Saturday, November 1, 2014

Chimera: the origins of the myth

  This piece was published for the first time in March 1997

The features of this classic statue known as the "Chimera of Arezzo" are almost identical to those of all ancient images of Chimeras. This conventional representation, however, tells us little about the true origins of the myth.

This page is an attempt to unravel the origins of the myth. It is not meant to be the definitive word on this subject nor to contrast or replace the previous work of many distinguished archaeologists and art historians. The author just hopes to be able to suggest a few ideas that, maybe, someone will find of interest.

Ancient myths often tell of beings made out of several creatures joined together in a single one: a human head on a lion body makes a sphinx, on a bird's torso a siren, and on that of a fish a mermaid. Some of these beings are true races, as the centaurs (half man and half horse), the harpies (another kind of woman/bird mixture), and the satyrs (men with goat's legs). Others come as one of a kind, as the Minotaur (half man and half bull), Echidna (half woman and half snake), and the Chimaera (or Chimera), this time a mixture of lion, goat, and snake.

For us, the richness of this ancient Pantheon is - at most - a matter of curiosity, out of which it is hard to make much sense. The myth of the Chimaera seems to be a particularly baffling one. Surely, it is a spectacular story of the battle of a flying hero against a fire-breathing monster, but can it be that all this sound and fury signifies nothing but the slaying of an ugly beast? Perhaps there is more to it.

We can say that this is one of the first versions (perhaps the first) of the story of the hero and the dragon, a story pervasively embedded in western thought, repeated over and over in thousands of versions. But, in itself, the Chimaera can hardly be the origin of the myth of the Dragon. It is, rather, a version of some much more ancient myth, one that found its way in the stories told by Homer and Hesiod, and as such it was commented upon, illustrated in paintings and sculptures, and finally transmitted to us. But this story, as most ancient myths, is clearly a mixture of other stories and ideas, older myths, some perhaps going far backward, to when humankind still could not record thoughts in any other way than in story telling. Making sense of this mixture and finding the true origins of the myth of the Chimaera is not an easy task, but we can try.

Let's first review what we know. The literary sources are practically only two: Homer and Hesiod, back to - probably - the 9th century BC, with later authors only adding minor details. According to Homer, the Chimaera was "in the fore part a lion, in the hinder a serpent, and in the middle a goat". Hesiod says almost identical words, although he specifies that the creature had three heads. Both also say that it was capable of breathing fire. All authors describe the Chimaera as female, and that may be something related to her name, that in ancient Greek means "young she-goat". Despite this rather humble name, she was of divine origin. Her father was the giant Typhon and her mother the half-serpent Echidna. She had as brothers Cerberus (the hound of Hell), Hydra (the nine-headed water snake) and Orthrus (another multi-headed dog).

The Chimaera was slain by Bellerophon, the hero. He was of divine origin, too, and in order to succeed in his task he first tamed the winged horse Pegasus (some say it was given to him by Poseidon, his father). Then he flew over the monster to avoid its fiery breath. Some say that the breath of the beast was so hot that it melted the hero's arrowheads. Others say that he placed a block of lead on the tip of his spear, that he thrust into the creature's throat. The flaming breath caused the lead to melt and hence to seal the Chimaera's guts, killing her. Of Bellerophon's career after this feat, we know that it wasn't easy and that the hero seems to have had a certain tendency to clash with female creatures, for instance he fought and defeated the Amazons. Eventually, Bellerophon's destiny was not a brilliant one, as he ended his life blind, lame and accursed, always avoiding the paths of men.

Just as the ancient reports about the Chimaera are all about the same, so are the images. We have several of them on vases, mirrors, and coins, as well as one large and well-preserved statue, the Chimaera of Arezzo. It seems that the artists of that time were proud of being faithful to the accepted model, just as storytellers were proud of telling their stories using the same words used by their teachers of old. So, all these images are remarkably similar. The three heads are clearly recognizable, with the goat's one sprouting out of the middle of the back. Even the posture of the creature is always the same, with the body arched up and the front legs rigidly extended forward. The lion's head is often pointing upwards with the mouth open and, in several cases, there are hints of flames coming out of it. These images roughly correspond to the literary version of the myth, although they also show details which do not appear in Homer and Hesiod.

