Herakles II: The Lernean Hydra [Sunday Serial]

EAGLE PAINTER, Herakles battling the Lernean Hydra, detail of black figure hydria from Caere produced by the Eagle Painter ca.525 B.C. Black figure terra cotta. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy Xenophon via creative commons license, 2017.
EAGLE PAINTER, Herakles battling the Lernean Hydra, detail of black figure hydria from Caere produced by the Eagle Painter ca.525 B.C. Black figure terra cotta. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy Xenophon via creative commons license, 2017.

[In case you missed it, catch up by reading Part I of our story.]

With the pelt of the Nemean Lion draped across his back, Herakles bade good-bye to Molorchos, and departed Nemea in search of his second labor.

As one nears the eastern shores of the Peloponnese, coming down from the mountains south of Argolis, one eventually comes face to face with the breathtaking sprawl of the fields of Lerna. The fields of Lerna were infested with all sorts of dangers, and it is a region known for its many springs, all of which, until about the 19th century, drained into a large, deep lake. The water here is slightly caustic, cutting countless caverns and subterranean canals into the earth before springing forth to the surface and draining into Lake Lerna. The caves themselves are twisted labyrinths running deep into the earth—so deep, in fact, that the waters flowing through them have the river Styx as their source.

It is their association with eternity that gave Lake Lerna’s waters the ability to heal many ills. That same association, however, made the lake very dark, deep, and cold. Though limpid near the shore, the waters quickly became deeper blue going farther from shore, darkening to near-black at the center of the lake.

As if the cold depth of the waters was not danger enough, Lake Lerna was home to a creature so fearsome that few dared to even speak its name: Ὕδρα (Hydra)! For years, the Lernean Hydra terrorized the small hamlets around the lake. It’s breath and blood were pure poison: even smelling the beast was deadly! The Hydra was a fearsome, multi-headed water serpent that could only be slain if a hero could manage to several all of its heads. The problem was that, upon cutting off one head, two grew back!

GUSTAVE MOREAU, Hercule et l'Hydre de Lerne (Hercules and the Hydra of Lerna), 1876. Oil on canvas, 60 5/8” x 70 5/8”. Art Institute of Chicago. Digital Image courtesy The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, 2002.
GUSTAVE MOREAU, Hercule et l’Hydre de Lerne (Hercules and the Hydra of Lerna), 1876. Oil on canvas, 60 5/8” x 70 5/8”. Art Institute of Chicago. Digital Image courtesy The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, 2002.

Herakles was climbing down from the mountains, walking by the still waters of the spring of Amymone, when he heard it—the most ghastly cry that ever met his ears. He turned around, and, realizing the sound was coming from a cave at the headwaters of the spring, knocked a fire arrow and let it fly into the cave. Nothing. A second shot brought nothing, too. The third shot was the key; no sooner did the third fire arrow disappear into the darkness than the unearthly screams grew deafening, and the hideous Hydra slithered out of the cave like black-inked lightning!

Temporarily stunned by the beast’s pungency, Herakles realized that he may be in trouble. “Cut off ALL the heads… use THIS—NOW!,” a voice rang out. It was Athena! Herakles looked up, and saw a golden sword hovering over his head. He took it in hand, and with one swift stroke, removed two of the Hydra’s heads.

Much to Herakles’ dismay, TWO MORE heads grew back from the stump where each severed head had been! Instead of subtracting heads, he was actually adding heads by chopping them off! The hellish Hydra continued to lunge and spit as Herakles dodged its strikes; for though he could dodge the beast easily enough, he could not seem to make any headway toward killing it, and Herakles knew that his own strength would eventually tire from all that dodging.

In frustration, he sliced violently at the beast. A spray of the Hydra’s acrid blood plumed outward and landed on Herakles’ thigh. The burn was painful, but it gave the hero an idea. He decided to see if he could use the Hydra’s own blood against it.

Just then, the beast lunged a head forward, striking at Herakles, who jumped back in the nick of time, parrying with a deft swing of the golden blade. In the blink of an eye, the offending head lay wriggling on the ground. Quickly, Herakles thrust his sword down the neck where the head had been, coating the blade with the Hydra’s caustic blood. Withdrawing the blade, Herakles smeared it over the stump. The flesh burned and sizzled. The acid cauterized the wound—no new head would ever grow there!

Herakles, delighted, went about dodging, slicing, thrusting, and smearing in this way until only one head remained. Just as his own strength was at its end, he swung the golden blade one final time—SWOK! The deathblow, and final head of the “immortal” Hydra lay wriggling and spitting at Herakles’ feet.

The Hydra’s final head refused to die along with the rest of its body. So, after a short rest, Herakles put the the last head in a sack and took it with him. On the old sacred road that leads out of Lerna toward Elaius, Herakles found a giant rock. Thinking that this rock would be an appropriate crypt for the Hydra’s remains, he took the last head out of the sack, dipped the rest of his arrows in its poison blood, threw it onto the ground, and rolled the great rock onto it.

Herakles took a deep breath, sighed, and walked off into the sunset to find his next labor—unless, of course, it found him first…

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