Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Chimera in Ancient Bactria and Other Places

A chimera is an imagined species cross so that the offspring is born with anatomical parts from both parents.  For a hypothetical example, a horse and cow crossbred might produce an animal with a stallion’s  head and body and a cow’s rump and milk bag.  That is the kind of image that is created on the basis of the legends that have developed in many different cultures of the world.  
The Bible’s book of Genesis (Beginnings) mentions that angels mixed with the corrupt daughters of men and produced monsters.  The images of such monsters have decorated temples and tapestries, possibly from that early time forward.  Greek mythology is replete with monstrous images of supposed mixtures of gods and humans and humans with animals; often the story is of a Greek god in the body of an animal ravishing a human woman and in some cases the story even names the resulting monster and makes him into a hero or a villain. 
Excavations of palaces and tombs in Bactria have yielded many images on seals and small figurines that show chimera.  The Bactrian culture seems to have entertained the idea of such crossbreds and they took their artistic expression of such creatures to a high degree.  There may be a natural explanation of the Bactrian people’s interest in crossbreds, because their predecessors in that region domesticated the wild animals of their region.  And to their eyes, the resulting offspring indeed resembles both the ancient parents of the new grass-eating domestic animal.  The moufflon is an intermediate stage of the domestication process perhaps.  
In Victor Sarianidi’s book Myths of Ancient Bactria, page 62, No. 63, there is an illustration of a human male with a bird-like head and wings.  The seal is in our collection of seals and amulets, and was authenticated and interpreted thus by Dr. Sarianidi when he visited our collection: ‘Copper amulet, 3.5 x 3.0 cm.  Kneeling bird man with a crest on his head.’ 
If you have questions regarding this seal, leave a comment at the end of the blog entry.  I will respond. 

A more spectacular example of a chimera is this statuette in my collection.  The statuette is made of porphyry, which came to be known as the stone of nobility, since it is used in temples and palaces for the columns and for the tombs of rulers.  
It is a brownish red or maroon color and has a marbling pattern that makes it very noticeable when it is used for decoration or ornamentation.  To my eyes, this appears to represent a hybrid of a duck and a rooster. 
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  1. Fascinating reading, Anna. Have always been interested in chimeras as expressed in ancient and not-so ancient art and also the genetic basis for human and non-human chimeras (which are not as fantastical as the ones in legends). Fabulous examples you have shared - thank you. Peace and joy . . . Catherine

  2. Thank you very much for your comment, Catherine. I find our minds run along the same channels; I hope that is not an insult to you LOL!

  3. Hahaha . . . am honored that you said that, Anna! Not an insult at all!