This is, more or less, what we know. Now, what can we make out of it? What is the myth really about? Ancient authors of classical times asked themselves this question, too. The best known "rational" answer from ancient times is that of Servius Honoratus, writing in 4th century AD. According to him, the fire-breathing creature was just the naïve representation of a volcano, a mountain named "Chimaera" located somewhere in ancient Lycia. Bellerophon was simply a settler who managed to establish himself there first. Other authors, such as Plutarch,  said that Chimaera was the name of a ship, and others that she was a female warlord. In modern times, Servius' volcano has proven popular in mythology textbooks, even though it seems unlikely that our ancestors - naïve as they may have been - could not tell a volcano from a goat when they saw one.

Inghirami, writing in 19th Century (Monumenti Etruschi, 1824), was one of the first to go beyond the traditional interpretations, developing a complex zodiacal symbology where Bellerophon drives the chariot of the sun and where the Chimaera is identified with the constellation of the lion, something that explains the "flaming breath" as a symbol of summer. Closer to our times, Robert Graves, in his Greek Myths (1955), came to a related astronomical interpretation when he suggested that the three parts of the creature were an allegory of the three seasons of the year, as it was subdivided in extremely ancient times. Graves also suggests that the Chimaera may be a representation of the prehistoric passage from a matriarchal society dominated by the Moon goddess to another one, dominated by sun kings. Nobody so far seems to have noted the possible relation of the myth with metal working, as it would be suggested by the detail of lead melting in the creature's throat. Just as we can see in Homer's "Trojan horse" a corrupted report about an ancient siege engine, we could see the Chimaera as a misrepresentation of an ancient furnace.

There is, certainly, something in each one of these ideas. Yet, it seems that no single one of them and perhaps not even all of them together, is really satisfactory. More likely, there is something deeper here, something that we cannot just explain away with volcanoes or blasting furnaces. To get there, we should rather free ourselves of these layers of interpretation that have accumulated over the centuries. So, first of all, let's say that the Chimaera, as a monster, doesn't make much sense. Maybe one could be scared by a lion, or by a snake as well. But by a goat? What is there so special about goats to have a monster made out - in part at least - of one? Anyway, the Chimaera would probably be a better monster without the useless goat head, that would have a hard time in harming anyone from the position in which it finds itself. The first to have reasoned that the goat head is not a head, after all, seems to have been Anne Roes in a paper of 1934 (JHS, LIV " The origins of the Chimaera" in festschrift Robinson 1155-64). The position and the shape of the head, it seems, is just a misrepresentation if what was - originally - a wing, actually a pair of wings.

To understand how a wing could become a goat, suppose you have never heard of the Chimaera, suppose you had just seen once the image of a winged lion or suppose you had seen it long ago and you are trying to remember what exactly it was. What would you say? Most likely, you would see - or remember - just a lion, a lion with something on its back, maybe someone riding it. We can't really do such a test on ourselves, but a situation not unlike the one we are describing took place in 1553, when an ancient statue of the chimera was unearthed near Arezzo, in Italy. The people of the time were much impressed by it, but the chroniclers initially just called it a "lion". It took a long time - maybe a year - for the chancellor of the city of Arezzo to realize, and write down, that the statue was really a Chimerae Bellerofontis simulacrum.

