ancient times the fires of Chimaera were used for navigation by sailors.
Since all three animals that make up the hybrid monster lived in the area of Lycia, the combination of a goat, snake, and lion is a logical choice. The fact that volcanoes spit lava might explain the inclusion of the dragon.
Chimera Mythology: The Story
Thus far we have described what exactly the Chimera is and where it finds its origins. However, the actual story and relevance of the Chimera is still something to be discussed.
Bellerophon in Argon
The son of Poseidon and the mortal Eurynome was a Greek hero and went by the name of Bellerophon. He was banned out of Corinth after he murdered his brother. He moved towards Argos, since king Proitos was still willing to take him in after all he did. However, Bellerophon would accidentally seduce his wife, queen Anteia.
The hero Bellerophon was so thankful for being able to stay in Argos, however, that he would deny the presence of the queen. Anteia didn’t agree with it, so she made up a story about how Bellerophon tried to ravish her. Based on this, king Proitos sended him to the kingdom of Lycia to see the father of queen Ateia: king Iobates.
Bellerophon went to Lycea
So, Bellerophon was told to deliver a message to the king of Lycea. But what he didn’t know was that this letter would contain his own death sentence. Indeed, the letter explained the situation and said that Iobates should kill Bellerophon.
However, Iobates didn’t open the letter until nine days after his arrival. When he opened it, and read that he had to kill Bellerophon for violating his daughter, he had to think deeply before making his decision.
Why would you have to overthink whether you want to kill someone that touched your daughter in inappropriate ways? Well, Bellerophon was such a womanizer that he also fell in love with another daughter of king Iobates. His new flame went by the name of Philonoe.
Because of the complex situation, the king of Lycea became frightened about the consequences of killing Bellerophon. After all, the Furies might not agree with his decision of eventually killing him.
The Compromise: Killing Chimera
Eventually, king Iobates decided to let something else decide the faith of Bellerophon. This is where our fire breathing monster Chimera came into play.
Chimera destroyed the surroundings of Lycia, leading to crop failure and a bunch of dead, innocent, people. Iobates asked Bellerophon to kill Chimera, assuming she would be first to kill him. But, if Bellerephon succeeded, he would be allowed to marry Philonoe.
How was the Chimera killed?
Off he went, into the mountains surrounding Lycia to search for the feared monster that was terrorizing the region. One of the people that lived in the outskirts of the city described how Chimera looked liked, something which Bellephron was unaware of at first. After he got an idea of how the monster looked, he prayed to the war goddess Athena for advice.
And that’s what she gave him, in the form of a white horse with a winged body. Some of you might know him as Pegasus. Athena gave him a type of rope and told Bellephron that he must catch the winged horse before he would leave to kill Chimera. So that’s what happened.
Bellephron caught Pegasus and the hero mounted the horse. He flew it over the mountains that surrounded Lycea and didn’t stop until he found a three headed monster that was blazing fire. Eventually, Chimera was discovered by the hero Bellerophon and his winged horse. From the back of the Pegasus, he killed the monster with a spear.
Although the story of Bellephron continues for a bit and ends tragically, the story of the Chimera ended right there and then. After Chimera was killed, she joined Cerberus and other such monsters at the entrance of the underworld to assist Hades, or Pluto as he was known to the Romans.
What does Chimera Symbolize in Greek Mythology?
As might be evident, Chimera was a fascinating figure but not really more than that. It is moreso a part of the story of Bellephron and is not very much talked about in and of itself. But, it is still an important figure in Greek mythology and culture in general for several reasons.
First of all, we’ll take a closer look at the word chimera itself. Its literal translation is something like ‘she-goat or monster’, which is pretty apt for the creature with three heads.
As some of you might know, the word is also a word in the English vocabulary. In this sense, it refers to an unrealistic idea that you have about something or a hope that you have and is unlikely to be fulfilled. Indeed, it finds its root in the mythological story of the Chimera.
Significance of the Chimera
Certainly, the whole myth is an unrealistic idea. Not only because the creature itself was highly unlikely. Also, it is a unique figure in Greek mythology. There is only one such creature as the Chimera, something which is rather uncommon for the Greeks.
The Chimera is believed to symbolize female evil. Therefore she was also used to support denunciations of women in ancient times. Furthermore, the Chimera was believed to be responsible for natural disasters that were related to volcanic eruptions.
Nowadays, these connotations have mostly been discarded. But, the legend of the Chimera still lives on to this day. As mentioned, it lives on as a word in and of itself.
Besides that, it is also widely used in the scientific community to refer to any creature with two seperate sets of DNA. There are actually some examples of humans that are considered Chimeras, in its contemporary sense
How Chimera Appears in Art
The Chimera is widely depicted in ancient art. Actually, it is one of the earliest identifiable mythological scenes that was recognized in Greek art.
The art movement that most used the Chimera goes by the name of Etruscan archaic art. These are basically Italian artists which were heavily influenced by Greek mythological stories. While the Chimera was already depicted in a movement that precedes Etruscan archaic art, the Italian art movement popularized its use.
The Chimera lost some of its creepiness over time, however. While at first it had all the characteristics as just described throughout this article, in later instances it would ‘only’ have two heads or be less fierceful.
Can You Imagine?
Although the Chimera saw some changes over time in its depiction, in general she is remembered as a fire spitting, three-headed beast that got her extraordinary powers from her giant father and half-snake mother.
The Chimera signifies the boundaries of the imaginable, and flirts with the fact whether some things are actually possible or not. Especially if we see that the term is now used to an actual biological phenomenon that can happen, it challenges many of the presuppositions about things we deem undebatable in biology. Or even, life in general.