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Why the Chimera Is the Monster for Our Uncertain Age

ONE OCTOBER MORNING at the Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy, I was wandering through the rooms that contain the Magna Graecia collection when I found myself transfixed by the figure of the Chimera on a Grecian urn — the Apulian mask krater, known also as the Persian vase.

Greek pottery had always given me trouble: The almost monochrome palette of rust on black-bedaubed white; the hectic many-tiered scenes, one register blurring into another; the curvilinear surface catching the bright museum light in all the wrong places. But that morning, I found I could not look away from the creature described in Hesiod’s “Theogony” as breathing “invincible fire, terrible and huge, swift-footed and powerful.” The Chimera, like the Gorgon or the Greek sphinx — and unlike its Egyptian counterpart, which is male and benevolent — is a lady monster, a composite of terrors. We encounter it first in Homer’s “Iliad” and then again in Virgil’s “Aeneid,” where it appears at the doors of Hades alongside Gorgons, centaurs and Harpies. “Three were her heads,” Hesiod tells us, “one of a lion of flashing eyes, another of a she-goat and another of a snake, a mighty dragon.” On the Persian vase, Bellerophon, who belongs, as the comparative mythologist Carolina López-Ruiz writes in “Gods, Heroes and Monsters” (2014), “with a group of monster-fighting, pre-Trojan War heroes,” hovered over this rather sweet rendering of the Chimera, astride the winged horse Pegasus, ready to slay her. He had been ordered by King Iobates of Lycia in Anatolia, whose countryside the Chimera was ravaging, to kill the beast; but as is typical of Greek myth, Bellerophon’s monster slaying had all begun with an unsolicited romantic entanglement with the daughter of another king, Proitos of Tiryns, in the Peloponnese. “In Bellerophon’s story,” writes López-Ruiz, noting how that story came later to be associated with Perseus’s slaying of Medusa, “we find mythical patterns familiar from other early heroic myths, such as the attempt by a king on a hero’s life, by imposing impossible tasks that he surpasses, and the false accusations by an offended female character whom the hero rejected.” In reiterating this idea of the chimera (whose name is likely drawn from a volcano of that name) as a metaphor for a task or entity that lies beyond human conception, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges notes in his “Book of Imaginary Beings” (translated in 1967 by Andrew Hurley), “The incoherent shape fades away and the word remains to stand for ‘the Impossible.’”

In that Neapolitan room, wearing covers on my shoes to protect the mosaic floors, I was struck by our enduring need for chimeras, which appear on countless kylikes, kraters and bas-reliefs through antiquity. “Chimera,” the word — with a small “c” — had passed into our lexicon, becoming shorthand for all that was illusory, grotesque, wondrous and out of reach, a three-way bridge between the human, the divine and the netherworldly. Mutants. Monsters. Fantastical beasts. They were all covered by the idea of the chimera. They appear in culture after culture, in age after age. It is hard to overstate the enduring hold of this motif. From the Ushi-Oni of the Japanese — an ox-demon with a crablike body and tusks that frightens fishermen out of their wits — to seductive half-avian Kinnari in South and Southeast Asia to catoblepones in Ethiopia, who have a buffalo body and a porcine head, and who appear in the work of Pliny the Elder, possessed of a mortal gaze (“All who see its eyes expire immediately”), we have been haunted by these hybrids. Sometimes, like the goat-eating chupacabras of Puerto Rico, they are the stuff of nightmares; other times, like the man-lion Narasimha of the Hindus, they appear as our saviors. Often we find them outside the scope of formal religion, especially the Abrahamic faiths. Yet that does nothing to diminish the totemic power they wield over us, which is an expression of the unquestioned, atavistic nature of belief. Even now, as reason and science close a circle around our ancestral capacity for myth and magic, our appetite for chimeric creatures remains undimmed. Consider Netflix’s “Sweet Tooth” (2021-present), in which a half-deer, half-human hybrid struggles to survive in a world swept by a mysterious virus that is wiping out people and producing animal hybrids, or the Icelandic film “Lamb” (2021), in which a rural couple raise a part-sheep newborn as their own, until its mysterious (and terrifying) progenitor comes back to claim it as his own. In each of these, the advent of the chimera feels like a scourge, an indictment of the world of men. They return as an emanation of our hopes and fears, often at times of great uncertainty.

