Hercules, the mightiest hero of Greek mythology, is perhaps most famous for his twelve labors. As the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Hercules bore the wrath of Hera, Zeus’s jealous wife. To torment the poor hero, Hera sent a madness upon him that led him to kill his wife and children. Once he came to his senses and saw the dreadful deed he had done, he went to the oracle of Delphi to learn what he must do to atone for his sin. The oracle answered that he must serve King Eurystheus of Tiryns for twelve years. The king made him complete twelve seemingly impossible tasks, most of which involved Hercules killing or capturing a deadly monster. Many of these monsters, including the Nemean Lion and the Hydra, were the children of Echidna, a half-snake, half-woman creature. Zeus had killed her husband Typhon, the greatest monster in all Greek mythology, but let Echidna and her children live to test the strength of heroes.
In the following poem, we find Hercules about to face his second labor, killing the Hydra of Lerna. While Hercules was able to rely on his brute strength to accomplish his first labor of killing the Nemean Lion, this second task required cunning as well. In this Christian retelling of the story, Hercules’s battle against the Hydra is representative of the struggle against sin, where victory is beyond the reach of mere human strength. It can only be defeated with divine aid. According to the Greeks, fire belonged to the gods and was gifted to men by Prometheus. The smoldering remains of the dragon-like Hydra, therefore, offer a fitting illustration of Christ’s triumph over man’s great Enemy and the purgation of sin which cuts man off from God.
Hercules and the Hydra
My second labor to atone for sin:
To kill the dreaded Hydra, Lerna’s bane,
Another monster of Echidna’s kin.
I go equipped with club and lion’s mane.
Its serpent heads — all nine — now lunge at me,
A deadly poison dripping from their fangs.
I strike one off. It falls into the sea.
But in its place, I saw that two more sprang.
The beast could not be killed by things of man,
And all my greatest efforts were dismayed.
So, looking up and lifting empty hands,
I prayed for Father’s supernatural aid:
From heaven fell Olympus’ sacred fire.
Consumed in flames, the dragon did expire!
Alex Markos teaches Latin at the Geneva School of Boerne, Texas. He holds a B.A. in History and Classics from Hope College (Holland, MI) and an M.A. in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University.
Alex Markos, “Hercules and the Hydra,” An Unexpected Journal: Dragons 5, no. 1. (Summer 2022), 92-93.