Chimera is a monstrous creature from Greek mythology that was said to be a combination of different animals. It is often described as having the body of a lion, the head of a goat that sprouts from its back, and a tail that ends in a snake’s head. It is usually depicted as a fearsome and fire-breathing monster. The most famous story involving the Chimera comes from the myth of the hero Bellerophon.
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What is the Chimera?
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.
Depictions where a snake is also included place the last venomous animal in the tail of our monster.
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 a 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 human nor as an immortal god.
What, then, was she? Hesiod described her as half nymph, who neither dies nor 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 to 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 killed him. Typhon was the son of Gaia and was known to have a hundred fire-breathing snake heads.
Not only did Typhon have a myriad of snakes on his head, but 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.
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.
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 related 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.
The Story about Bellerophon and Chimera
Bellerophon was a Greek hero and the son of Poseidon and the mortal Eurynome. He was banned from Corinth after he murdered his brother. He moved toward Argos since King Proitos was still willing to take him in after all he did. However, Bellerophon accidentally seduced 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. Because of this, King Proitos sent 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.
Bellerophon 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 to eventually kill 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 the first to kill him. But, if Bellerophon 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 living on the outskirts of the city described what Chimera looked like, something that Bellephron was unaware of at first. After he got an idea of how the monster looked, he prayed to Athena, the war goddess, for advice.
And that’s what she gave him, in the form of a white horse with a winged body known 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.
Bellerophon caught Pegasus and 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?
Chimera is still an important figure in Greek mythology and culture in general for several reasons.
The word chimera translates to ‘she-goat or monster’, which is pretty apt for the creature with three heads.
This word also exists in the English vocabulary. In this sense, it refers to an unrealistic idea that you have about something or hope that you have and is unlikely to be fulfilled.
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.
READ MORE: The Life of Women in Ancient Greece
Nowadays, these connotations have mostly been discarded. But, the legend of the Chimera still lives on to this day.
Besides that, it is also widely used in the scientific community to refer to any creature with two separate sets of DNA. There are actually some examples of humans that are considered Chimeras.
Chimera in Art
The Chimera is widely depicted in ancient Greek art. Actually, it is one of the earliest identifiable mythological scenes that was recognized in Greek art, particularly Etruscan archaic art created by Italian artists who 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.