Chimera

Variations: Chimaera, Chimaira

Chimera

The Chimera or Chimaera (“goat”) was the daughter of Typhon and Echidna. She was the terror of Lycia in southern Turkey, killing people and livestock and torching crops.

Homer describes her as being a lion in front, a serpent behind, and a goat in the middle, with the power of breathing fire. Hesiod specifies that she had three heads. The lion’s head was in its customary place, the snake’s head was on the end of the tail, and the goat’s head emerged tumorously from the middle. Hyginus gives all three heads the ability to breathe fire, while Apollodorus states that only the goat head could do so, functioning as some kind of shoulder-mounted flamethrower.

While Homer’s description might suggest a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a snake’s tail, the Chimera has been consistently represented in Greek art with multiple heads. Usually she is mostly lion with a snake tail; the goat has proven tricky to depict convincingly, ranging from a head to the entire front half of a goat. Some Etruscan renditions add wings. The iconography behind the Chimera may go back farther, and may be of Asian origin. The term has also been used to describe various unrelated hybrid animals, with or without multiple heads.

She was finally slain by Bellerophon, who had been sent to Lycia to die. The wife of King Proitos had fallen madly in love with him; after he rejected her advances, she told her husband that Bellerophon had tried to seduce her. Enraged, the king dispatched Bellerophon to Iobates of Lycia, bearing a message requesting him to kill the messenger. Iobates sent him to battle the Chimera – surely an impossible task.

But Bellerophon had the favor of the gods, and the aid of the winged horse Pegasus. Mounted on Pegasus’ back, he easily flew out of range of the Chimera’s fiery breath, and shot her to death with arrows. Some accounts add that he rammed a lump of lead into her throat, where it melted and suffocated her.

Chimera bwChimera was a study in contradictions. Her three components did not make any sense together. Her name meant “goat”, but the goat was the least coherent part of her, reduced to a mere head in an anatomically dubious position. Evidently something so contradictory as the Chimera needed a rational explanation, even to the ancient Greeks. Plutarch believed she was inspired by a pirate captain, whose ship was decorated with the three component animals. Servius Honoratus said she was a loose interpretation of the Lycian landscape. Mount Chimera was a volcano, with snakes at its base, goats wandering around its heights, and a pride of lions at the top. Bellerophon, arriving on his ship Pegasus, set fire to the mountain and eradicated the dangerous animals.

The Etruscans dedicated the Chimera to the supreme god Tinia. The Etruscan Arezzo bronze of the Chimera remains the most enduring image produced of her. As a hybrid she was both celestial and chthonic, representing the year and the seasons. The lion, hot and strong, was summer; the snake, cold and ground-dwelling, was winter; and the transitory goat was spring and summer.

In The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the Chimera is a great, green-eyed, dragon-winged creature with a luxuriant mane; she is as capricious as desire and imagination. She reveals breathtaking new perspectives to humans, pours insanity, ambitions, hopes, and dreams into their minds, drives people to dangerous quests, and kills anyone content in wisdom. She is woefully incompatible with the rational, stoic Sphinx, and their attempts at copulation fail.

“Chimera” has entered our vocabulary in a number of ways, always in reference to incongruity. A chimera or something chimeric is fanciful, improbable, and imaginary. A chimera can also mean an organism with distinct cells from different zygotes. Finally, Chimaera is a genus of deep-sea fish, named after its bizarre appearance.

References

Bazopoulou-Kyrkanidou, E. (2001) Chimeric Creatures in Greek Mythology and Reflections in Science. American Journal of Medical Genetics 100:66-80.

Borges, J. L.; trans. Hurley, A. (2005) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Viking.

Flaubert, G. (1885) La Tentation de Saint Antoine. Quantin, Paris.

Hesiod; trans. Elton, C. A. (1832) The Theogony. In Hesiod. A. J. Valpy, London.

Homer, trans. Buckley, T. A. (1851) The Iliad of Homer. Henry G. Bohn, London.

Locatelli, D. and Rossi, F. (2010) Les Étrusques: Pouvoir – religion – vie quotidienne. Série Civilisations, Hazan.

Roes, A. (1934) The Representation of the Chimaera. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 54, Part 1, pp. 21-25.

Schmitt, M. L. (1966) Bellerophon and the Chimaera in Archaic Greek Art. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 70, No. 4, pp. 341-347.

Smith, R. S. and Trzaskoma, S. M. (2007) Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis.

Till, B. (1980) Some Observations on Stone Winged Chimeras at Ancient Chinese Tomb Sites. Artibus Asiae, Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 261-281.

Stymphalian Bird

Variations: Stymphalide, Bird of Ares

Stymphalian bird 2

Pausanias theorized that the Stymphalian birds originated in Arabia, citing the presence of fierce desert birds known as the Stymphalides. He then admits that the population found at Stymphalos, in Arcadia, may have been the result of a few wayward birds making their way into Greece. Following this line of reasoning, Pausanias deduces that they earned the name of Stymphalides due to their fame in Greece, and the name then supplanted whatever name they originally had in Arabia!

The appearance of the Stymphalian birds is no less muddled. Their most feared weapon is the sharpened, pointed tips of their wing feathers, which they fling like darts to stab their prey. Sometimes their feathers and beaks are made of bronze or iron, the better for piercing armor. Pausanias described them as about crane-sized, but resembling the ibis in shape, but with a stronger bill; elsewhere he says they are like hawks or eagles. In Greek art they have been represented as ibises, swans, and other such waterfowl; at least one obol from Stymphalos shows a bird with a short crest and a stout, powerful bill. Finally, no doubt influenced by tales of harpies and sirens, the temple of Stymphalian Diana also has stone statues of virgins with birds’ feet.Stymphalian bird bw

It remains true that the Stymphalian birds were first and foremost associated with Lake Stymphalia. They terrorized the region, ravaging crops, killing people, and poisoning the ground with their dung. Fox suggests that the legend originated as a glamorization of a plague or pestilence rising from the marshes, which would explain their noxious qualities. While their feathered darts could pierce armor, they were powerless against a certain type of tree bark, which held them fast like quicklime. There was only so much bark to go around, though, and the birds seemed numberless.

It was this scourge that Heracles was sent to destroy. As his sixth labor, it was one of a list of impossible tasks, and indeed the vast numbers of birds seemed beyond the hero’s strength. Heracles got around this by exploiting a simple fact – despite their numbers and ferocity, Stymphalian birds were as easily spooked as sparrows. Fashioning a pair of bronze castanets, he made such a din that the flock took off in a panic; from there he shot a great number down with his arrows, while the remainder of the birds flew off and were never seen in Arcadia again.

That was not the end of the Stymphalian birds, as from Greece they made their way to the Black Sea and populated the Island of Ares, where they became sacred guardians to the god of war. It was this flock that Jason and his Argonauts encountered on their way to Colchis. While the birds of Ares managed to wound the Argonaut Oileus with a feather projectile, they were scared off once more by the noise of rattling bronze armor, but not before pelting the Argonauts with a hailstorm of feathers.

References

Aldington, R. and Ames, D. trans.; Guirand, F. (1972) New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Paul Hamlyn, London.

Ames, D. trans.; Guirand, F. (1963) Greek Mythology. From Mythologie Generale Larousse. Paul Hamlyn, London.

Apollonius, Coleridge, E.P. trans. (1889) The Argonautica. George Bell and Sons, London.

Fox, W. M. (1964) The Mythology of All Races v. I: Greek and Roman. Cooper Square Publishers, New York.

Pausanias, Levi, P. trans. (1979) Guide to Greece, volume 2: Southern Greece. Penguin Books, London.