15 Jan 2010

The Chimaira chimera

A few years ago, Bradshaw of the Future etymologized Chimaira, a three-headed monster of Greek legend. It was the correct etymology as far as status quo answers are concerned and we find the same, boring origin story repeated several times in several books and in several websites in several languages[1]. If it's repeated 1000 times, it must be correct, right? (Just like the flat earth theory or Intelligent Design.) What personally irritates me about this standard etymology for Chimaira is that it only appears on the surface to give us a solution while leaving us with even more questions.

Granted, the idea is seductive that Greek χίμαιρα chimaira could simply be a feminine form of χίμαρος chimaros 'he-goat' and ultimately related to χεῖμα cheima 'winter' (ie. 'winter goat', as in a young goat that experiences one winter, hence a one-year-old goat). Yet, what the hell does this really have to do with the three-headed monster of the same name?? As you can see in the picture above of the Etruscan bronze artwork known as the Chimaira of Arezzo which is closely related to the Greek images of the monster, only one of the three heads is that of a goat, the other two being those of a lion and of a serpent. It's an unresolved onus on the part of these etymologists to satisfactorily explain how any of the words implicated in Chimaira's etymology really fit together smoothly. I smell a folk etymology.

Meanwhile, for me, the Etruscan Chimaira brings up an important question: What was the word for Chimaira in Etruscan? Surely they had a word for it. Perhaps it was the same as the Greek or similar? It may seem like a silly question, and perhaps it is, but it's led me down an interesting path to a new etymology for this name. If I get into the shoes of an Etruscan for a moment and speak the name Chimaira, I find it unavoidable to hear in it the Etruscan word ci 'three'. The monster has three heads afterall. Could it be that this is not a name of Indo-European origin but of Aegean origin? Could it have meant something like 'three-headed' or 'three-faced' and only later associated by Greeks with native words like χίμαρος and χεῖμα?

[1] See Online Etymology: chimera


  1. What does a hippopotamos have to do with a horse? Why is sphinx from σφινγψ ("strangle")? Mythical animals have weird names.

  2. Ethan Osten: "What does a hippopotamos have to do with a horse?"

    Calling a hippopotamus a "river horse" is self-explanatory. It's a semi-aquatic quadruped (and hardly mythical either, by the way).

    "Why is sphinx from σφινγψ ('strangle')?"

    The etymology of Sphinx is hardly clear, so you're just obscuring one unknown with another.

    "Mythical animals have weird names."

    People who reduce everything to "weirdness" or "mystery" without trying to find deeper solutions are boring. Please be less boring in the future.

  3. While an etymology that reflects the three-ness of the chimaira (which would seem to be it's most salient point) is attractive, I'd just note that naming the whole for the part is common enough that the standard derivation, while not nearly as compelling, is at least based on a common form of wordplay/metaphor. I don't think that "goat" would occur to me as a name for the creature, but maybe that reflects my cultural distance from the time and place. That said, I think you might be on to something.

  4. Whether a beast or a mountain, the Chimera was associated with Lycia, where the Anatolian language Lycian was spoken.
    The fact that one of the most famous artistic renderings, hundreds of years after Homer, happens to be Etruscan doesn't seem much of basis for postulating an Etruscan (or Aegean) etymology.
    I agree the chimaira -chimaros connection does seem like folk etymology.

  5. Peter: "[...] I'd just note that naming the whole for the part is common enough [...]"

    Yes, quite right. However, it's also typical in pars pro toto terms for the part to be intrinsic to the whole. Thus the "White House", being a physical seat of government, naturally serves as a synonym for the US government as a whole. Similarly, the term pharaoh was named after the residence of the ruler.

    However, a goat has little to nothing to do with the Chimaira as a whole. It's certainly not "central" or "intrinsic" to the monster or its symbolisms. So since this pars pro toto etymology is poorly defensible, folk etymology is more probable.

    Daniel: "The fact that one of the most famous artistic renderings, hundreds of years after Homer, happens to be Etruscan doesn't seem much of basis for postulating an Etruscan (or Aegean) etymology."

    You misread. I wasn't using the Etruscan Chimaira of Arezzo as a basis for anything. It's merely an example of what it looks like for those that don't know and shows that Etruscans were familiar with the creature. The basis involves my ability to etymologize the term Chimaira into Etruscan terms. While ci is the accepted term for 'three' in Etruscan, I haven't talked about the exact meaning of the second element and the facts behind it yet.

    The Etruscans were originally from Lydia according to Herodotus himself, and I'm of the camp that feels that Minoan is an Etruscan-related language. I never said the term was Etruscan since that's chronologically absurd. However I do wonder if it stems from the Minoan language and I know of no factual arguments to rule that possibility out. People always have their opinions, of course, but in the end only facts prove or disprove these ideas.

  6. Hello Glen

    A rather wild guess:
    Your dictionary has words for "mirror".
    The first part of these words is ma.
    Unfortunately this is followed by l.
    Do you know of etymologies that show that the l can get rid of?
    I am thinking of
    *cima- as something like
    "threeface"- .

  7. ZU,

    Ma was the colloquial present tense of am, a shortened form of ama (eg. mi 'ma 'I am'). The words traditionally assumed to mean 'mirror' (ie. malena, malstria) aren't completely understood and malstria is a hapax, transliterated (perhaps incorrectly) a long time ago from a mirror that has since 'taken a walk'. Note that a link between these words and the verb mal or the adjective mlaχ are also worth exploring first before resorting to looser methods.

  8. Good one. I appreciate your prudence in this matter. Supposing the first element has something to do with "ci" three is not a long shot.