The following story introduces young readers to the classical Greek hero Hercules, who is also known as Herakles, and the Hydra that he fights. It’s an excerpt from the children’s book “Herakles the Hero of Thebes and Other Heroes of the Myth” by Mary E. Burt.
The Second Labor – Hercules Kills the Water-Snake of Lake Lerna
Not far from Mycenae is a small lake called Lerna. It is formed from a large spring at the foot of a hill. In this lake, there lived a water-snake called the Hydra. It was a snake of uncommon size, with nine heads. Eight of the heads were mortal, but the one in the middle was immortal.
The Hydra frequently came out of the water and swallowed up herds of cattle, laying waste the surrounding country. Eurystheus ordered Hercules to kill the snake, so he put on his lion’s skin, and taking his club, started out. He mounted his chariot and took his faithful friend Iolaus, who acted as the charioteer.
Every warrior had to have a charioteer to drive the horses, leaving him free to use both of his hands. But driving was by no means the charioteer’s only duty; he had also to look out for danger and protect the warrior with his shield as well as to supply him with arrows from the quiver suspended at the side of every chariot, and with reserve spears when his own was broken in the fray.
It is clear, therefore, that the warrior’s life was entirely in the hands of his charioteer, so it is no wonder that only the hero’s dearest and most trusted friends were allowed to serve him in this way.
After driving along for a while through groves of olive-trees and past pleasant vineyards, they came to wild places and saw Lake Lerna gleaming through the trees. Having reached the lake, Hercules descended from the chariot, left the horses in the care of Iolaos, and went hunting for the snake.
He found it in a swampy place where it was hiding. Hercules shot some burning arrows at the Hydra and forced it to come out. It darted furiously at him, but he met it fearlessly, put his foot upon its tail, and with his club began to strike off its heads. He could not accomplish anything in this way, for as fast as he knocked off one head, two others grew in its place.
The snake coiled itself so firmly around one of Hercules’ legs that he was no longer able to stir from the place. Added to all this there came a huge crab to the assistance of the snake. It crept up to Hercules’ foot, and seizing it with its sharp claws, inflicted painful wounds. Hercules killed the crab with his club and called Iolaus to help him.
Under Hercules’ directions, Iolaos produced a fire-brand which he applied to the neck as fast as Hercules cut off one of the snake’s heads, in this way preventing them from growing again. Finally, it came to the turn of the head which could not die. Cutting it off, Hercules buried it in the ground, placing a heavy stone over it.
Then he dipped some arrows into the Hydra’s blood, which was poisonous, so that whoever was wounded by one of them could not be healed. The least scratch inflicted by such an arrow was incurable.
Eurystheus, of course, had no word of praise for his great bondsman, but the people, knowing that the place was now safe, flocked to the land in great numbers and drained the lake, which was really not much more than a big marshy pond, and in their new homes they blessed the hero’s name forever. That was the prize for which Hercules cared the most.
If you should go today to that old battlefield of Hercules you would still find the spring flowing from the rocks, but Lake Lerna exists only in story.