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Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, with the sign of Cancer (by Baldassare Peruzzi, 1481-1536)

According to myth, the Lernaean hydra was a nine headed chthonic water monster which guarded the entrance to the underworld which lay beneath the waters of Lake Lerna.  The creature was so profoundly poisonous that even its footprints were toxic–to say nothing of its blood, bite, and breath.  When one of the hydra’s heads was cut off, two more would sprout in its place.  The hydra did have a weakness of sorts—only one of its heads was immortal.

Hercules’ second labor was to kill this fearsome monster.  After the trouble the Nemean Lion had given the hero, Hercules adhered more closely to the Boy Scout motto before facing the hydra: he prepared thoroughly for the confrontation by covering his face and eyes against the monster’s poison. He donned his impervious lionskin and took with him his club, a golden sickle-sword given to him by Athena, and, most importantly, an ally–his nephew (and lover), Iolaus.

Attic Black Figure on White Ground from Funeral Lekythos (Attributed to the Diosphos Painter, ca 500 - 480 BC)

But for all of his physical preparations, Hercules attacked the monster with a characteristic lack of tactics.  First he fired flaming arrows into the hydra’s favorite lair, the unquenchable well of Amymone until the creature emerged. Then Hercules started lopping off heads and bashing away with his club.  Soon a veritable forest of poisonous serpentine monster heads was striking at him, and all seemed lost until Athena stole up beside Iolaus and gifted him with a flaming brand and the idea of cauterizing each neck before new heads could sprout.  With the combined efforts of Iolaus, the ever-victorious goddess Athena, brute strength, the golden sickle-sword, and good ol’ fire, Hercules gradually cut and cauterized his way through the beast.  But, the Hydra was not lacking for allies either:  Hera sent a great crab to reinforce the wounded creature.  Using superhuman strength Hercules crushed the crab with a mighty foot and at last faced only the Hydra’s immortal head.  With one mighty slice he finished decapitating the monster and he placed the still living head beneath an immense rock on the sacred roadway between Lerna and Elaius.  Hercules then dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s blood so that they would be lethal to all mortal  things –a cruel stroke of genius which was to ultimately prove his downfall.  Hera placed her defeated hydra and crab in the night sky.

Of all of Echidna’s offspring, the hydra seems to have the most resonance with contemporary artists.  Painters, sculptors, and draftspeople are attracted to a theme which so elegantly exemplifies the hopelessness of struggling against a multi-headed entity capable of renewing itself exponentially.  The hydra is emblematic of viruses, invasive animals, crabgrass, terrorists, crooked politicians, and corporations.  Such a contest clearly presents the fundamental nature of individual striving.  Hercules’ victory thus resounds as the ultimate triumph of the individual over the many…except…well, he had Iolaus, a magic weapon, magic armor, and the goddess Athena (as well as a sanction from his omnipotent father).  In fact, his great accomplishment was deemed unacceptable as a “labor” because he utilized so much help.

I’ll leave you to contemplate the fact that even great Hercules needed a support team.  In the mean time, enjoy this crazy gallery of amazing contemporary artworks depicting the hydra:

Hydra (Sculpture by Elford Bradley Cox)

A performance art troop, Fluid Movement, presents "The Dance of the Hydra"

Figure 24.3: Hydra (by Richard Oden)Hydra (Installation piece made from muslin and transistor radios by Kelley Bell, 2002)

Hydra 1 (ironwood sculpture by Cody Powell & Ben Carpenter)

A hydra drawn on a styrofoam cup with marker by Cheeming Boey aka Boy Obsolete

Hydra (painting by Travis Lampe for "Beasts 2)

The Hydra of Madison Avenue, (by Todd Schorr, 2001): a vivid nightmare of corporate mascots run amok

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