Chimera creatures in mythology: why are they so familiar?

If you ask me, the best part of fantasy writing is the variety of creatures. We can go ahead and imagine strange beasts that don’t actually exist in our world. The weird part is that we’ve usually seen them all before. Mythical creatures are mostly just amalgams of more familiar animals.

Which makes them chimeras. Chimera often refers to the Greek monster that is a combination of lion, goat and snake.

600px-Chimera_Apulia_Louvre_K362

 

But the term can be used to refer to any fictional creature that is a mishmash of species. Even in real-life science, a living thing made up of different groups of cells fused together is called a chimera. So whether literal or figurative, many of the fictional beasts we know of are chimeras.

Because a griffon is a combination of eagle and lion’s physical traits. Add human characteristics to that and you’ve got a sphinx. Basilisks and cockatrice are combinations of chickens and snakes/lizards. A unicorn is fundamentally just a horse with a horn, but it’s traditionally depicted as having a goat’s beard, deer’s feet and lion’s tail. Even if they’re not explicitly described as “half this, half that”, mythical creatures are usually a mash-up of animal features we’ve seen before. They’re chimeras in spirit if not in actual DNA. Dragons are so common in Earth history because nearly every culture invented a reptilian creature that fit the  general description. Sometimes dragons have bat wings, fish scales, deer horns or a snake’s venom, but they still fit.

Metal_dragon_half_frontal_view

The people paint the dragon’s shape with a horse’s head and a snake’s tail. Further, there are expressions as ‘three joints’ and ‘nine resemblances’ (of the dragon), to wit: from head to shoulder, from shoulder to breast, from breast to tail. These are the joints; as to the nine resemblances, they are the following: his horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam (shen, 蜃), his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow.

– Wang Fu, a Han Dynasty scholar

I think this happens because humans are hard-wired to prefer familiar things. When we’re struggling to understand a new idea, we try to compare it to things we already know. Heraldic unicorns probably weren’t actual genetic fusions of horses and goats: it was just easier to describe them as having  “a beard like a goat”, and trust that other Europeans know what a goat looks like. So even if we’re inventing a nightmarish monster that doesn’t really exist, we seem to prefer that it look familiar.

We learn from the world around us, and from the experience of others. We draw from what’s already been established in our world. So inventing a completely new animal is actually pretty hard. And on the off chance someone succeeds, we usually compare it to Earth animals anyway. It hunts in groups? Oh, like lions! It has a venomous bite? Ah, like a snake! A four-footed herbivore that humans can ride? Much like a horse! That makes description much easier but, well, what’s the point of inventing a distinctive wild animal for your fantasy world if people are just going to think of it as a “lion-snake”, anyway?

 

Sci-fi finds it more worthwhile to invent completely new animals. It’s unreasonable to think that everything in a populous universe will look like an Earth animal — and a truly foreign creature can reinforce the idea that we’re not in metaphorical Kansas anymore. Fantasy, though, has stronger ties to human history and the things we’ve thought since antiquity. So fantasy creatures are naturally going to look familiar, I guess. And what’s more fantastic than a chimera, an impossible blending of very different animals? As much as I wish fantasy would stop leaning on old tropes, there are reasons behind most of these norms. And mixing animals together has as many combinations as there are creatures in nature.


One Comment on “Chimera creatures in mythology: why are they so familiar?”

  1. […] Chimera creatures in mythology: why are they so familiar? […]


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