The Hydra, Heracles (Hercules) Second labor
The second labor performed by Heracles was to slay the water serpent Lernaean Hydra. The Hydra dwelled in the swamps near the ancient city of Lerna in Argolis and would emerge onto the flatlands to attack local villagers and livestock. Some versions of the story suggest that the serpent came from the same offspring as the Nemean Lion.
The Hydra was guarding the Underworld that was beneath the waters and its lair was set in a deep cave in Amymone. The Hydra had the body of the serpent and many heads, with debates ranging from five to one hundred, but the most commonly accepted myth is that it had nine heads, the middle of which was immortal. The blood and breathe of the Hydra was poisonous enough to kill any man or animal that even it’s tracks were fatal.
Heracles set off in a chariot to slay the nine headed serpent but did not go alone. He brought his trusted servant and nephew, Iolaus. After discovering its lair, Hercules lured the Hydra out by shooting flaming arrows at it. He covered his nose and mouth with a cloth to protect himself from the Hydra’s poisonous vapors. Some myths portray his weapon as a harvesting sickle or a sword, but the most popular version is a club.
Wielding his club, he smashed the many heads of the Hydra but as soon as he smashed one, another two would spring from its place. The Hydra had also coiled itself around one of Heracles’ feet and he was unable to move. Realizing that he was unable to defeat the Hydra by just smashing its heads, he called upon Iolaus to help him. But Iolaus was not the only one who came – a giant crab sent by Hera had also come to the Hydra’s aid.
The crab began attacking Heracles trapped foot but he managed to crush it underneath his heel. Heracles was now wounded and relied on Iolaus to help slay the Hydra. As Heracles smashed the multiple heads of the Hydra, Iolaus would apply a firebrand to the severed neck stumps. This technique cauterized the wounds and prevented regeneration.
With only the immortal head remaining, Heracles is thought to have either torn it off with his bare hands or chop it off with a golden sword given to him by Athena. Heracles dipped his arrows in the venomous bile of the Hydra and would later use them during his remaining labors. Any wound inflicted by the arrows would prove to be fatal. Heracles buried the Hydra’s head in the ground between Lerna to Elaeus before placing a huge boulder over it.
When King Eurystheus discovered that Heracles did not complete the labor on his own, he declared the victory unlawful. Unimpressed that his nephew had come to his aid, King Eurystehus asserted that the conquering of the Hydra did not count towards the 12 labors set out for him.
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