Monday, April 4, 2016

The Chimera according to Janet Rasmussen

Janet Rasmussen, June 1, 2005

By kind permission of Janet Rasmussen


“For Romans at the time of Augustus, the memory of the Etruscan people was already hazy with the mists of legend.” (Pallotino, 1955). A renewed fascination with the Etruscan culture began in the Renaissance around the time of the discovery of the bronze image of the Chimaera of Arezzo. The statue is believed by many to be emblematic of Tuscan pride. It was discovered in 1553 during work on fortifications near Arezzo, Italy. Shaped by an unknown artist in the late fifth, or early fourth, century, the 80 cm. tall sculpture is in the likeness of a lion with serpent tail, with the head and neck of a goat protruding from its back (Spivey, 1997; Ramage and Ramage, 2005). The earliest known written record of this creature may be found in the Iliad, written in the mid eighth century BCE.

The original setting for the sculpture is unknown; but its inscription hints that it may have been a temple offering. It has been speculated that there was a companion sculpture of the Greek hero Bellerophon astride Pegasus, illustrating the story made famous by Homer. The Etruscans were known for their metal-working and for the popularity of mythological themes in their artwork (Herbert, 1949; Ramage and Ramage, 2005). The pictorial representations of the Chimaera changed over time, in Greece and in Etruria; as did its meaning as a mythological character. At the time of creation of this particular work of art, the Chimaera may well have been the appropriate symbol of classical Etruria.

Figure 1: The Chimaera of Arezzo (Ugo Bardi)

Figure 2: Location of Arezzo in Italy is in the northeastern part of ancient Etruria (

The Etruscans

The Etruscans thrived in west central Italy from around the beginning of the Bronze Age (about 1000 BCE) until their culture and autonomy was gradually subsumed by Rome by the early first century BCE. “Temperamentally the Etruscans were a people who devoted themselves to the outward aspects of life with almost childish enthusiasm…At one and the same time [art] combined ancient legacies from the past with Greek influences of its own day, together with an uncanny anticipation of the future; from this jumble of inspirations and intuitions it managed to derive its own quite novel and highly individual existence.” (Pallottino, 1955) This much could be surmised by careful observance of the surviving Etruscan art. The culture of the Etruscans was primitive, but the people evidently admired and adopted many foreign motifs and techniques in their art, while maintaining a distinctive flavor of their own. The popularity of heroic myths, of the manly pursuits of hunting, fishing, and wrestling, along with music, dancing, and unabashed displays of affection, all depicted in their art, together imply a culture in which strength, bravery, ancestry, and the pursuit of pleasure were highly esteemed. Politically, the Etruscans were not unified, but more a loose collection of city-states. “The Etruscan cities’ decline set in during the fifth century…”(Pallottino, 1955).”Some political unity was achieved as twelve Etruscan cities convened at a sanctuary at Velsna, but little other evidence of cohesiveness has been found (Spivey, 1997) The political climate was becoming grim for Etruscans at the time that the Chimaera of Arezzo was created. The fall of Etruria was beginning, and the statue seems to express the despair of a soon-to-be conquered people. Ancient artworks and ruins were later discovered that spoke of splendor and mystery, courage and strength; and many Romans then as now yearned for their Etruscan origins. The discovery of the Chimaera must have been a sensation at the time, though it was, according to Cellini, in rather poor condition (Cellini, 1931). Today it is proudly displayed, in original and replicas, throughout the region, and is a beloved symbol for the native people (Bardi, 2002).
The Myth of the Chimaera

In order to understand what the Chimaera meant to the Etruscans, it is helpful to review the origins of the myth. The myth has evolved since its first introduction known from literature in the 8th century BCE. The concept of a Chimaera no doubt predates Homer’s Iliad; and its original meaning, if any, is lost. In Homer, the story of the Chimaera and Bellerophon was told as an anecdotal aside, as two men, meeting in battle, hesitate for a brief introductory conversation. “I would not wish to fight against the gods. But if you are of men…come nearer…” one says to the other. His opponent, then tells his story of his ancestor Bellerophon. Bellerophon, he says, was favored by the gods, and was descended from Sisyphus. He goes on to tell the story of Bellerophon and the Chimaera. As he relates the tale, his opponent realizes that both their fathers had been friends, and they decide not to fight one another (Murray, 1999).

