The Slaying of the Lernaean Hydra

After Herecles killed the Nemean lion as one of his 12 labors, he faced the task of slaying the Hydra, which was known to guard the entrance to the Underworld. In this article, you will learn how Herecles was able to kill the hydra and what goddesses played a role in this task.
The Hydra lived in Lake Lerna, and when Herecles reached the swamp that was near the lake, he detected the poisonous fumes often associated with the creature. To protect himself, he covered his mouth and nose with a cloth. He then fired flaming arrows into the lair of the hydra and soon met face to face with the beast. According to early vase painting, Herecles had in his hand a harvesting sickle, sword, or the club that he was often depicted with in art.

When one of the heads of the hydra was cut off, another two sprang forth in its place. This made it seem impossible for the hero to get anywhere in slaying the creature. However, the hydra had a weakness, and that was that only one of its head was immortal. Ancient myths state that Herecles soon learned that he needed help to defeat the hydra and called for his nephew Iolaus for assistance. It is believed that Athena may have intervened and placed the idea into his nephew’s head that he should scotch the neck stumps of the creature after each decapitation.

Together, they gradually eliminated the heads of the beast with Herecles cutting off heads and Iolaus cauterized the openings. Herecles was finally getting closer to killing the creature, but Hera was not pleased and when she saw that he was winning, she sent a large crab as a distraction. However, Herecles used his powerful foot to squash the crab. Athena had also given Herecles a golden sword that was used to remove the one immortal head of the hydra. He placed it under a great rock and before leaving, dipped his arrows in the poisonous blood of the Hydra. Herecles had completed his second task.

Not all versions of the ancient myth depict the warrior or his battle in the same manner. One account states that after cutting off one head of the hydra, he dipped his sword in the venomous blood and used it to burn each head so that it couldn’t grow back.

Hera was upset that Herecles killed the beast that she had created to kill him, so she placed it in a dark vault of the sky and made it a constellation. The crab was also transformed into what we now call the constellation of Cancer.

Herecles sent word that he had killed the Hydra, but the king told him that this labor would not count because he had benefited from the help of his cousin. Herecles still had nine more labors to complete, so Eurystheus sent him to capture the Ceryneian Hind and bring it back alive.