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Hercules’s second labor: the Hydra

Inspired by the graffiti I posted a couple of days ago, I thought I might say a few things about Hercules, the greatest hero in Greek mythology. As I’ve already said, he is one of my boys’ favorite heroes, and they love hearing his stories again and again.

Origins and early life

Hercules was a demigod, son of a human mother, Queen Alcmene, and Zeus, the greatest of all the gods. The problem was that Zeus was married to Hera, a beautiful and powerful goddess with a mean and vengeful streak. Hera was furious at her husband’s conduct (he was a repeat offender), but could not do nothing against him (this alone speaks volumes about women’s position in ancient Greece, but I won’t go into that right now). So in her anger, she did the only thing she could do: take it out on her husband’s mortal flames and their children.

Hercules was by far her favorite; she loved to hate him and throughout his life she did everything she could to have him killed.

She started when he was a baby, sending two snakes to strangle him in his cot (and his baby brother sleeping next to him – it seems Hera didn’t mind some collateral damage). Baby Hercules thought the snakes were exciting new toys and treated them in the tender way babies treat all playthings. But, as his strength was way above average even at that age, it’s no wonder his new toys stopped making those nice hissing sounds soon after he laid his chubby hands on them. Hearing the ruckus, his mother arrived at the scene just in time to coddle his brother who was crying with fright.

Hercules strangles the snakes, guided by Athena, to the left. His brother Iphytus seeks the comfort of a nurse's arms. His mother and father, to the right and left, gesticulate in surprise.

Hercules strangles the snakes, guided by Athena, to the left. His brother Iphicles seeks the comfort of a nurse’s arms. Raising their hands in surprise, the boys’ parents frame the picture. Red-figure vase,  5th century BCE.

Hercules’ strength continued to grow until he became the strongest man alive. His strength allowed him to do the amazing feats for which he is known. Today I’m going to describe his fight with the Hydra, which belongs to the cycle of his 12 labors.

The monster called Lernaia Hydra

Lernaia means from the area of Lerna (or Lerni). Hydra means water snake, but this was far from being an ordinary snake: it was a huge monster, whose enormous, snake-like body was crowned by no less than nine horrendous heads, which belched fire and breathed poisonous fumes. To make matters worse, the middle head was immortal. The mortal ones were not easily killed either: when one was cut, the neck sprouted two new ones. This monster roamed the small plain near the lake of Lerna, causing death and destruction all around.

It is said that the monster was raised by Hera herself and sent there with the explicit purpose of causing the death of Hercules.

The labor

Hercules himself knew none of that when he set out to slay the monster, under the orders of King Eurystheus. All he knew was that the monster was big and dangerous and so took with him Iolaus, his nephew, to help him.

As they approached the Lake, they began to notice the marks of the Hydra’s presence: plants were dead, fields and orchards devastated and there was no animal or human around.

The monster lay in its lair, next to the spring that fed the lake. In order to make it come out, Hercules started a fire and shot flaming arrows into the cave. The monster came hissing out, breathing fire and poison; it wrapped itself around one of Hercules’ legs, trying to strangle him or bring him down.

Hercules stood his ground: with the lion hide protecting him from the monster’s flames and holding his breath against the poisonous fumes, he slashed at a head only to discover that two new ones grew in its place. At the same time, a huge crab (another of Hera’s pets) emerged from the sea and started viciously clawing at his leg.

Wedged between the two monsters, Hercules was almost doomed, but was saved by his quick thinking: he called Iolaus to fetch a few torches. As soon as the crab let go of his leg for a second, Hercules raised his foot and brought it down quickly, crushing it. Then he slashed again at the Hydra, this time burning the stump of the neck with his torch. To his immense relief, the trick worked: the neck sprouted no more heads. Slowly, stubbornly, Hercules kept at it, bowing down before the flames, holding his breath as much as he could, until all heads were down and the Hydra’s body lay lifeless on the ground.

Then he discovered that he immortal head continued to breathe fire and fumes and snapped at him, despite being severed from the monster. So Hercules dug a deep hole and buried the head in it, placing a huge boulder on top, just to make sure. He then cut open the beast’s belly and dipped his arrows in its poisonous gallbladder, making them deadly.

Hera was furious but could do nothing; as a consolation, she created the constellations of Hydra and Cancer (the crab) to remind her of her dead champions.

Hercules has dropped his club and seems intent on strangling the Hydra's heads with his bare hands. To the right, Iolaus approaches with the torches to burn the stumps of the severed heads.

Hercules has dropped his club and seems intent on cutting off the Hydra’s heads with his bare hands, as he did the Nemean Lion. To the right, Iolaus approaches with torches to burn the stumps of the severed heads. Red-figure vase, 5th century BCE.

Meaning

The myth is an old one; references in the Homeric epics indicate that Hercules’s story was well known at the time they were composed and probably much older than them.

On a first level, one may say that the slaying of a dragon-like monster near a spring or a well is a common theme, found in many traditions, such as the story of St. George and the dragon. On a deeper level, lakes and rivers were often regarded by ancient Greeks as gates to the underworld. In this frame, vanquishing the snake that guards one such gate, is a symbolic victory over death, a feat with fits perfectly with the myth of Hercules as the “superhero” who always rescues people from deadly threats – what more deadly than death itself? After all, wasn’t it Hercules himself who finally beat death by becoming immortal, living on mount Olympus with the rest of the Greek pantheon?

Modern analysts see another possible layer of interpretation: the lake of Lerna must have been a swamp, fed by several karstic springs in the hills above (karstic is the limestone into which water has carved tunnels and fissures through which it flows). According to this geo-mythological analysis, the Hydra’s several heads are none other than the several springs which fed the swamp, with the middle one (the immortal) symbolizing the spring that flowed all year round. In a karstic landscape, if a spring is blocked, its water might appear elsewhere, creating another spring or more. Perhaps the myth refers to this phenomenon when saying that when one head was cut, two grew in its place. It may be that a growing local population sought to expand into the lake but was decimated either by famine (when crops were destroyed after rainfall that caused the marsh to expand, flooding the plain) or by malaria or other disease attributed to the unhealthy climate of the swamp. In this context, the poisonous fumes must symbolize the unhealthy climate. (The monster’s belching fire must be a later addition, perhaps inspired by other monsters, because it is not found in early depictions of the myth.)

If the myth really has a basis in reality, then it must represent long and arduous efforts to drain the plain to allow for cultivation and human settlement. Given the geology of the area, it must have been very difficult for its inhabitants to block or divert the springs to create arable land near the lake. The digging of a hole to bury the last, immortal head may possibly refer to the digging of a sinkhole, to divert the water of the largest spring. Given the tools and knowledge available in the Bronze Age, these undertakings seem almost impossible. Yet there is ample evidence of such waterworks all over Greece – it seems Bronze Age people had the know-how, organization and motivation to build dams, divert rivers and drain lakes, shaping their environment to serve their growing need for arable land. Remains of these works were visible long after the palace-centered economy that produced them had collapsed. Their scope and enormity seemed superhuman to later generations who fittingly attributed them to a larger-than-life hero, Hercules.

Further reading:

Carpenter, T.H., Art and Myth in Ancient Greece, London, 1991

Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths, London, 1955

Mariolakos, I., The Geomythological Geotopes of Lerni Springs (Argolis, Greece), Geologica Balcanica, 28, 3-4, 101-108, 1998.

Olalla, Pedro, Mythological Atlas of Greece, Athens, 2002

Images from: Kakridis, I., Greek Mythology, Athens, 1986.

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