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In Greek mythology, the Lernaean Hydra (Greek: ( ) was an ancient nameless serpent-like chthonic water beast (as its name evinces) that possessed 9 heads— the poets mention more heads than the vase-painters could paint— and poisonous breath so virulent even her tracks were deadly. The Hydra of Lerna was killed by Heracles as one of his Twelve Labours. Its lair was the lake of Lernamarker in the Argolidmarker, though archaeology has borne out the myth that the sacred site was older even than the Mycenaean city of Argosmarker 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.

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

The Second Labour of Hercules

Upon reaching the swamp near Lake Lernamarker, 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 its lair, the spring of Amymone, a deep cave that it only came out of to terrorize neighboring villages . He then confronted it, wielding a harvesting sickle (according to some early vase-paintings) or a sword. Ruck and Staples (1994: 170) have pointed out that the chthonic creature's reaction was botanical: upon cutting off each of its heads he found that two grew back, an expression of the hopelessness of such a struggle for any but the hero, Hercules. The weakness of the Hydra was that only one of its heads was immortal.
The details of the struggle are explicit in Apollodorus (2.5.2): realising that he could not defeat the Hydra in this way, Hercules called on his nephew Iolaus for help. His nephew then came upon the idea (possibly inspired by Athena) of using a burning firebrand to scorch the neck stumps after each decapitation. Hercules cut off each head and Iolaus cauterized the open stumps. Its one immortal head Hercules placed under a great rock on the sacred way between Lerna and Elaius (Kerenyi 1959:144), and dipped his arrows in the Hydra's poisonous blood, and so his second task was complete. The alternative to this is that after cutting off one head he dipped his sword in it and used its venom to burn each head so it couldn't grow back.

Heracles later used an arrow dipped in the Hydra's poisonous blood to kill the centaur Nessus; and Nessus's 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.

When Eurystheus, the agent of ancient Hera who was assigning The Twelve Labours to Heracles, found out that it was Heracles' nephew Iolaus who had handed him the firebrand, he declared that the labour had not been completed alone and as a result did not count towards the ten 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.

Constellation

Mythographers relate that the Lernaean Hydra and the crab were put into the sky after Hercules 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.

Popular Culture

In the pre-teen novel The Sea of Monsters, the main characters battle the Hydra somewhere near Chesapeake Bay.

Hydra the Revengemarker is a Bolliger and Mabillard floorless roller coaster at Dorney Parkmarker in Allentown, Pennsylvaniamarker with a Lernaean Hydra theme. The name of the ride pays tribute to the "Hercules" wooden roller coaster that once stood on the same spotmarker. The theme itself is the Hydra coming back to life and seeking revenge over Hercules. It also is the only currently operating coaster to have an inversion before the main lift hill.

The Ray Harryhausen film Jason and the Argonauts features both Hercules and a hydra (though, contrary to Greek myth, the hydra is slain by Jason, rather than Hercules, as the latter has already left the Argonaut's expedition in this re-imagined version of the story).

In 1997, Disney released an animated movie named Hercules. In the film Hercules fights the Hydra, however this hydra starts with a single head, and as the fight progresses, the monster gains dozens of heads, until all that can be seen is dozens and dozens of heads, each trying to eat Hercules. He defeats the monster by causing a rock slide, crushing the Hydra.

The Hydra has featured prominently in videogames of a fantasy setting - one example is the Playstation 2 game God of War, where the protagonist Kratos battles a monsterously enormous Hydra out at sea as the game's opening scene (and first boss encounter). He defeats the creature by impaling its three heads on the ship's masts.

In the final book in the Beyond the Spiderwick Cronichles series, the protagonist faces the Wyrm King who is a Hydra with muliple heads.

Notes

  1. "This monster 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." (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.
  6. Hydra The Revenge at Roller Coaster Database


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