A long crawl from antiquity to present.
Browsing through ArtStation I stumbled upon the image of a monster named Hydra by Stefan Kopinski, which instantly appealed to me (see above). Mostly because the depicted creature brings so many associations, which I’m going to share with you now.
Before we start, you might want to take a peek at what Encyclopaedia says about one of the most recognizable non-humanoid mythical beasts ever – click the image below.
Reptilian body, multiple regrowing heads, stinking toxic breath, venomous blood and bile, preying on humans and their livestock… Not that other mythical monstrosities were less powerful, repulsive or dangerous – only the Greek mythology contains multiple beasts that could easily compete Hydra in all categories. Chimaera, Scylla, Cerberus, Harpies or Dragons… Some of these are even its siblings!
Why Hydra gets so much recognition?
Maybe due to its regenerative ability which caused so much trouble to Heracles? Several heads sprouting in the place of a severed one really acts on imagination. Add poisonous fumes which deprive you of breath, caustic body fluids sprinkling around with every wound received, don’t forget the “ordinary” fangs (and claws?) and the heavy serpentine tail. It really required the meanest Hero of all time to deal with the abomination, and even he could not stand against it without backup.
As you can read in Encyclopaedia, even the giant crab was just a tiny nuisance when compared to Hydra.
Someone wishes to meet an aggressive jumbo arthropod while being armed with a club, sword or some other anachronistic weapon? Anybody?
Definitely, Hydra was a formidable monster, whose venom eventually caused the demise of its killer long after its own death. I mean… after its immortal golden head were buried under a rock, because in fact the beast never ultimately died! Same as Heracles, but that’s another story.
We could discuss many reasons that made Hydra famous, but it is for sure that the monster made it into our modern culture for good. Hence, associations with Hydra can be found in many areas. Let’s track some of these.
First of all, you might ask why I chose the Stefan Kopinski’s painting, since there are many more Hydra paintings out there. Yes there are – mostly huge multi-headed dragons and bunches of snakes with conjoined tails. These became too “ordinary” for me (although the serpentine version is closer to the original myth and ancient depictions). Thus, I must say that the Kopinski’s art definitely stands out as his Hydra resembles the Komodo Dragon – epitome of a non-dinosaur badass reptile, slightly clumsy at first sight, saving its speed for the right moment… Half-walking, half-crawling through the swampy terrain in search for prey. Large jaw full of sharp teeth, forked tongue, hissing sounds, stinky breath and venomous bite, long claws and powerful tail. Simply beautiful.
Add several heads, boosted regeneration ability and you get a perfect monster to challenge anyone, even a demigod.
Wonder why I used the word “boosted”?
It is because the ability to regenerate is actually quite common in nature. In most cases it is very limited though – bones knit, cuts heal, skin regrows – but some species can really regenerate back whole organs! For example there is a Sand Lizard in Europe who pops off its tail to distract the enemy, so the rest of the body could escape. The tail subsequently grows back. I do not know of regenerating snakes, so additional point for lizards here. Even though it cannot regenerate whole body parts, Komodo Dragon is a lizard so has close relatives who can. In fact, it is the largest living lizard nowadays.
By the way – I found a great artist who made a beautiful Komodo Dragon totem:
Having more than one head is quite a rare feature (known as polycephaly), but was observed many times in reptilesn(mostly in snakes and turtles, but also in lizards) as well as in the species from other classes. In most cases there were two heads, often fully functional.
All things considered we could say that Hydra is not an absolute fiction and our ancestors did not have hard time imagining such creature. In fact, all they had to do was to slightly extrapolate what they observed in nature.
The animals that actually bear the name of our title beast are much different from the reptilian creatures though. These are quite simple organisms, whose jelly-like body consists of a bag for digesting food and multiple tentacles to catch it, everything mounted on a single foot. Not very impressive, yet quite interesting. In Polish this creature is called “stułbia”, which can be spelled as “stewbia” or something like that.
Why “Hydra” then???
Probably because they live in water, use venom, can regenerate, are immortal (non-senescing to be precise) and feed on Cyclopes. Well… the last one was not the actual Lernaean Hydra’s feature. At least I do not know of any ancient source that mentions Hydra eating a Cyclops, but I could easily imagine that none of these not particularly intelligent (dumb?) savage cannibals was a match for the beast.
And here is a kind of Science-Fictionized Hydra, made especially for the short movie “Dust” by Ember Lab.
Keep tracking them, they’re good.
I simply love Kickstarter for giving a chance for such great projects to come alive!
According to multiple sources, Hydra is the largest of the 88 modern constellations and it lies in the southern hemisphere. It is also known as the Water Snake, not to be confused with the Lesser Water Snake – Hydrus. Here you can find more details. Quite impressive I would say, especially the list of stars, galaxies and other cosmic objects in the constellation.
Interestingly, Heracles and Carcinus (the crab) also made it into space in the form of constellations (under the Latin names of Hercules and Cancer, respectively).