So, the origin of the myth may have been a winged lion. Lions lived as far north as in Greece and in Italy in very ancient times, but really they were best known in North Africa and in Mesopotamia. We have beautiful images of kings hunting and killing lions all over Egypt and Babylon. And we do have images of winged lions. So, We'll look first at images taken from the Babylonian tradition which started to be dominant in Mesopotamia from approximately the end of the 3rd millennium BC. We have here a drawing made from a bas-relief of the palace of Ninurta at Nimrud as reproduced in H. McCall: Mesopotamian myths, 1990. This image may perhaps go back to the Old Babylonian period, that is early 2nd millennium BC. The winged lion here bears a clear resemblance to the classic Chimaera. Blurring the image a bit, the wings of this lion could become a goat's head. Then, think of turning the image on its left side, and you have the same body posture of the Chimaera as we are used to, with the rigidly extended legs and the head angrily turned backwards. And the divine or semi-divine hero is a version of Bellerophon, although here not riding a flying horse but rather provided with wings himself (since the monster is flying, too, we have a fair fight). The hero is holding spiked or forked objects, some kind of weapons, perhaps lightning bolts. The image vividly suggests the movement of the clash, a battle of divine beings, high in the sky among thunder and lightning.

These images never come with captions, and we can only tentatively identify the creatures depicted. In this case, the hero is most likely the war-god Ninurta. As for the winged lion, we are probably seeing an image of Anzu, or Zu. Anzu is often described as a "bird" and it appears in several stories of the Babylonian mythology. Anzu's battle with Ninurta is described in a set of Akkadian tablets that go back to the 7th century BC. It is said that Anzu had stolen the "Tablet of Destinies" of Enlil, king of the Gods. Consequently, Ninurta is dispatched to recover it. After a terrible battle, of course, the hero slays the wicked creature, and we have yet another version of the hero vs. dragon story.

Of course,  it will be always impossible to prove that the first, unknown artist who painted a Chimaera as a lion with a goat's head on its back got the idea from this specific image. But the battle of a hero against a winged creature is not an uncommon theme in Babylonian art. Here is another version (again from H. McCall: Mesopotamian myths, 1990).

The posture of the protagonists and the general setting are the same as in the image seen before, the main differences here are that the monster is more bird-like and the hero is armed with a regular bow rather than with lightning bolts. However, the arrow is of a rather peculiar shape: with three tips, just like Ninurta's bolts. Also, the bow has some kind of "balls" on the outer surface which may make it, perhaps, a magical bow. All these are pictorial elements surely meaning something for the ancient, but difficult for us to interpret. Anyway, the fact that the hero is aiming at the open mouth of the beast is a common theme of both literary documents and pictorial scenes. It is a detail that shows how the creature is killed by shooting or throwing something into the open mouth, just like what happens to the Chimaera, killed by molten lead thrust in by Bellerophon. This point is clearly described in another epic battle of Babylonian mythology, that of Marduk against Tiamat, sea dragoness. In the battle, Marduk forces Tiamat to swallow a terrible wind that causes her to stretch her mouth wide, where he shoots an arrow that penetrates inside her body and kills her.

How did these images and the related myth evolve over time? We have here a complex story, mostly unknown to us. In the general turmoil of the early centuries of the first millennium BC many ancient traditions were lost and the cuneiform writing which had accompanied Mesopotamian civilizations for at least three millennia disappeared as a generally used way of communication. The myth of the winged lion was not lost, but with the decline of the Akkadian civilization which had created it (or, rather, inherited from the earlier Sumerian civilization) it became confused, and so did the images representing it. In an image from 8th-7th century BC, coming from a world now dominated by the Persian civilization, we have evidence of how the symbols have changed and of how part of the meaning has been maintained. (Taken from "The hero" by John Lash, 1995). pterugias, wings, the leather stripes of the gowns of their legionnaires). The hero is hitting the beast with a regular lance, and he is aiming at the neck rather than at the open mouth. But the position of the animal is very similar to that of the Anzu creature, and what is most revealing the relation is the position of one of the legs, unnaturally placed upwards and with the fingers drawn out in a sort of fan. Lions do not have legs like that, the only way we can make any sense out of this image is by assuming that the artist knew that the lion had to have "something" on his back but didn't quite know what. This kind of corruption of images is not unknown in ancient times.
Here we have several of the elements we had seen before, with a hero killing a lion. Many details, however, have changed. The hero is not winged anymore, even though the feathered dress does suggest wings (much later, the Romans would call

The "raised leg" image of hunted lions above is not unique. Here is another one still from Persian times, ca. 6th century BC (J. Lash, ibid.).

