Mushussu—translated variously from the Akkadian as reddish snake, fierce snake, splendid serpent—represents the Babylonian god Marduk, protector and champion of good against evil. He appears on the 8th gate to the city of Babylon, built at the height of its power in 575 BC and dedicated to Ishtar, goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, war, justice, political power, etc. Mushussu is shown with eagle talons for hind legs; feline forelegs; a scaly torso, long tail and neck; and a horned, serpentine head and tongue, with a crest. This depiction appears along with aurochs, sacred bovine animals of Adad, bringer of storms and rain, in repeated, identical images; the gate is outlined in rosettes, symbols of fertility. The avenue that issued from it, the Processional Way, was used in the twelve-day festival marking the beginning of the agricultural year, which followed the barley harvest and the vernal equinox. The Processional Way would have been decorated with sixty lions representing Ishtar.
In ancient Sumer, around 2000 BC, a Mushussu is depicted on either side of the caduceus, holding it up, each looking adoringly at the double helix of Ningishzida. Depending on the source, this serpent with a human head is male or female and associated with the death of vegetation on its journey to the underworld. Ningishzida is said to be a precursor to Hermes, that friend of poetry. Ningishzida is also said to be an ancestor of Gilgamesh in the epic poem, whose hero will do battle with another chimera, Humbaba.
Humbaba lives in a cedar forest where gods live. He was put there to protect the gods; he guards the forest, and is heralded and attended to by monkeys and birds. He was sanctioned by Enlil, god of wind and storms and ultimately supplanted by Marduk, represented by Mushussu, to terrorize people. Humbaba is described variously in translations—he has excellent hearing, the paws of a lion, claws of a vulture, horns, a scaly torso, and he breathes fire. Some versions describe Humbaba positively, as a steward of the forest, maintaining paths through the woods and in whose face omens can be read. Gilgamesh, setting off with friends to establish his renown by slaying the beast, crosses seven mountain ranges to offer his wife and concubine to Humbaba in exchange for his seven powers—but when Humbaba isn’t looking, the hero punches him and captures him. Humbaba appeals for mercy and ultimately tries to escape, but a friend whom Gilgamesh had bested in a contest decapitates him for it. Gilgamesh’s renown established, his friends fell the cedar trees. Some versions lament the fate of Humbaba, as Gilgamesh destroys the forest unnecessarily.
Apocryphal Christian and Jewish texts have Daniel conquering a dragon, Marduk, with poison after a bet to prove him a false idol, which gets him thrown into the lion’s den. In the Biblical King James Version, in the Book of Revelation, serpentine chimeras appear three times. In Chapter 13, a dragon gives power and authority to a hydra that rises out of the sea to speak blasphemies and cause people to worship him. It has seven heads and ten crowned horns, the body of a leopard, the feet of a bear and, oddly, one mouth, of a lion. In the same Chapter, another beast rises from the earth with “two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon”—he is as powerful as the hydra, which he directs mankind to worship. “And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth”—he tricks people into making idols of the hydra, into which he breathes life. He also marks worshippers with “the mark of the beast.” The hydra appears again in Chapter 17, in the forest, upon which a harlot sits decked in fine array, a symbol of Babylon.