Previously, we discussed Heracles and his 12 labors. The last installment showed a broken man take on an impossible task to redeem his honor, and he was successful in that endeavor.
It is important to note that after the lion labor, King Eurystheus becomes terrified of Heracles. He refuses to even let Heracles into the city limits. Especially as Heracles always dons the lion’s hide, making Heracles basically invulnerable to most weapons.
As Heracles returns, King Eutystheus immediately send him out on the next labor: slay the Lernean Hydra.
The Hydra is located in a deep murky swamp near Learna, which is very difficult terrain on its own. The Lernean Hydra is described as a massive nine-headed serpent, and if decapitated, it will regrow two head in place of the cut one. It also has a potent venom that is even feared by some lesser gods, and in some texts, it is said to have one head (sometimes noted as the central head) that is invulnerable.
Heracles recruits his nephew Iolaus, which is the first time we are introduced to this character. Iolaus is no slouch, though he was described as a Olympic champion charioteer and Heracles personal chariot driver.
When the duo arrive to the swamps, Heracles finds its lair and enrages it by firing flaming arrows at the hydra. When the hydra emerges, Heracles uses his club to smash the heads of the hydra, which becomes a fruitless task.
Eventually the hydra grabs Heracles’s foot with his tail and summons a giant crab to help restrain Heracles. The crab bites the other foot and Heracles calls to Iolaus for help. Iolaus begins to cauterize the bases of the severed hydra heads, preventing new growth.
As Heracles continues to fight the hydra, he uses the hydras’ focus on Iolaus to smash the giant crab and finally remove the final hydra head. He then cuts open the hydra, dips all his arrows in the venom, and then buries the invulnerable hydra head next to the road of Learna, marking the spot with a massive boulder.
This labor seems fairly straight forward. Heracles has to kill a massive beast yet again. There are some interesting aspects to this particular labor, though. I think one main point the Greek writers mark is that Heracles needs help. I think this part is really a nod to the fact that even the toughest individuals may need help.
This ties well into modern day mental health stigmas. Heracles is far stronger than Iolaus and yet he may not have succeeded without him. Iolaus also has a different approach to the same problem. Heracles uses his might and brawn to slay the lion and tried the same approach on the hydra, but Iolaus chose to address the root of the problem. Another nod to the benefit of help is that the hydra also used another creature to help restrain Heracles.
This labor also shows another side of Heracles, he buries the hydra head near the road to Lernea. I see this as a indicator of safe passage to travelers, for them not to fear the hydra any longer. This to me shows Heracles’ duty as a soldier, that even as he struggles to battle these beasts, he ensures the public knows the road is safe. This shows the duty that Heracles carries, even as he struggles with the labors and his own grief. He remembers the ultimate goal is the safety of others he has sworn to protect.
If you have a differing interpretation, I would love to hear it. Email me at Jeramiah.Wisdom@gmail.com and title the email “12 LABORS.”
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Stay tuned, readers. Next week, we will discuss the next labor: The Cerynean Hind!
Jeramiah Wisdom is a firefighter for Fort Riley Fire & Emergency Services and the outreach coordinator for CASA of the 8th Judicial District.