The story of Bellerophon, is this: the king Proetus, jealous of his wife’s affection for Bellerophon, sent Bellerophon to Lycia, “giving him fatal tokens, scratching in a folded tablet signs many and deadly”. (This, by the way, is the only passage in Homer which suggests knowledge of the art of writing.) (Murray, 1999). The king of Lycia, after showing Bellerophon hospitality for many days, eventually read the note from Proetus. Then, as now, murdering a houseguest was a breach of etiquette; therefore the king told Bellerophon to slay the Chimaera, believing this would serve the same purpose. The details of the battle we have from later writers. The goddess Athena enabled Bellerophon to subdue Pegasus; and with the help of that creature, he slew the Chimaera. He shot arrows into her from above, and finally dropped a lump of lead down her throat. Her fiery breath melted the lead, which killed her. This explains many of the figures of the Chimaera which include Bellerophon riding Pegasus. It also explains, on the Chimaera of Arezzo, the wound on the neck of the goat. The Chimaera, being of the gods and thus immortal, was relegated to the underworld (Small, 1959). Bellerophon attempted to ride Pegasus to visit the gods, and was punished for this presumptuousness when Pegasus threw him back to earth.

There have been plenty of unlikely conglomerate creatures in ancient folklore: the sphinx, centaur, Medusa, Pegasus, the hippocamp, griffin, and countless others; but none, I would venture to suggest, as awkwardly put together as the Chimaera, with a goat protruding from its spine. Hesiod states that the Chimaera is a descendent of Typhon, the god of volcanic eruptions, and Echidna, a chthonic serpent. Stephen Wilk, in his study of the Medusa, suggests that these images began as astronomical interpretations.

“It’s not hard to picture these figures as the constellations--substituting Bellerophon for Perseus…and, of course, the Chimera for Cetus. The Perseid meteor shower, emanating from the hand of the figure of Bellerophon, could represent the darts that he throws at the Chimera…The glowing red star Mira represents the chunk of lead that has been shoved into the mouth of the Chimera. For about half the year, when Mira is dim, the lead is still solid. But then it begins to melt, and the molten block of lead turns red, killing the Chimera. The constellation of Aries lies between Perseus and Cetus, and this may have something to do with the naming of the Chimera and the goat’s head that the monster bears in its middle. Finally, the fall of Bellerophon to earth might also have been inspired by the Perseid meteor shower.” Mira is a variable star, whose variability can be distinguished by the naked eye, and which becomes brighter and redder periodically over the course of several months (Wilk, 2000).

Some have believed that the Chimaera represented the seasons of the year. Inghirami, writing in the 19th century, states that the Chimaera represented a volcano with lions living near the top, goats in the middle elevations, and everywhere on the mountain there were snakes. He concluded that the Chimaera represented the summer (by the flames coming from the lion’s mouth), and the spring (by the goat), and the snake representing the coming autumn (Inghirami, 1824). The mane of the Chimaera of Arezzo certainly resembles flames. Robert Graves, says: “The Chimaera, …depicted on a Hittite building at Carchemish, was a symbol of the Great Goddess’s tripartite Sacred Year--lion for spring, goat for summer, serpent for winter.”(Graves, 1960).

