Through the forests it stalks, a walking disaster that destroys anything in its wake. Warriors, heroes. and beasts fall before it with equal effort, and the forest burns in its path. The nigh unstoppable child of Echidna, slain only by the cunning of Athena, the great monster Chimera.
The Chimera (also Chimaera or Khimaira) ranks as one of Ancient Greece’s most recognizable monsters, a disturbing mashup of several beasts put together as a single odd entity. It’s form is a combination of a she-lion, a goat, and a drakon (Grecian serpent-dragon). Translations differ on whether the chimera had the back end of a drakon or had a drakon on it’s back end, and in most depictions the drakon has been watered down to a venomous snake for a tail, but otherwise the depiction of the chimera is fairly universal: Lion at the front, serpent at the back, goat head in the middle of the back, roughly below the shoulder blades. It also possessed the ability to breathe fire, though sources differ on whether it did so from the lion or the goat head.
The Chimera’s story is fairly fractured, appearing even in ancient Greek sources as more of a reference than a full story. This is what historians and anthropologists refer to as a “huge pain in the ass.” Modern retellings give us a much fuller tale of a brave hero taming a wild flying horse with the help of a goddess and slaying a horrible monster. But because even ancient tales differed or even contradicted the details, it’s hard to determine exactly how much of the retellings are faithful to the original tale.
The beast itself is fairly consistent. The Chimera is one of the children of Typhon and Echidna, who mated with Orthrus the two-headed dog and in turn gave birth to the Nemean Lion and the Grecian Sphinx. It is ultimately slain by Bellerophon with the help of Pegasus
This is believed to be the progenitor to the Grecian Chimera. Instead of a goat’s head and snake tail, it was she-lion with wings and a woman’s head rising above the lion’s. It is theorized to have been little more than a warding symbol, and bears a striking resemblance to the Assyrian Lamassus that served as household guardians, who were themselves remnants of the Sumerian goddess Lamma.
The Harappan Chimera is a creature from the Indus Civilization. This creature is a giant mess of a monster, boasting the key features of every creature, real or imaginary, in the region. Most notable are an elephant’s snout, a human face, the hindquarters of a lion, and of course a snake for a tail. The actual name is lost along with the Harappan civilization, but the iconography still supposedly crops up in archeological sites.
Image courtesy of https://www.harappa.com/content/harappan-chimaeras-‘symbolic-hypertexts’-some-thoughts-plato-chimaera-and-indus-civilization
The Chimera is widely referenced across Greek mythology, yet is often referenced in an annoyingly vague way. Most myths will describe her lineage, or her association with Bellerophon, or how monstrous a beast she was, but even the saga of Bellerophon barely does more than touch on the slaying of the Chimera as part of the hero’s redemption quest.
What we are able to piece together is that Bellerophon, grandson of Sisyphus, fled Corinthia after the murder of his brother, and sought redemption from king Proteus of Argos. During his stay the queen developed an attraction for the hero, but found herself spurned, and instead told the King that Bellerophon had approached her. Proteus then exiled Bellerophon to Lycia, with a letter commanding King Iobates to kill him.
King Iobates was reluctant to do the deed himself, either out of divine hospitality rules, or general distaste for wanton violence. So instead he sent Bellerophon on a suicide mission to kill the Chimaera. The Chimera is described as one of the many monstrous offspring of Typhon and Echidna, and the sire of the Nemean Lion and the Grecian Sphinx. It is described as a Lion/Goat/Drakon mixture, and a nigh unkillable force of destruction that burns forests and slaughters cattle.
The stories start to really split on how Bellerophon slew the Chimaera. In some stories, Bellerophon discovers and tames the winged horse Pegasus during his quest to slay the Chimera, but others suggest that he acquired the flying horse in his youth before leaving Corintia. A great many myths credit him with slaying Chimaera with a hail of arrows, while some later renditions say he slew the beast by cramming a lead-tipped spear down it’s fire-breathing maw. In general, the descriptions give the feat very little pomp or circumstance, instead describing it very matter-of-factly among his other challenges put forth by Iobates.
