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In Greek mythology, the Lernaean Hydra was an ancient serpent-like chthonic water beast that possessed numerous heads;the poets mention more heads than the vase-painters could paint and poisonous breath (Gaius Julius Hyginus). The Hydra of Lerna was killed by Heracles as one of his The Twelve Labours.

The multi-headed lernaean Hydra



The Hydra had the body of a serpent (sometimes represented as a dog) and many heads (the number of heads deviates from five up to one hundred but generally nine is accepted as standard).


The Hydra was the daughter of Echidna and Typhon and the half-sister of the Nemean Lion, the Chimera and Cerberus. As such, it was said to have been chosen as a task for Heracles so that Heracles would probably die.


The hydra’s heads could never be harmed by any weapon, and if any of the other heads were severed another would grow in its place. Also the stench from the Hydra's breath was enough to kill man or beast. The foul stench that the river of Elis, Anigrus, exudes is said to be the smell of the decaying Hydra.


When it emerged from the swamp it would attack herds of cattle and local villagers, devouring them with its numerous heads. It totally terrorized the vicinity for many years.


Its lair was the lake of Lerna formed by the Amymone spring in the Argolid, though archaeology has borne out the myth that the sacred site was older even than the Mycenaean city of Argos, for Lerna was the site of the myth of the Danaids. Beneath the waters was an entrance to the Underworld, and the Hydra was its guardian (Kerenyi 1959, p. 143...)



The Second Labour of Hercules: The Lernaean Hydra

File:Gustave Moreau 003.jpg
Gustave Moreau: Heracles and the Lernaean Hydra, 1876

Upon reaching the swamp near Lerna where the Hydra dwelt, Heracles covered his mouth and nose with a cloth to protect himself from the poisonous fumes and fired flaming arrows into its lair, the spring of Amymone, to draw it out. He then confronted it, wielding a harvesting sickle in some early vase-paintings; Ruck and Staples (p. 170) have pointed out that the chthonic creature's reaction was botanical: upon cutting off each of its heads he found that two grew back, an expression of the hopelessness of such a struggle for any but the hero, Heracles.

The details of the confrontation are explicit in Apollodorus (2.5.2): realising that he could not defeat the Hydra in this way, Heracles called on his nephew Iolaus for help. His nephew then came upon the idea (possibly inspired by Athena) of using a burning firebrand to scorch the neck stumps after decapitation, and handed him the blazing brand. Heracles cut off each head and Iolaus burned the open stump leaving the hydra dead; its one immortal head Heracles placed under a great rock on the sacred way between Lerna and Elaius (Kerenyi1959 p 144), and dipped his arrows in the Hydra's poisonous blood, and so his second task was complete.

The alternative to this is that after cutting off one head he dipped his sword in it and used its venom to burn each head so it couldn't grow back.

The poisonous arrows were used to kill Geryon. Heracles later used another arrow dipped in the Hydra's poison blood to kill the centaur Nessus; and Nessus's tainted blood applied to the Tunic of Nessus eventually killed Heracles himself.

In an alternative version, Hera's crab was at the site to bite his feet and bother him, hoping to cause his death. Hera set it in the Zodiac to follow the Lion (Eratosthenes, Catasterismi)

When Eurystheus, the agent of ancient Hera who was assigning to Heracles The Twelve Labours, found out that it was Heracles' nephew who had handed him the firebrand, he declared that the labour had not been completed alone and as a result did not count towards the ten labours set for him. The mythic element is an equivocating attempt to resolve the submerged conflict between an ancient ten Labours and a more recent twelve.

In another version {seen mostly in psychoanalytical and astrological interpretations of the myth, for example - The Labours of Hercules: An Astrologoical Interpretaton by Alice A. Bailey}, Heracles defeated the Hydra by remembering the words of his wise teacher, Chiron, who had said, "We rise by kneeling; we conquer by surrendering; we gain by giving up."