Still others believe that the Chimaera originated as an explanation of volcanic activity. “Virgil must have been aware of the connection between the mythical Chimaera and the actual volcano of the same name” (Small, 1959).
The Chimaera in Greek Art

The appearance of the Chimaera is explained in Homer thus: “She was of divine stock, not of men, in front a lion, in back a serpent, and in the middle a goat, breathing out terribly the force of blazing fire.” (Homer, Iliad VI, 179-182). Anne Roes, states, “The only thing there is of goat about her is a head, that grows like a parasite out of the lion’s back, and, in most cases, looks piteous rather than terrific.” Roes speculates that the form of the Chimaera may have originated as an ancient ‘typographical error’: “Minoan seals sometimes showed two animals of which the one was partially hidden behind the other, so that only his head and his legs showed. If the artist out of carelessness omitted the legs, as may happen, we had something like the Chimaera.”(Roes, 1934). Could this, in Figure 1, have occurred?

Figure 3: A very unusual Chimaera from a proto-Corinthian vase in Boston (Roes, 1934).

The Chimaera, as a subject in Greek vase paintings, was popular from about 680 to 570 BCE. In early images, the heads face forward, and there is no snake on the tail. Around 660-650 BCE, the goat’s head is placed close to the curved spring of the lion’s neck. Corinthian vase painters concentrated more on the Chimaera as a decorative motif than the story of Bellerophon and the Chimaera. Between 630 and 600 BCE there are no examples of Chimaera in Corinthian painting, but the Attic painters used the motif from 600 to 530 BCE. They sometimes gave the Chimaera manes of straight or flame-like rays, and in the Attic figures, the lion’s and goat’s heads turn to the rear, and some show the goat’s forelegs. After the end of the Archaic period, the legend of Bellerophon and the Chimaera declined even further in Greek vase-painting, except for a popularization in Etruscan painting in the fourth century BCE, and a minor revival in Attic red-figure during the last third of the fifth century’ (Schmitt, 1966).

Many images of the Chimaera in Greek and Etruscan art can be found in the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC). The images are differentiated by country of origin, but the dates are not given, nor are other details of the images. There are 108 photos of the Chimaera in Greek art in the LIMC. Of those, 15 show the goat’s head facing the rear of the lion. The goat’s forelegs appear in.10 of the images. In three, the Chimaera is depicted with full teats like the Capitoline Wolf. There was apparently some belief that a human may gain divine power or regeneration by suckling an animal-god. In many of the representations of the Chimaera in Greece and Etruria, she is shown with a mane. Although a mane is a distinctive and grand feature on a lion, it is not present on a female. The Chimaera is always referred to as female in literature. It is clear from these images that the artists had little knowledge of the form of a lion, (and none of a Chimaera!) and therefore it took on some fantastic morphologies.

Figure 4: From an Athenian pot, c. 600 BCE, from the Louvre, Paris. Typical illustration with goat’s head facing rear.

Figure 5: Greek Chimaera with goat facing backwards and forelegs included (ILMC).

Figure 6: Greek Chimaera (ILMC). Again, the goat’s head faces backward.

In the Greek examples, some, by their simplicity of form, appear modern; others crude; but most are well-proportioned, and have the expected proportions of a lion, goat and snake. This is contrasted with the Etruscan images, as we shall see.

The Chimaera as Represented by the Etruscans

From the same source (LIMC,) there are 75 photos of Etruscan Chimaera. These as a group are very different. None show the goat’s head backward, only 3 include the legs of the goat. Three of the 75 show the lion with teats. Some individual images are quite bizarre. In one, the lion’s body is more like a horse. Several have elongate and distorted shapes. Some are very crudely drawn. In 15, the goat is shown as an extension of a winglike appendage on the lion’s side. This is unique to the Etruscan Chimaeras, and may be related to the Etruscan death demon symbology.

Figure 7: The goat's head seems to be an extension of wings on the lion's body (ILMC).

Figure 8: Elongate forms of the Chimaera from the neck of a pot. These depictions are oddly similar to prehistoric Native American petroglyphs. The curling line beneath the lions’ bodies is a puzzle, and the lions look somewhat like antelope. Only the goat head protruding from the back mark these as Chimaera (ILMC).

Figure 5: More primitive and elongate forms from Etruria, suggestive of the Chimaera (ILMC).

