Hercules Labour II: The Lernaian Hydra
Hercules’ battle with the Lernaian Hydra is a complex analogy which is worth looking into deeper. What we are essentially seeing is complex psychology in play through the use of monstrous symbology. The multi-headed Lernaian Hydra is fitting for the variety of ways an issue of the subconscious can materialise itself. However, there are deeper lessons to be learned and an interesting history to follow.
The second labour Eurystheus commanded Heracles to perform was to kill the Lernaian Hydra, which had been raised in the swamp of Lerna and was making forays onto the plain and wreaking havoc on both the livestock and the land. The Hydra had an enormous body with nine heads, eight of them mortal, and the one in the middle immortal. Heracles mounted a chariot driven by Iolaos and travelled to Lerna. He brought his horses to a halt and found the Hydra on a hilt by the Springs of Amymone, where she had her lair. He shot flaming arrows at her and forced her to come out. As she did so, he seized her and put her in a hold, but she wrapped herself around one of his legs and held on tight. Heracles got nowhere by smashing her heads with his club, for when one was smashed, two heads grew back. An enormous crab came to assist the Hydra and pinched Heracles’ foot. Because of this, after he killed the crab, he called for Iolaos to help. Iolaos set fire to a portion of the nearby forest and with the burning pieces of wood he scorched the stumps of the heads, preventing them from coming back. Having overcome the regenerating heads in this way, Heracles then cut off the immortal one, buried it, and placed a heavy rock over it by the road that leads through Lerna to Elaious. As for the Hydra’s body, he ripped it open and dipped his arrows in her bile. Eurystheus told Heracles that he should not have to count this labour as one of the ten, for Heracles had not overcome the Hydra by himself, but with the help of Iolaos.
Interpreting The Lernaian Hydra
There is some background behind Lerna that should be of interest in anyone who wants to grasp Heracles second labour in full. Firstly, Lerna is a district in Greece, near the Isthmus, which is characterized by its sacred springs and swamps that were mythically gifted to the land from Poseidon. The area was incredibly sacred for a vast period of time with modern archaeology dating its inhabitation to well before the Mycenaean Period. Geographically, Lerna sits in the vicinity of Eleusis, and Demeter was ritually connected with the Lernaean Mysteries. The natural springs, lakes, caves and mythology all led to Lerna being seen as a gateway to the underworld – which brings us to the Hydra.
The Hydra is linked to Lerna through age, the monster is incredibly old like Lerna itself and in this way is seen as a remnant of the pre-Olympian chaotic age which is further explained as it is an offspring of the monstrous titans Typhon and Echidna. The Hydra is a chthonic creature, it is associated with the underworld, and therefore symbolic of Heracles subconscious. What we might infer from the details so far is that Heracles is confronting an aspect of his subconscious which is very old, it is a remnant of old thinking, perhaps his old ways, and must be destroyed or overcome to allow for a new way of thinking. In fact, this is essentially what the labours of Heracles are doing, by ridding the earth of evil monsters and creating a better world in his mythic cycle, the audience learns the virtues of shredding away the negative attributes of the mind to create a new state of being.
Now this Hydra did not only exist in the myth of Heracles. It was universally agreed that the Alcyonian Lake in Lerna was an entrance to the underworld, and that it was guarded by the Hydra. For two quick examples of interest, Emperor Nero felt it important in the first century A.D. to investigate the matter for himself, rowing his boat to the centre of the lake he had his men throw weighted ropes overboard until they hit the bottom. However, they never did reach the lake floor and after a time the exercise seemed to confirm that the lake was bottomless. In his work Isis & Osiris, Plutarch wrote of the lake, saying that any who swam across it was sucked down by the Hydra, whom he called the “Keeper of the Gate”. This of course being the gate of the underworld.
Our interpretation of the Hydra can continue now where we can suggest that the Hydra is symbolic for the aspect of the mind that stops one from entering the sub- and unconscious. If we recall back to our discussion on Carl Jung, we might say that the Hydra is the ego.
The Hydra does not necessarily have to be the ego though, it is not a perfect fit, and we could easily create a rational argument to say that the Hydra is the archetypal shadow of the hero as well. However, what we are going to see now is that the ego is actually a composition of the self and the shadow and this is why Jung says that to obtain enlightenment one must assimilate the shadow so that the individual can exist with both light and dark aspects in balance.
However, we digress, the Hydra can be said to be the shadow, or the ugly side of the ego which the individual does not accept as themselves and tries so hard to suppress. This fits with the myth as we see Heracles attempting to cut the heads from the Hydra with the result being that multiple heads regrow from each severed neck. In a symbolic way we are seeing the result of one who tries to destroy the shadow instead of assimilating it. Each head of the Hydra can be likened to an “ugly” aspect of the ego which Heracles does not accept in himself. He cuts off the neck, trying to destroy these “ugly” aspects but finds that new forms of the shadow emerge instead. From a psychological standpoint, you cannot destroy the shadow, you cannot remove the negative. Instead, the individual has to accept these features of the psyche and bring them under his own control. This is how we see Heracles defeat the Hydra. Unable to overcome the monster alone, he calls for help, and knowing the beast can never truly be destroyed (symbolized by its one immortal head), he instead buries it under a mountain representing the heroes subconscious.
Heracles does not bury the head just anywhere though, but places it along the Sacred Way, a road that ran from Athens, through Lerna, and to Eleusis. There may be significance between this and the Eleusinian Mysteries, as if the mythographer is telling his audience that everybody must face the Hydra in their journey to enlightenment.
Finally, we see that Heracles may use the success of the labour to his benefit. He dips his arrows into the Hydra’s blood creating the most potent of poisoned tips. This is synonymous with him wearing the lion skin as armour. Essentially, once the challenge has been overcome, the hero becomes better for it, psychologically this works as the mind becomes stronger and full of understanding. First he won the lion skin which protects him, then he won the arrows which he can use for offence.
Next week we will look at Labour III: The Cerynitian Deer
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