These fearful hybrids, whether Minotaurs in Greece or serpopards (a portmanteau that means just what it sounds like) in ancient Egypt, are invariably forced to negotiate an odious binary. They are either a crystallization of our collective terror, and so must be killed — “impure intentions are ultimately represented by monsters,” writes the Freudian psychologist Paul Diel in “Symbolism in Greek Mythology” (1980), “against whom man as hero must fight” — or they have come from some other world to protect us, often from ourselves. Their presence dramatizes the twin energies upon which all creation, in art and life, relies — the Apollonian and Dionysian, yin and yang, form and essence, thesis and antithesis. In Mesoamerican myth, the ancient monster Cipactli, part crocodilian, part fish or toad, floats in primeval waters, like the Hindu snake of residue, Sheshanaga. If the earth is to be born, Cipactli must die. In the current exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art “Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art,” a seventh-to-eighth-century scene, painted in a style called the codex for its resemblance to Mayan manuscripts, shows the rain god Chahk mid-dance, in the presence of a jaguar baby deity and a skeletal death god, brandishing an ax and a hand stone. That dance feels essentially creative, like the churning of the ocean of milk among the Hindus where the push and pull of demons and gods against the body of a snake wrapped about Mount Mandara brings forth elixirs and wonders, such as the moon and the Ganges. Here, what is represented is not the simple triumph of good over evil but rather the yoking together of both these energies into the one cycle upon which the survival of the universe depends, the cycle of creation and decay. “What is civilization’s work,” the critic Edward Rothstein asks rhetorically in reviewing the Met exhibit, “when faced with such deities? They must be appeased and courted to support life’s seasonal regenerations.”

THE DICTIONARY STATES that a chimera, in a strictly biological sense, is “an organism containing a mixture of genetically different tissues, formed by processes such as fusion of early embryos, grafting or mutation: the sheeplike goat chimera.” In art, this notion of something that is part familiar, part strange, part us, part other, acquires another figurative power. “These chimera-like creations,” writes the anthropologist Allen F. Roberts in “Animals in African Art” (1995), quoting his colleague Paula Ben-Amos, especially “define essential humanity through the establishment of outer limits — the nonhuman or uncivilized as well as the more than human or supernatural.” The chimera, like the image of Aphrodite thrown up out of the sea (the Greek aphros means “foam”), is one of those forms, conjured at the outer limits of our collective imagination. It enters the world of men mysteriously but, once present, becomes something we discover our humanity in opposition to. We either imbue it with the mood of Yeats’s “Second Coming” (1920) — “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” — or welcome its presence. “All were protective beings,” writes the French Egyptologist Dimitri Meeks of the winged giraffes and the serpopards of the Nile Valley in “The Ancient Gods Speak” (2002), “supposed to frighten, by their strange aspect, any kind of malevolent beings.” They were designed to guard a fertile civilized Egypt from the darker forces of barbarism and magic beyond.

This notion of the chimera as fundamentally redemptive, sent into the world when men have failed themselves, is closer to what I grew up with in India. In that country, where myths come down to us in the form of bedtime stories, I can still recall my thrill in hearing my grandmother tell me of the terrible boon that had been granted the demon-king Hiranyakashyap by the creator-god Brahma, invariably the source of ill-advised boons. He could not be killed by man, beast or god, neither in the day nor at night, neither outdoors nor indoors, neither on earth nor in the air. Yet: Cometh the unassailable demon, cometh his tailor-made nemesis — Narasimha, neither man nor beast, bursts forth from a pillar at twilight. The man-lion holds Hiranyakashyap suspended in the threshold of a door (so neither in- nor outdoors) in the ether as he tears open his abdomen with his claws, neutralizing each of the protections of his boon and ridding the world of his foul presence.

