The Lernean Hydra was a nearly un-killable serpent faced by Hercules during his famous twelve labors. Its multitude of venom-spitting heads made it a dangerous foe.
The most famous aspect of the Hydra, though, was that its many heads regrew whenever the hero tried to cut them off. Without help from his nephew, and inspiration from Athena, it would have been impossible for Hercules to overcome this regenerative power.
These fantastical elements, however, probably have their roots in the real world. While defeating the Hydra was an act of great heroism and teamwork, its inspiration may have been more grounded.
The second of the famous twelve labors of Hercules was to kill a horrible monster called the Lernean Hydra.
The Hydra was a many-headed serpent. Most artists depicted it as having six heads, while some writers elaborated the story to give it as many as fifty.
One of the most consistent elements of the legend was that the Hydra possessed a particularly deadly venom. Not only were its bite and spit toxic, but even the vapors given off by the monster as it slept could kill most men.
The Hydra also regenerated its heads. Early accounts claimed that when one head was cut off another grew back, while later writers claimed that two or even three heads would replace each that was removed.
One head, however, could not be killed. According to many versions of the legend, the Hydra’s central head was immortal.
Hercules was sent to the swamps outside of Lerna to kill the monster. According to some accounts, the Hydra had only been brought there by Hera specifically to challenge her stepson.
The hero was accompanied by his nephew Iolaus, who was often said to be his chariot driver and squire. When they found the monster’s lair, he covered his mouth and nose with a cloth to protect himself from the creature’s venomous breath.
Hercules threw flaming spears into the Hydra’s den to drive it out. As he began to fight it, however, he realized it was harder to defeat than he had thought it would be.
A giant crab emerged to attack him as well as the Hydra. While he was able to easily smash this creature with his club, the Hydra’s regenerating heads proved to be more of an issue.
In the time it took him to destroy one skull, any previously-injured heads had grown back. As the fight wore on, Hercules made no progress against the serpent.
Some writers claimed the hero used his trademark club, making the work of dispatching the Hydra’s venomous heads even more laborious and time-consuming. Others had him use a sword or sickle, but even the quickest slices with a blade could not outpace the Hydra’s regeneration.
It was Iolaus who figured out how his uncle could win the fight. Perhaps inspired by Athena, he picked up one of the flaming torches they had used to find their way through the swamps.
As Hercules cut off each of the monster’s heads, Iolaus followed behind with the torch. As soon as one of the heads was removed, he used the torch to cauterize the wound.
By acting so quickly, the neck was closed before a new head, or set of heads, could grow from the open wound. Working as a team, Hercules and Iolaus were finally able to outpace the Hydra’s regeneration and defeat the monster.
The final head was removed, leaving the body to fall dead in the marsh. Because its venom was still a danger, Hercules buried the immortal head in a deep pit where no one was likely to dig it up.
Before he left, however, the hero made good use of the poison. He dipped his arrows in it, and for the rest of his life he would use these poisoned weapons to kill some of his most fearsome foes.
The victory against the Hydra used the best of the hero’s strength and Athena’s wisdom, but it would ultimately count against him.
Because Iolaus had helped in the endeavor, King Eurythemus declared that the second labor of Hercules had not been completed. He would ultimately complete twelve labors instead of the original ten to make up for those the king and Hera nullified.
The region of Lerna was known for its marshes and lakes. In Greek mythology, this also made it a portal to the Underworld.
Entrances to the Underworld were thought to exist in many parts of the living world, usually in remote and dangerous locations where few people would stumble across them. The swamps of Lerna made it an ideal place for such a gateway.
In addition to natural dangers and obstacles, the Greeks also believed that portals to the realm of Hades were guarded by terrible monsters. The hazards of remote locations were represented by beasts who would kill anyone who strayed too far off the beaten path.
The Hydra was typical of one of these Underworld guardians. In fact, many such creatures would be described by mythographers as the serpent’s siblings.
Cerberus, for example, shared the feature of having many heads. Guardians in mythology were often described in this way with the explanation that this allowed them to be continuously watchful.
Snakes, too, were associated with the Underworld. Many monsters in Greek mythology, from the giant Typhon to the snake-haired Gorgon, had serpentine elements.
The Hydra thus fits the type of an Underworld guardian, but it also represents a very real danger.
The mythology of ancient Greece, and of Hercules in particular, features many monsters with obvious real-world parallels. Most of the beasts and monsters fought by Hercules were exaggerated versions of animals found in the wilds of Greece and Asia Minor.
While lions are now extinct in Europe, for example, Asian lions could be found in Greece until shortly before the classical period. Greek colonists in Asia Minor and North Africa would have been even more familiar with such predators.
The Hydra is an exaggerated form of a venomous snake. Its many regenerating heads are a later addition to make the monster more fearsome, and could also represent a nest of snakes coiling together.
While the adders native to Greece are not aggressive, bites are a risk to those who unwittingly step too close to one or threaten it. Walking through somewhere like a swamp, where the ground would be obscured by water and debris, could carry the risk of encountering a venomous snake.
Some historians believe that a real-world snake was not only a general danger represented by the story, but also a specific danger for a historic Hercules.
The labors of Hercules are closer to plausible events in real life than those of many other figures in Greek mythology. This is one of the factors that have lead to an interpretation that Hercules may have been inspired by a real person.
If this historical figure existed, he would have lived long before the time of the Greek poets. His Stone Age origins could be reflected in the club and animal skins that continued to define the Greco-Roman demi-god.
The Hydra, like many of the monstrous creatures defeated by Hercules, could have come from a real creature encountered by a prehistoric hunter. A large venomous snake was, over the course of many centuries, transformed into a multi-headed monster who spit deadly toxins.
The contributions of Iolus in defeating the serpent may have been inspired by ancient practices, as well. The use of fire to flush out snakes and scare away predators was rewritten as the key to overcoming an otherwise unstoppable monster.
The multi-headed Hydra was a great serpent with a particularly potent venom. When one of its many heads was removed another, or more than one other in later tales, would grow back in its place.
When Hercules was sent to kill the Hydra as the second of his famous labors, he was nearly overpowered by this regeneration. Although he easily protected himself from the venom and killed the crab that came to assist the serpent, he could not outpace the regrowth of the Hydra’s heads.
His young nephew, Iolaus, was inspired by Athena to find a solution. As Hercules cut off the heads, his nephew quickly cauterized the wounds with a torch to keep another head from growing from the wound.
The fact that Hercules needed help, however, lead to the quest as being discounted. Hera and Eurythemus used it as an excuse to force him to undergo more deadly endeavors.
The Hydra shares much in common with Underworld guardians in ancient mythology. These monsters, often many-headed and with snake-like attributes, watched doorways to the realm of the dead to keep humans from coming to close and to ensure the souls of the dead did not escape.
In form, however, the Hydra was much closer to a naturally-occurring hazard of the landscape than many of the more fanciful monsters of other legends. This was something it had in common with many of the creatures defeater by Hercules.
This leads some historians to believe that the story of the Hydra may have once been one of a real-world animal. It was one of many creatures defeated by a Stone Age hunter whose exploits became so well-known that they passed into legend.