Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Mythological Monster of the Month: Hydra

February’s Roman Calendar Feature

The 2019–2020 Roman Calendar features twelve mythical monsters from the 2019 edition of Martia Dementia, Bolchazy-Carducci’s annual spring bracket tournament. Visit us on social media (FacebookTwitter, and our blog) for announcements regarding the 2020 Martia Dementia—starting later this month!

Behold, the Lernaean Hydra! According to Hesiod, this many-headed serpentine creature was the offspring of Typhon and Echidna, prolific parents of some of Greek mythology’s most famous monsters. An inhabitant of the liminal lake Lerna, the Hydra breathed out poisonous vapors that made the environs nearly impossible for mortals to even approach. Heracles, during his twelve labors, was tasked with slaying the Hydra—no easy feat, especially because as Heracles severed one Hydra head, two more grew in its place. Unable to defeat the Hydra on his own, Heracles asked his nephew Iolaus for help. While Heracles sliced away each head, Iolaus used a firebrand to cauterize the wounds, preventing the Hydra from regenerating.

Hydra, sixth-century bce Caeretan hydria (water vessel) 
(Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program)

A victorious Heracles dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s poisonous blood, creating a potent weapon that helped him accomplish several of his other labors—but would ultimately be his own downfall. The body of the Hydra was placed in the sky as the constellation Hydra, which has a shape resembling a twisting snake. This constellation is the largest of the eighty-eight modern constellations.

The Hydra depicted among eleven other constellations, 
nineteenth-century star chart card from a set known as Urania’s Mirror 
(Public Domain, restored by Adam Cuerden)

Today, the term “hydra” is often used to refer to an intractable problem that is not easily solved; as when Heracles attempted to slay the mythical Hydra, an attempt to find a solution results in new problems cropping up. King Henry IV of France chose to portray himself as Hercules (the Roman name for Heracles) standing over a vanquished Hydra after he brought an end to France’s internecine religious wars at the end of the sixteenth century. In the painting, Henry—sporting a rather self-satisfied facial expression—casually stands over the beheaded monster, representing his recent political enemy, the Catholic League.

Portrait of Henry IV as Hercules Slaying the Lernaean Hydra by Toussaint Dubreuil (1561–1600) (Public Domain)

Another more modern application of the ancient Hydra occurs in the field of biology: Hydra refers to the genus of fresh-water organisms (related to jellyfish) that have a tubular body featuring a mouth at one end surrounded by an array of tentacles. Like its mythological namesake, a Hydra can regenerate damaged tissue: when cut in half, each half can grow into a whole, complete Hydra. Similarly, like the Lernaean Hydra, these creatures may be quasi-immortal. The same biological factors that allow Hydra to regenerate tissue mean that they do not senesce, or grow old. 

Hydra attached to a substrate (© Creative Commons 
Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported/Stephen Friedt)

The Hydra, with its symbolic and scientific iterations, illustrates how Greek and Roman myth continues to live on in new, often unexpected ways. Students may enjoy discussing other mythological figures that have taken on new meanings in the modern world. 

Still curious about how the ancients described the Hydra? In Ovid’s Metamorphoses (9.67–72) Hercules competes with the river god Achelous for Deianira’s hand in marriage. Taunting the god, he boasts about his victory over the Hydra, a feat that he claims was much more difficult than the one he is about to perform. Here, Hercules claims that the Hydra he vanquished had one-hundred heads!

“cunarum labor est angues superare mearum,”
dixit “et ut vincas alios, Acheloe, dracones,
pars quota Lernaeae serpens eris unus echidnae?
Vulneribus fecunda suis erat illa, nec ullum
de centum numero caput est inpune recisum,
quin gemino cervix herede valentior esset.
Hanc ego ramosam natis e caede colubris
crescentemque malo domui domitamque reclusi.”

“It was the pastime of my cradle days
to strangle better snakes than you—and though
your great length may excel all of your kind,
how small a part of that Lernaean snake
would you—one serpent be? It grew from wounds
I gave (at first it had one-hundred heads)
and every time I severed one head from
its neck two grew there in the place of one,
by which its strength increased. This creature then
outbranching with strong serpents, sprung from death
and thriving on destruction, I destroyed.”

Translation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Brookes Moore

–Amelia Wallace, Editor

No comments:

Post a Comment