The Lernaean Hydra: The Many-Headed, Serpentine Giant of Greek and Roman Myths

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By: Alex Postrado

In Greek mythology, the region of Lerna was known as either of these two contrasting things:

  • A place gifted by the god, Poseidon, with lakes and springs full of fresh and healing water.
  • Or a mystical marshland containing a portal to Hades’ misty realm, the Underworld.

According to the stories, both descriptions were true about Lerna. And there was once a detail that tied these two pieces together.

A creature.

A fearsome and formidable one, to be exact!

A monster that found home in the wetlands of Lerna 一 guarding the gates of the deep pit and contaminating the otherwise pure waters while at it.

It was called the Lernaean Hydra.

A serpentine, water monster that was gigantic in size and savage by nature.

There were many reasons to fear the Lernaean Hydra, but one, in particular, catches the attention of readers and writers alike 一 its multiple heads!

Just how many, you may ask?

Well, plenty enough that even resident strongman Hercules would need an extra hand to successfully defeat it.

The Hydra of Lerna

The lakes of Lerna, south of Argos, were not only known as the setting for the myth of the Danaïdes but also as the lair of a snake-like horror 一 the Lernaean Hydra.

Named after the place it used to inhabit, it was among the most famous water monsters from Greek and Roman mythology.

Also called the Hydra of Lerna 一 or simply, the Hydra 一 it was a giant, many-headed serpent that was ferocious to the hilt 一 ransacking nearby villages in search of livestock to devour and harry its residents.

By Gustave Moreau 19th-century depiction of the Hydra, Source

Though the Hydra was only said to carry out these attacks when it needs to feed, as it was generally believed to be a lazy 一 albeit spiteful 一 creature, its time at rest was not harmless either.

The stories say that the Hydra was already a deadly poison in itself.

In other words, everything about it is potentially dangerous!

This was the reason why almost no person attempts to stray close to the Hydra’s cave by the wetlands, as well as why the freshwater that flows all across Lerna became undrinkable and toxic ever since the Hydra called it it’s home.

Although serpentine in appearance, the Lernaean Hydra was far from being the only mythical beast to have an association with snakes.

Of course, the snake-haired Medusa was their poster child.

But also part of the long list of snake-related monstrosities were the Lernaean Hydra’s very own parents:

Typhon and Echidna.

Typhon, the Hydra’s father, was the child of Gaia and Tartarus.

He was known to be a grisly giant with a height so tall that his head was often described to have touched the stars. Hundreds of serpents were said to have decorated Typhon’s head, and instead of legs, some legends claim he had twin serpents in place of them.

Echidna, on the other hand, daughter of Phorcys and Ceto, was recognized for her half woman, half snake visage.

Often called “the mother of all monsters” 一 including the Hydra of Lerna 一 she lived alone in a cave “beneath the secret parts of the holy earth“, waiting for unlucky passersby to feed on.

Together, both Typhon and Echidna gave the Hydra its monstrous appearance and sinister disposition.

Along with its immortality, of course!

Mentions of the Lernaean Hydra 一 including its first emergence around the 7th or 8th century BCE in Hesiod’s Theogony 一 often told of the serpent’s immortality, which could be found only in one of its snake-like heads.

As long as this specific head remains untouched, the Hydra would continue to live on.

When the goddess Hera took in the Hydra soon after its birth, she raised the creature to become a weapon she can use to slay one of her mortal enemies, Hercules.

Hera took advantage of the Hydra’s hostile nature from being a direct descendant of two of Greek myth’s most dreadful monsters and nurtured the multi-headed beast’s malicious impulses before placing it in the region of Lerna when it was finally ready.

In its adult years, right before Hercules traveled to find it, the Hydra was said to extend up to 25 meters in length and up to 13 meters in height.

And to make matters worse, the Lernaean Hydra’s heads often varied in number, depending on the version of the story 一 with poet Alcaeus, claiming it had nine serpentine heads; others, saying it had around 5-7, Euripides and Virgil, leaving the number in question, and Simonides, increasing it to fifty!

Do We Stand a Chance Against the Mythical Hydra?

Aside from waiting for its long-promised match with Hercules, the Lernaean Hydra was also set to keep an eye on the entrances of the Underworld 一 to avert the living from going in and to prevent the dead from escaping.

Mortals that wandered too close were immediately killed, either attacked by the Hydra or put down by the beast’s noxious breath!

As mentioned, everything about the Hydra was toxic 一 including its breath, that even when it sleeps, any person that comes close to it would die on the spot trying.

Another deadly thing about the Hydra of Lerna was its spit, which was of an acid powerful enough to pose real danger on anyone near.

For such reasons, people rarely attempt to cross the waters of Lerna.

But these factors were not even the ones that make the Hydra the highly formidable monster that it was!

The fact that, aside from being immortal in one head, it also possessed regenerative abilities claims that sweet spot at the top of the list.

The myth has it that when one of the Hydra’s heads is cut off, another immediately spawns from it 一 sometimes, even two!

This makes the Hydra almost impossible to beat.

In fact, when Hercules came prepared for his fight with the monster 一 complete with cloth covering his mouth and nose as protection for the poisonous gases the Hydra emits 一 he was forced to retreat and replan a strategy against the regenerating foe.

The chosen tactic was detailed in the Bibliotheca and involved the aid of Hercules’ nephew, Iolaus.

With every head severed by Hercules, Iolaus would quickly cauterize the open wound.

This prevented the Hydra from growing new heads out of its now-gone old ones. And as for the final, immortal serpent head, Hercules used Athena’s golden sword, leading the two to victory.

The only thing is, Hercules, underestimated exactly how poisonous and lethal the Hydra truly was. Even a drop of its blood can kill!

And sure, the mighty hero might have used it in his other exploits, but it was also what ultimately ended him.

So, it seems like the fight came to a draw, after all!

Regardless though, with all of that 一 the breath; the acid spit; the brooding stature; and the regenerating set of heads, one of which was immortal; and the poisonous blood 一 it was clear that the Hydra’s powers and strengths could easily upend its weaknesses.

Drawing of Hercules battling the Hydra
Hercules battling the Hydra

And had it not been for that extra boost of help from Iolaus 一 and, of course, Athena’s sword 一 I’m not sure how everything might have turned up for Hercules.

Just imagine how it would have ended if it were us!

Is the Lernaean Hydra Real?

The myth of a giant, multi-headed serpent is as fantastical as it sounds.

Though, science has recorded several cases of animals having more than their usual heads, one that abides by all of the Lernaean Hydra’s attributes hasn’t been discovered nor proven to exist yet.

Most assume the story of the snake-like monster is nothing but made up to serve certain purposes 一 more specifically, safety purposes.

The region of Lerna could be a potentially hazardous terrain and the strips of water strewn all over the place 一 no matter how small or unassuming 一 could actually be bottomless.

Wetlands like this could also be ideal breeding grounds for a handful of snake species. And prolonged exposure to miasma brought about by marshes and swamps could be straight-up deadly!

Dangers like these 一 in some ways 一 call for the creation of mythical monsters similar to the Hydra.

And, in this case, including the name of the place adds another layer of precaution to the tale 一 so, people would know that in the mires of Lerna, there is a threat every passing traveler must be wary of.

The Lernaean Hydra.

The unquestionably mythical beast of Lerna, tied to the very real dangers of the region.

References:

Hydra - Greek Mythology
Lernaean Hydra
Lernaean Hydra - Myths And Folklore
Lernaean Hydra – The Many-Headed Monster
Hydra - Mythology
The Hydra: The Multi-Headed Serpent Of Greek Myth
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