All his other weapons having failed, Heracles remembered his mentor's words and knelt down in the swamp and lifted up the monster by one of her heads into the light of day, where she began to wilt. Heracles then cut off each of her heads, dipping his arrows in the Hydra's poisonous blood at the same time. However, none re-grew. After he had severed all nine heads, a tenth one appeared; Heracles recognised this as a jewel and buried it under a rock.

African Hydra

An African Hydra is a water-monster with seven heads. It keeps the river flowing and people brought offerings to them. One day a woman asked for the Hydra's help, in return for her Jinde Sirinde. Her water jar had been filled with mud. The Hydra agreed to the deal, cleaning out her jar, and filling it with water for her. When Jinde was old enough, she was sent to the river to collect water but eventually the Hydra came to the shore and took her away to be his wife. Jinde pleaded with him to be allowed to go back. The Hydra agreed to let her go for one day to see her parents one last time but she went to the house of her lover, who took his sword and killed the Hydra by cutting off all seven heads.

Biblical Hydra

The Beast that appears in the Apocalypse is a many-headed dragon.

The 16th-century German illustrator has been influenced by the Beast of Revelation in his depiction of the Hydra.

Theories and analysis

Theories about origin and existence

When the sun is in the sign of Cancer, the constellation Hydra has its head nearby. Also close by, beneath the sun, is the constellation of Cancer, the crab.

Mythographers relate that the Lernaean Hydra and the crab were put into the sky after Heracles slew them. It is uncertain as to what the cauterising of the snake heads means, but it may derive from tales concerning a battle connected to Lerna, possibly indicative of setting fire to parts of the enemy (possibly the corpses) so as to disperse them.

Lerna features in another myth as a fountain from Poseidon created in memorial of the daughter of Danaos, who appear in earlier works, such as the Illiad, as a seafaring group from elsewhere), which may be a myth of a failed attack on the native population by Danae, which the Danae later repeated successfully.

The Greek word for arrow, which is toxon, is closely related to the Greek word for poison, which is toxis, thus the poison arrows that Heracles created from the Hydra's blood. Associations with the Nemaean lion may derive from recreating the surrounding narrative to suit an order in which the tale of the Hydra follows that of the lion.

Art / Fiction


The Hydra is represented in many statues and sculptures, often battling Hercules. There are several statues portraying the battle between the two at the Louvre.


In many RPG's set in a Fantasy setting, the Hydra is a common type of monster that can be faced by players. Depending on the setting, they typically have three to seven heads, and may or may not be able to regenerate into more.

