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Heracles’s Second Labour: Lernaean Hydra

Heracles’s Second Labour: Lernaean Hydra

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Four Labours of Heracles


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The Lernaean Hydra was, in Greek mythology, a serpent-like water monster with reptilian characteristics and traits and, like the Nemean lion, was the offspring of Echidna (half maiden – half serpent), and Typhon. Its lair was the lake of Lerna in the Argolid, though archaeology has borne out the myth that the sacred site was older even than the Mycenaean city of Argos, since Lerna was the site of the myth of the Danaids. Beneath the waters was an entrance to the Underworld, and the Hydra was its guardian. It possessed many heads, the number of which are mentioned as being from five up to one hundred; there are many versions but generally nine is accepted as standard.  One of the heads could was immortal and therefore indestructible and if any of the other heads were severed another two would grow in its place. It had a poisonous breath and blood so virulent that even its scent was deadly, whilst the stench from the Hydra’s breath was enough to kill man or beast. The Hydra terrorised the vicinity for many years.

At the source of the Amymone grows a plane tree, beneath which, they say, the hydra (water-snake) grew. I am ready to believe that this beast was superior in size to other water-snakes, and that its poison had something in it so deadly that Heracles treated the points of his arrows with its gall. 

Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.37.4


The Hydra of Lerna was slain by Heracles as the second of his Twelve Labours.

The story of Heracles’ second Labour goes that the Hydra had one immortal head and eight mortal ones. For each head chopped off, two grew in its place. Heracles stopped the severed heads from growing again by using a flaming torch to burn the necks. Realising that he could not defeat the Hydra in this way, Heracles called on his nephew Iolaus for help. His nephew then came upon the idea (possibly inspired by Athena) of using a firebrand to scorch the neck stumps after each decapitation. Heracles cut off each head and Iolaus cauterised the fresh stumps. Seeing that Heracles was winning the struggle, Hera sent a large crab to distract him: he crushed it under his mighty foot. The Hydra’s one immortal head was cut off with a golden sword given to Heracles by Athena. Heracles placed the head under a great rock on the sacred way between Lerna and Elaeus, and dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s poisonous blood. Thus his second task was complete.

Heracles would later use the posined arrows  to kill other foes during his remaining Labours, such as the Stymphalian Birds and the giant Geryon. He later used one to kill the centaur Nessus; and Nessus’ tainted blood was applied to the Tunic of Nessus, by which the centaur had his posthumous revenge.

The legend is familiar, but the interpretations differ. Was the Hydra a multi-headed creature, a mighty water snake which was difficult to kill or a metaphor for geophysical phenomena? Perhaps it was a portrayal of the giant moray eel whose double set of jaws may have been mistaken for an inner head; eels are frighteningly resilient, able to live for hours outside water and can only be killed by beheading. (Mediterranean morays, a bane to local fishermen, are common on the coasts of Greece.)

An alternative theory is that the Hydra’s ‘heads’ represented the springs which flowed into the lake, and Heracles task was to re-route the waters either to drain the lake and solve the malaria-bearing mosquito problem or to irrigate the surrounding land for cultivation. This would be in keeping with our hero’s later feat of flooding the Augean Stables.

Interestingly and with respect to astronomy, the northern end of the constellation of Hydra borders Cancer (the Crab). The crab co-existed with Hydra in Lake Lerna, thus the myth could also be a celestial metaphor.


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