Here we have a king hunting lions, one of them is being trampled under the chariot, with a left leg raised up to attempt a last defense (but we would not be able to recognize the fanned paw for what it is, weren't we able to compare it with the previous image). In the sky, we see a bird with a human head and face that we can recognize as a symbol of Ahura-Mazdah, the supreme God according to Zarathustra or Zoroaster (the author is grateful to Reza Sharif for having pointed out this detail to him). The presence of the supreme God witnessing the triumph of a Persian king over an enemy is a common theme in Persian art and what we are seeing here is a version of the more ancient myth of Anzu, where the king/Ahura-Mazdah plays the role of Marduk and where the defeated lion is at the same time Chimera and Angra-Manyu, the evil spirit of Zoroastrism. In a later image from 4th century BC, however, the symbolism is lost and all we see is a king butchering ordinary lions (J. Lash, ibid.)

So, it seems that with the collapse of Babylonia many of the ancient myths were lost, and the new civilizations which appeared did their best to find a meaning for ancient stories and old images, but did not really succeed in getting all the pieces back together. The best they could do to explain the "something" on the back of the lion was that it could be a raised leg.

In Bayley's 1912 book "the lost language of Symbolism" we find another interpretation of this "something": a bent tail. These creatures are described as "The incomprehensible one furnished with innumerable eyes whom all nature longeth after in different ways". Bayley says that the twisted and tufted tail may have originated the Fleur de Lys symbol and maintains that the feline creatures are related to Jesus Christ who had been called sometimes "son of the Panther".

As it seems clear, the symbol of the lion with something on the back gave rise to a rich network of myths. It may well be that at the same times when the Persian transformed wings into a raised leg, someone in the central or western Mediterranean areas came to think that the protuberance was actually a goat's head. However, creative as our ancestors could have been, myths do not originate by chance. We have to think what it meant to them to transform wings into a goat's head. Why a goat head and not, say, a bird, or a fish, or whatever else? What is the meaning of a goat head? Why a female goat? And why is the goat so important to give the name to the whole three-headed creature?

     So, to have a glimpse of what the myth was about, we must go backwards in time and try to find the remote origins of the winged lion. Before the Babylonian and Assyrian times, to the origins of their culture which is with the Sumerian civilization which started as early as in mid 5th millennium BC. Among the images that came to us from that time we do not find kings hunting winged lions, but we do find suggestive images nevertheless. This one is from on a clay Sumerian cylinder seal, going back, perhaps, to the first half of the third millennium BC (from Sumer by A. Parrot, 1960, p. 189).

Here, we have our winged lion and a Godlike figure holding three-pronged objects. Yet, the setting and the atmosphere have radically changed. The whole image, as many Sumerian ones, transpires an air of cosmic peace, of hieratic order. There is no monster here, and no armor-clad Bellerophon ready to choke it with molten lead. Rather, we have a naked goddess holding objects which may still be lightning bolts, but which are not necessarily weapons. The winged lion is a tamed animal, pulling a cart and sprouting something downwards. The lines out of the beast's mouth might be fire - as we'd expect from an ancestor of the Chimaera - but it would be hard to think that the beast is flaming down something destructive. Otherwise, how to explain the figure to the left offering water (or some other kind of drink) to the incoming divine cortege? If the lion is breathing out flames, these can only be - at most - the lightning bolts that accompany a storm. This lion is a thunder beast, the embodiment of a storm. The whole image seems to symbolize the fertilization of the land, with the sun chariot coming after the storm beast. And it is curious how the myth was turned around in all its aspects going to the Sumerian to the later Babylonian version. The female Goddess became a male God, the benign creature an evil one. Even the "lines", that in this image clearly go out of the mouth of the beast as fertilizing water, in later times became arrows or bolts going into the mouth of the creature as killing weapons.

