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Myth Monday - The Chimera

By July 2, 2012

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Bellerophon Fights the Chimera

Bellerophon fights the Chimaera. (1865)
© NYPL Digital Gallery

Say "fire-breathing" in the context of non-historical stories, and the audience is bound to think of a dragon. But in Greek mythology, while the fire-breathing creature was, indeed, a monster, it was not a dragon, or perhaps, not just a dragon. It's hard to describe exactly what it was -- other than by giving its proper name, Χίμαιρα (Chimera/Chimaera/Khimaira), which has come to apply to other creatures that share its oddness. You see, the Chimera -- and all those named for it -- was a fantastic composite.

Hesiod, in Theogony, says it snorted fire, had three heads, one lion, one goat, and one snake. In Book 6 of the Iliad, attributed to Homer, it was lion in front and snake behind, and, of course, fire-breathing; Ovid agrees. His Metamorphoses IX.647 describes it a a fire-breathing monster with a lion's head and chest, but a serpent's tail.

The fire-breath appears to be connected with volcanic activity in the area of Lycia, in which she roamed before she was defeated by one of the major heroes of Greek myth. Although the Iliad describes the creature as immortal, King Iobates of Lycia asked the hero Bellerophon to kill it. This was supposed to be a suicide mission. The story goes that Bellerophon arrived with a note to the king telling him to kill the note-bearer, but since Bellerophon was his guest, and therefore bound by the not-to-be-broken bonds of hospitality, the Lycian king couldn't oblige.

A Digression

This may remind you of Hamlet or Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead [see The Iliad and Bellerophon].

The story of Hamlet is based on the writing of the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150 - 1220). The relevant Danish story translated from Latin into English, uses the name Amleth for the prince, and Feng for the king:

Feng now suspected that his stepson was certainly full of guile, and desired to make away with him, but durst not do the deed for fear of the displeasure, not only of Amleth's grandsire Rorik, but also of his own wife. So he thought that the King of Britain should be employed to slay him, so that another could do the deed, and he be able to feign innocence. Thus, desirous to hide his cruelty, he chose rather to besmirch his friend than to bring disgrace on his own head. Amleth, on departing, gave secret orders to his mother to hang the hall with woven knots, and to perform pretended obsequies for him a year thence; promising that he would then return. Two retainers of Feng then accompanied him, bearing a letter graven on wood -- a kind of writing material frequent in old times; this letter enjoined the king of the Britons to put to death the youth who was sent over to him. While they were reposing, Amleth searched their coffers, found the letter, and read the instructions therein. Whereupon he erased all the writing on the surface, substituted fresh characters, and so, changing the purport of the instructions, shifted his own doom upon his companions. Nor was he satisfied with removing from himself the sentence of death and passing the beril on to others, but added an entreaty that the King of Britain would grant his daughter in marriage to a youth of great judgment whom he was sending to him. Under this was falsely marked the signature of Feng.
~The Danish History, Books I-IX Book Three Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #28a

Back to Bellerophon and the Chimera

A suicide mission was the best idea the Lycian king could come up with to maintain cordial relations with the foreign king who had sent the note, without violating Zeus' mandates about hospitality.

Although it should have meant his death, Bellerophon was favored by the gods, and so, according to the popular version of the story, Athena sent him a gift that would allow him to escape the range of the volcanic breath. She sent one of the creatures that had emerged from the severed head of Medusa, specifically, the winged horse Pegasus, who, although winged as well as equine, and therefore in some sense composite, is not necessarily counted as a chimera. Bellerophon had to tame the wild horse, but the goddess helped him there, too. Then, by flying horseback, Bellerophon could dodge here and there until he had a good shot at the monster's throat and caused it to choke to death.

In Book 2 of the Library attributed to Apollodorus, Iobates set Bellerophon off on other difficult labors, but the hero prevailed. The king then sent assassins to kill Bellerophon, evidently no longer feeling the obligation of guest-host relations. Again, Bellerophon bested his opponents. In the end, Apollodorus says Iobates so admired Bellerophon that he made him his son-in-law and heir.

[2.3.1] Bellerophon, son of Glaucus, son of Sisyphus, having accidentally killed his brother Deliades or, as some say, Piren, or, as others will have it, Alcimenes, came to Proetus and was purified. And Stheneboea fell in love with him, and sent him proposals for a meeting; and when he rejected them, she told Proetus that Bellerophon had sent her a vicious proposal. Proetus believed her, and gave him a letter to take to Iobates, in which it was written that he was to kill Bellerophon. Having read the letter, Iobates ordered him to kill the Chimera, believing that he would be destroyed by the beast, for it was more than a match for many, let alone one; it had the fore part of a lion, the tail of a dragon, and its third head, the middle one, was that of a goat, through which it belched fire. And it devastated the country and harried the cattle; for it was a single creature with the power of three beasts. It is said, too, that this Chimera was bred by Amisodarus, as Homer also affirms, and that it was begotten by Typhon on Echidna, as Hesiod relates.

[2.3.2] So Bellerophon mounted his winged steed Pegasus, offspring of Medusa and Poseidon, and soaring on high shot down the Chimera from the height. After that contest Iobates ordered him to fight the Solymi, and when he had finished that task also, he commanded him to combat the Amazons. And when he had killed them also, he picked out the reputed bravest of the Lycians and bade them lay an ambush and slay him. But when Bellerophon had killed them also to a man, Iobates, in admiration of his prowess, showed him the letter and begged him to stay with him; moreover he gave him his daughter Philonoe, and dying bequeathed to him the kingdom.

J. G. Frazer's translation of Apollodorus The Library

Hesiod on Bellerophon and the Chimera:

(ll. 306-332) Men say that Typhaon the terrible, outrageous and lawless, was joined in love to her, the maid with glancing eyes. So she conceived and brought forth fierce offspring; first she bare Orthus the hound of Geryones, and then again she bare a second, a monster not to be overcome and that may not be described, Cerberus who eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed, relentless and strong. And again she bore a third, the evil-minded Hydra of Lerna, whom the goddess, white-armed Hera nourished, being angry beyond measure with the mighty Heracles. And her Heracles, the son of Zeus, of the house of Amphitryon, together with warlike Iolaus, destroyed with the unpitying sword through the plans of Athene the spoil-driver. She was the mother of Chimaera who breathed raging fire, a creature fearful, great, swift-footed and strong, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire. Her did Pegasus and noble Bellerophon slay; but Echidna was subject in love to Orthus and brought forth the deadly Sphinx which destroyed the Cadmeans, and the Nemean lion, which Hera, the good wife of Zeus, brought up and made to haunt the hills of Nemea, a plague to men. There he preyed upon the tribes of her own people and had power over Tretus of Nemea and Apesas: yet the strength of stout Heracles overcame him.

Hesiod: The Theogony


Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Troilus and ... Polyxena
  21. Who Is the Virgo?
  22. Pandora's Box
  23. Achilles and His Heel
  24. Hercules and His Labors
  25. The First Humans
  26. The Death of Pentheus


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