Slaying the Hydra



St. John Chrysostom, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
January 27, 2018

This post was inspired by an essay written by an acquaintance of mine, political commentator and activist Avialae Horton.1 She wrote a piece  “Conservatives: The Hercules to the Liberal Hydra” which appeared on The Columbian Post website.  An interesting bit of synchronicity occurred around that article, and I had a short conversation with Ms. Horton which resulted in my thinking about the story of Hercules and the Hydra and how rich and deep the symbolism it has with regard to the topic she wrote about.

I don’t normally write about politics here, and I’m not going to start (though I will be starting a separate political blog soon – watch for an announcement).  For this particular topic, I’ll leave the political analysis to Ms. Horton.  I’m going to look at the Hydra tale from more of a philosophical perspective.

As an aside, a further bit of synchronicity is that this post is being published on the feast of St. John Chrysostom, one of the greatest Saints and Doctors of the Church, and a Greek.  His epitaph, Chrysostom (Χρυσόστομος), means “golden-mouthed” as he was known for his oratory, rhetorical, and homiletic abilities.  Why this is synchronistic will hopefully be apparent by the end of the post.

The Second Labor of Hercules – The Lernaean Hydra

The second task of Hercules (Herakles) was to slay the Hydra.  There are various versions of this legend, each with different aspects, pros, and cons, and the version I tell here is comprised of the most accepted parts of a few versions.

The Lernaean Hydra lived in the murky swamps near Lerna in Argolis and would come forth time to time to attack people and livestock.  The Hydra had the body of a serpent and is usually considered to have nine heads.  One of the heads, however, was golden and immortal.  If one of the mortal heads was cut off, more than one would grow back in its place.  If this were not bad enough, the blood and breath of the Hydra were highly poisonous.  It gave off enough toxic vapor to make the area unlivable.

Hercules, with his trusted nephew and charioteer, Iolaus, set off to confront the Hydra.  With Athena standing beside him, Hercules chased the Hydra out of its lair by means of flaming arrows, and then confronted the Hydra while protecting himself from the noxious vapors by covering his nose and mouth with a cloth.

He took his club and started smashing the heads of the Hydra.  As soon as he smashed one, two grew back where the smashed one was.  Before long, he became overwhelmed, and the Hydra was able to grab one of his ankles.  To make matters worse, Hera sent a crab to attack Hercules, and while he was in the grips of the Hydra, the crab attacked him injuring his foot.  Hercules managed to dispatch the crab by stomping on it, and then called to Iolaus for help.

Iolaus came with a firebrand, and as Hercules dispatched each head Iolaus would immediately cauterize the stump stopping the head from regenerating.  It is said Athena had told Iolaus before hand what to do. After Hercules had smashed the eight mortal heads, he used his sword to sever the ninth immortal and golden one.  He buried this head – still alive since it was immortal – under a boulder at the side of the road that runs from Lerna to Elaios so it could never rejoin to a body.  Having done this, he cut open the Hydra and dipped his arrows in her bile.  These poison arrows would be key to him completing his later labors.

Solve et Coagula

Woodcut from Andreas Libavius’ Commentariorum Alchymiae, 1606.

The alchemists have a saying: solve et coagula (dissolve and coagulate).  Break things down to the prima materia, recombine them, and you have something new – a transmutation.  It is no coincidence that alchemical texts and illustrations are meant to be analyzed in this way.  When you see an alchemical picture like this, the only way to understand it is symbolically.  One must break the picture into its component parts and put it back together to understand what it is saying.

In modern times we have lost the understanding of such use of symbolism that was commonplace and a basis for communication in the past, but we may still understand it at a subconscious level as Jung believed we did.  In fact, he spent a lot of time studying alchemical art.  It is with this hope for understanding we will dissect the story.

