Disclaimer: This post features disturbing images and discusses some very controversial topics, so please proceed with caution.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “Chimera?” A strange mythological monster? Or recent biological research?
The first definition of a Chimera is “a fire-breathing she-monster in Greek mythology having a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail” and “an imaginary monster compounded of incongruous parts.”
There is another definition that refers to present-day science, but let’s start with the mythology and come back to the science in a minute.
The Chimera is considered to be a female creature. Her father was the giant called Typhon and her mother was the half-serpent named Echidna. She had three monstrous brothers as well: Cerberus (Hell hound), Hydra (nine-headed water snake) and Orthrus (another multi-headed dog).
It is also said that she was in love with Orthrus and that together they produced the Sphinx.
What a messed-up family! How did all that happen?
Now this is mythology, but all stories had to start with some element of truth. Before we speculate about what could be truth, let’s take a closer look at her story.
Pseudo-Apollodorus said: "He [King Iobates of Lykia (Lycia)] ordered Bellerophon to slay the Chimera, assuming that he would instead be destroyed himself by the beast, since not even a quantity of men could subdue it with ease, let alone one. For it was a single being that had the force of three beasts, the front part of a lion, the tail of a drakon, and the third--middle--head was that of a goat, through which it breathed out fire. It despoiled the countryside and ravaged the herds....Bellerophon mounted Pegasus, his winged horse born of Medusa and Poseidon, and flying high into the air brought down the Chimera with his bow and arrows." (But a lot of art depicts a spear.)
Some speculate that the Chimera creature is merely an imagined thing based on the volcano called Chimaera. Does this explain how the flame worked into the story?
According to Pliny the Elder, "[In Lykia (Lycia) is] is Mount Chimaera, which sends forth flames at night…."
So, Mrs. Chimera was roughly a lion with a serpent/dragon head and neck as its tail and a goat’s head in the middle. If someone made this up, I wonder what in the world they were smoking.
But let’s say, for the sake of this discussion, that a Chimera creature really existed. What biological anomaly could have allowed the Chimera to have been a thing?
Perhaps the least weird feature is the serpent/dragon head on the tail. So we’ll start with that one.
Lions do have tufts on the ends of their tails that are shaped a bit like a snake’s head. Maybe this one had an abnormally large tail and/or a rather thick tuft of hair that really stood out and could have made an observer think it could be the head of another animal.
Or maybe it had some kind of mass on the end of its tail. Ferrets can get masses on their tails called chondromas. Imagine a chondroma several times bigger than a ferret’s (more...lion-sized) and seen from a long distance.
What if the mass was uncomfortable and the lion scratched at it a lot? Maybe making marks that could look like a mouth and eyes on it? Some skin masses are prone to bleeding easily, so what if it was covered in scabs that could have looked like a serpent face from far away?
Something like that, with or without hair, could appear to be a snake head from a distance. And while the ancient writings that mention fire usually say that it comes from the goat's mouth, could a constantly-bleeding mass look a bit like fire? Ouch.
And what if there was some animal out there with a really unusual genetic abnormality? I’m not suggesting (yet) that a lion actually sprouted a couple of extra heads from different species, but what if there were some congenital abnormalities that made it look like it had such features?
There is speculation that the goat head originated from someone seeing a pair of wings from far away and, perhaps not having seen wings on such a beast before, mistaking them for a goat head. What if it was a griffin (assuming griffins may have existed) and it’s wings were malformed or had been broken during a fight, leaving what looked like a head with two horns sprouting from its back? The griffins were fierce, according to the histories, so maybe no one got close enough to see what was really there and lived to tell about it.
Also, many animals have been known to be born with two heads. Few make it to adulthood, but it isn’t impossible.
Is it possible for a lion to be born with two heads and live long enough to become an even more terrifying predator than a regular lion?
Take a look at Frankenlouie, the two-headed cat who lived to be fifteen years old. This cat was born with a rare condition called craniofacial duplication. When the breeder saw him after he was born, he took him to the vet for euthanasia because animals with this condition don’t usually live past a few hours. Fortunately for Frankenlouie, one of the vet techs (yay, vet techs!) wanted to give him a chance and went on to tube feed him for the next three months, and care for him for the next fifteen years.
Craniofacial duplication is a disease in which cells keep splitting for longer than they’re supposed to during a very early stage of development. As a result, Frankenlouie had two faces. He had three eyes altogether but could only see from the outside two, and he had two noses and two mouths. One of the faces lacked a lower jaw and functional esophagus, so he could only eat from one side. But this guy lived to be fifteen years old! That’s a decent age for a perfectly normal cat.
Even more epic is the story of Abby and Brittany Hensel, conjoined twin humans born in 1990. They each have their own head, neck, heart, lungs, and stomach. And one arm each. But they share everything from the waist down. Because they shared so many organs, separation was not deemed a viable option. But they are still around living as normal a life as they can 28 years later.
Given these examples, does it seem somewhat possible that a lion could have survived having an extra head deformed in such a way as to resemble a goat, and a tail deformity that could have resembled the head of a serpent or dragon?
Say a lion was born with two lion heads and somehow miraculously made it to adulthood. Say one head was deformed. Lacking a mane would make it look skinnier, possibly more goat-like. As for the horns… Maybe deformed ears? It’s a bit of a long shot, but anything is possible.
But could the middle head have really been a goat head?
Unlikely of course, but let’s take a look at the possibilities.
There are several hybrid species that are able to live to adulthood, though they are not able to reproduce. A mule is a common example of this. It is a cross between a horse and a donkey and is able to live a normal life, other than being sterile. But generally, a pair of animals have to be fairly close genetically to make this happen. Have a look a the Geep, Lyger, Leopon, Zonkey, and Zorse to name a few.
Each pair of animals that resulted in these hybrids were very genetically similar, much more similar than a goat and a lion. But could a goat and a lion have mated to produce a deformed lion-goat mix? Once again, I certainly don’t think this is likely. But is it impossible?
There have been a number of animals born with defects that make them appear to have human characteristics. Mostly goats like the ones pictured below.