Animals of myth

1 Chimera

“Chimera, who breathed raging fire, a fearful, great, swift-footed and strong creature, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat; and breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire. Pegasus and noble Bellerophon killed her.” Some time in the seventh or eighth century BC the poet Hesiod wrote down this description of a monstrous beast in his poem Theogony. Hesiod’s near contemporary Homer also refers to Chimera. In the Iliad Homer says: Chimera, “immortal, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle, and breathing out the terrible flame of bright fire.”

I find these kind of mythological animals fascinating. They seem mysterious and uncalled for. Why combine three such disparate animals as a snake or dragon; a lion, and a goat? The fire breathing dragon has been an enduring figure of myth. The lion was certainly a beast to treat with caution: lions were extant in the Greece of Homer’s time. In fact the lion was thought to have been offspring of Chimera. There was a famous lion which terrorised the region of Nemea in Peloponnesos until killed by Herakles. But the goat? The goat seems the odd man out in this beast, hardly terrifying. And why for goodness sake combine these animals into one at all?

2 Kerberos

One idea contained in the myth is of a beast with many heads. Chimera has three. Its brother was Kerberos, who guarded the gates of Hades, who also had three heads and was imagined as a ferocious hound.  Kerberos was also an animal of diverse parts, with a mane of snakes, claws of a lion and a serpent’s tail. A brother of Chimera and Kerberos was Hydra, a water snake of many heads, which had the characteristic of multiplying when severed. If one was cut off, two more instantly grew in its place. Hydra, like Kerberos, guarded an entrance to the underworld. Both were slain by the hero Herakles, who each time entered the underworld on one of his labours. Chimera was slain by Bellerophon. Offspring of Chimera was Sphinx, another composite beast, with a human head, lion’s body and eagle’s wings. The Sphinx stood guard at temples, and initiates had to pass its tests to enter and perform the rites. In Greek myth Sphinx was defeated by Oedipos, who was able to pass its test by answering a riddle and demonstrating his wisdom.

By now it looked as though several ideas were common to these hybrid monsters. The number three: it seems trinities were common in ancient religion. An entrance to the underworld or at least some kind of test. And a hero who overcame them.

3 Hydra

The story of the Chimera is distinct from the other two, because it was set not in Greece but in Lycia, a coastal district of southern Turkey which was populated by an ancient Bronze Age people at one time incorporated in the Hittite empire. The area was conquered by another branch of the Indo Europeans, the Persians. The hero Bellerophon was said to have become a king of Lycia after he defeated Chimera. What the story of Chimera does have in common with that of Kerberos and Hydra is its period. All three are set in the 12th to 14th centuries BC. This was the time of the Trojan War, when the Greek tribes picked off the allies of the weakening Hittite empire such as Troy, and raiders such as Jason pillaged cities on the southern coast of the Black Sea. Odysseus also travelled to the edge of the world, the West, to an entrance of the underworld, guided by the advice of Circe, where he met the ghosts of the dead and heard their tale. Odysseus had a journey of ten years in returning home from Troy, while Herakles had ten labours.

Perhaps the Greeks heard these stories from peoples they dispossessed as they came south to Greece in the Bronze Age. Perhaps the stories were originally told by the peoples of Crete, whose naval empire once extended to the Greek islands and southern Greece. What the stories all seem to suggest is worship of gods of the underworld, gods who had knowledge needed by humans. The three heads of the monsters suggest the three directions, past, present and future, or the three thresholds, birth, life and death. For each there was a rite of passage, during which each member of the community had to pass a test, become an initiate, and earn the right to speak to the god.

4 Hecate

In ancient Greek religion one of the chief deities was Hekate, a goddess with three aspects. Hekate was linked to Artemis and to Selene. She was one of the gods given prominence in the Mysteries celebrated at Eleusis, and had strong connections with the worship of Demeter and Persephone in the underworld. Hekate was, among other things, the goddess of thresholds. She was sometimes depicted with animal heads, three in number. The separate heads were meant to represent different aspects of the god. Her animal was the dog, suggesting Kerberos, the guardian of Hades.