There is another Hydra in space, much closer to Earth than any element from the aforementioned constellation. It is the Pluto’s outermost moon. Others are known as: Charon, Styx, Nix and Kerberos (mythology is very strong in astronomy). This Hydra is almost whole water. Frozen water. It is an ice cube.
While the constellation (at least a part of it) can be seen with the naked eye, the Pluto’s moon will require you to use some kind of telescope. And in order to see the true one and only Ice Cube you need a TV set…
I have already shown you the link between Hydra and O’Shea Jackson, but of course there are more straightforward references to our mythical beast in pop culture.
My first contact with the creature outside of the original myth was in the Might and Magic series:
I used to play HoMM2 a lot, it was such a good game, with so nice fairy-tale-like graphics, good balance and replayability. …ahh memories… Later versions did not appeal to me so much, but it seems that HoMM is still doing well, with currently running number VII and its Hydra in the back-to-basics form:
As you can see only one game series shows over dozen of various Hydra designs, but the true overabundance can be found in the card trading games, especially in Magic the Gathering. With this in mind, I decided to put here only the most unusual and interesting ones:
Games – miniatures
Also the creators of tabletop fantasy war games never hesitated to employ various Hydra figurines, therefore it would be improper to omit these in this article. Especially that the title image by Stefan Kopinski is in fact the concept art for Mythic Battles – Pantheon! Apparently, Stefan is a very prolific artist and among multitude of various monsters he found a place for another Hydra – below the miniature based on his concept art for Darklands: a World of War:
While the two above miniatures come from the games I did not know before I came up with the idea of writing this article, the next two are from the titles I used to play a lot. First from Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, which is a direct successor of Warhammer Fantasy Battles (the actual game I played):
And the second one – a masterpiece of fantasy miniature design and sculpt – from Warmachine&Hordes (in fact, most of their models are stunning):
Hydra is also a nice theme for the action video games. Should You want to see how difficult it is to take down this monster if you’re not Heracles, try Dark Souls or Dragon’s Dogma.
In case you wanted to try “the other side of the coin”, you can try to play some Hydra, but I must warn you – it is not a video game masterpiece at all. Still, if you do not really know how to waste your free time… on your own responsibility!
In the Marvel Universe (which comprise not only movies and will surely be cited many times in Mythoblogy) Hydra is a secret organization with the ultimate purpose of gaining power over the world and bringing some bad guy from another planet to rule Earth.
Their sign may look more like an octopus (hexopus?) with a human skull, but their “regenerative” ability let them survive for millennia. Also Captain America doesn’t look like Heracles at all. Still, I consider this particular case as the good and enjoyable use of the myth.
On the other hand, we have stuff like the Hydra (2009) movie which tells a story about reptilian multi-headed monster eating people, but that is everything you need to know about it. It is a BAD movie.
In my opinion the best exploitation of the Hydra concept in the film industry is much less obvious than any one of the mentioned above. Still it is quite easy to catch the idea once you know the original myth.
And it is in the Alien series – one of the best Science Fiction pieces of all time – where meeting the title monster could end up fatally whether you killed it or let it live. Because of its corrosive blood, of course. Heracles would definitely agree that this was the Hydra’s most treacherous trait.
Being a very influential creature, Hydra made it into music, i.a. by the hands of one of my favourite bands – Toto. Their second album (from 1979) bears the Hydra name. And here you can listen the current live version of the title song:
There was a whole album from this tour recorded in 2014 at the concert in Poland. So close and I didn’t make it there…
Apart from the above, there are many music bands carrying the monster’s name – I did not have a pleasure of listening to most of them, so no review here – check these by yourself and let me know your feelings.
Some more Hydra-related art I have found.
A knife – collector’s stuff!
I added it just in case your second half asked why you waste time reading such strange stuff. Should this happen, your answer sounds: I’m choosing a present for you, my dear.
Bronze sculpture presenting the epic struggle.
And even more paintings, drawings, graphics…
This one is extremely unusual.
And two more funky pictures.
Obviously it was not my intention to show all possible associations with Hydra in our civilization. There are books, warships, computer software and hardware, brands and companies… all of them related to Hydra or simply using its name. Too much stuff to put in a single article. Instead, I would like to ask you if there are any special connections to Hydra from your own life and experience. Please share and discuss them in the comments section below the main text. Meanwhile, as you finally reached the end of the article I have a little reward for you.
It is a task, almost as difficult as the Heracles’ second labour, but not as dangerous.
It sounds: find a bunny hiding in the Stefan Kopinski’s painting of Hydra!
All of you, who are still hungry for more, and whose imagination just got kick started, do not leave yet.
I have a proposition for you!
Ever wondered what would have happened if anyone dug out the golden head from beneath the boulder?
Would it regenerate the rest of the body and start ravaging Lernaean area again?
Would it take demigod Heracles to defeat the beast one more time?
If you consider yourself talented enough you can write a follow-up to the myth, send it to me and I will put it here, on this site. But remember – no scribbling!
See you in the next article!