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The Lernaean Hydra in Greek Mythology: Story & Powers

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Few monsters in Greek mythology have been remembered as well as the hydra. In this lesson, we'll explore the original myths around this creature and see who was heroic enough to beat it.

The Lernaean Hydra

Ancient Greece must have been a terrifying place to live. You're a simple sheep herder, minding your own business when suddenly some monster emerges from the swamp to eat you. Better hope there's a hero around somewhere.

Of the many fearsome creatures of Greek mythology, few are as famous as the Lernaean hydra. This multi-headed, regenerating monster was ferocious and deadly. Like so many monsters, it seemed impossible to kill. It would take a great hero to do it.

Origins and Attributes of the Hydra

The Lernaean hydra was a powerful monster, so it's not surprising to learn that it came from a line of powerful beings. Its father was Typhon, a monstrous snake who once tried to overthrow Zeus. Its mother was a half-woman/half-snake being named Echidna. Typhon and Echidna produced many of Greece's most terrifying monsters, and the hydra's siblings included Cerberus, the chimera, the sphinx, the Caucasian eagle, and the Colchian dragon, among others.

The Lernaean hydra
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So, what made the Lernaean hydra so scary? The monster was basically a giant water snake who lived in the marshes around Lerna, said to be one of the entrances to the underworld. The hydra's blood and venom were poisonous, and it had multiple heads. While Greek authors disagreed on exactly how many heads it had, the standard number today is generally given as nine.

As if fighting a nine-headed giant water snake wouldn't be bad enough, those nine heads were nearly indestructible. In the event that someone was actually able to destroy one, two new ones would sprout in its place. To make matters even worse, one head was actually immortal and could not be killed. So, when this monster emerged from the swamp, really all you could do was run, and hope it spent enough time eating your flock so that you could escape.

Hercules and the Hydra

Like most monsters of Greek mythology, no ordinary mortal would ever be a match for the Lernaean hydra. Only a hero could even hope to defeat the creature. In this case, that hero was Hercules (or Heracles). Hercules was serving a penance for killing his family (after Hera made him temporarily go mad) by working for his cousin, King Eurystheus of Mycenae for twelve years. This was especially trying because Hercules knew he was a better man and hero than Eurystheus. To prove him wrong, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to complete ten impossible tasks, remembered in mythology as the twelve labors of Hercules. (We'll get to that discrepancy in the number in a minute).

Killing the hydra was the second task of Hercules
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After Hercules completed his first impossible task, Eurystheus upped his game and commanded the hero to go and kill the giant, nine-headed, partly immortal snake monster of Lerna. Yeah, Eurystheus was a jerk. Nevertheless, Hercules was honor-bound to serve Eurystheus and so off he went.

On this hunt, Hercules took his nephew and frequent companion, Iolaus (traditionally depicted as Hercules' chariot-driver). Together, they journeyed to Lerna where Hercules confronted the hydra. Relying on his strength, as he generally did, Hercules seized the hydra and began wrestling it. However, it wrapped its tail around his legs, trapping him. To make matters worse, Hera sent a giant crab to attack Hercules at the same time, for really no other reason than Hera wanted to see Hercules fail (that's a whole separate story).

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