Narasimha aside, all my earliest associations of Hindu chimeric creatures, whether they be Ganesha, the son of Shiva and the remover of obstacles, or Garuda, the part-bird, part-humanoid mount of Vishnu, are essentially positive. The natural world in the Hindu conception is not something to be tamed or subdued but rather turned to when human beings have made a hash of things. There are plenty of incidents of gods and heroes killing demons, but demons were not more demonic for possessing animal features. Narasimha is, in fact, an incarnation of the preserver-god, Vishnu — his avatar, a Sanskrit word that is drawn from the verb “to descend.” He represents a midpoint between Vishnu’s various animal forms and his human incarnations. He inspires fear, but it is holy dread. There is nothing grotesque about his chimeric appearance. He is no Minotaur or Gorgon or dragon. And there’s an interesting East-West distinction here, drawn by none other than Borges. “Lung, the Chinese dragon,” he writes in “Book of Imaginary Beings,” “is one of four magical animals; the others are the Unicorn, the Phoenix and the Turtle. The Dragon of the Western world is terrifying in the best of cases; ridiculous in the worst; the Lung of Chinese tradition possesses divinity and is like an angel that is also a lion.” A near-identical description might be applied to Narasimha, who does not merely possess divinity but is divine. He comes into the world to slay, not to be slayed. It is hard to imagine a modern Indian psychoanalyst — Sudhir Kakar, say — turning him into an object of revulsion or perversion, the way Diel does with the chimera. “The myth could not give clearer expression,” he writes, “to the psychological reality of the three forms of imaginative perversion: vanity, spiritual perversion, represented by the serpent; sexual perversion depicted by the goat; and social perversion with its tendency toward domination, symbolized by the lion.”

MYTHS, WHEN THEY are good, are never static. They stand in a creative relationship to every new time. That potential is perhaps what separates them from mere fantasy. The latter is an efflorescence of the imagination, often an individual imagination; the former is born of a collective imagining, and is hard-wired to be reborn. Every time the world seems to slip from its axis, exposing what feels like the deep solitude of being human, the chimera returns, reminding us that our stewardship of the planet, which has been granted us, either by accident or design, is in jeopardy. The raven-beaked figure of the plague doctor, which was popularized in the mid-16th century by the Italian theatrical form commedia dell’arte, is imbued with something of the lingering terror left in post-medieval Europe by the Black Death. The atomic age in Japan inspired any number of mutants that personify the fear of mutually assured destruction — of which Godzilla, who falls in the category of kaiju, or “strange beasts,” is only the most well traveled. The chimera, as Diel writes, externalizes a certain danger, “in the form of a monster encountered by chance,” that “chimerical enemy” that “every man carries secretly within himself ... the devouring monster.” In the Western conception, the chimera reacquaints us with the double-edged sword of what it means to be human — to be simultaneously magnificent, capable of genius and generosity, and inescapably (if not irredeemably) flawed, greed and self-destructiveness rising up in us like they’re second nature.