Based on the time periods, it is feasible that the Grecian Chimera’s physical design can be traced back to the Harappan Chimera. It’s a stretch to call it a fact, but it’s possible that the iconography of the Harappan Chimera (~3300-~1300 BCE) traveled with traders and was picked up by ancient Assyrians (~2500-~609 BCE), where it was gradually simplified into the Lamassu and then adopted by the Neo-Hittites (~1600-~748 BCE) into their own Chimera. It was later picked up by Mycenaean Greece (~1600-~1100 BCE), stripped of its warding role, and retold as the reason for the scorched lands to the east. It’s also possible based on the regions and time periods that the idea of the Chimera came from an Indo-European proto-civilization and spread out with the various splinter groups that later settled in the Indus Valley and the Middle East. I reiterate that this is personal conjecture based on timelines, locations, and what the creature symbolized. I don’t hold the anthropology degree or resources needed to properly trace one creature through the mists of time
While popular, the Chimera largely remains a monster of the past. The story of the epic fight between her and Bellerophon may continue to be retold, but you’ll hardly hear someone tell a tale about stumbling across a Chimera during a moonlit stroll. However the name Chimera continues to be used as a term, both to describe similar monsters of composite design, and in medical fields to describe a person with multiple sets of DNA codes, often caused by a fetus absorbing a twin embryo during pregnancy or an organ transplant or blood transfusion causing foreign stem cells to spread.
With how popular the chimera is, it’s no surprise that the creature would crop up in all kinds of media. Nearly any sort of fantasy/mythology related story has a chimera, or failing that, a creature with a similar name or design.
The Chimera, like her father, is a walking natural disaster. It is closely linked to a mountain in Ancient Lycia (now modern day Turkey) that spewed methane and other volcanic gasses through cracks in the earth and created eternal flames on a scale similar to the Centralia fires. This is where the myth of the Chimera’s origin and destructive reputation is believed to have sprung from, and the mountain itself even shares her name. This source also explains the existence of the venomous serpent tail as an analogy for the noxious volcanic gas that likely permeated the area.
The chimera, like many ancient monsters, is a force of nature, in this case the nature of wild forest fires and poisonous natural gasses. She also exists as a plot device of sorts, a symbol of overwhelming odds that our underdog hero must find a way to overcome. Beyond that, she mostly exists in Greek legend as a trophy kill, an achievement that pads Bellerophon’s resume if you will, which is personally kind of a depressing presentation of such a dynamic monster.
Interaction by the general public is not recommended, and the only known specimen was killed about 3,000 years ago. Should you somehow come across one, a combination of height and distance are your friend. The blessing of a goddess and a flying horse (or other mobile elevated position) would also be useful. The trick is to keep your distance and pepper her with arrows. You could try to engage it in head to head combat, if you feel like dealing with fire, snake venom, and a vicious lion all at the same time. I suppose with enough padding and drugs anything is possible. However your ultimate hope for defeating the Chimera is to force it to ingest some form of powerful poison. In some tales, it’s snake portion gives it resistance to most venoms and poisons, but non-organic toxins like lead work, and the tales where the beast isn’t simply killed in a hail of arrows have Bellerophon shoving a lead spear into the fire-breathing mouth where it melts and poisons the beast.
All this to say, if you stumble upon this force of destruction unprepared, you should really just run like hell and hope it doesn’t care enough about you. If it does … well for a fun fact, both Lions and Goats have a top speed of about 50 mph. Both are also only capable of maintaining that speed in bursts, but that’s usually all they need.
If you’d like further (more scholarly) reading on the chimera, the most common sources are Hyginus’s Fabulae and Hesiod’s Theogony, which both describe the lineage of many Greek characters. www.theoi.com also has compiled various snippets from stories concerning both Bellerophon and the Chimaera, the links for which are down below.