The monsters such as Chimera often breath flame, like the dragon. Chimera is specifically associated with volcanoes. I wonder if to the ancient people who imagined these beasts a volcano was an entrance to the underworld. That would make sense of stories such as that about the seer Empedokles, who died in the flames of mount Etna.

Earlier versions of what could be Chimera come from Karkemish in the region of Lydia in Turkey and show a lion with a man’s head as well as a lion’s, and a tail of a serpent: that is, no goat. Ancient Egypt has Ra as a fire breathing lion.

5 Chimera from Karkemish

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The word ‘chimera’ now means a thing which is hoped for but is illusory or impossible to achieve. It’s a pejorative meaning, a dismissal of what Chimera once stood for.

The peoples who lived in ancient Greece before the Indo Europeans came in the 14th century BC were worshippers of the ancient Great Mother. They often had temples underground, near where they imagined the source of her fertility to lie. Here they carried out rites to placate her and ensure continuing fertility at the start of Spring. They may have felt their sacrifices were vital to the process of regeneration in nature on which their own lives depended.

Fertility cults such as that of Demeter (as she was later known) were underground, in Attica at Eleusis. In Knossos the priest carried out the bull sacrifice underground. The bull was the source of potency, and his sacrifice helped fertilise the mother. In Knossos the priest wore a bull head-dress when carrying out this rite.

Also underground was the realm of the dead. Here the dead could be consulted. They had knowledge denied ordinary people, because they had crossed one of the great thresholds. They were approached at one of the mysterious entrances to the underworld, often a place where three roads crossed. This was where Hecate was worshipped. This was where the oracles were located, and priests or priestesses would ask the suppliant’s question and return the answer given with the consent of the gods.

6 Hekate 2

The Indo Europeans invaded the lands of Greece, and drove away, killed, or enslaved the inhabitants there before them, who spoke a language they could not understand. The concept of earth gods, underground gods, was foreign to them. To worship they looked to the sky. They worshipped the thunder, whom they called Zeus. The cataclysm of earthquake, whom they called Poseidon. For them the gods were not mysterious. They were terrifying.

These invaders had no way of understanding the remnants of worship the earlier peoples had left behind. Temples that contained pictures and sculptures of the rites to the Mother, or invocations to the dead. On Knossos they saw representations of a bull headed priest, and to them it looked like half man half bull. They called it the Minotaur, a monster who must have been the product of bestiality. They saw paintings of young men and women dancers, apparently being sacrificed to an enormous bull, and thought human sacrifice had been practised. The entrances to the underworld became unholy places populated by witches, demons and ghosts. The gods of the old faith, as often happens, became the devils of the new one.

7 MinotaurThe invading tribes carried stories with them celebrating the exploits of their founder. Genealogy, as in many ancient cultures, was important. Whom you were descended from mattered. And clan members exaggerated the exploits of the founder for their own glory. So stories began to be told of how the founders of the noble houses, Theseus, Jason, Perseus, Herakles, Bellerophon and many more, defeated and killed the monsters worshipped by the older tribes who they had displaced. All they had to go on were temple sculptures. Like Sphinx, with lion’s body, eagle’s wings and man’s head. Or Chimera, with lion’s body, man’s head and snake tail. These actually represented stages of the initiate as he approached the god, and were far from being representations of monsters.

Wings are a sign of the god’s messenger, who flies from heaven to earth with the god’s answer to prayer. Ancient Persian sculptures show the King’s messengers travelling the Royal Roads with his edicts, and they are winged men, to signify the speed with which they travelled. Wings are symbolic of truth. Believers did not imagine beings flying like giant birds, with wings catching the updraft of air to fly and soar. The wings were a symbol. Just as in Christianity the wings of angels are. Nobody imagines angels flapping their wings to rise to heaven. So Sphinx was not thought to fly, the wings were a sign its truth was from heaven, from god. The dragon or snake was a symbol of wisdom. The sloughing of its skin a sign of immortality, of rebirth. These ancient worshippers of the Mother thought in metaphors, and painted and sculpted in symbols. To represent aspects of one god, or attributes of a priest or magus, or attainments of an initiate, they combined symbolic shapes in the one image. Not monsters, to be feared. Virtues, or gifts, to be attained.

