This enduring Greek myth involves a fearsome female fire-breathing hybrid beast.
What is it?
The Chimera (‘she-goat’ in Ancient Greek) is a fire-breathing hybrid creature. It is typically depicted as a lion, with the head of a goat emerging from its back, and a tail ending in a snake’s head. Homer describes the Chimera in the Iliad: ‘she was 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’.
Unusually for a mythic creature, the chimera was a one-off, rather than a species – and always female. The Chimera used its fantastic strength and speed to ravage the countryside, and its appearance was considered as a presage of natural disasters – especially those related to volcanoes. In time, it came to symbolise female evil, and was used to support denunciations of women in medieval times. It has since lost its deadlier connotations, coming to stand for anything composed of disparate parts, wildly imaginative, or fanciful – and in the scientific world, as any creature with two separate sets of DNA.
The earliest account of the Chimera is in Homer’s The Iliad, where the creature hails from Lycia, in Asia Minor, and is reared by Araisodarus, the father of two Trojan warriors. According to the Theogony, by Homer’s near contemporary Hesiod, its mother may have been Echidna, and its father Typhon, or possibly Hydra. These initial accounts established the basic story: in The Iliad, the Greek hero Bellerophon is ordered to slay the Chimera, and eventually manages to kill it from the air with the aid of his horse Pegasus. In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder gave an account that associated the Chimera with an area of permanent gas vents that still exists on the Lycian Way in southwest Turkey. The mountainous area is geologically active, emitting burning methane; in ancient times, the fires on Mount Chimaera were used for navigation by sailors. All three of the animals that make up the Chimera dwelled there, which may have helped to cement the myth and its association with volcanoes.
In Ancient Egypt, a fire-breathing lioness was one of the earliest solar and war deities. Sekhmet, the daughter of the sun god Ra, acted as the vengeful manifestation of his power, and was believed to cause plagues. The Chimera appears in Etruscan wall-paintings of the fourth century BC, as well as in pictures from the Bronze Age Indus civilisation of South Asia. In medieval times, the Chimera morphs into a satanic force of nature, famously adopting a human face in Dante’s Inferno. Chinese art showcases many winged leonine or mixed-species quadrupeds such as bixie, tianlu and gilin.
The Chimera has inspired countless literary and artistic works and is a recurrent figure in popular culture, often showing up in role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Final Fantasy, as an obstacle for players to overcome. Many franchises in the science fiction genre also employ Chimeras, drawing on their scientific parallels to describe biological and genetic hybrids or viruses created by man – such as in Mission: Impossible II, in which a pharmaceutical company develops a virus, Chimera, to generate market demand for the antidote it has created, Bellerophon. Famous recent examples also include American singer Taylor Muhl, who discovered that she was carrying genetic material from her fraternal twin sister, whose egg had fused with her own in their mother’s womb.