The Chimaera has been tamed by modern astrology. Many know it as a symbol for seasonal change, vigour and aggressive growth. But to the medical community it has a strange meaning; it describes a condition that many women are born with and will never know, the possession of multiple sets of DNA spread through the body in stripes or patches (Schaub, 2006).
To the makers and commissioners of this mosaic its most important meaning was the wealth of the commissioner and the skill of its maker. But there was also undoubtedly a more ideological or mercantile meaning behind the placement of such a brave scene, located in the town of autun, then known as Augustodunum, a border state of the Roman empire and an example of Roman excellence to the Gaul people living in the area. Not to mention the subconscious or metaphorical meanings, many or perhaps all the Greeks myths represented, which I will explore after we have examined the piece in question.
The mosaic depicts the battle between Bellerophon and the Chimaera but its real subject is Pegasus. In this Greek myth the hero and his steed half brother are tasked with killing the monster Chimaera, the daughter of mythical figures Typhon and Echidna, sister to the three-headed dog Cerberus. The piece is a depiction of the final moments of victory. Darkly framed, the heroes are brightly lit and in living motion. The Romans had great skill in their presentation of dynamic movement in their artworks and the use of shadow and dark brown helped elevate the heroism on display.
The winged horse Pegasus is in the centre of the circle. Bellerophon balances on the horse’s back and his lead-coated spear directs our attention across the skilfully depicted musculature of Pegasus’s flank, then past and over his swanlike wings expertly bonded to the horse’s flank. Our attention then flows down Pegasus’s leg and onto the seemingly cowering Chimaera. It is almost as though Pegasus will trample this monster as it rears up. Once again its amalgamous form is carefully imagined by its artist. (Homerus and Green, 2015)
Bellerophon rides Pegasus lightly, no saddle or stirrups, perhaps a Roman archaeological allusion to the fact that in Bellerophon’s heroic era, the Mycenaeans (whose Greek mythology this event belongs to) had only just mastered the art of riding on horseback, having gained the technology from the Scythians to the East. Four hundred years after this mosaic was laid and a thousand years after Bellerophon’s myth was set, stirrups would make their way to Europe by the same roads.
This mosaic would have been displayed at the entrance hall of a nobleman, a politician or a merchant living in 100a.d. to 300a.d. in the city of Autun, France. This was a large trading city that spent much of its antiquity as a vassal state of the then expanding Roman Empire, although Rome had already existed as a kingdom and a republic for 800 years prior to this point (Donald Wasson 2015). It is therefore likely that the piece was in the home of a merchant, perhaps even someone who traded in horses or was, at least, proud of their own. The perfectly circular image would have been set within a bigger motif decoration on the floor of the atrium of the Roman home. The artistry with which the horse and its hero rider are depicted may be in reference to the protectorate role in the region, the patron’s trading background or even just their educated familiarity with, and patronage of, the arts.
The myth depicted in the mosaic is originally Greek and can be seen in terra sigillata detail on Greek pots dating back to 300 B.C.E (right image: Raddato, 2017) (Angela Ziskowski. 2014). But it is very possible the myth dates from earlier and from a precursor culture. Later this Roman mosaic would be one of the stops on the journey of transformations that the myth of Bellerophon and the Chimaera went through. The descendent of this myth can be seen today on the Irish flag – St George slaying the dragon is often depicted in exactly the same pose as is seen on very early Greek vases (Antonio et al., n.d.). Myth borrows and morphes as it is passed through generations and cultures,often fusing with other stories. It hybridised ideas and motifs, so in a sense all myths are Chimaera.
The gods of Olympus were the result of an earlier revolution, in which Zeus defeated the Titans of an earlier age (Homerus and Green, 2015). Greek mythology is full of generations of gods that were then overthrown by their progeny. One of these that was overthrown was Typhon, a true father of monsters. He was composed of a hundred headed hydra (many snake heads like medusa’s hair), his legs are two serpent tails, he has wings and he breathed fire (Pythian 1, 470 BCE). His antecedent was probably Set of Egyptian mythology. Most of the monsters of the Greek pantheon were descended from this cacophony of animalistic elements. Typhon’s wife Echidna is less clearly defined, but she is often snake-like and perhaps evokes the cultural identity of the Far East. The Chimaera was the sister of Cerberus, the three-headed dog and a direct descendent of the union of Echidna and Typhon. Interestingly Typhon was meant to have ruled over what is now modern day Sicily. Echidna’s genealogy is so confused that she often ends up as her own granddaughter depending on which source one reads.
