|It was a single being that had the force of three beasts, the front part of a lion, the tail of a drakon, and the third–middle–head was that of a goat, through which it breathed out fire.
— Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 31 – 32
Chimerae depicted in ancient art adhere to pretty much the same pattern: lion head and body, a snake instead of a tail, which has its own fanged head, and a goat’s head sticking out of the middle of its back. Sometimes the goat head faces front, others, rear. The lion always has a mane even though the creature is said to be female. Often, in concession to that femaleness, it sports a row of udders, said to be from the she-goat.
But though generally consistent in ancient art, in ancient writings, the description varied. Often the snake part was interchangeable with a dragon, as in the quote above. Sometimes just three heads were referred to with no mention of where they went, or three body sections with no mention of a head other than the primary one. I find this intriguing. Either the visual of the creature was so well-known that the writers didn’t have to go into description on it, or the depiction had a life entirely of its own.
I believe the situation is the latter. The creature was long associated with Lycia, now part of modern Turkey, in particular a mountainous range on its south coast. The region there known to ancients as Mount Chimaera was most likely Yanar or Yanartas, which seeps methane gas ignited into flame. Furthermore, ancient scholars stated the mountain was said to be inhabited by lions at its top, goats in its middle, and snakes on its bottom, just like the fire-breathing creature. Somehow, through mistranslation, or picto-symbols gone wrong, the place itself became the monster.
And who knows? Likely in antiquity it was a dangerous place. Back then, lions were nothing to sneeze at, though they were soon to go extinct in Asia Minor. The goats may have provided them with food, but were also likely to have been hunted by humans as well, or herded by them. As for snakes, the Ottoman Viper is one of the most common, and most venomous, and nothing to be sneezed at either.
Even knowing its origins, it’s still pretty hard to make a creature with a description like this look badass, as I lamented in this past Worldbuilding Wednesday post. It’s easier to just ignore that pesky mid-back goat head, and according to the diverse descriptions the ancient writers gave, it wouldn’t exactly be wrong, either.
Yet, some fantasy artists have attempted to illustrate the mythic animal from the ancient vases, coins, and tableware.
The goat’s head bleats a challenge as the lion head glares. The ancient Greek name for the creature was Khimaira, which means She-goat. The Greeks of antiquity divided the gender of their monstrous creatures equally. As to why the Greeks called it She-goat when it is mainly a lion, I haven’t found that out yet.
A warrior woman fortified with a shield and cow-skull helmet faces a sinewy, cruel-looking beast. Yet she’s doomed to fail, as she’s holding her longknife completely wrong.
Here’s a badass chimera, munching on a grizzly bear for dinner! Note also the flames.
The lion part of this chimera is a sabretooth tiger rather than a lion, yet it is just as real of a menace to the perky My Little Pony Applejack.
All three beasts co-existing peacefully as they plot their next move.