Can a “Chimera” be Real?

By Maeve Maddox

Skip Piper asks:

chimerical?  How would you use this word?

Chimerical [kī-mĕr’ĭ-kəl] is an adjective used to mean “imaginary” or “highly improbable.”

The noun chimera [kī-mîr’ə] comes from a Greek word for “she-goat.” In Greek myth the Chimera is a hybrid creature made up of more than one animal. Figuratively, a chimera is “a figment of the imagination.

In the Iliad, Homer describes the Chimera as:

a thing of immortal make, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle,[2] and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire”.

Hesiod describes the Chimera as having three heads:

…one of a grim-eyed lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire.

The adjective chimerical is often used as a synonym for “imaginary,” “impossible,” or “unrealistic.”

India and Pakistan have warred twice over Kashmir in their pre-nuclear lives. A third war in their nuclear age is far from chimerical.

A few years ago the establishment of seaside laboratories would have been thought chimerical.

The rewards that Alexius IV had promised to the forces of the Fourth Crusade for assaulting Constantinople in July 1203 and placing him on the throne of the Byzantine Empire in his uncle’s stead proved chimerical.

The words chimera and chimerical are also used as medical terms. I recall a C.S.I. episode that featured a killer who escaped detection because he was a “chimera.”

chimera: an individual, organ, or part consisting of tissues of diverse genetic constitution occurring especially in plants and most frequently at a graft union, the tissues from both stock and cion retaining their distinctness in the chimera –Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

I forget the explanation, but the killer had more than one set of DNA; a mouth swab produced a different result than semen.

Using the techniques of recombinant DNA technology, scientists are producing chimeras in the laboratory. These GMOs, “genetically modified organisms,” are hybrid plants and animals that, like the mythical chimera, combine characteristics of different species. For example, mice that glow because they’ve been implanted with jellyfish DNA.

Here comes another retronym. Possibilities: “a real chimera,” “a scientific chimera,” “a medical chimera.”

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8 Responses to “Can a “Chimera” be Real?”

  • Steve Karmazenuk

    In the case of humans, a chimera generally occurs when, in utero, twin embryos merge back into one.

    If you’ve ever met someone with two different coloured eyes, it is because they, like my father-in-law, are chimeras.

  • Sylvia

    The chimera in C.S.I. was formed in the womb when developing fraternal twins merged into one embryo. This can happen early on, before cells have differentiated, yielding a single healthy baby with two different sets of DNA.

    There was a chimeric boy born in Britain who resulted from the merger of fraternal twins: one male, and one female. Although healthy and born male, he was hermaphroditic. His twin sister’s cells generated one ovary, a fallopian tube, and part of a womb.

  • Mari

    I saw a special on ‘Chimeras’ on Discovery Health called “I am my own Twin” (I believe). There were several people interviewed that had “impossible” DNA that were having medical issues. A mother who had given birth to children that couldn’t be hers according to their DNA.
    Here’s a link to an article:
    http://www.katewerk.com/chimera.html

  • Alexandre

    Nice observations. I just felt that the “quotations” from Homer’s Iliad and Hesiod (which work?) are a bit imprecise – specially because they sounded more like dictionary, less like ancient poetry. Could you, please, tell us the exact reference from where you took those? Thanks in advance.

  • Maeve

    @Alexandre

    Confession:
    I don’t know what translation this quotation is from. I was lazy and picked it up from Wikipedia. A web search shows that zillions of other sites have also picked it up from there, but a quick skim did not bring up information on what translation it’s from. All I know for certain is that it is NOT from the Samuel Butler translation.

    If you want to track it down, here’s a place to begin:
    https://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/homer/homertranslations.htm

    For a more recent rendering, here are the lines (Book VI) as translated by Stanley Lombado:

    He ordered him, first, to kill the Chimaera,
    A raging monster, divine, inhuman–
    A lion in the front, a serpent in the rear,
    In the middle a goat–and breathing fire.
    Bellerophon killed her, trusting signs from the gods.

  • Alexandre

    @Maeve

    Thanks a lot for your kind, sincere and rich answer (BTW, great link!).

  • S.D.

    Funny that this word should come up right now. I’m starting a story with the Chimera monster in it at the moment.
    😀

  • Peter

    The noun chimera [kī-mîr’ə] comes from a Greek word for “she-goat.”

    I think [kī] sounds like “key”? What you want is [kaɪ] or [kɪ] (or [kʱaɪ]/[kʱɪ] – most English speakers will say the latter (which is more correct) even if you write the former; and it’s a short vowel in Greek, so [kɪ]/[kʱɪ] is better)

    Liddell&Scott say the creature is not named after a goat but a mythical volcano in Lycia (modern Turkey).

    @Alexandre: … and Hesiod (which work?)

    Would have to be from the Theogony…yes; Google says Evelyn-White translation (of part of lines 319-324)

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