Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Heracles (Hercules) and the Lernaean Hydra

The Lernaean Hydra or Hydra of Lerna more often known simply as the Hydra, is a serpentine water monster in Greek and Roman mythology. Its lair was the lake of Lerna in the Argolid. Lerna was reputed to be an entrance to the Underworld, and archaeology has established it as a sacred site older than Mycenaean Argos. In the canonical Hydra myth, the monster is killed by Heracles (Hercules) as the second of his Twelve Labors.

The oldest extant Hydra narrative appears in Hesiod's Theogony, while the oldest images of the monster are found on a pair of bronze fibulae dating to c. 700 BCE. In both these sources, the main motifs of the Hydra myth are already present: a multi-headed serpent that is slain by Heracles and Iolaus. While these fibulae portray a six-headed Hydra, its number of heads was first fixed in writing by Alcaeus (c. 600 BCE), who gave it nine heads. Simonides, writing a century later, increased the number to fifty, while Euripides, Virgil, and others did not give an exact figure.

Like the initial number of heads, the monster's capacity to regenerate lost heads varies with time and author. The first mention of this ability of the Hydra occurs with Euripides, where the monster grew back a pair of heads for each one severed by Heracles. In the Euthydemus of Plato, Socrates likens Euthydemus and his brother Dionysidorus to a Hydra of a sophistical nature who grows two arguments for every one refuted. Palaephatus, Ovid, and Diodorus Siculus concur with Euripides, while Servius has the Hydra grow back three heads each time. Depictions of the monster dating to c. 500 BCE show it with a double tail as well as multiple heads, suggesting the same regenerative ability at work, but no literary accounts include this feature.  The Hydra had many parallels in ancient Near Eastern religions. In particular, Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian mythology celebrated the deeds of the war and hunting god Ninurta that included slaying a a seven-headed serpent.

Several versions of Heracles struggle with the hydra existed.  In one, Heracles, seeing the creature merely grew more heads when he decapitated it, asked 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.  In an alternate version, Heracles dipped his sword in the Hydra's blood and used its own venom to burn subsequent stumps and prevent their regrowth.

The victorious Heracles then dipped his arrows in the Hydra's poisonous blood and used them to kill the Stymphalian Birds, the giant Geryon, and, unfortunately, the centaur Nessus. Nessus' tainted blood was applied to the Tunic of Nessus, by which the centaur had his posthumous revenge against Heracles. 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.

Hercules slaying the Hydra, Roman copy of 4th century BCE original by Lysippos, restored by Algardi, that I photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Relief of Hercules slaying the Hydra, end of 3rd century CE, from the Roman Villa of Chiragan, Musée des Antiques de Toulouse, courtesy of Carole Raddato. (CC BY)

Detail of Relief of Hercules slaying the Hydra, end of 3rd century CE, from the Roman Villa of Chiragan, Musée des Antiques de Toulouse, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Caroline Léna Becker.

Relief depicting Heracles battling the Hydra at the base of the facade of Colleoni Chapel, by Giovanni Antonio Amadeo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko.

Sarcophagus Relief Depicting Labors of Hercules (Heracles), 3rd-4th century C.E., marble, Roman, Honolulu Academy of Arts, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Haa900.

Etruscan black-figure hydria depicting Herakles and Iolaos fighting the Lernean Hydra (c. 346 BCE) from Caere now on display at the Getty Villa courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Wolfgang Sauber

Fragment of a red-figure vase depicting Heracles battling the Hydra with Athena offering support, 375-340 BCE, on exhibit at the Fitchburg Art Museum, Fitchburg, Massachusetts, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Daderot.

Archaic-styled Heracles, Iolaus and the Lernaean Hydra. Side A of an Attic black-figured amphora, 560–555 BCE, now in the collections of The Louvre, Paris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.

Corinthian Aryballos, Greek, 6th century BCE, from Corinth, Terracotta, now on view at the Getty Villa, Gallery 104, courtesy of the museum. On this intricately detailed Corinthian black-figure aryballos (oil-flask), Herakles battles the Lernean Hydra, a many-headed, serpent-like monster. Required to destroy the fierce creature as the second of the Twelve Labors assigned to him by King Eurystheus, the hero grasps one of the snaky heads while stabbing the monster with his sword. One of the Hydra’s heads is about to bite Herakles’ shoulder, and a crab, sent to help the Hydra, approaches the hero’s ankle from behind. The goddess Athena stands behind him, offering her support. Both Herakles and Athena are identified by inscriptions written in retrograde, or right to left, in the distinctive Doric alphabet of Corinth. Likewise, inscriptions on the other side of the vase identify Iolaos, Herakles’ nephew and faithful companion, and Iphikles (written as Wiphikledas), Herakles’ twin brother. One figure holds the Hydra, while the other (under the handle of the vase) is shown as a charioteer, head turned back to face the action while keeping the four-horse chariot ready to carry off the victorious hero. An unidentified female head facing left decorates the handle itself

1843 reproduction of Heracles and Iolaus battling the Hydra from a red-figure vase by Eduard Gerhard courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Angyalfia.

Renaissance-era plaque depicting Heracles battling the Hydra, 16th century CE, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko

Athena supports Heracles who is attacked by the crab and the Lenaean Hydra. White-ground Attic lekythos, ca. 500–475 BCE now in the collections of The Louvre, Paris courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.

Mosaic from Roman Spain, 26 CE, depicting Heracles battling the Hydra courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Luis Garcia.

Hercules and the Hydra, 1785 etching by Raphael West, in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, courtesy of the museum.

Fragmented vase with applique depicting Hercules battling the Hydra, discovered at Saint-Colombe, 2nd - 3rd century CE, now in the collections of the Gallo-Roman Museum of Fourvière in Lyon, France courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Eunostos

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