Hercules and the Hydra

Hercules and the Hydra

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Not far from Mycenae is a small lake called Lerna. It is formed from a large spring at the foot of a hill. In this lake, there lived a water-snake called the Hydra. It was a snake of uncommon size, with nine heads. Eight of the heads were mortal, but the one in the middle was immortal.

The Hydra frequently came out of the water and swallowed up herds of cattle, laying waste the surrounding country. Eurystheus ordered Hercules to kill the snake, so he put on his lion’s skin, and taking his club, started out. He mounted his chariot and took his faithful friend Iolaus, who acted as the charioteer.

Every warrior had to have a charioteer to drive the horses, leaving him free to use both of his hands. But driving was by no means the charioteer’s only duty he had also to look out for danger and protect the warrior with his shield as well as to supply him with arrows from the quiver suspended at the side of every chariot, and with reserve spears when his own was broken in the fray.

It is clear, therefore, that the warrior’s life was entirely in the hands of his charioteer, so it is no wonder that only the hero’s dearest and most trusted friends were allowed to serve him in this way.

After driving along for a while through groves of olive-trees and past pleasant vineyards, they came to wild places and saw Lake Lerna gleaming through the trees. Having reached the lake, Hercules descended from the chariot, left the horses in the care of Iolaos, and went hunting for the snake.

He found it in a swampy place where it was hiding. Hercules shot some burning arrows at the Hydra and forced it to come out. It darted furiously at him, but he met it fearlessly, put his foot upon its tail, and with his club began to strike off its heads. He could not accomplish anything in this way, for as fast as he knocked off one head, two others grew in its place.

Hercules Slaying the Hydra

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The snake coiled itself so firmly around one of Hercules’ legs that he was no longer able to stir from the place. Added to all this there came a huge crab to the assistance of the snake. It crept up to Hercules’ foot, and seizing it with its sharp claws, inflicted painful wounds. Hercules killed the crab with his club and called Iolaus to help him.

Under Hercules’ directions, Iolaos produced a fire-brand which he applied to the neck as fast as Hercules cut off one of the snake’s heads, in this way preventing them from growing again. Finally, it came to the turn of the head which could not die. Cutting it off, Hercules buried it in the ground, placing a heavy stone over it.

Then he dipped some arrows into the Hydra’s blood, which was poisonous, so that whoever was wounded by one of them could not be healed. The least scratch inflicted by such an arrow was incurable.

Eurystheus, of course, had no word of praise for his great bondsman, but the people, knowing that the place was now safe, flocked to the land in great numbers and drained the lake, which was really not much more than a big marshy pond, and in their new homes they blessed the hero’s name forever. That was the prize for which Hercules cared the most.

If you should go today to that old battlefield of Hercules you would still find the spring flowing from the rocks, but Lake Lerna exists only in story.

Hercules and the Hydra

The inhabitants of Lerna were terrorized by a multiheaded serpent that left a path of destruction behind. The creature was impossible to defeat because every time it lost one head, two grew in its place. Drawing on his ingenuity, Hercules cornered the serpent with fire and killed it with his club, an episode pictured in Hercules and the Hydra. Grasping his club with a powerful gesture, Hercules is shown just moments before striking the monster.

