The Chimera: The Hybrid Monster of Greek Mythology
You have probably heard the word chimera used to describe a monster, but do you know where it all started? Here’s the full story of the original Chimera of Greek mythology!
The world chimera today refers to almost any hybrid creature. These types of monsters, which combined features from many different animals, were common in mythology around the world.
The ancient Greeks, however, saw the Chimera as a distinct monster. There was only one Chimera, according to the Greeks, and its legend was a familiar one.
The Chimera was one of the most consistently described and depicted creatures in all of mythology. So where did it come from and how did its name spread?
Read on to learn all about the original Chimera, one of Greek mythology’s most famous monsters.
The Chimera was one of the most outlandish monsters in Greek mythology, but surprisingly its description changed very little over the course of the centuries. While other monsters like Charybdis and Medusa evolved over time, the Chimera’s image was remarkably consistent.
While the Greek word chimaira referred to a female goat, from a very early time it was clear that the monstrous Chimera was much more than a common animal.
The earliest written description comes from Homer’s Iliad, in which he described the beast as “lion-fronted and snake behind” with “a goat in the middle.” Homer also said the monster breathed bright, hot fire.
Hesiod added the detail that the monster had three heads, each corresponding to a different body type. The types of animals contained within the Chimera’s hybrid form remained consistent.
Artistic representations agreed with Hesiod. As early as the 7th century BC, the Chimera was a popular image in art, particularly in Corinth.
Artists included the three heads, each coming from the part of the body that corresponded with the animal type. Rather than growing near one another the creature had a typical lion’s head, a goat’s head growing out of its back, and a snake’s head at the end of its tail.
Although the Chimera was almost universally described as female, art of the creature shows it with a mane around its lion’s head. This was typical in Greek art, where lionesses were shown with a mane.
The Chimera can still be identified as female in art, however, because its ears are showing. The convention in the art of the time was to show females with shorter, sparser manes than the long ones typical of males.
Bellerophon was welcomed into the home of Proetus, the king of Tiryns. More trouble came, however, in the form of the king’s wife.
The queen was attracted to the young prince, but Bellerophon rejected her advances. Embarrassed and scorned, the queen accused the innocent man of attempting to assault her.
Proetus could not kill a guest outright without violating the sacred laws of hospitality. He sent Bellerophon to his father-in-law with a note detailing the crime and demanding justice.
His wife’s father, King Iobates, did not read the note immediately, however. He too had welcomed Bellerophon as a guest and could not order his death.
Rather than send him on, however, Iobates found a loophole. He could not kill Bellerophon himself, but he could send the exiled prince on a quest that would almost certainly result in his death.
The neighboring land of Caria had been all but destroyed by the fire-breathing Chimera. Iobates gave Bellerophon the task of killing the monster, certain that the supposed criminal would be killed in the attempt.
Bellerophon may well have died if a chance encounter had not provided guidance. He came across a seer who advised him to capture the flying horse Pegasus to aid him in his quest.
The hero followed the seer’s instructions and, with Athena’s aid, received a bridle that would tame the wild Pegasus. He became the first person to ever ride the majestic winged horse.
Bellerophon and Pegasus flew to Caria to confront the Chimera.
The flying horse helped Bellerophon to dodge the monster’s fiery breath, but he could not manage to damage it. The Chimera’s hide was too thick for arrows to pierce and even his spear did not break its skin.
The spear’s failure to stab the Chimera gave Bellerophon an idea, though. While the weapon’s point could not harm the monster, its material might.
Urging Pegasus to top speed, Bellerophon flew directly at the Chimera’s leonine head. He aimed his spear at the monster’s open mouth, even though he knew he could not damage it.
Pegasus veered away at the last moment, leaving the lead tip of Bellerophon’s spear lodged deep in the Chimera’s throat. When the monster attempted to breathe fire at them, the lead melted and blocked its airway.
The Chimera suffocated on the soft metal of Bellerophon’s spear. The monster had been killed even though not a single drop of its blood was spilled.