8 Winged messenger

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Ruined temples with their mysterious paintings and sculptures were not the only source of stories about animals who combined the parts of different species. Magic was widely practised in the ancient world, mainly among the poor and illiterate, but also by the state in times of emergencies. Spells were cast, potions were concocted, amulets worn, designed to harm an enemy, persuade a loved one, ensure good fortune. The powers appealed to were not the gods of temples and recognised cult, but to the powers of hell, the underworld, to gods who were horrifying and sometimes malevolent, the product of the superstitious fears of uninformed peoples.

Readers of Shakespeare will recall the three witches at the start of Act 4 of Macbeth (the figure three crops up again!):
Fillet of a fenny snake,
    In the caldron boil and bake;
    Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
    Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
    Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
    Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing,—
    For a charm of powerful trouble,
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
       ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
       3 WITCH.  Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf;
    Witches’ mummy; maw and gulf
    Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark;
    Root of hemlock digg’d i the dark”

9 Cockatrice

In mysterious and unsavoury mixtures the three witches concoct it was easy to image, if you were scared silly by the mumbo jumbo, that a real beast existed with newt’s eyes and frog’s toes etc. At a time when nature had not been explored and catalogued there was little knowledge of it, and it was easy to imagine all kinds of marvels just beyond the familiar world. Vivid imaginations fed by magic rites thought up beasts such as the basilisk, a cock with a snake’s tail. It was also known as a cockatrice. The basilisk breathed fire, which kills birds; its glance kills men; its smell kills snakes. As the three witches put it, a basilisk is very like
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
    Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing,—“
The basilisk is only 12 inches long, but poisonous to almost everything. The ancient encyclopedist Pliny, who died during the eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD, wrote about the basilisk in his Natural History, and attempted to treat it scientifically. He is the source of all the superstitious information we have about basilisks, including the knowledge they could only be killed by a weasel.

Pliny tells also of the manticore, which had a lion’s body, a man’s head, with blue eyes, and a scorpion’s tail. So far it sounds like a version of the chimera. But you have to beware of the manticore. It has a triple row of teeth, and is very fast in springing on its prey. It prefers human flesh to all others. Luckily it is confined to India i.e. the limits of the known world.

10 Griffin

The location India alerts us that there is a third source of these mysterious beasts: travellers’ tales. Travellers from Herodotos to John Mandeville carried tales based on stories they had been told, pictures or sculptures they had seen or rites they had observed, and the tales became more stupendous with each retelling. The griffin from Ethiopia has the body of a lion and the wings and head of an eagle. Griffins also prey on humans, and carry their kill to nests in the mountains. They are similar in this respect to the giant bird encountered by Aladdin, the Roc. The Roc is told of in the Mahabharata, the books of ibn Battuta, and in the tale of Marco Polo, all of whom distinguish the Roc from the griffin. The Roc has its origin in Persian and Indian mythology, but by the time it reaches the West it is just an ordinary marvellous beast.

Other marvellous beasts, such as the dragon, the unicorn and the mermaid, siren and silkie, have such an extensive folklore they require a separate look.

11 Sphinx

Perhaps the best way to see these marvellous beasts, the chimera, basilsk, sphinx and their kin, is as a result of a kind of culture shock, as one culture met, uncomprehendingly, the myths, stories and images of another, and carried back home the tale of what they had seen. The tales were assimilated, through the acts of heroes, from Bellerophon to Aladdin. The result, finally, was a good story, one that enhanced our sense of wonder at the mysteries out there, on the boundaries of the known world.

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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