We’re fascinated by chimeras, i.e., animals made up of two or more different genetic cell lines that can cause unusual color patterns. But there is another kind of chimera, a mythological creature that gives the genetic chimera its name. Read on to meet the "original" chimera, plus 11 other wild mythological animals.
The chimera is a creature from Greek mythology. Homer described it in "The Iliad" as having the body and head of a lion, with the head of a goat emerging from its back and a snake for a tail. Today, the word “chimera” is sometimes used to describe any beast made up of multiple animals. In science, a chimera is a single person or animal with DNA from two zygotes.
A centaur is a being of Greek and Roman mythology with the head and torso of a man on the body and legs of a horse. Female centaurs are sometimes called centaurides. These fantastical creatures remain popular today. They appear in modern fantasy stories like C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia” and J.K. Rowling's “Harry Potter” series.
In Greek and Roman mythology, Cerberus is a three-headed demonic hellhound. It was a watchdog who guarded the entrance to Hades (i.e., hell). Cerberus wasn’t tasked only with preventing anyone from entering Hades. His job was also to keep any souls from ever escaping. Capturing Cerberus was one of the 12 feats of strength assigned to the hero Hercules.
Various traditions almost always depict dragons as winged or flying serpents. There is a difference, though, between European dragons and East Asian dragons. Generally, dragons in Asian cultures are benevolent beings and symbols of good luck. Western tradition typically depicts dragons as sinister creatures. Many different cultures have their own lore about dragons.
The legendary griffin is a mythological animal with the head and wings of an eagle on the body of a lion. Depictions of griffins exist in Greek, Roman, Asian, Middle Eastern and medieval European traditions. A similar creature is the hippogriff, which had the head and wings of an eagle on the body of a horse instead of a lion.
The hippocampus is a sea creature from Greek mythology. It is a literal sea horse, with the head and torso of a horse on a scaled fish body, like the horse version of a mermaid. In biology, the hippocampus lends its name to the part of the brain that regulates memory. This is because the shape of the hippocampus is like a seahorse.
The hydra is a many-headed serpent monster in Greek mythology. Those who tried to slay the hydra found that when they cut off one of its heads, two more would grow back in its place. Slaying the hydra was one of Hercules' 12 feats. He accomplished the task by cutting off the monster's heads and cauterizing them with a torch before they could regrow.
A minotaur is a mythological creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. In Greek mythology, the minotaur lived inside a labyrinth built to contain the monster. The hero Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens, ventured into the labyrinth to slay the minotaur. Many works of art depict the battle between Theseus and the minotaur.
In Greek mythology, the pegasus was a horse with wings. The creature was the offspring of Medusa and Poseidon, the god of the sea. In "The Iliad," the hero Bellerophon captures and tames the pegasus, and rides it into battle against the chimera. With the help of his flying steed, Bellerophon slew the chimera.
The phoenix is a magical firebird that comes from Greek mythology. According to the legend, fire would consume a phoenix upon its death, and a new phoenix would later rise from the ashes. Many cultures and traditions have adopted the phoenix as a symbol of rebirth and renewal. It remains a popular figure today, appearing in many modern works of fantasy.
In Greek mythology, the sphinx was a malicious beast with the body of a lion and the head of a woman. She guarded the city of Thebes. Those who wished entrance had to answer the sphinx's riddles. In Egyptian tradition, the sphinx was a male, and a more benevolent figure. The Great Sphinx of Giza remains a widely recognized symbol of Egypt today.
Next: Spotlight on Chimera Animals
Unicorns are mythological animals usually described as horses with a pointed horn on their forehead. Most myths and fairy tales depict unicorns as powerfully magical creatures. In some stories, they are symbols of purity that only virgins can capture and tame. In modern popular culture, unicorns are the bedrock of the Lisa Frank stationery empire.