Wounded Chimera Essay, Research Paper
This page is an attempt to unravel, as much as possible, the origins of the myth of the Mediterranean Chimera, bestknown as the statue of the “Chimera of Arezzo”. It is not meant to be the definitive word on this subject nor to contrast orreplace the previous work of many distinguished archaeologists and art historians. The author just hopes to have beenable to suggest a few ideas that, maybe, someone will find of interest. Ancient myths often tell of beings made out of several creatures joined together in a single one: a human head on a lion bodymakes a sphinx, on a bird’s torso a siren, and on that of a fish a mermaid. Some of these beings are true races, as the centaurs(half man and half horse), the harpies (another kind of woman/bird mixture), and the satyrs (men with goat’s legs). Others comeas one of a kind, as the Minotaur (half man and half bull), Echidna (half woman and half snake), and the Chimera, this time amixture of lion, goat, and snake. For us, the richness of this ancient Pantheon is – at most – a matter of curiosity. A jumble of beings out of which it is hard tomake much sense. The myth of the Chimera seems to be a particularly baffling one. Surely it is a spectacular story of the battle ofa flying hero against a fire breathing monster, but can it be that all this sound and fury signifies nothing but slaying an ugly beast?Surely we have here one of the first (perhaps the first) version of the story of the hero and the dragon, a story pervasivelyembedded in western thought, repeated over and over in thousands of versions, a story that still makes us dream. We should notthink, however, that the myth of the Chimera in itself was the origin of any new idea. It was, rather, a version of some much moreancient myth, one that found its way in the stories told by Homer and Hesiod, and as such it was commented upon, illustrated inpaintings and sculptures, and finally transmitted to us. But the story, as in most ancient myths, is clearly a mixture of other storiesand ideas, older myths, some perhaps going far backward, to when humankind still could not record thoughts in any other way thanin story telling. Making sense of this mixture and finding the true origins of the myth of the Chimera is surely not an easy task, Butstill we can try. Let’s first review what we know. The literary sources are practically only two: Homer and Hesiod, back to – probably – 9thcentury BC, with later authors only adding minor details. According to Homer, the Chimera was “in the fore part a lion, in thehinder a serpent, and in the middle a goat”. Hesiod says almost identical words, although he specifies that the creature had threeheads. Both also say that it was capable of breathing fire. All authors describe the Chimera as female, and that may be somethingrelated to her name, that in ancient Greek means “young she-goat”. Despite this rather humble name, she was of divine origin. Herfather was the giant Typhon, her mother the half-serpent Echidna. She had as brothers Cerberus (the hound of Hell), Hydra (thenine-headed water snake) and Orthrus (another multi-headed dog). The Chimera was slain by Bellerophon, the hero. He was of divine origin, too, and in order to succeed in his task he first tamedthe winged horse Pegasus (some say it was given to him by Poseidon, his father). Then he flew over the monster to avoid its fierybreath. Some say that the breath of the beast was so hot that it melted the hero’s arrowheads. Others say that he placed a blockof lead on the tip of his spear, that he thrust into the creature’s throat. The flaming breath caused the lead to melt and hence toseal the Chimera’s guts, killing her. Of Bellerophon’s career after this feat, we know that it wasn’t easy and that the hero seems tohave had a certain tendency to clash with female creatures, for instance he fought and defeated the Amazons. EventuallyBellerophon’s destiny was not a brilliant one, as he ended his life blind, lame and accursed, always avoiding the paths of men. Just as the ancient reports about the Chimera are all about the same, so are the images. We have several of them onvases, mirrors, and coins, as well as one large and well preserved statue, the Chimera of
Arezzo. It seems that the artists of that time were proud of being faithful to the acceptedmodel, just as story-tellers were proud of telling their stories using the same words used bytheir teachers of old. So, all these images are remarkably similar. The three heads areclearly recognizable, with the goat’s one sprouting out of the middle of the back. Even theposture of the creature is always the same, with the body arched up and the front legsrigidly extended forward. The lion’s head is often pointing upwards with the mouth open,and in several cases there are hints of flames coming out of it. These images roughlycorrespond to the literary version of the myth, although they also show details which do notappear in Homer and Hesiod. Of what and where could have been the source of inspiration of these images, we know nothing,just as we know nothing about what were Homer’s and Hesiod’s original sources. This is, more or less, what we know. Now, what can we make out of it? What is the myth really about? Ancient authors askedthemselves this question, too. The first one to propose a “rational” answer was perhaps Servius Honoratus, writing in 4th centuryAD. According to him, the fire breathing creature was just the na ve representation of a volcano, a mountain named “Chimera”located somewhere in ancient Lycia. Bellerophon was simply a settler who managed to establish himself there first. Other ancientauthors, such as Plutarch, have said that the Chimera was a ship, and others that she was a female warlord. In modern times,Servius’ volcano has proven popular in mythology textbooks even though it seems unlikely that our ancestors – na ve as they mayhave been – could not tell a volcano from a goat when they saw one. Others have attempted different – perhaps more satisfactory- interpretations. The Italian Inghirami, writing in 19th century (Monumenti Etruschi, 1824), puts forward a complex zodiacalsymbology, where Bellerophon drives the chariot of the sun and where the Chimera is identified with the constellation of the lion,something that explains the “flaming breath” as a symbol of summer. Robert Graves, in his Greek Myths, suggests that theChimera may be a representation of the prehistoric passage from a matriarchal society dominated by the Moon goddess to anotherone, dominated by sun kings. Graves also says that the three parts of the creature are an allegory of the three seasons of the year,as it was subdivided in extremely ancient times. Nobody so far seems to have noted the possible relation of the myth with metalworking, as it would be suggested by the detail of lead melting in the creature’s throat. Just as we can see in Homer’s “Trojanhorse” a corrupted report about an ancient siege engine, we could see the Chimera as a misrepresentation of an ancient furnace. There is certainly something in each one of these ideas. Yet, it seems that no single one of them and perhaps not even all ofthem together, is really satisfactory. More likely, there is something deeper here, something that we cannot just explain away withvolcanoes or blasting furnaces. To get there, we should rather free ourselves of these layers of interpretation that haveaccumulated over the centuries. So, first of all, let’s say that the Chimera, as a monster, doesn’t make much sense. Maybe onecould be scared by a lion, or by a snake as well. But by a goat? (actually by a young female goat?). What is there so special aboutgoats to have a monster made out – in part at least – of one? Goats, male or female, are not common as monsters, but in theChristian myth of the devil, as well as in the Greek one of the Satyrs, the goat element seems to be meant to evidence the”unclean” nature of the creature. Maybe in very ancient times the unclean aspect of the Chimera was part of the myth, althoughnothing survives of this idea in the version we have. Anyway, as a monster the Chimera would probably be better without theuseless goat head, that would have a hard time in harming anyone from the position in which it finds itself. The first one to havereasoned that the goat head is not a head, after all, seems to have been Anne Roes in a paper of 1934 (JHS, LIV ” The origins ofthe Chimera” in festschrift Robinson 1155-64). The position and the shape of the head, it seems, is just a misrepresentation ifwhat was – originally – a wing, actually a pair of wings.