Figure 6: This unusual representation of a Chimaera is quite puzzling. There is a curl of tail or wing protruding upwards from the lion behind the goat. The lion is nearly unrecognizable as such. (ILMC).

Figure 7: The lion body of the Chimaera in this pair of images from the same pottery vessel is very like a horse. The beast on the left has dugs, and is nursing a grown male lion which is nevertheless smaller than the body of the goat. The Chimaera on the right has a long tongue or perhaps a breath of flame. (ILMC)

Figure 8: Etruscan Chimaera being pursued by horse. Note the very odd placement of forelegs beneath the neck of the goat. This Chimaera is also shown with teats. It’s uncertain whether the pursuing horse is Pegasus. That the horse resembles an extinct prehistoric North American species is surely an accident (ILMC).

The Context of Chimaera Images

In Greek art, Bellerophon and/or Pegasus are shown on the same piece with the Chimaera in 9 of the examples. These images adorn jugs, bowls, and plates; as well as coins and small emblems which may be jewelry. In the Etruscan images, 8 are associated with Bellerophon. We know that the Etruscans in the classical period begin to depict winged death demon figures. And according to Small, 1959, and others, the Chimaera is associated with the underworld. In the images of the Chimaera in Etruscan art, which for the most part do not include Bellerophon, the Chimaera may exemplify a death demon or beast of the underworld. In the Tomb of the Bulls, Tarquinia, 500 BCE, there is a pedimental painting above the scene of Troilus and Achilles, which is believed to be Troilus riding toward the Chimaera as a scene of his journey to the underworld after death (Holloway, 1986).The uniquely Etruscan suggestion of wings on many of the Chimaera images suggests that the Etruscans may indeed have associated this beast with the underworld. The unusual and varied artistic treatment of the Chimaera by Etruscan artists may not indicate any particular sentiment about this beast, but rather be an example of how Etruscan artists expressed these motifs, as something disproportionate, mysterious, perhaps not meant to be explained in the rational Greek fashion. Or it could be the essentially unpredictable artistic style known as Etruscan.

The Chimaera of Arezzo

If there were a Chimaera, the Chimaera of Arezzo would be a believable portrait of her. It does not so much resemble a lion but it improves on one: the magnificent spiky mane, the hackles extending to its haunches, the lean muscled physique, large expressive eyes and gaping mouth. The pitiful goat is convincing, with its beard and stylized mane, flattened ears, and sad eyes.

“The Etruscan origin of this splendid bronze has been object of long discussions; it has been attributed to a Sicilian workshop, or Peloponnesic, or, in any case, to the work of an immigrant Greek artist. Yet it differs from the characters of Greek works for some details, such as the position of the ears behind the mane, instead of in front of it”(Mandel, 1989). Our Chimaera, however, resembles no other Chimaera so much as it does this lion painted by a Greek artist on a vase which was found not far from Arezzo, which dates to about the same period. Its stance is the same. The treatment of the mane and placement of the ears are strikingly similar, though the sculptor improves upon the painting considerably.

Figure 9: Lion by the Berlin Painter, on a vase imported from Greece to Spina (near Arezzo), c.500-490 BCE (Ramage and Ramage, 2005).

Figure 9: A view of the Chimaera of Arezzo (Ugo Bardi).

Cellini mentions the discovery of the Chimaera of Arezzo while he was doing some work for the Duke of Cosimi in Florence; but although he talks about restoring some small bronze figures found along with the lion, he does not mention it again (Cellini, 1931) Sketches of the Chimaera without its tail have been dated to the 18th century. The tail was welded back on only in the 18th century, by the Florentine sculptor D. Carradori or perhaps by his master, I. Spinazzi (Bardi, 2005).

The inscription, TINSCVIL, written from right to left, has been interpreted to mean “gift to the god”. Tin, or Tinia, was the Etruscan supreme God, equivalent to Zeus or Jupiter. It is likely that the statue was made to serve as a temple offering (Ramage and Ramage, 2005). It may well have been accompanied with a figure of Bellerophon on Pegasus, since the wound and the stance of the Chimaera imply her part in the myth.