The fire-breathing monster with three heads and the bodies of three entirely unrelated animals was considered fantastical even by the standards of ancient mythology.
It was not long before attempts were made to rationalize the creature and its incredible attributes.
This was not unusual in the Hellenistic and Roman eras. Writers and philosophers of the time were worldly and rational enough to know that the monsters of their ancestors were outlandish, and they recognized that the legends were often a mechanism for explaining previously mysterious phenomena.
Cicero, for example, was a proponent of finding logical explanations for the monsters and miracles of ancient mythology. While he and his peers believed in the power of the gods, they doubted the details of heroic tales like that of Bellerophon.
Even when some details of the story were taken as fact, other aspects were seen as part of ancient imagination. One rationalization of the story, for example, accepted the fire-breathing Chimera but found another explanation for the existence of Pegasus:
I reflected that it was panic more than anything which had induced the celebrated Pegasus to take to the air, and that the tradition that he had wings was justified because he leapt upward as high as heaven in his fear of being bitten by the fire-breathing Chimaera.
-Apuleius, The Golden Ass 8. 16 ff (trans. Walsh)
One of the most common explanations for the Chimera was that its fiery breath represented a volcano. Pliny the Elder identified a volcano in Lycia as the source of the Chimera’s supposed flames.
Modern researchers can locate the region Pliny the Elder described today based on a nearby temple to Hephaestus, although modern knowledge of geology shows that it was not a volcano that made the lands of Lycia burn.
The region of modern Turkey now known as Yanartas is home to roughly two dozen active natural gas vents.
The burning methane emitted by these vents was used as a landmark for navigators in the ancient world. They still burn today, giving a rational explanation for the monster who breathed flames so strong that they created eternal fires across the land.
The Chimera was one of the most memorable monsters in the mythology of ancient Greece.
It was not alone, however. The Chimera quite literally belonged to a long line of legendary monsters.
While many monstrous creatures in Greek mythology originally existed in independent myths, through the years these stories were tied together. Just as heroes and kings were given lineages that traced back to the gods, monsters were given a genealogy that linked them to one another.
The Chimera was one of many monsters in Greek mythology that was said to be the offspring of Typhon and Echidna.
Typhon was one of the most fearsome enemies the gods of Olympus ever encountered. A terrible giant who breathed fire and was ringed by serpents, Typhon nearly defeated Zeus.
His consort Echidna was a serpentine woman who lived in a dank cave and the far end of the world.
They were initially described as the parents of only a few of the greatest monsters of Greek mythology, including the Chimera. Over time, however, the list grew until nearly every monstrous creature of legend was said at some point to have been born from Typhon and Echidna.
These monsters included:
- Cerberus – The enormous multi-headed dog became the guardian of the gates of the underworld. Like his father Typhon, he had the ability to breathe fire from each of his heads.
- Orthrus – Another multi-headed dog, he guarded the giant Geryon’s herd of cattle. Orthrus was killed by Heracles when the hero was sent to steal one of the cows.
- The Lernaean Hydra – The many-headed snake was another creature killed by Heracles. The Hydra had the ability to regenerate its heads when they were removed and its powerful venom was toxic even decades after its death.
- The Caucasian Eagle – The giant bird, known for its torture of Prometheus, was named among the children of Typhon in some later writings.
- Ladon – According to some sources, the enormous dragon that guarded the apples of the Hesperides was one of Typhon and Echidna’s children.
- The Crommyonian Sow – Slaying this monstrous pig was one of the early adventures of Theseus. It was mentioned once as the offspring of Echidna.
- The Colchian Dragon – A writer in the 1st century listed the guardian of the famous Golden Fleece as another child of Typhon and Echidna.
- The Harpies – While they were typically said to be the offspring of Electra, at least one source named their father as Typhon.
- Laocoon’s Serpents – The water snakes that attacked Laocoon and his sons at the end of the Trojan War were also said to be children of Typhon, although earlier myths simply said they were sent by Poseidon.
