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The Lernaean Hydra and Heracles in Greek Mythology

Updated on June 7, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Monsters were an essential element of Greek mythology, and they would often provide something for god and man to compete against. Many of these monsters remain famous today, and one of the most iconic of all monsters in Greek mythology is the Lernaean Hydra.

The Birth of the Lernaean Hydra

According to most historical sources, the Lernaean Hydra was the monstrous offspring of Echidna and Typhon, and therefore sibling to many other famous monsters, including the Nemean Lion, the Chimera and Cerberus. Like the Nemean Lion though, the Hydra was not raised by its parents, but instead became a ward of the goddess Hera.

Hera was already planning the death of Heracles, the illegitimate son of her husband Zeus.

The Lernaean Hydra, or Hydra as it is often referred to, was a water serpent, but it was no ordinary water snake, for aside for enormous size, the Hydra also possessed nine heads, eight mortal and one immortal. Each of these heads was also said to exhale poisonous fumes.

Lernaean Hydra

CamusAltamirano CC-BY-3.0
CamusAltamirano CC-BY-3.0 | Source

The Hydra in Lerna

When old enough, Hera would transport the Hydra to its new home, which proved to be the region of Lerna, on the eastern coast of the Peloponnese. In antiquity, this region was noted for its lakes, springs and swamps; and indeed at one point Lerna was particularly known for the purity of its freshwater.

The waterways of Lerna were also known for hiding one of the entrances to the Underworld; and it was this entrance that the Lernaean Hydra was subsequently said to guard. The Hydra though was not content to live in a lake, and it would venture out into the surrounding area, killing unwary passers-by.

The poisonous breath of the Lernaean Hydra though would poison the water throughout Lerna, and soon there was no clean freshwater to be found in the region.

The Lernaean Hydra

Andrew Jian CC-BY-2.0
Andrew Jian CC-BY-2.0 | Source

The Second Labour of Heracles

The threat of the Lernaean Hydra and the poisoning of the water would eventually see Heracles dispatched to Lerna. King Eurystheus would make the killing of the Lernaean Hydra the second seemingly impossible labour that the Greek hero would be set.

King Eurystheus was a favourite of the goddess of Hera, and so the king was doing all in his power to kill Heracles, and the king believed that the Hydra would kill the hero; of course, King Eurystheus had believed the same to be true of the Nemean Lion.

Heracles Faces the Lernaean Hydra

Discovering the Lernaean Hydra in a swamp, Heracles ventured nearer the monster, but first the protected himself from the poisonous breath of the Hydra, by wrapping his mouth and nose in fabric.

Heracles then fired fiery arrows at the monster, forcing the Hydra out of its lair. The arrows themselves did the Hydra no harm, but it had the effect of bringing the beast closer to the hero. Heracles was then able to drop his bow and arrows and take up his sword. Heracles then encounter a new problem, for although he was able to chop one of the heads of the Hydra off, two new ones emerged fully formed from the open cut.

Heracles though had not ventured to Lerna by himself, and Iolaus, his nephew had accompanied him. Indeed, it was Iolaus who came up with a solution to the doubling of heads; and subsequently, when Heracles next removed a head, Iolaus would dash in, and cauterise the open wound, preventing new heads from emerging. In this way, one-by-one, Heracles cut off the heads of the Hydra, until on the single immortal head was left.

Hera was observing the fight from affair, and seeing the imminent death of the monster she had raised, the goddess would dispatch a second monster to distract Heracles. This second monster was a gigantic crab, Karkinos (Carcinus). The gigantic crab though was not as dangerous as the Hydra, and as it approached the fight, Heracles simply crushed it beneath his feet.

Heracles might have had an enemy in Hera, but he also had friends amongst the gods, and it was Athena who aided him in removing the final immortal head from the Hydra, for the Greek goddess of wisdom presented Heracles with a golden sword. The last head was easily removed, and Heracles would bury the severed head of the Hydra beneath a massive rock located on the main road through Lerna.

Like the Nemean Lion, Heracles would make use of the vanquished foe, and his arrows would be dipped into the blood of the Hydra, rendering them with a poison that could not be cured.

Heracles Facing the Hydra

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) PD-art-100
Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) PD-art-100 | Source

Further Stories of the Lernaean Hydra

Heracles would return to the court of King Eurystheus, but the Greek hero would find that all his efforts were in vain; for the king would annul the Labour, pointing out that Heracles had not undertaken the task alone, despite the water of Lerna now being clean, and the threat of the Hydra removed.

The legend of the Lernaean Hydra would live on for Hera would place the image of the monster amongst the stars as the constellation Hydra, whilst Karkinos would be transformed into the constellation Cancer.

In some stories, the Lernaean Hydra was resurrected to become one of the guardians of the Underworld, not just a defender of an entrance, and so the Hydra would work in the domain of Hades, alongside its sibling, Cerberus.

Reference to the Lernaean Hydra would appear in the continuing adventures of Heracles, for the poisoned arrows would often prove decisive for the Greek hero.

There are two tales were the blood of the Hydra was particularly prominent. One was in the death of the wisest centaur Chiron; for the centaur accidently pricked himself with an arrowhead, and even though Chiron was immortal, the pain was such, that he willingly gave up his immortality to be free of it.

A second centaur, Nessus, was also killed by one of Heracles’ arrows, although this time on purpose. Nessus tried to abduct Heracles’ wife, Deianira, and was subsequently shot by the hero. Before he died though, Nessus presented Deianira with a blood soaked cloak, and when, years later, she presented the cloak to Heracles, the blood of the Hydra would ultimately kill Heracles, as he too was poisoned.

The bow and arrows of Heracles would also appear in the stories of the Trojan War, for they were at that point in the possession of Philoctetes, who would make use of them at Troy.

The Hydra Constellation

Jehoshaphat Aspin. London. Astronomical chart, Sidney Hall (1788–1831) Images from the Library of Congress
Jehoshaphat Aspin. London. Astronomical chart, Sidney Hall (1788–1831) Images from the Library of Congress | Source

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  • Colin Quartermain profile image
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    Colin Quartermain 2 years ago

    Many thanks daydreamer for reading and commenting.

  • daydreamer13 profile image

    daydreamer13 2 years ago

    I printed this to finish reading later, but interesting so far!

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