Lernaean Hydra

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Gustave Moreau 003.jpg
Gustave Moreau's 19th-century depiction of the Hydra, influenced by the Beast from the Book of Revelation
Grouping Legendary creature
Sub grouping Serpentine water spirit
Parents Typhon and Echidna
Mythology Greek mythology
Other name(s) Lernaean Hydra
Country Greece

The Lernaean Hydra or Hydra of Lerna (Greek: Λερναῖα Ὕδρα, Lernaîa Hýdra), more often known simply as the Hydra, was an ancient serpentine water monster with reptilian traits in Greek and Roman mythology. Its lair was the lake of Lerna in the Argolid, which was also the site of the myth of the Danaids. Lerna was reputed to be an entrance to the Underworld[1] and archaeology has established it as a sacred site older than Mycenaean Argos. The Hydra served as a guard.

According to Hesiod, the Hydra was the offspring of Typhon and Echidna.[2] It possessed many heads ("more than the vase-painters could paint") and, each time one was lost, it was replaced by two more. It had poisonous breath and blood so virulent that even its scent was deadly.[3] The Hydra was killed by Heracles as the second of his Twelve Labors.


The Hydra had many parallels in ancient Near Eastern religions. In particular, Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian mythology celebrated the deeds of the war and hunting god Ninurta, whom the Angrim credited with slaying 11 monsters on an expedition to the mountains, including a seven-headed serpent (possibly identical with the Mushmahhu) and Bashmu, whose constellation (despite having a single head) was later associated by the Greeks with the Hydra. The constellation is also sometimes associated in Babylonian contexts with Marduk's dragon, the Mushhushshu.

Second Labor of Heracles[edit]

Eurystheus sent Heracles to slay the Hydra, which Hera had raised just to slay Heracles. Upon reaching the swamp near Lake Lerna, where the Hydra dwelt, Heracles covered his mouth and nose with a cloth to protect himself from the poisonous fumes. He shot flaming arrows into the Hydra's lair, the spring of Amymone, a deep cave from which it emerged only to terrorize neighboring villages.[4] He then confronted the Hydra, wielding either a harvesting sickle (according to some early vase-paintings), a sword, or his famed club. The chthonic creature's reaction to this decapitation was botanical: two grew back, an expression of the hopelessness of such a struggle for any but the hero. The weakness of the Hydra was that it was invulnerable only if it retained at least one head.

Hercules and the Hydra, c. 1475, Uffizi Gallery
Pollaiuolo's Hercules and the Hydra (c. 1475)

The details of the struggle are explicit in the Bibliotheca:[5] realizing 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 cauterized the open 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—still alive and writhing—under a great rock on the sacred way between Lerna and Elaius (Kerenyi 1959:144)[citation needed], and dipped his arrows in the Hydra's poisonous blood. Thus his second task was complete.

The alternate version of this myth is that after cutting off one head he then dipped his sword in its neck and used its venom to burn each head so it couldn't grow back. Hera, upset that Heracles had slain the beast she raised to kill him, placed it in the dark blue vault of the sky as the constellation Hydra. She then turned the crab into the constellation Cancer.

Heracles would later use arrows dipped in the Hydra's poisonous blood to kill other foes during his remaining labors, such as 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. Both Strabo and Pausanias report that the stench of the river Anigrus in Elis, making all the fish of the river inedible, was reputed to be due to the Hydra's poison, washed from the arrows Heracles used on the centaur.[6][7][8]

When Eurystheus, the agent of Hera who was assigning The Twelve Labors to Heracles, found out that it was Heracles' nephew Iolaus who had handed Heracles the firebrand, he declared that the labor had not been completed alone and as a result did not count towards the 10 labors set for him. The mythic element is an equivocating attempt to resolve the submerged conflict between an ancient ten labors and a more recent twelve.


Portrait d'Henri IV en Hercule terrassant l'hydre de Lerne, c. 1600, Louvre Museum
Portrait of Henri IV as Hercules pinning the Hydra of Lerna, an allegory of the Navarrese king's defeat of the Catholic League during the French Wars of Religion. Workshop of Toussaint Dubreuil, c. 1600.
Main article: Hydra (constellation)

Greek and Roman writers related that Hera placed the Hydra and crab as constellations in the night sky after Heracles slew him.[9] When the sun is in the sign of Cancer (Latin for "The Crab"), the constellation Hydra has its head nearby. In fact, both constellations derived from the earlier Babylonian signs: Bashmu ("The Venomous Snake") and Alluttu ("The Crawdad").

In art[edit]




  1. ^ Kerenyi (1959), p. 143.
  2. ^ Hesiod, Theogony, 310 ff.. See also Hyginus Fabulae Pref., 151
  3. ^ According to Hyginus, Fabulae 30, the Hydra "was so poisonous that she killed men with her breath, and if anyone passed by when she was sleeping, he breathed her tracks and died in the greatest torment."
  4. ^ Kerenyi (1959), p. 144.
  5. ^ Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 2.5.2.
  6. ^ Strabo, viii.3.19.
  7. ^ Pausanias, v.5.9.
  8. ^ Grimal (1987), p. 219.
  9. ^ Eratosthenes, Catasterismi.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Harrison, Jane Ellen (1903). Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. 
  • Graves, Robert (1955). The Greek Myths. 
  • Kerenyi, Carl (1959). The Heroes of the Greeks. 
  • Burkert, Walter (1985). Greek Religion. Harvard University Press. 
  • Ruck, Carl and Staples, Danny (1994). The World of Classical Myth. 
  • Grimal, Pierre (1986). The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 
  • Piccardi, Luigi (2005). The head of the Hydra of Lerna (Greece). Archaeopress, British Archaeological Reports, International Series N° 1337/2005, 179-186. 

External links[edit]