New Worlds: Chimeras

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Technically a chimera is a specific creature. Not a chimera, but the Chimera: a monster from Greek mythology, commonly described as being part lion, part goat, and part snake or dragon.

But if that were all a chimera is, this would be a pretty short essay. Typhon and Echidna, Bellerophon and Pegasus, the end. Fortunately for us, much as the term Slavic-derived term “vampire” has been extended to encompass many kinds of blood-drinking creatures (folkloric and real alike) and even some things that feed off of sources other than blood, the term “chimera” has come to describe a whole swath of things.

In fact, it’s even become a scientific term. A chimera is, biologically speaking, an organism “composed of cells with distinct genotypes” — usually, at least in animals, produced by multiple fertilized eggs merging. Or, if you’re a paleontologist, it’s a mistake: a reconstruction based on fossils that turn out to be from different species. Or it’s an order of cartilaginous fish — I’m honestly not sure why they wound up with that name, as they look nothing like lions, goats, or even snakes, much less a mixture of all three.

Regardless, this gives us our non-technical definition of a chimera: “bits of different things stuck together.” And in that sense, chimeras are all over the place in the folklores of the world.

In some cases the chimerical quality of the creature is born more of figurative language than anything else. If you’re trying to describe an animal to someone who’s never seen it, you reach for metaphor, comparing it to animals they have seen. We sometimes describe a particular style of dragon as being bat-winged, meaning not that they literally have the wings of a bat stapled onto their bodies, but rather that their wings are leathery instead of feathered like those of birds or membranous like those of insects. This kind of thing appears all the time in the writings of travelers, reporting on the exotic fauna of the lands they visit, and often indiscriminately mixing real animals with mythological creatures, casting them all in similarly piecemeal terms.

Those of you who have been following the New Worlds Patreon for a long time, though, may recall that back in the first year I talked about liminality: the psychological effect produced by something that crosses lines. It came up again when we discussed the undead (crossing the lines between death and life), and here it rears its head once more: a different head this time, a literal foreign body stuck onto an unrelated base. Such creatures are not always viewed as monstrous in the negative sense (Pegasus is a chimera, wings stuck onto a horse), but they frequently partake of the power that comes from violating the boundaries of our normal world.

Creatures of this kind show up a lot in Greek mythology, not just with the eponymous Chimera. Centaurs pair the upper body of a human with the body of a horse; fauns swap human legs for goat; satyrs, commonly treated as synonymous with fauns, technically have horse-like ears and tails instead. Harpies and older sirens put female human heads on bird bodies, while later sirens were winged women a la angels — more on those in a few weeks. The Minotaur turned things around, keeping most of the human, but replacing the head with that of a bull.

They were following a venerable tradition in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East. The Persian-derived manticore, like the Egyptian-derived sphinx, combines a human head and a lion body; some Greek sphinxes are winged, while the manticore might have either venemous porcupine-like spines or the tail of a scorpion. The lamassu is sometimes sphinx-like, and sometimes swaps out the lion part for a bull. Griffins ditch the human part in favor of going more fully eagle-lion. Meanwhile, Egyptian mythology depicts many of their gods like the Minotaur, possessing the heads of animals.

The combining of elements not usually conjoined in nature isn’t just a regional concept, though. Mesoamerican feathered serpents are pretty much as the name would lead you to expect.. The Mapuche Colocolo instead gives those feathers to rats, or sometimes instead puts a rat head on a snake body. The Chinese qilin (known by a variety of other names throughout East Asia) takes on different appearances in different sources, but many versions blend the features of dragons with those of deer, oxen, or horses. The Japanese nure-onna is a snake with a woman’s head. Such heads also show up on the Russian Gamayun and Alkanost — derived from and still resembling older Greek sirens — while the Abenaki Pamola goes back to animal heads with that of a moose on the body of a human, with the wings of an eagle.

I could keep going. But the point isn’t to exhaustively list every hybridized creature out there; it’s to show how common this idea is, and what motifs crop up frequently. Swap out heads; add wings; lions and snakes are both very popular elements, though of course it would take a lot more analysis than I’ve got room for here to determine how much of that is due to cultural contact, rather than independent invention. And we have to bear in mind that metaphorical angle: anything scaled or long and thin might get compared to a snake.

It can be a fun game, though, inventing chimera. Like playing Mr. Potato Head with the animals of the world. And then thinking about whether the result is a destructive monster or a wise guide, a punishment for sin or a god to be worshipped.

What are some of your favorite chimeras, either in real-world cultures or in fiction?

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Chimeras — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Chimeras - Swan Tower

  2. so many new beings named in this article – yay!

    I always assumed satyrs were the part-goats, fauns were lambs or deer, and sileni were half-horses (that and Quinolans, from the web (and print still?) series _Half Horse_ by Y.Hintz)

    Then again, I used to be told that griffins were used by early Christians to explain theological concepts like “100% + 100% = 100%” and the trinity.

    thank you for this great article. its a great read.

    • Folklore isn’t exactly consistent across the ages. Which is how you end up with one creature being called multiple names, and multiple different creatures going under the same name, depending on what source you’re looking at. 🙂