In A Nutshell
The Chimera was a creature from Greek mythology, having the body and head of a lion, a second goat’s head, and the tail of a snake. A chimera, however, can be any creature made up of the parts of different animals, and there are plenty of chimeras in world mythologies. Even Capricorn, today’s constellation and zodiac symbol, is technically a chimera with the body of a goat and the tail of a snake or fish.
The Whole Bushel
When it’s written as a proper name, the Chimera (or Khimaira) is a legendary monster from Greek mythology. It has the body and main head of a lion, a second head (of a goat) growing from its back, the udders and belly of a goat, and the tail of a snake. Occasionally, it is said to have a third head, that of a snake or dragon.
Chimera is the offspring of two hideous monsters, Typhoeus and Ekindna, and a sibling of the Gorgons, Scylla, and a few many-headed dragons. In turn, it’s also reputed to be the mother of the Sphinx and the Nemean lion. (That honor sometimes goes to Ekindna.)
The Chimera lived in the hills and mountains of Kragos. When it came down from the mountain, it was said to ravage the countryside and kill people, crops, and animals as it went. The fire-breathing monster was said to be invincible, until it was killed by the hero Bellerophon and his winged horse, Pegasus.
Later interpretations of the Chimera and its actions draw a parallel between the monster and active volcanoes in the area.
Generally speaking, a chimera is a creature made up of any number of different parts of different animals. In some cases, they were noble creatures, but not always. Let’s look at some examples.
The lamassu was a chimera that guarded the palaces of the kings of Assyria in what is now Northern Iraq. These guardians, whose statues still stand, had the head of a human, the body of a bull, the legs of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. Chimeras were always depicted as having five legs, positioned so they appeared to be standing guard when viewed from the front and so they appeared to be moving forward when viewed from the side.
Less majestic was the manticore, a human-flesh-eating monster that appeared in literature from the first century AD through the Middle Ages. It had the face of a human, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion. It could be recognized from a distance, as it had a call that sounded like music from a panpipe.
So why are these creatures so popular throughout the world’s mythology?
No one really seems to know for sure why they keep cropping up, but there are theories out there. One says that the different animals melded into one were simply used because of what they represented, like the strength of a lion, the deadly sting of a scorpion, and the elegance and honor of the eagle.
Another theory says that the creatures are simply a misinterpretation of earlier works. Looking at ancient paintings and sculptures, it isn’t hard to see how what was supposed to be a wing might look like a second head. What was meant to be a lion’s tail could turn into a snake, and an oddly positioned leg might become still another head. Early Sumerian and Babylonian mosaics show a variety of animals that could be chimeras, and it’s not hard to see where seemingly fantastic stories could have sprung up around images that made perfect sense in the right context.
Many ancient myths were used to explain natural phenomenon, and it’s entirely possible that some chimeras were born from the need to explain complicated things.
Wherever the Chimera and the chimeras came from originally, they all help form the rich tapestry that is our world’s mythology.