Figure 10: Inscription on foreleg of the Chimaera (Ugo Bardi)


The statue is an artistically mature work, as opposed to the many primitive and poorly-conceived Chimaera images often seen in Etruscan work of the period; and it was meticulously crafted. Whether the work was done by a Greek immigrant sculptor or a native Etruscan is immaterial, and would be impossible to determine. It may have been a temple offering, or the adornment of a private home.

For the meaning of the Chimaera to contemporary Etruscans; and to natives of the same region today, I refer the reader to Ugo Bardi, a Florentine chemist with, perhaps, his own Etruscan origins, who has studied the Chimaera extensively:

“It is difficult for us to understand what exactly could have been the meaning of this sculpture for the Etruscans. For us, a religious votive offering is hardly meant to be a three-headed monster. In this, we see how our way of thinking has changed in the two millennia and a half that separate us from the people who cast and first admired this statue…But perhaps there is something more in the Chimaera of Arezzo…beyond the standard iconography of the many painted and sculpted Chimaeras that have arrived to us from classical times. Here the unknown artist seemed to have wanted to transmit a message. The fiery, fire breathing monster is shown as a lean, perhaps hungry, creature in a moment of suffering…it looks like a fighter, a fighter who has fought well but who is losing nevertheless. We may perhaps imagine that the artist wanted to show the destiny of his people, the Etruscans, who at the time were being invaded and submitted by the Romans.”(Bardi, 2002).

The creation of the Chimaera of Arezzo coincided with the beginning of the decline of Etruscan power. The expression of this Chimaera is one of a desperate creature in the throes of death, determined to fight on. One cannot help but sympathize with it and admire its courage. Its emaciated body evokes more pity than fear, though it retains an image of great strength. The Etruscans were fond of Greek mythical figures and adapted them to their own tastes. The mature style of the Chimaera sculpture has a universal beauty and undeniable skill, which is a source of pride to people of that region; yet it retains that flavor of mysterious irrationality so essential to Etruscan art. It speaks of strength and bravery, qualities still esteemed by Italians. As such, it is certainly an excellent emblem of Tuscan pride.

References Cited:

Anaxilas, c.525BCE, Hetairai, fragment translated by Ugo Bardi, see website below.

Bardi, Ugo,

Boardman, John, 1981, Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol 3.2, Artemis Verlag, Zuricho
Cellini, Benvenuto, 1931, The Life of Benvenute Cellini, Liveright Publishing Corp., New York, 513 pages.

Graves, Robert, 1960, The Greek Myths, Penguin Books, Ltd., London, 782 pages.

Holloway, R. Ross, 1986, The Bulls in the “Tomb of the Bulls” at Tarquinia, American Journal of Archeology, 90, 447-452.

Inghirami, F., 1824, Monument Estruschi o di Etrusco Nome,Maryon, , Vol. 2, P. 379-384, fragment translated by Ugo Bardi, see website above.

Herbert, 1949, Metal Working in the Ancient World, American Journal of Archeology, 53, 93-125.

Mandel, M. Capire l’arte Etrusca, 1989, fragment translated by Ugo Bardi, see website above.

Murray, A.T., translation, 1999, Homer, The Iliad, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 591 pages.

Pallottino, Massimo, 1955, Art of the Etruscans, Vanguard Press, New York, 154 pages.

Ramage, Nancy and Ramage, Andrew, 2005, Roman Art, Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey

Roes, Anne, 1934, The Representation of the Chimaera, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 54, 21-25.

Schmitt, M.L., 1966, Bellerophon and the Chimaera in Archaic Greek Art: American Journal of Archeology, 70, 341-347.

Small, Stuart, 1959, The Arms of Turnus: Aeneid 7.783-92, Transactions of the American Philological Association, 90, 243-252.

Spivey, Nigel, 1997, Etruscan Art, Thames and Hudson Ltd., London

Wilk, Stephen R., 2000, Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, Oxford, New York, 277 pages

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