  • In the Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game and Rifts (role-playing game)|Rifts, the Hydra is a type of Dragon, albeit a feral and less intelligent kind. It has seven heads, and each head has a different type of breath weapon. It can regenerate any lost head, but cannot gain more heads through regeneration. Some rare mutations of Hydra, however may have eight or nine heads.
  • Hydra appears in the third stage of the Monster in My Pocket video game, colored purple and spitting out blue flames and the player. Multiple hydras appear on a sloped city street with many fire hydrants.
  • It also appears as a boss in the game Kingdom Hearts II. In order to beat it, you must "Get up on the Hydra's back!" and use the special reaction command entitled the "Urninator", where Phil will toss you an urn to use as a weapon.
  • The Hydra appears as a boss in the PS2 game God of War, where the playable character, Kratos, fights several of its heads onboard a ship in the Aegean Sea. Kratos's final battle with the Hydra shows its three remaining heads - the largest one is able to heal the other two. Kratos fights the two smaller heads first, pins them to the deck, then kills the dominant head by impaling it on the ship's prow.
  • The Hydra appears as a unit in the Warlock castle of Heroes of Might and Magic II, the Fortress army in Heroes of Might and Magic III, as a fourth-tier Chaos unit in Heroes of Might and Magic IV, and a fifth-tier Dungeon unit in Heroes of Might and Magic V.
  • Hydras appear as Myth Units in Age of Mythology and its expansion pack Age of Mythology: The Titans.
  • In the game Chrono Cross, there are two alternate worlds. In one, the Hydra have been hunted to extinction and no longer reside in their home, the Hydra Marshes. In the other world, a single Hydra remains. The reason for the Hydra's extinction is that their poison is deadly when used in battle, and the only antitode is Hydra Humour, a substance refined from the creature's bodily fluids. Besides being a major boss, the Hydra plays a major part in the storyline of the game.
  • In the console game Spartan: Total Warrior The Spartan fights a large hydra in the ruined city of Troy. He uses the Spear of Achilles' god power to blow up an attacking hydra head, and then destroys it with a fire arrow. There is a leader head which is the last head needed to be killed.
  • In the Online PC game, Guild Wars, Hydras are hostile creatures similar to T-Rexes and have three heads. There are three different 'breeds' of the hydra, each found in a different region (Ascalon, Crystal Desert, and the Ring of Fire Island Chain).
  • In the game Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne the Ancient Hydra is a 3-headed, poison spouting, Level 10 creep found in the Sunken Ruin type terrain. When killed, the Ancient Hydra splits into two Hydras, sharing a similar but smaller model. When the Hydras are killed they in turn create two Hydra Hatchlings. In addition, Elder Hydras, Hydras, and Hydra Hatchlings may be found independently around the map.
  • In the computer game Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire, an immortal Hydra is one of the monsters that the Hero must face during the Rites of Passage. The Hero can either work with an opponent in the Rites of Passage, Elsa Von Spielburg (who will either burn the neck stumps or cut off the heads depending on the Hero's job class), or fight the Hydra on his own if he is capable of both cutting off the heads and burning the three neck stumps.
  • Hydra is Monster in My Pocket #2.
  • Hydra appears occasionally in Castlevania, but usually shown without the body.
  • In Magic: The Gathering Ravnica: City of Guilds set, there exists a creature named Phytohydra, which, according to the flavor text, is based on the Lernaean Hydra.
  • A very different interpretation appeared in Mighty Max, where Hydra stood at the world's geographical centre, a bipedal giant with only two heads, one representing good, the other evil. When Skullmaster turns the good side dark, it starts the end of the world.
  • The Hydra was used in the DC Comics storyline Challenge of the Gods for the character Wonder Woman to battle.
  • The Hydra appears in the Heroes of Might and Magic series, usually as a high-end, powerful creature. Usually very resilient and able to attack from 3 (pre upgrade) up to all adjacent creatures, thanks for the multiple heads. It also possess a special ability - 'No retaliation', meaning the enemy cannot counterattack the Hydra's assaults. This is explained as the Hydra being so terryfying, that none would risk an attack on their own.


  • The Hydra makes a major appearance in the Disney animated movie Hercules (1997) . In the movie, the Hydra is a giant dragon-like monster that serves as Hercules' first major test as a hero. It starts out with only one head, but as Hercules cuts it off, more grow in its place until it has nearly a dozen. It also makes appearances in Hercules: The Animated Series, and appears as a boss in Kingdom Hearts 2.
  • In the anime series The Big O, Roger Smith Roger Smith does battle with a giant, many-headed serpent monster in the episode entitled Hydra.


  • In Tenacious D's "Wonderboy," Jack Black says "There's the Hydra. Pull out your broadsword. Slice his throat. Grab his scrote."
  • T-Rex's song "Bang a Gong (Get it On)" contains the line "You've got the teeth of the hydra upon you." This line is in reference to a woman with whom the singer has had/will have sexual relations.
  • In Marilyn Manson (band)|Marilyn Manson's song, "Antichrist Superstar", Manson sings: "Cut the heads off, grows back hard. I am the hydra, now you'll see your star". The reference to the hydra seems to have strong relevance to the anti-christ, and the beasts of the Book of Revelation.

References—related sources and media


  • Harrison, Jane Ellen (1903). Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion.
  • Graves, Robert (1955). The Greek Myths.
  • Kerenyi, Carl (1959). The Heroes of the Greeks.
  • Burkert, Walter (1985). Greek Religion. Harvard University Press.
  • Ruck, Carl and Staples, Danny (1994). The World of Classical Myth.
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