Welcome to another edition of Around World Mythology In D&D Minis, in which we use the tabletop role playing game Dungeons & Dragons (perhaps you’ve heard of it?) as a jumping off point to examine the history, mythology and evolution of some of fantasy’s most interesting and iconic creatures. Today’s creature: the chimera.
A chimera, for those who don’t know, is a large beast that is composed (roughly, depending on the source) of part lion, part goat, and part serpent and/or dragon. When someone says “chimera” today, they usually mean something akin to this:
Pretty damn badass looking. And not far-off from D&D’s take on the creature, which looks like this:
According to the Monster Manual (page 34):
“This creature has the hindquarters of a big goat and the forequarters of a great lion. It has dragon wings and three heads: a horned goat, a maneless lion, and a fierce dragon.The chimera is a bizarre predator that hunts on the ground and on the wing. It can defeat even the hardiest opponent with a flurry of claws and fangs. A chimera is about 5 feet tall at the shoulder, nearly 10 feet long, and weighs about 4,000 pounds. A chimera’s dragon head might be black, blue, green, red, or white. Chimeras can speak Draconic but seldom bother to do so, except when toadying to more powerful creatures. A deadly foe, the chimera prefers to surprise prey. It often swoops down from the sky or lies concealed until it charges. The dragon head can loose a breath weapon instead of biting. Several chimeras attack in concert.”
Obviously the chimera mini they produced there has the head of a black dragon (makes sense, since most chimeras are chaotic-evil). No variant-dragon headed chimera minis exist that I’m aware of (although it would be freaking cool if they did. Alas, we’re not that lucky.)
In terms of mythology, D&D actually got it pretty damn close to the source. Like many D&D creatures, chimeras–or more accurately, THE Chimera–originated in Greek mythology. The earliest written reference to such a creature (that we know of) is from Homer’s Illiad, book VI, in which the noble prince Bellerophon slays the creature, which is described thusly:
“…he first commanded Bellerophon to kill that savage monster, the Chimaera, who was not a human being, but a goddess, for she had the head of a lion and the tail of a serpent, while her body was that of a goat, and she breathed forth flames of fire; but Bellerophon slew her, for he was guided by signs from heaven.” *
Not all that far from what Gygax and co ended up with, actually. No reference to dragons in the Greek myth obviously, or wings for that matter, but really, the idea of having the dragon’s head of a D&D chimera be one of the five chromatic dragons (and giving them the matching breath weapon to boot) was a stroke of brilliance, and helped make this interpretation of the creature completely unique to the D&D universe.
Now, Homer wrote his epic somewhere around 8 B.C. and, while his is the first written reference to a chimera, it couldn’t have been the first. Chimeras were appearing on artwork much earlier than that–4 B.C. is our earliest visual reference to such a creature, and it looks something like this:
No dragon parts, as you can see, and frankly the tail doesn’t look all that serpentine (but then I’m in no way shape or form an expert on Ancient Greek and Italian art, so it could very well be that I just don’t know enough to know that its supposed to be a snake of some kind.)
The most interesting thing to note about this representation is that the creature’s body is FULLY leonine–you’ll recall Homer’s chimera (which, remember, came after this) had only the head of a lion, and the full body of a goat.
The most famous ancient representation of a chimera, of course, is the Chimera of Arezzo. Its a bronze sculpture circa 4 B.C. (around the same time Homer wrote the Illiad):
Once again, the body is fully leonine, and the only reference to a goat is the extra goat’s head growing from the creature’s back. The tail is definitely a serpent, although it is worth noting that the original tail of the sculpture was broken off, and the one currently on the statue is an 18th century restoration based on a small tail piece they were able to recover.
The chimera pops up here and there in other Greek myths–some say it was the progeny of Typhon and Echidna (who also gave birth to Cerbeus, the Neman Lion, the Sphinx and the Hydra–talk about a horrible family reunion to attend.)(And yes, she is the namesake of the cute little Australian mammal called the echidna.) This is where things start to get very interesting indeed, because while (according to Homer) the Chimera did NOT have multiple heads (just the head of a lion and the body of a goat) its mother, Echidna, did. Well…sometimes. In most accepted versions of Greek mythology, her lower half is a giant snake, and her upper half is a woman (think Medusa from the original Clash of the Titans.) In SOME versions of the myths, however, she is depicted as having three heads–one of a lion, one of a goat, and one of a dragon. Like I said…interesting. Unfortunately there is no timeline for the evolution of these versions that I could find, so its impossible to tell whether these myths evolved to give the chimera aspects of its mother, or if someone revamped the mother to look more like her famous child. I don’t know enough about art to wager a guess based on the ancient pieces, and, as much as I love studying it, I’m no Ph.D in mythological evolution either. That little mystery will have to remain unsolved for the time being. (I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter in the comments though!)
D&D wasn’t the last fantasy game to poach this imaginative and visually stunning creature from the Greeks–my first introduction to the chimera family (besides that good old standby, Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology) was the original Final Fantasy. I remember dreading this sprite, and the pain it would inevitably bring:
There was also its big brother of course, the green palate-swapped Jimera, which has no relation to mythology whatsoever, and is merely a badly named and/or translated NES NTSC version of a chimera that could use magic. Since the sprite isn’t very big or detailed, here’s an artistic rendering that gives you a much better look:
Its a wee bit hard to tell, but it seems like the FF guys took a little bit from both the Greeks and D&D. Clearly they really liked the winged/multiple heads idea (and I THINK it might have a snake tail…kind of hard to tell though) but interestingly, they left the entire body as a goat (hooves are clearly visible on all four feet.) That would change in later games (even in updates of FF1 itself). While the creature remained mostly the same, it would be given either a half-lion body or sometimes (as in the case of FF3) a fully leonine body like in the ancient artwork.
And then…just like last time…there’s whatever the hell happened in FFX:
…Yeah. Somewhere down the line they confused “chimera” with “minotaur.” No trace of a lion that I can see, either, unless that blue wolf-looking thing is supposed to represent it. Also, they mistook “goat” for “eagle” I guess. They did keep the snake-tail, though, which is cool. Actually, it’s a pretty damn cool looking monster in general…its just nothing resembling any kind of chimera I know of. (Well, at least not the mythological kind.)
And of course, chimeras aren’t limited to Final Fantasy–just about every swords-n-sorcery style RPG will provide its own take on the creature, most of which stay relatively close to either the Greek or D&D source material.
…Which actually brings me to real-life chimeras. Yes, they exist, although not nearly as dramatically as the Greeks imagined. Quite simply, “chimera” is a scientific term (taken from the mythological creature) for a creature that has two sets of DNA that do not match. There are a couple of ways this can happen and I won’t detail them here, but if you’re interested, you can learn more here.
This actually brings me to the last place chimeras crop up that we’re going to discuss today…and that is the anime series Fullmetal Alchemist, of which I’m a huge fan. in the FMA universe, chimeras are usually abominations, two creatures fused together unwillingly through the use of alchemy (which, in FMA, is part science, part magic.) The first introduction to chimeras in the series involves the heroes, Edward and Alphonse, meeting a man who fuses his daughter and pet dog into a sad, terrible creature which seems to retain just enough of its humanity to be pained at its own existence. (And it may be worth noting that this man previously used his wife in one of his experiments too–she was chimerafied as well, and the results were just as ugly.)
So…from Greek mythology to fantasy games to genetics to alchemy…that’s a quick once-over of the rather strange but incredibly cool evolution of the creature known as a chimera. I hope you found it enjoyable and informative!