This work is part of a series of ten paintings that Francisco de Zurbarán was commissioned to paint in 1634 as decoration for the Hall of Realms in the Buen Retiro Palace. Constructed in the 1630s on the outskirts of Madrid, the palace was a large suburban villa built for the leisure of Philip IV and his court. The Hall of Realms played a significant ceremonial and political role within this complex. The throne was located there, and leading official events were held there, along with plays and other literary performances. To highlight its representative function, the hall was decorated with allusions to the Spanish monarchy, including coats of arms of the King of Spain´s realms, twelve battle scenes that had taken place during the reign of Philip IV, and five equestrian portraits with likenesses of the monarch, his wife, parents, and the crown prince Baltasar Carlos (1629-1646). The series dedicated to the Labors of Hercules was included because that mythological hero was regarded as the founder of the Spanish monarchy, and in fact Non plus ultra (Nothing farther beyond), the famous slogan on the Spanish coat of arms, has its origin in the Hercules myths. The images of Hercules completed the genealogical discourse of the kings of Spain proposed by the equestrian portraits, while also publicly expounding the virtues required of a prince. In that respect, we should emphasize that the political theory of this period associated the monarch´s regal status not only with a long series of privileges, but also with concrete responsibilities to his subjects. Therefore, most iconographic discourse of an allegorical nature related to the Spanish monarch included allusions to the virtues that legitimated him for the exercise of power. These references were often embodied by the mythological hero par excellence -Hercules- whose labors exemplified shrewdness, prudence, faithfulness, a sense of duty, and selflessness, among other qualities. The stories of Hercules´s labors were quite well known in Spain, thanks not only to translations of the classical authors, but also to compilations of myths, literary works, plays, celebrations, and even sermons. Indeed, one of the first literary works of Spain´s modern era is the Marquis of Villena´s Los doce trabajos de Hércules (Twelve Labors of Hercules). This context guaranteed the intelligibility of Zurbarán´s paintings, which thus matched the narrative clarity that typified the rest of the paintings in the Hall of Realms. This series was important to Zurbarán´s career for various reasons. Though born in Extremadura, he had been living in Seville since at least 1626, working primarily for various convents. He knew Velázquez while still a student, and his commission to work on the decorations for the Hall of Realms was very likely due to the latter´s recommendation. Zurbarán´s call to Madrid can thus be understood in terms of both his friendship with Velázquez and the high quality of his painting at that time. It may also have resulted from the fact that he had already executed various series of paintings in Seville, including those at the San Buenaventura College, the Trinidad Calzada, and the Merced Calzada. This prior experience guaranteed a working method efficient enough to ensure that the Labors of Hercules cycle would be completed in the relatively short time frame allotted to him.

What distinguishes this series from Zurbarán’s earlier and later cycles is its subject matter. This is the only mythological group he ever realized, as his oeuvre is characterized mainly by religious works, along with some still lifes and a few portraits. In his approach to mythological subjects, he proved explicit in the narrative sense, and faithful to his sources. The latter were both literary and graphic, including the print series on the labors of Hercules by Cornelis Cort (1533-before 1578) and Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550) from the 1540s. Zurbarán also showed great skill at adapting compositions to the circumstances in which they were to be seen. For example, all of the works in the present series were intended to be hung high on the wall, which is reflected in both their scale and perspective. To accentuate Hercules´s powerful physical personality and the dramatic nature of his deeds, Zurbarán decided to present him in the foreground, viewed from below in a manner that emphasizes his monumentality and physical strength. For Zurbarán, the fact that these were mythological scenes was not only new from the narrative perspective, but also had important formal consequences, involving the constant presence of nudity. Indeed, this is probably the most important series of male nudes in Spanish Golden Age painting. Yet in approaching the subject of the nude, Zurbarán did not start from scratch, as two masterpieces from the beginning of his career contain nudes -his splendid Crucifixion (1627 Art Institute of Chicago) and The Apostle Saint Peter Appearing to Saint Peter Nolasco (1629 Museo Nacional del Prado). These works comprise the starting point for understanding the Hercules series. In all cases, Zurbarán describes the human body with a naturalist technique that uses light and shadows to model the anatomy. As a result, he articulates the different limbs in a highly contrasting manner that brings out the musculature. This approach is very well suited to rendering the powerful and heroic physique of Hercules, whose nude male form becomes a metaphor for royal authority and power, befitting the Hall of Realms.

Ruiz Gómez, Leticia, En El Palacio del Rey Planeta, Úbeda de los Cobos, A. (ed), Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2005, p.149

Gustave Moreau: Hercules and the Laernaean Hydra

The sun either rises or sets in the background. Its brightness is muted by the hazy clouds and the sky, which should be full of brilliant color at sunset or sunrise, is muted. This adds a despairing quality to the painting. Perhaps Moreau intended for the sunrise or sunset to be symbolic of the contrast which is the subject matter of the painting. At once, the sun sets to represent the death and tragedy of the painting, and the sun rises to represent the triumph over evil that viewers familiar with the myth know. Hercules is storied to have killed the Hydra and saved Iolas, which here might even be a symbol of that which needs saving (i.e. society, France, and/or humanity), and yet the choice of which part of the battle to depict suggests the possibility of triumph is not so easily won. Moreau chose to depict the moment before the battle when Hercules and the Hydra consider each other as opponents, sizing each other up. In this moment, it is unclear whether Hercules will truly be triumphant. Even so, the battle has not yet begun, and by the looks of the scene, it will not be easily won. The Hydra is obviously a formidable opponent, having killed so many. In addition, the story of the Hydra is allegorical to a long and arduous battle of not only strength but wits. In fighting a Hydra, cutting off one head only begets two more. The hero to kill the Hydra must not only endure the strength and power of the beast, but also have the wits and intelligence to attack the Hydra at the heart. This complex oeuvre of narrative and formal language shows an immense attention to detail on Moreau’s part. At once he is saying humanity and civilization must endure the tragedies and obstacles it faces, it must stand in the face of evil, it must be pure and virtuous, and it must attack the many forms or ‘heads’ of evil in the world at the root and not individually.

