Before science took hold, when humans were still trying to classify everything we saw around us, people really did believe in chimeras. Take the example of the Scoter duck. No one could decide whether this bird was a bird or a fish. he Abbe of Vallemont even took it out of the bird category and put it in the fish category, and in the 19th century Catholics were allowed to eat Scoter duck on Fridays in lieu of fish if they wanted.
The chimera is important in the horror and speculative fiction/sci-fi genres.
The term chimera may be about to undergo a renaissance in modern parlance, because scientists are using the word to describe a single organism composed of cells from different zygotes. Animal chimeras are produced by the merger of multiple fertilized eggs.
WHAT IS A CHIMERA?
A creature composed of body parts from a variety of (at least two) different creatures.
Examples of hybrids in well-known tales:
- angels — human bodies, wings of birds
- centaurs — the head, arms, and torso of a man and the body and legs of a horse
- devils — human plus goat
- sphinxes —woman’s head, lion’s body
- tritons — trunk of a man and the tail of a fish
- mantichore — the man beast
- gorgon — from Topsell’s Historie of Fourefooted Beasts (Topsell was the 16th century version of Arthur Mee)
- dipsa — so small that when you step on him you don’t see him
- mermaids and mermen — half human half fish, or the French version, melucina (singular: melusine)
- unicorns — horses plus the horn from some other animal
The spectrum of hybrid creatures can be beautiful, with lovely wings, or they can be monstrous and deformed, evoking a wide range of moods.
Gatson Bachelard points out that creatures with shells are regarded suspiciously by us:
And the fact is that a creature that comes out of its shell suggests daydreams of a mixed creature that is not only “half fish, half flesh,” but also half dead, half alive, and, in extreme cases, half stone, half man. This is just the opposite of the daydream that petrifies us with fear. Man is born of stone.
— Poetics of Space
Drolleries — What, now?
Bachelard, being French, offers the example of Les heures de Marguerite de Beaujeu by Baltrusitis, The Book Of Hours of Marguerite of Beaujeu, (around 1320-1330) as an example of a work full of such creatures. (Marguerite of Beaujeu was the daughter of a lord and the book was made for her. The real work is now kept at The British Library.) This book contains lots of ‘drollery’.
A drollery — yes, it’s related to the word ‘droll’, is a decorative thumbnail image in the margin of an illuminated manuscript. They were most popular from c1250-15th century. The most common types of drollery images appear as mixed creatures: several different animals, part human, part animal, or part animal, part plant. Or even other, inorganic things.
Without chimeras, many of the most memorable science fiction and horror films would have been impossible, writes Howard Suber. A chimera was an ancient Greek monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent. (Dragons are a subset of a chimera, being made up of lions, serpents and birds.) A great number of characters in myth, legend and folk tales are chimeras.
Drolleries often have a thematic connection with the subject of the text of the page, and larger miniatures, and they usually form part of a wider scheme of decorated margins, though some are effectively doodles added later. Here’s an example from elsewhere:
THE FUNCTION OF CHIMERA IN A STORY
Throughout history, hybrid creatures have functioned as remarkably versatile vehicles for the expression of abiding cultural anxieties. On many occasions, they have been rendered just about tolerable by the sublimation of their uncanny anatomies into so-called “curiosities.” Yet, this has frequently led to a paradoxical situation, insofar as our attraction to those beings’ intractable alterity is never conclusively anesthetized: much as we may seek to domesticate the threatening connotations they are held to carry, by relegating them to the province of the abnormal or the repulsive, the sense of menace abides as a vital component of their bizarre, monstrous and fearful beauty. In other words, hybrids’ attractiveness is inextricable from their intimidating power.
— Dani Cavallaro, Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study
The most important thing to understand about these metaphorical creatures (and other metaphorical symbols in general) is that they also represent something within the hero.
WHAT ARE THE BESTIARIES?
Bestiaries are Hellenic, Asian and Egyptian in origin. Each illustrator from the 8th century onwards has added flourishes and sometimes given them weirdly humanised faces.
Nearly every animal in a Bestiary was symbolic of a human virtue or vice. So these beasts tend to be divided in binary fashion into good and wicked.
Beasts like minotaurs, harpies and century belong to stories of gods and heroes that have been translated into English without being changed or used, apart from the kind of imaginative transference whereby a poet like Gavin Douglas could make the Aeneid sound as if it were happing in Scotland.
— Margaret Blount, Animal Land
In the old days, chimeras were mostly made up of different animal parts.
For example, the minotaur is a creature from Greek myth with the head of a bull and the body of a man.
Heraldic creatures or mythical mixtures of parts are supposed to have been created that way, complete and finished. But creatures that have grown warped and monstrous with time and misfortune symbolise too much that is warped in human nature for comfort.
Modern chimeras are different: Frankenstein is a man merged with different bodies.
As Margaret Blount writes in Animal Land:
Minotaurs and others of half-human appearance do not seem to have travelled well enough to transplant themselves into stories. But they, and other animals made up from a mixture of parts, seem to have been accepted as facts in the popular Bestiaries; the descriptions proliferated in the telling with all the force of apparent eye-witness accounts, permeated with religious symbolism which lends them awe and wonder.
Chimera in Victorian Children’s Literature
Edward Lear invented quite a few creatures, and we’re not sure what they’re made up of:
- The Dong — Edward Lear’s “The Dong with a Luminous Nose”
- The Quangle-Wangle — Edward Lear also wrote a poem called The Quangle Wangle’s Hat
- Mock Turtle — from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland — named after ‘mock turtle soup’, a dish popular in the Victorian period
These made-up creatures were particularly useful to writers who loved to make up words: Lear, Seuss, Carroll and Sendak.
- Psammead — from Five Children and It — a sand fairy who can grant three wishes
- Melvyn Peake, who wrote Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor in 1945 also made up a bunch of animals for the story such as the Yellow Creature.
- The Mr Neverlost books by A. Turnbull (1932-1934) are early Dr. Who stories. Impossible creatures show an interest in humans as specimens. (Science fiction treated as fairy tale.)
- Then of course we have the strange creatures from Dr. Seuss, such as The Lorax, who might be a cross between species — a land dweller who looks like of like something from the deep ocean. One reviewer describes the Lorax of the film adaptation by saying “Danny DeVito voices the Lorax, a mustachioed, tangerine-coloured being that looks like a cross between Wilford Brimley and a potato with a spray tan.” Or maybe The Lorax is a type of walrus without the tusks.
Modern Chimeras In Film
- The Fly
- The Terminator
- The Matrix
Chimeras in Picture Books
Not all chimeras are scary. Today there are ‘toy books’ with split pages in which the young reader is able to create their own chimera by pairing an animal head with a different animal’s body/legs.
Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Gruffalo also seems to be a kind of chimera, and a portmanteau word made from a blend of ‘Gruff’ and ‘Buffalo’. Gruff, of course, is not a creature but an adjective. But this is still a riff on the ancient chimera.
In general I would say that entirely made-up creatures are less terrifying than real ones. Contrast The Gruffalo with Blackdog by Levi Pinfold, in which a massive dog looks in through the window of a cosy house.
The Chimerical Home
In Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard briefly mentions the term ‘chimerical home’, which obviously means a bit from one type of dwelling added onto another type of dwelling. An example of a chimerical home would be a house boat.