Most of the monsters later credited as siblings of the Chimera were not listed as such in earlier mythology. The connection was made later to connect all the monsters in a continuous and consistent lineage.
This extended to the Chimera’s offspring as well. It was sometimes said that she mated with her canine brother, Orthrus, to produce two leonine figures of Greek legend – the Sphynx and the Nemean Lion.
Both creatures were also said to have been children of Typhon. Even when the legends conflicted, they connected the famous monsters as members of one terrible family.
Creatures like the Sphynx had another connection to the Chimera beyond their mythological family tree. They were creatures that were prominent in cultures beyond Greece.
While the Greek Chimera is immediately recognizable in art, it bears a strong resemblance to creatures from the imaginations of many other cultures.
One figure from early Anatolian art is sometimes considered to be a direct predecessor of the Greek Chimera. The Neo-Hittite figure, found in the same area the mythical Chimera was said to inhabit, has a winged lion body, a snake-like tail, and a human head rising from its shoulders.
While it is possible that this figure influenced the Greek legend, other world mythologies featured similar creatures without any known cultural or geographic links to ancient Greece.
The Japanese Nue, for example, combined the features of a tiger, monkey, snake, and dog. The Chinese Pixiu, or Pi Yau, was a more auspicious creature that had attributes of both a lion and a snake, as well as occasionally featuring antlers.
These examples are so similar to the Greek Chimera that they are sometimes incorrectly called “Asian chimeras.” They are far from the only hybrid creatures of world mythology, though.
The Near East and Asia Minor featured many chimera-type creatures in their mythologies, as both monsters and aspects of gods. Variously combining the forms of known animals like eagles, bulls, lions, and even humans, these assorted hybrids influenced creatures like the griffon and Sphynx as well as the Chimera.
Hybrid animals are so common in art and legend around the world that they are often grouped together as a common theme. Most often, they are referred to by the name of the Greek Chimera.
While the Chimera was a distinct individual creature, the world chimera came to be applied to any fantastical animal or monster that blended features of different animals.
In the Middle Ages, when Greek myths of the Chimera were largely forgotten, scholars still used the name when referring to a wide variety of legendary animals they believed existed in far-off lands.
After the myths of ancient Greece experienced a resurgence in popularity, chimera was still used as a general word to describe any hybrid creature. Most creatures called chimeras were quadrupedal, often retaining their namesake’s lion body if nothing else.
This is still true today, as many hybrid creatures in games, books, and movies are referred to as chimeras even with no relation to Greek mythology.
The name has even been used in genetics, describing a rare condition in which separate embryos fuse together to create an individual with two sets of DNA. Chimerism is relatively common in cats, where it is often seen in mismatched eyes or contrasting fur colors, but has also been attested in humans.
The Chimera was a fire-breathing monster from Greek mythology. It had the front of a lion, the torso of a goat, and the tail of a serpent.
The Chimera’s image remained consistent throughout the Greco-Roman era. It was shown with three heads, each of a different animal, growing along the length of its body.
In Greek mythology, the Chimera was defeated when Bellerophon, mounted on the flying horse Pegasus, lodged the end of his spear in its throat. The melted lead blocked the creature’s airway, suffocating it on its own fiery breath.
The Chimera was connected to the other great monsters of Greek mythology thought a complex and often amended family tree. Through the years, virtually every monster of legend was connected to the others through this supposed shared lineage.
Roman and Hellenistic writers recognized the fanciful nature of the Chimera and rationalized it as a volcanic site. The region they described is recognized today not as a volcanic mountain, but as the site of several active methane vents.
The Chimera was not the only hybrid form in world mythology, or even in that of Greece. Many hybrid creatures with similar features were depicted in ancient art from around the world.
Over time, all these creatures were called by the same name. The Greek Chimera gave its name to a wide variety of hybrid animals and continues to describe blended forms today.