As seen in the mosaic, the Chimaera is a Lioness (although she is normally depicted with a male mane). Attached to her back is the head of a goat and her tail is a snake’s head. She was possibly as small as twice the size of a large bull or as large as a six story building. She ravaged the lands to the east of the Mycenaean territories, perhaps a metaphor for the threat from the East that I will examine later in this analysis.
The skill with which Bellerophon rides his mount speaks of their closeness. Pegasus and Bellerophon were half brothers, the former a twin child of Medusa. Medusa was a beautiful temple priestess and was only cursed with her form after the sea god Poseidon raped her in the temple of Athena (Hesiod’s Theogony. C Kelk. 2022), Medusa’s petrifiying gaze was a metaphor for the look of stone in the eyes of a victim of sexual assault. Poseidon also stole the wedding night of the Corinthian king Glaucus (Biblioteca of Pseudo-Apollodorus. 100 AD) and impregnated the queen Eurynome making their son Bellerophon a demigod. But the genealogy of the Chimaera is just as interesting and is examined later in this text.
The story of Bellerophon and the Chimaera contains two “mythic tropes”: that of the ruler sending his champion on a doomed quest and that of hubris leading to a fall. Woven throughout is an exploration of the small overcoming the great with nimble swiftness and cunning. Bellerophon is sent to slay a deadly beast, his pride is used against him by the King Lobates who always intended to get Bellerophon killed. This was in order to avenge a faked rape attempt. Bellerophon was falsely accused by Anteia of attempted rape, a less than palatable Greek mythic trope present in a dismaying number of the heroic stories. (Hesiod’s Theogony. C Kelk. 2022)
Despite the fact that Bellerophon’s quest is intended to kill him, he is able to use his cunning to overcome the seemingly impossible challenge and kill the Chimaera. Bellerophon arranges to have his spear tipped with lead so that when the Chimaera attacks with its fiery breath the spear tip will melt and the toxic lead will fall into Chimaera’s mouth and poison her. Here is another example of the Greek myths being used instructively on a range of levels. Metallurgy and the dangers of lead are subtly reinforced by the story. At the same time the tale glories in Bellerophon’s cunning and by association the ancient Greeks’ prowess with metal working and alchemy (what we would understand as chemistry today).
Later on in his story, hubris causes Bellerophon’s literal and narrative downfall. He attempts to join the gods on Mount Olympus, flying up on Pegasus to join them. But Zeus sends a horse fly to bite the rump of Pegasus which in turn throws Bellerophon far down to the ground where he is left crippled. A small agile and crafty gnat is Bellerophon’s end, just as he is a small flying nimble hero on the back of Pegasus bringing down the mighty Chimaera. (Fry, S., 2019.)
The Chimaera itself could be read numerous ways but there are three overlapping interpretations that I would like to offer here. The first is that this monster evoked the first Assyrian and then Persian threat to the East. Just as Jan N. Bremmer describes in his “Interpretations of Greek Mythology” where Bremmer draws a parallel with Zeus and Persian antecedent Hittite gods. I feel a similar comparison is present in this myth. (N. J. 2013) The Ancient Greek tales often included a type of mapping within their structures. This may have been one of their functions, a system of categorising parts of the known world into political cartoons of their caricaturists. Whereas Hercules’s/Heracles’s adventures and trials often take him to cities we now know as being located to the south and west of Greece, such as Ethiopia and the Straits of Gibraltar, Bellerophon’s travels take him to modern day Turkey. He follows the river named Meander up from the Aegean sea and to the east, mimicking the trade routes that would have carried the Mycenaean Greeks and Persian merchants up and down the river’s course between the lands that the Chimaera was said to have raided.
In contrast to the Mycenaeans, whose gods were all of human form, the religious iconography of the Persians, Babylonias and other civilisations of the Fertile Crescent often depicted gods that are amalgamations of animals or animals and humans. They also venerated lions. Typhon, (Image right: Typhoeus, 560 BCE) the father of the Chimaera, was depicted with two snake legs, a hundred heads, medusa for arms and fire breath. This form could be a type of propaganda of the Mycaneans: our enemies are descended from bestial un-olympian deities and shouldn’t be sympathised with. Or the form could have come out of subconscious associations with the gods of their feared Eastern rivals.