Again, there is no caption to this image, but we may nevertheless try to give names to the characters on the basis of what we know of the Sumerian cosmogony. So, the Sun God's name is known as Utu, and the sky Goddess should be named Inanna, the most loved and best known of the Sumerian deities. About the winged lion, it may have been named Imdugud ("The Sumerians", S.N. Kramer, 1963, p. 198). The scene shown above may actually be described in a series of tablets from the Akkadian dynasty (ca. 2500 BC). This text seems to have an author, Enheduanna, priestess and daughter of king Sargon of Akkad (from the translation of J. van Dijk and W.W. Hallo, The exaltation of Inanna, New Haven 1968)
    As a dragon, you poured venom over the country
    when you roar towards earth like thunder there is no vegetation that can resist
    Flood coming from the mountains
    oh sublime, you are Inanna of the sky and of the earth
    A burning fire filling the country
    she who received as gifts the me's from An, the lady riding a beast
We see that Inanna was no frail lady. As many of the ancient goddesses she had a dark side: she was mother and loving partner but she could als be a destructive power, huntress or dragon or lioness. Indeed it is reported that in the city of Ur Inanna herself was referred to as Labbatu, "Lioness". The description above could apply to one or several of these versions of the deity, and it could apply to the classic Chimaera as well. It is not known how exactly it came that Inanna tamed a winged lion. But  this image shows her dominating a lion - albeit not a winged one - (From "Inanna", by D. Wolkstein and S.N. Kramer, 1983 p. 92).

Note how similar is the Goddess figure here to that of Ninurta in the Babylonian relief that we showed earlier on. Both are winged, both carry three-pronged or spiked objects that may be lightning bolts. But here - again - the atmosphere is much different and far gentler. A hint of what is happening may perhaps be found in the words told by Gilgamesh to Ishtar (the Babylonian name of Inanna) in a later saga (early 2nd millennium BC). Here, Gilgamesh describes how the Goddess enslaved or killed her previous lovers, including the lion (probably intended as someone strong as a lion) for whom she dug "seven and seven pits". Another possible reference is in the Huluppu tree story, where Inanna's garden is invaded by three creatures, one of whom is the Imdugud bird.

With these stories and images we have reached as far back as the sources permit us. In the myths of these remote ages there are no certainties about what we have been searching, only hints. Yet, the material we have is highly suggestive and may be sufficient to get us close to an interpretation. So, the main point here seems to be that turning moment in human history when, as pointed out - for instance - by Campbell (" The masks of God") a whole set of cosmic beliefs turned from a Goddess-ruled system to a male dominated system, where the main God is a father figure. In this cosmic revolution, ancient myths and histories changed their meaning as well. The winged lion, the storm beast of Sumerian times, ceased to be a symbol of fertilization and became an evil monster. The goddess, she who rode the lion and at times she herself a lioness, became, too, an evil creature just as her lion pet. At this point, the center stage was stolen by the male hero, Ninurta or Marduk, who was there to slain her and to affirm his male superiority. It is interesting to note that in Babylonian stories the winged lion Anzu is not characterized as male or female, but in the parallel myth of Tiamat we are clearly told that she is female, just like in the later myth of the Chimaera. Tiamat was the mother of the gods, and - once - queen of heaven. She was slain in a most gruesome manner by her own son, Marduk. So Tiamat, the Chimaera, perhaps Anzu, too, could be grotesquely deformed images of the ancient mother goddess, the one called at times Inanna in Sumer, Ishtar in Babylonia, Astarte in Phoenicia, Sekhmet or Isis in Egypt, Cybele in Anatolia, Durga or Kali in India (she who rides the tiger....). A goddess once benign (albeit occasionally cruel) whom time and bad press have transformed into a monster ("all evil is rotten good" - a quote from Poul Anderson).