What becomes less clear is what Moreau intends to be the root of human suffering and evil in the world. Saying that Moreau believed that a mere lack of virtue and goodness leads to human tragedy would be irresponsible in describing an artist with such skill in communicating narrative and allegory. Perhaps not the elements of the painting can shed light on this issue as well as the painting as a whole. The work was exhibited in the Salon of 1876 and although it received critical acclaim,[11],[12] it had to contend with a host of realist and avant-garde works that Moreau and other more conservative artists would have considered abominations in the world of art. By exhibiting a Neoclassical and Romantic painting that Moreau intended to be at once “traditional” and “perfectly original” in his own words,[13] Moreau was signaling that a return to tradition and old values was not fruitless and exhausted but instead full of possibility. In some respects, Moreau may have seen himself in Hercules. At the same time, he may have seen himself in Iolas. Hercules stands in front of a barely noticeable dead lion, a common symbol for royalty, and he may have intended to insinuate the monarchy lacks the power to save the people and that it is up to humanity to save itself. To Moreau, society was in the lair of the beast, and either virtue will triumph or be destroyed.

It is difficult to resolve this painting without a spiritualist paradigm to use as a perspective. In a post-modern world, it is very difficult to end the conversation about good and evil at a resolution that posits good must simply triumph, hold onto virtue, and act not only with strength but with wit and moral resolve. Looking back, this painting symbolizes the dying breath of a predominant attitude toward the world divorced from materialism, subjectivity of truth, and moral relativism. The ethos of this painting lies in a dead Classical world and an equally dead Neoclassical impulse. To Moreau, this scenario we inhabit in the 21st Century may represent the death of Hercules and the absolute decay of society. The beauty, skill, and craft of Moreau’s work is in a way knocked on the floor like Iolas by history, not dead, but relegated to a state of inadequacy to have any agency in the world.

“Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, c. 1876.” by Gustave Moreau, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 26, no. 1, 2000, pp. 76–96.

Cook, Peter. Gustave Moreau: history painting, spirituality and symbolism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

Kaplan, Julius. The Art of Gustave Moreau: theory, style, and content. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press. 1982.

Gordon, Rae Beth. “Aboli Bibelot? The Influence of the Decorative Arts on Stéphane Mallarmé and Gustave Moreau.” Art Journal, vol. 45, no. 2, 1985, pp. 105–112.

Applying it Back to the Political

Let’s read what Ms. Horton wrote:

“Conservatives: The Hercules to the Liberal Hydra” was the title, and within the essay she says, “Third Wave Feminism, Social Justice, Black Lives Matter, the LGBT, the entertainment industry, and all of the other organizations that serve as a catalyst for cultivating leftist activity are merely the multiple heads of the Hydra, and cutting them off will only cause them to regenerate.” 4

Let’s compare Ms. Horton’s assignment of Conservatives to Hercules and Progressives to the Hydra using the attributes we discerned and see how it pans out.

  1. Conservatives
  2. Hercules
  3. Wisdom and persuasion
  4. Individual thought and action
  5. Hercules and Iolaus together out of Loyalty
  6. Good ideas given by Athena (Wisdom)
  7. Weapon from Wisdom (sword)
  1. Progressives
  2. Hydra
  3. Maliciousness and sophistry
  4. All heads forced to act together
  5. Hydra and Crab together only because of Hera’s orders
  6. Bad ideas that won’t die like Marxism and a lot of funding from a few sources (e.g., Soros)
  7. Weapon from Sophistry / Wisdom gone wrong (bile and venom)

It seems to fit well, better than one might have thought if it hadn’t been dissolved and coagulated. But, as always, it is good to turn to the father of Western Philosophy, Plato, to see what he might have to say about it.

Do you find that your brother, who knows everything, has not spoken aright?

I a brother of Euthydemus? quickly interposed Dionysodorus.