Two instances in recent culture capture the uncertainty of our present moment, forcing us to reconsider the locus of the chimerical enemy. The first, following from Borges, is the appearance of dragons in the HBO series “Game of Thrones” and its prequel, “House of the Dragon.” To see the fetishization of dragons in these shows, either as the emblem of royalty — “Dragons will rule the Seven Kingdoms for the next hundred years, just as they did the last,” says the aging King Viserys in “House of the Dragon” — or as the ultimate mark of valor and power is a world away from how Borges encourages us to think of dragons in the Western imagination. Viserys’s son Aemond yearns for a dragon of his own. His taming of Vhagar, among the largest, most powerful dragons alive, provides one of the show’s most thrilling scenes. Here, dragons are terrifying, but in a good way, and certainly not ridiculous. They represent the mystical bond between man and beast but also kingship and its heraldic symbol. These dragons are not awaiting a human slayer, a bumptious avatar of St. George. They are, in fact, much closer to how Borges describes the place of dragons in Chinese myth: “For hundreds of years the Dragon was the symbol of the Empire. The Emperor’s throne was called the Dragon throne, his face, the Dragon visage.” In the “Game of Thrones” universe, men are monsters, and monsters can be redemptive. The chimerical enemy is firmly within humanity, not as an abstraction of human nature but in real human form. The White Walkers, intent on destroying the human race, the show’s Wiki will tell you, are humanoid, “an ancient race of formerly human ice creatures.”

Which brings me to another turning point on television. For years, as we watched the Netflix show “Stranger Things,” we believed its chief adversary to be the quintessential monster, almost a parody from the 1980s: not just a thing of scales and fangs but wholly outside our experience. It was reptilian, insensate, Coleridge’s monster of “motiveless malignity.” It had to be vanquished because it could not be understood or reasoned with. We neither bore any responsibility for its advent, nor was there connective tissue between us and it. As such, it was a simple reiteration of the Occidental chimera. We had merely to kill it to save ourselves, just as St. George killed the dragon, reinstating our biblical dominion upon every living thing upon the earth. The discovery in this last season of that adversary, Vecna, as not just human but a fellow lab subject of the show’s star — Eleven — sent by her into the Upside Down, a sinister alternate dimension that exists parallel to our own, where gradually he became Vecna, represents a profound repositioning of the chimerical enemy. It does not have to be flushed out of traditional myth with the expertise of a Freudian psychologist, reading between the lines. It is us, kith and kin, born of human misadventure. To kill it is not to restate one’s lordship over the earth but rather to recognize and kill a destructive aspect in our own nature.

Why does it all matter? One word: climate. Not since our expulsion from the Garden of Eden have we, as a race, felt as guilty as we do today. Nor has there ever been a time when the link between our rapacity and our present misery has felt as clear. A friend of mine — someone my husband refers to affectionately as “a catastrophist” — inadvertently expressed the depth of this guilt to me the other day. In talking of the war between Russia and Ukraine, he seemed almost to relish the prospect of nuclear holocaust. “Why do you seem so pleased about it?” I asked him. “Because,” he said, his tone uncharacteristically grave, “it’ll save us having to do something about the climate.” Guilt, like sin, is the yeast that makes monsters of our fears and anxieties. It is only natural, then, that in an age of extreme guilt, when in very tangible ways we feel as if we have failed the Earth itself, the chimerical enemy should be all too human.

On that morning in Naples, I sensed in the dancing figure of the Chimera an echo, not so much of a millenarian Christian Yeats but of something closer to the earth religions. A famous verse from the Bhagavad Gita went through my mind. Whenever there is a decline in dharma — this is me paraphrasing Krishna speaking to the epic hero Arjun — and a consequent surge in adharma, I bring myself forth: “In order to reestablish dharma, and to deliver the just while annihilating the unjust, I appear in eon after eon.” “Dharma,” one of the great untranslatable Indic words, can mean “duty,” or “religion” or “vocation,” but it is fundamentally a duty to oneself, to one’s nature. It is the dharma of fire to be hot, and of water to cool. When the world has grown denatured, it is ripe for a new avatar of Vishnu. We have had nine so far. Narasimha was No. 4; Krishna, No. 8. When the last — Kalki, astride a white horse — comes, he will put to an end the present age of unrighteousness, adharma. That promise of return, in moments when our very existence feels fragile, is also at the heart of the idea of the chimera. It is an expression of our double nature as a species, now as guardians of the world, now as its mortal enemies, devoured by the monster of ignorance residing within.