It therefore seems that this multi-headed mashup of beasts could represent the Assyrian and then the Persian empire. In contrast to the Mycenaeans, the Persians practised a unification model of nation building. The Persians managed a federation of states ruled and taxed by a central region, expected to retain their own types of military and civil structures. This meant a wide range of troop types and combat systems. (Dan Carlin. 2016) These people were cartoonishly depicted as slave forces in the likes of movies like ‘300’ (2007). The Mycenaean individualism exemplified by the use of heroes in their mythic tales echoed their sociopolitical structures in opposition to the Persians. They were a band of kingdoms who regularly fought wars amongst themselves in struggles for power but were united by a shared culture and religion, going as far as pausing regional wars for shared festivals and the Olympic Games. Perhaps the Chimaera represents that distinction. From a political standpoint the Persians would have resembled a collection of distinct ethnicities and religions working as a unified force, so we see a monster made of three distinct animals. The Mycenaean Greeks resembled two brothers working together as allies, both equally divine in their demigodhood but unbeholden to each other.
To blend this first point with my second: I like to think the bearded and horse mounted warriors of the Scythians (and later Mongolians) would have resembled a four-legged animal with a bearded head sticking out of its back. The centaur is a mostly benevolent mythological creature in the Greek pantheon and is often interpreted as a symbol for the Scythian tribal horsemen so perhaps the Chimaera represents their warlike other side.
Secondly and more broadly the Chimaera could represent a type of Mycenaean polytheistic supremacy over the ‘old ways’ of animism. Older religious practice from the South and East often depicted its gods as fusions of animal and human, the Egyptian canon was even more infatuated with the fusion of the human and natural world. This represented an equilibrium with the natural world. If the Greek pantheon overthrew the Titans (who were anthropomorphic personifications of natural forces), then perhaps this theme represents the Mycenaean desire for a mythology that centred humans or human-like gods as the driving force of the world. Zeus overthrew Cronus (God of time) replacing a force of nature with a man-like figure, and finally, with the assistance of Hercules/Heracles, even mortals would play a role in the subjugation of the forces of nature. Perhaps the animal-like monsters that are so often the foes of the Greek heroes represent this struggle against and overthrowing of animism.
And finally Pegasus ridden by Bellerophon is the personification of swift and agile movement in opposition to a great hulking beast. Bellerophon and Pegasus’s quick outmanoeuvring of their enemy and their use of the cunning ploy of poison, championed speed and quick thinking over power. This moral is echoed in Bellerophon and Pegasus’s final adventure. Speed and agility will triumph over raw size and strength. A puny human can kill a great beast and a fly can dismount a great hero. Strategy and quickness defeats pride and stature. This was a statement about the Mycenaean approach to war.
And fourthly allow me to be poetic in my re-interpretation of the Chimaera. The Greeks worshipped ethnic purity while the Persians to the East were more tolerant to cultural diversity. I for one would rather live in a world that accepted all types of people and culture. The Mycenaean polytheistic human-centric religions imagined themselves to dominate the natural world and become the centre of reality. Animism, on the other hand, imagined the human as a small part of a bigger system of interlocking forces. In today’s age of climate crisis an animist’s approach would see humankind as part of a bigger ecosystem. A very necessary shift in perspective when considering the climate crisis.
If the mosaic were made with today’s ideology perhaps the beautiful and majestic multiethnic Chimaera would be cruelly under attack by a selfish and self-centred human on top of his brother the horse, a beautiful winged animal that is mounted and enslaved by mankind in dominance over the natural world. To us living here at the end of anthropogenic climate change, this conceptual victory of man over nature begins to look more like it might be one of the founding events in the anthropocene.
But the Chimaera has come to mean something far more fundamental to our idea of identity. The biomedical meaning relates to the cells mothers share with their children and individuals that were once two people in the womb (Schaub, 2006). Pegasus was close to his brother Bellerophon but not as close as two twins who live as one. A strange and more poignant legacy the Chimaera could not be more appropriate.
“Curious to a fault, Jack Alexandroff has lost himself in too many fields to name. By examining biological and physical principles through the lens of personal experience, his work combines subjectivity with scientific truth. He works in ceramics, with Fungi, he uses timelapse, stop motion, sculpture and drawing.”