Whereupon I said: Let me alone, good sir, till Euthydemus has taught me that I know that good men are unjust, and do not grudge me this lesson.

You are running away, Socrates, said Dionysodorus you refuse to answer.

Yes, and with good reason, I said: for I am weaker than either one of you, so I have no scruple about running away from the two together. You see, I am sadly inferior to Hercules, who was no match for the hydra—that she-professor who was so clever that she sent forth many heads of debate in place of each one that was cut off nor for another sort of, crab-professor from the sea— freshly, I fancy, arrived on shore and, when the hero was so bothered with its leftward barks and bites, he summoned his nephew Iolaus to the rescue, and he brought him effective relief. But if my Iolaus were to come, he would do more harm than good. 5

Well, answer this, said Dionysodorus, now you have done your descanting: Was Iolaus more Hercules’ nephew than yours?

I see I had best answer you, Dionysodorus, I said. For you will never cease putting questions—I think I may say I am sure of this—in a grudging, obstructing spirit, so that Euthydemus may not teach me that bit of cleverness.

The dialogue continues with some amusing words games, mental gymnastics, and sophistry just as Socrates predicted. The part that is relevant to us is this: Socrates was wise (because he knew what he didn’t know) and a philosopher. He placed himself in the role of Hercules, however not as efficient at dispatching the Hydra. Socrates referred to Dionysodorus and Euthydemus as the Hydra, they being sophists. So Plato portrayed Socrates having the same understanding of Hercules as wisdom and the Hydra as sophistry as we have teased out from the original story.

It appears that subconsciously we do understand some universal symbols, at least enough to tease them out with some reflection. Of course, this is not solely an intellectual or rational exercise. The understanding is a form of intuitive gnosis, an intuitive understanding where we are no long viewing objects but are in some way experiencing the objects themselves. Part of this intuitive understanding occurs precisely because it is told as a legend in which we can immerse ourselves. These myths and legends are not children’s stories as one might first suppose. As Jung might believe, they stir something in our subconscious that has been forgotten. Again, I will refer to Plato who said learning is actually the act of remembering.

Perhaps this subconscious knowledge is what inspired Ms. Horton to cast Conservatives, whose arguments are based on rational thought, loyal, freed and unchained, and Progressives, whose arguments are based on emotional response and forced to toe the line for each other, as Hercules and the Hydra respectively. In any case, it seems it is a very apropos analogy and one that should be mined for further insight and guidance.

Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra

Gustave Moreau developed a highly personal vision that combined history, myth, mysticism, and a fascination with the exotic and bizarre. Rooted in the Romantic tradition, Moreau focused on the expression of timeless enigmas of human existence rather than on recording or capturing the realities of the material world.

Long fascinated with the myth of Hercules, Moreau gave his fertile imagination free rein in Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra. Looming above an almost primordial ooze of brown paint is the seven-headed Hydra, a serpentine monster whose dead and dying victims lie strewn about a swampy ground. Calm and youthful, Hercules stands amid the carnage, weapon in hand, ready to sever the Hydra’s seventh, “immortal” head, which he will later bury.

Despite the violence of the subject, the painting seems eerily still, almost frozen. Reinforcing this mysterious quality is Moreau’s ability to combine suggestive, painterly passages with obsessive detail. The precision of his draftsmanship and the otherworldliness of his palette are the result of his painstaking methods he executed numerous preliminary studies for every detail in the composition. In contrast to such exactitude, the artist also made bold, colorful watercolors that eschew detail, as exercises to resolve issues of composition and lighting.

Moreau seems to have intended this mythological painting to express contemporary political concerns. He was profoundly affected by France’s humiliating military defeat by Prussia in 1870–71. Whether or not Hercules literally personifies France and the Hydra represents Prussia, this monumental work portrays a moral battle between the forces of good and evil, and of light and darkness, with intensity and power.

Origin and description [ edit | edit source ]

The first Hydra was the daughter of Typhon and Echidna. Ώ] According to Aeneas, all hydras were made with little keys called aspawned from the "Infernal Regions." ΐ]

At some point before her death, the Lernaean Hydra was able to propagate herself. Α] Although many lived in caves Β] , others were encountered at sea Γ] .

