K.B. Black

A hundred words

Short bits on mythology, writing or miscellaneous posts to start your day right

Hercules' Second Labor: The Serpent of the Unconscious

Reading Time ~10 minutes


After completing the first task of slaying the Nemean Lion, Hercules returned to Tyrinth, dressed in the lion’s skin. Euristheus, the fearful king, was looking from the walls as Hercules was approaching, and, certain that the hero had succumbed to the beast, as he intended, he thought that the lion had become enraged and was attacking the city. He immediately fled to the palace and hid inside a bronze jar, which was then placed inside a hole dug out by his servants. When Hercules approached the gate, and the guards recognized him, they sent to Euristheus, and he replied that they were not to let him inside the city.

The tribunal has only just begun, and already, the weak figure starts to cower. The initiate has accomplished a significant feat, that is, however, just a fraction of his blooming work. Still, the myth warns: Ostracization is society’s natural response and one that comes as fast as one takes a step down the heroic path. By all means, the reaction is not based on debasement; it is rather, a violent pull exerted by the homogeneity-driven gravity that holds society together, its name conformity. To act differently is to be misunderstood, and to be misunderstood is to be shunned; no one cares to explore your inner workings, and to mitigate self-evident existential risks posed by your existence, they prefer the economic solution of simply ignoring you.

However, Hercules is neither enraged nor saddened by the alienating behavior. He has his Work to do, and to that goal, Euristheus’ opinion of him is irrelevant. He waits outside the city walls until the Fates compel Euristheus to present him with the next installment of his divine mission. Hercules does not move in a vacuum; see, he has chosen the path of Virtue-this means that he is bound by divine/natural duty, aimed to atone him for the heinous crime he committed, and restore the cosmic balance set by the divine order. To serve this purpose, he respects the societal order of things; while he could storm the city (as Evil would have probably advised him), he does not abandon his loyalty to Virtue.

Eventually, Euristheus decided the next labor be assigned to Hercules, and it seemed to him like a most definitely lethal undertaking. There was another beast, one that had its lair in the wetlands around Argos. The snake-like creature would sit around the rivers and the lakes during the day, forbidding anyone from watering his crops, and would roam around the country at night, pillaging farms and murdering innocents, either with venomous bites of its secondary heads or by swallowing them whole with its main, immortal head. “Surely”, the weak king thought, “the wretched Hercules will not survive the encounter”. And so, still trembling, Euristheus commanded one of the palace servants to carry the message to Hercules.

And so it happened. The servant climbed on the gatehouse and shouted the labor to the patient hero, who immediately started his journey to Argos.

The Hydra is the ancient Greek adaptation of a common archetype: it is a wild snake-like creature that resides near the much-needed body of water and acts to impede the local society’s normal function while inflicting discord. The narrative is as ancient as humanity itself, with multiple adaptations in ancient Greek and other mythologies alike.

Indra fights Vritra with his thunder.  Source .

Indra fights Vritra with his thunder. Source.

For example, Zeus defeats the storm monster Typhon with the help of the shepherd Cadmus, Apollo that slays the water-serpent Delphine in Delphi with the help of Hephaestus, Jason defeats the dragon with the help of Medea, Saint George slays the dragon that resided in the lake near a Libyan city, the Indian god Indra defeats the serpentine drought-god Vritra, Thor defeats Jörmungandr, the apocalyptic beast that will poison the water and the sky when Ragnarok begins, and many more.

There are four elements at play in the archetype:

1. the serpentine form of the adversary

The adversary is always serpentine. This feature can be examined from multiple standpoints.

From the cultural one, it can represent the dominance over a dying belief system. In Greece, and around the time where Hercules does the labors (early Mycenaean period), the formerly dominant Minoan civilization (which was spiritually dominated by the worship of a snake-goddess) was collapsing, presumably due to a natural catastrophe related to the eruption of Thira’s volcano. In this context, the Lernaen Hydra can be considered a symbol for the newfound dominance of the Mycenaeans and the humiliation of the Minoans. As such, victory over the serpentine can express the young culture’s confidence in being able to supplant the older belief structures.

Saint George slays the Dragon.

Saint George slays the Dragon.

