Lernaean Hydra

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Lernaean Hydra
Gustave Moreau 003.jpg
The 19th-century French artist Gustave Moreau was influenced by the Beast of Revelation in his depiction of the Hydra.
Grouping Legendary creature
Sub grouping Serpent-like water spirit
Parents Typhon and Echidna
Mythology Greek mythology
Other name(s) Greek Hydra
Country Greece

In Greek mythology, the Lernaean Hydra (Greek: Λερναῖα Ὕδρα) was an ancient serpent-like water monster with reptilian traits. It possessed many heads – the poets mention more heads than the vase-painters could paint – and for each head cut off it grew two more. It had poisonous breath and blood so virulent that even its scent was deadly.[1] The Hydra of Lerna was killed by Heracles as the second of his Twelve Labours. 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.[2]

The Hydra was one of the offspring of Typhon and Echidna (Theogony, 313), both of whom were noisome offspring of the earth goddess Gaia.[3]

Second Labour 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 fired 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) by Antonio Pollaiuolo (Galleria degli Uffizi)

The details of the struggle are explicit in the Bibliotheca (2.5.2): 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 alternative version of this myth is that after cutting off one head he then dipped his sword in it 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 Labours, 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.[5]

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 Labours set for him. The mythic element is an equivocating attempt to resolve the submerged conflict between an ancient ten Labours and a more recent twelve.

Hercules and the hydra in art[edit]


Henry IV as Hercules vanquishing the Lernaean Hydra (i.e., the Catholic League), workshop of Toussaint Dubreuil, ca.1600

Mythographers relate that the Lernaean Hydra and the crab were put into the sky after Heracles slew them. In an alternative version, Hera's crab was at the site to bite his feet and bother him, hoping to cause his death. Hera set it in the Zodiac to follow the Lion (Eratosthenes, Catasterismi). When the sun is in the sign of Cancer, the crab, the constellation Hydra has its head nearby.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Jason and the Argonauts featured a battle between Jason and a Hydra.
  • Many RPG video and tabletop games such as Magic the Gathering feature Hydra inspired creatures that progressively get stronger as they take damage.
  • Toto named its second album "Hydra", featuring album photography which alludes to the sword Heracles used. Two songs on that album, "Hydra" and "St. George and the Dragon", each involve a conflict with a mythical dragon-like beast.
  • In the video-game Red Faction: Guerrilla, the Earth Defence Force possess a large space dreadnought named after the Hydra because of both its pervasive nature and size.
  • The Disney animated film Hercules features the Hydra, which Hercules fights and defeats by causing an avalanche that crushes it. This same Hydra appears as a boss in Kingdom Hearts II.
  • Hydra was a 2009 low-budget monster movie.
  • Hydra is a global terrorist organization in the Marvel universe.
  • In Jerry Pournelle's Janissaries series, a variety of freshwater squid that grows big enough to snatch a man off a horse is called the hydra by the natives of Tran.
  • In The Sea of Monsters, the second novel of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, there is a fight scene between three protagonists and a Hydra. It also appears in the film Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
  • In May 2015 The Pirate Bay changed its homepage logo to a picture featuring Hydra, shortly after its shutdown by Swedish authorities and return to six new domain names.
  • The Hydra is a VTOL jet fighter in the Grand Theft Auto video game series.
  • The Hydra is a type of enemy belonging to the Vex android race in the Destiny video game.


  1. ^ "This monster was so poisonous that she killed men with her breath and excretion. If anyone passed by when she was sleeping, he breathed her tracks and died in the greatest torment." (Hyginus, 30).
  2. ^ Kerenyi (1959), 143.
  3. ^ For other chthonic monsters said in various sources to be ancient offspring of Hera, the Nemean Lion, the Stymphalian birds, the Chimaera, and Cerberus.
  4. ^ Kerenyi, The Heroes of the Greeks, 1959:144.
  5. ^ Strabo, viii.3.19, Pausanias, v.5.9; Grimal 1987:219.


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]