Hydras had the ability to regrow multiple(many) heads after destruction. They were only fully defeated by burning. The Lernaean Hydra was able to transform into a human being Δ] , although no other hydras were known to have this ability. Autolycus thought that flying hydras existed. Ε] Gabrielle once described "fire-breathing, tin-headed hydras" for a story she told. Ζ]


Various sources have suggested that the Hydra first appeared (in writing and on art) between c 600-700 BE. 

It's most distinctive characteristic was the multiple heads. Each time a head was cut off, two new heads regenerated in its place immediately (though there are some variations in this number depending on the writer). The middle and dominant Hydra head (the front and biggest) was immortal and breathed fire. This giant serpent’s other heads possessed poisonous breath in addition to poisonous and acidic blood. Even its scent was deadly/ 

Hercules would later use this poisonous/acidic blood to defeat other creatures. These included the Stymphalian Birds, the giant Geryon, and the centaur Nessus which ruined the river Anigrus.


The Hydra (also known as the Lernaean Hydra) was a Greek mythological serpent with any number of heads (usually nine, but the original number of heads varies depending on author). It is usually depicted as being from anywhere between 7 and 25 metres long and being around 6 to 13 metres tall. This is not correct or incorrect as the hydra is usually fought at different stages of its life depending on the version of the legend. The Hydra is usually often referred to as a female in myth as well. 

The Second Labour of Heracles

Hercules was sent by king Eurystheus to kill the Hydra as part of his second labor since the Lernean Hydra was terrorizing Lerna by attacking it is towns and killing flocks of sheep and cattle. Hera had raised this monster just to slay Heracles.

He had taken along his nephew Iolaus. When they reached Lerna, he protected his nasal area and mouth with a fabric to safeguard himself from the stench. He shot a flaming arrow into its cave where it hissed in anger, arrived and started fighting him.

However, he had trouble coping with the Hydra when he understood that two heads regenerated whenever he sliced away one head. He informed Iolaus to cauterize the neck stumps with fire whenever Hercules cut its heads off to be able to stop the heads regrowing. An alternate version of this myth is that after cutting off one head he then dipped his sword in its neck and used its venom to burn each head so it could not grow back.

When Hera saw Hercules was winning, she sent down a huge crab called Korkinos to attack him by pinching his foot which he then crushed under his mighty foot.

He received a golden sword from Athena , which he utilized to finally kill the last head of the beast. The Hydra's one immortal head was cut off with a golden sword given to Heracles by Athena. Heracles placed the head—still alive and writhing—under a great rock on the sacred way between Lerna and Elaius, and dipped his arrows in the Hydra's poisonous blood. Thus his second task was complete. However, as Hercules' nephew Iolaus assisted in this trial, Hera also decided that the trial didn't count as one of the 10 trials required.

Hera, upset that Heracles had slain the beast she raised to kill him, placed it in the dark blue vault of the sky as the constellation Hydra. She then turned the crab into the constellation Cancer.

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Hercules and the Hydra (Pollaiolo)

From Wikipedia the free encyclopedia

Hercules and the Hydra is a c. 1475 tempera grassa on panel painting by Antonio del Pollaiolo, forming a pair with the same artist's Hercules slaying Antaeus. Ώ] Both works are now in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. ΐ] They show the influence of the Neoplatonic Academy, harking back to classical art and interpreting Greek and Roman myth in the light of Christian philosophy. Α]

A letter from Antonio to Gentil Virginio Orsini dated from 13 July 1494 records three square paintings of the Labours of Hercules commissioned from Antonio and Piero del Pollaiolo by Piero di Cosimo de' Medici, stating they had been produced thirty years earlier and that they were in the Palazzo Medici inventory after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent. They were mentioned again in Raffaello Borghini's Riposo of 1584 before vanishing from the written record.

Possibly produced for a private study, the two works now in the Uffizi may be sketches for two of the works mentioned in the letter, copies after two of the works in that series or original works in their own right, possibly produced for the Medici and possibly relating to Antonio's bronze sculpture Hercules slaying Antaeus, which was commissioned by Lorenzo around 1475 and is now in the Museo nazionale del Bargello. The two Uffizi works are first definitively recorded in a 1609 inventory of works in the Gondi household in Florence, by which time they had been joined together to form a diptych despite originally being separate works with different horizon lines. They were lost during the Second World War but recovered in Los Angeles in 1963 by Rodolfo Siviero. They were restored in 1991.

Watch the video: Hercules VS Hydra and Man Lion Fighting Scene 4K (September 2022).

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