From the psycho-mythological perspective, there were multiple snake-worshiping religions in ancient pantheistic civilizations that had nature as the focal point of their worship and spirituality. Snakes represent wisdom, fertility, and nature; these symbolisms are, however, not exclusively positive or negative, their moral connotations being judged in the particular context of each myth. For example, Asclepius, the mythological healer who had mastered the art to the point that he could raise the dead had a snake climbing upon a rod as his symbol (which is used by doctors to this day), and the symbol is considered as an expression of the positive notion of health. On the other hand, Hercules is called to face the serpent as an adversary.

2. the hydrophilic nature of the adversary

Water is another symbol that has special meaning in mythology, however, the analysis of the myth-image would be crippled without taking the wider anthropological context into account.

In the case of Hercules, the serpentine adversary is a force of Nature that impedes Man’s progress, by means of “forbidding anyone from watering his crops”, essentially blocking the path of progress for the surrounding settlements. In this way, the myth has both a “real” anthropological as well as a psychic meaning. The real meaning is the necessity for the mastery of hydraulics systems if urban civilization is to become established and sustainable; the city, as a spatial congregation of many mouths, requires sustained food production, which is only feasible via agriculture. To that extent, the myth describes a very real threat that was posed to early society by the still wild Nature.

Thor fights Jörmungandr. Source:  Johann Heinrich Füssli

Thor fights Jörmungandr. Source: Johann Heinrich Füssli

On the psychic level, the myth can stand for the dominance of Man over Nature, the harnessing of external forces to his bidding, if the aforementioned context is taken one step further. However, for consistency’s sake, a reading of the myth tantum et tale and an interpretation of the symbols in a teaching context, requires that they be regarded as timeless depictions of an inner truth of the human psyche; focusing solely on the context fails to respond to the timeless appeal of the myth, as today’s problems do not revolve around water and crop management (most of us will probably never bother with those issues); they rather revolve around seeking meaning to life. That the myth has survived in spite of the central underlying theme of collective survival in a wild nature being well-addressed by the modern economy, is an argument for the myth’s evergreen psychic relevance. The Hydra is an image depicting water scarcity and dangerous flooding implicitly; this reading is merely the contemporary issue that the society had to face. Myths are, however, beyond time. They can be fitted to any situation, and provide insight relevant to the most general workings of the current situation.

The Lernean Hydra is no different; in its broadest sense, the myth teaches us how to cope with a hostile Nature that does not collectively nourish us in ways that we deem meaningful to progress.

Furthermore, water, in and of itself, stands as a symbol for the unconscious (according to CG Jung, J. Campbell). The symbolism is highly relevant to multiple mythical motifs, whereby the Conscious Creator pulls the world out of the primordial waters, or a hero that descends to the symbolical Underworld through a well (bottomless water container), or a hero that swims across a river in the night.

That the water in the case of this particular myth has brought forth a man-devouring monster implies that the unconscious has been negated and viewed upon with hostile sentiment; this negation is not well received by the unconscious, which responds by denying its life-giving properties to Man; the God-given boon of life turns monstrous: instead of nurturing, it devours; instead of watering, it poisons; instead of providing, it claims.

3. the hero that defeats the adversary

The theme of the first two labors is common, in that Hercules is not called to do something constructive and creative, but rather to eliminate two beasts as a vehicle of human wrath and vengeance. What is tested is not his morality per se, but rather his capacity as a warrior; any mercenary could have been foolhardy, desperate or ambitious enough to go after the Nemean Lion or the Lernean Hydra. The Nemean lion differs in the way that it is a labor of individual importance; resolving it is a matter of Hercules proving his worth to himself and a single shepherd; the lion could have been left to its own devices in an already deserted land, and society could move forward elsewhere with perfect ease. The Hydra has a lot more to do with collective progress; it resides right in the cusp of Greek civilization, and eliminating it is a goal of unique social significance.

Jason fights the dragon. Source:  Giovanni Battista Crosato

Jason fights the dragon. Source: Giovanni Battista Crosato

Hercules then, after triumphing over his personal weaknesses, sets forth to solve a societal issue. His actions are, however, not aimed against society, but side with it, and seek to facilitate progress, by making the life of his fellow-men easier. He is not anti-social, but pro-social, even to the same society that opts for locking him outside the city. His expectations are not towards man, but to the divine order; society can shun him all they want, so long as the Gods’ will is done, the fragile king’s opinion is irrelevant.