So, the Chimaera is in the end a grotesque and deformed image of the mother goddess and it embodies all the evil that men can think about women. In classical times and the middle ages, this concept was sometimes explicitly expressed. In the "Malleus Maleficarum" (15th century) Kramer and Sprenger, in a most politically incorrect series of statements, pile up injury after injury on women, culminating with the report of this passage by Valerius (1st Century AD), an author much fashionable throughout the middle ages. "You do not know that woman is the Chimaera, but it is good that you should know it; for that monster was of three forms; its face was that of a radiant and noble lion, it had the filthy belly of a goat, and it was armed with the virulent tail of a viper". The comment of Kramer and Sprenger is that Valerius "means that a woman is beautiful to look upon, contaminating to the touch, and deadly to keep".

So, why were the wings of the lion transformed into a goat's head? Now we can try to explain that, too. First, the concept of "female goat" may derive from a verbal confusion. We said that the winged lion was a storm beast in the Sumerian-Babylonian mythology. Now, "storm" is "Cheimon" in ancient Greek, and this may explain the transformation into "young goat", Chimaera. But the most important point relates to the goat (and specifically the female goat) as a symbol in European mythology. Goats, male or female, are not common as monsters, but in the Christian myth of the devil, as well as in the Greek one of the Satyrs, the goat element seems to be meant to evidence the "unclean" nature of the creature. This uncleanliness seems to be the main reason of the appearance on the Chimaera's back of the goat together with the snake, another malignant creature in most mythologies. Having piled up all sorts of ugly attributes on it, the creature had lost all the noble aspects which may pertain to a lion and a Goddess and was thoroughly transformed into an evil monster, ready to fight its last battle and to be slain by some radiant hero.

In this interpretation there are many details that are just reasonable guesses, and - actually - everything might even be wrong. However, the very fact that we can make these considerations illustrates the richness of the myth. The Chimaera is no mere monster. It is a reflection of unbelievably ancient stories, stories that involve some of the most powerful symbols and concepts that act on the human mind: the snake, the dragon, the mother, fertility, the thunder, the hero's quest, the slaying of the evil one. All this is concentrated and distilled in the Chimaera, a beast of many forms and of many meanings.


  1. Also remember that the lion symbolizes Jesus Christ. The image of the Chimera may also have been repurposed to represent the Devil: he masquerades as the goodness of Christ (the lion front) but the back is made of two other creatures more closely associated with the Devil himself, the goat (in the common depictions of Satan as having the cloven hooves, horns, and beard like a goat) and the snake (the image of

    1. the fall of man and the serpent of Eden). As such, the Chimera represents the evil forces that disguise as the ultimate good, yet is unclean and impure as well as poisonous. Add to the fact that it breathes fire, which is associated with Hell, and the symbolism fits perfectly for a more Christian-oriented imagery.

  2. Thanks for the interest, Ann. It is always a pleasure to meet another chimera lover!

  3. Awesome stuff Ugo! I had been looking for something like this for a long time. Really Really useful!

    I have 3 inquiries though:

    1. I understand that the chimera is nowadays used by many, as a symbolism for something that can't exist or something that can't be achieved. I have read all the articles at: but I haven't found details about the transition, or maybe I missed it. Do you the story of how the classic chimera transitioned to this latest concept?

    2. Has any scholar ever considered the possibility that the lion and snake are protecting the goat? We know that goats are aggressive sometimes and don't lack braveness, but they aren't as fierce and lethal as the lion and snake. So, my suggestion is that the goat is always guarded by the lion in the front and the snake in the back.

    3. Lastly... this is not related to the chimera, but understanding that finding such amazing collection of serious information about these kind of subjects is hard to find. Do you know by chance similar websites to yours where I could find a collection of data about these mythological creatures?

    - Dragons
    - Basilisk
    - Phoenix

    In any case... Thank you so much for your work!

    1. Thank you, Jona. About your questions, well, the first one is good: when did the transition occur? It was at some moment during the Middle Ages, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly when. Worth some research.

      About the second question, I am not aware of any interpretation in this sense. But it is always possible to add new interpretations to a rich myth such as the Chimera one

      Finally, about similar sites, well, the Internet is packed with information of all sorts, but I wouldn't know where exactly to address you. You can have a good time googling!

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