4. the helper that the assists the hero

This is only partially true in terms of the mythical motif. On some occasions, like Apollo/Delphine, Thor/ Jörmungandr, external assistance is limited to the provision of divine arms that enable the hero to subdue the beast. In the myth of St. George/the dragon, the help provided to the hero is limited only to divine providence, not assuming the form of any weapon. In the case of Zeus/Typhon and Jason/the dragon, however the helper is another person. The same stands true for Hercules and the Hydra.

Hercules arrived in Argos by horse, taking his nephew Iolaos, his charioteer and squire with him. After some days of searching around the wetlands, they finally found the Hydra’s hideout near the source of lake Amymone.

Amymone (“the blameless one”) was a mythical figure, the daughter of Europa and Danaos. When control of the region passed from Poseidon to Hera, the former god dried up all the fountains in the area. When her father sent her out to fetch water, she was attacked by a Satyr (a bestial man of divine origin), and she cried out to Poseidon for help. The Sea-god did listen to her prayer, and chased the satyr away, and, astonished by her beauty, offered to give her water; in exchange, she would become his. The maiden accepted, and Poseidon smacked the ground with his trident and revealed to her the Lernean springs, which filled the basin with water.

To draw the beast out of its hideout, Hercules started shooting fiery arrows towards it. After a few well-placed shots, the monstrous nine-headed snake was enraged and came out in the open to attack Hercules. The two engaged in an epic fight, with Hercules smashing one head after the other with his massive club, only to find that for each destroyed head, the wound would heal rapidly, and two new heads would come out. Before he had the time to react to the beast’s healing capacity, the Hydra wrapped her tail around his foot, immobilizing him. Hera, seeing that the hero was in a dire situation that could soon be fatal, sent a massive crab to bite his foot.

This is the first defeat, and it is common in the mythological motif. Zeus loses the first round to Typhon, Indra cowers when faced with Vritra.

Just as Hercules is on the brink of failure and death, Athena appears by his side. She presents a golden sword to him, and tells him that the only way to stop the Hydra from regenerating is to burn the wounds he inflicts with fire.

In similarity to what happened with the Nemean Lion, Athena (the goddess of wisdom and knowledge) intervenes to help the Hero.

Hercules, depicted here as a giant, slays the Lernean Hydra. Notice how the seprentine figure is below the hero in all depictions. Source:  Antonio del Pollaiolo

Hercules, depicted here as a giant, slays the Lernean Hydra. Notice how the seprentine figure is below the hero in all depictions. Source: Antonio del Pollaiolo

Hercules, bolstered by this divine intervention, slices the Hydra’s body with the golden sword and smashes Hera’s crab under his foot. Hera, feeling pity for the animal and wanting to honor it for its servitude, brought it to the sky after its death, where it sits to this day as the Cancer constellation. Hercules, seeing that his enemy was disadvantaged by the wound, summoned Iolaus; the two then worked together to defeat the Hydra, with Hercules slicing the heads off and Iolaus burning the wounds with a torch, so that they would not regenerate. Before long, Hercules chopped the Hydra’s final, immortal head off the body, finally defeating the beast.

The myth tells us of a way to defeat the dragon that impedes progress, pure willpower (the club) does not suffice. The Hydra is a being of two characteristics, as mentioned earlier:

  1. Serpentine: meaning lesser, animalistic, primal,

  2. Hydrophilic: meaning that it is one of the unconscious’ limbs.

What is instead needed is Athena’s golden sword and fire. Both gold and fire stand for the power of consciousness, with the difference between the two being the permanence of gold, and the temporariness of fire; the softness of gold and the threat of fire.

What is then required to master the unconscious? The yielding gold slices, while the threatening fire purifies; it is a combined approach that requires simultaneous softness and aggression. Of course, even then, the root of the catastrophe is not mortal, but immortal; the final head cannot be purified or defeated and has to be buried under the stone. Repression, we are told.

He then dipped his arrows in the beast’s poisonous blood, and then buried the immortal head deep in the ground, placing a massive boulder on top of it to ensure that it would never be allowed to terrorize the countryside again.

The boulder signifies the stabilization of the unconscious, which cannot be eliminated. That Hercules dips his arrows in the beast’s poison, means that he has now mastered the destructive energy of the warrior, and is ready to take any opponent on in physical fight, a movement that hints to us that the content of his next labors will not be tests of his physical prowess, but will rather test other qualities.

Hercules then returned to Tyrinth, where he was allowed entry to the city. When he said that the labor was complete, and how he went about it, Euristheus claimed that since he had received help from Iolaus, the labor would not count towards the completion of the divine contract.