Within the story there are multiple objects with certain attributes that can be seen as symbolic.  The list includes

  • Hydra
  • Regenerating heads
  • Hercules
  • Iolaus
  • A club
  • Crab
  • A sword given by Mercury
  • Cauterization
  • Venomous bile
  • Hera
  • Athena

Now it may be argued that all of those things can have different meanings so the meaning one person applies to them is no better than the meaning another applies.  In one sense, that is true.  There definitely can be multiple meanings.  However, it does not necessarily follow that all meanings are equally valid or even insightful.  If one claims the Hydra represents ice cream and Hercules represents a hamburger, that meaning is not very useful or good and is fairly dubious. It’s not good because it’s not reasonable – it doesn’t come from the use of reason.  More than likely, it comes from someone who has an empty stomach and was daydreaming about lunch.

As an example of the use of reason applied to symbols and words to tease out more meaning, we can look at Plato’s words in Cratylus.

I think, Socrates, enough has been said about these words; but might we not consider the names of the gods in the same way in which you were speaking about that of Zeus a few minutes ago, and see what kind of correctness there is in them?

By Zeus, Hermogenes, we, if we are sensible, must recognize that there is one most excellent kind, since of the gods we know nothing, neither of them nor of their names, whatever they may be, by which they call themselves, for it is clear that they use the true names. But there is a second kind of correctness, that we call them, as is customary in prayers, by whatever names and patronymics are pleasing to them, since we know no other.  Now I think that is an excellent custom. So, if you like, let us first make a kind of announcement to the gods, saying that we are not going to investigate about them—for we do not claim to be able to do that—but about men, and let us inquire what thought men had in giving them their names; for in that there is no impiety.

I think, Socrates, you are right; let us do as you say.

Cratylus 400d -401a

Hermogenes asks Socrates if there may not be something to be learned from the names of the gods.  Socrates replies in the affirmative, but cautions that we don’t know anything about the gods, not even their real names, but only what men call them.  Since they will be considering the things of men (what men call the gods) instead of the gods themselves, this is not impious, and the inquiry can move forward.  Next in the dialogue,Plato next has Socrates discuss several of the gods, but we will skip ahead to the discussion of Hermes because that will prove both relevant and useful during an analysis.

I will do so, but first one more god. I want to ask you about Hermes, since Cratylus says I am not Hermogenes (son of Hermes). Let us investigate the name of Hermes, to find out whether there is anything in what he says.

Well then, this name “Hermes” seems to me to have to do with speech; he is an interpreter (ἡρμηνεύς) and a messenger, is wily and deceptive in speech, and is oratorical. All this activity is concerned with the power of speech. Now, as I said before, εἴρειν denotes the use of speech; moreover, Homer often uses the word ἐμήσατο, which means “contrive.” From these two words, then, the lawgiver imposes upon us the name of this god who contrived speech and the use of speech—εἴρειν means “speak”— and tells us: “Ye human beings, he who contrived speech (εἴρειν ἐμήσατο) ought to be called Eiremes by you.” We, however, have beautified the name, as we imagine, and call him Hermes. Iris also seems to have got her name from εἴρειν, because she is a messenger.

By Zeus, I believe Cratylus was right in saying I was not Hermogenes; I certainly am no good contriver of speech.

And it is reasonable, my friend, that Pan is the double-natured son of Hermes.

How is that?

You know that speech makes all things (πᾶν) known and always makes them circulate and move about, and is twofold, true and false.


Well, the true part is smooth and divine and dwells aloft among the gods, but falsehood dwells below among common men, is rough and like the tragic goat; for tales and falsehoods are most at home there, in the tragic life.


Then Pan, who declares and always moves (ἀεὶ πολῶν) all, is rightly called goat-herd (αἰπόλος), being the double-natured son of Hermes, smooth in his upper parts, rough and goat-like in his lower parts. And Pan, if he is the son of Hermes, is either speech or the brother of speech, and that brother resembles brother is not at all surprising. But, as I said, my friend, let us get away from the gods.

Cratylus 407e-408d

Another simple example of teasing out the meaning can be found in Durer’s engravings.  In “Saint Jerome in his Study” a dog is pictured sleeping blissfully (next to a lion in fact) in front of Saint Jerome’s desk.  In “Melencolia I”, he also has a dog blissfully asleep next to an angel.  But in “The Knight, Death, and the Devil” the dog is awake and on the move, his ears are pulled back indicating the intensity of him keeping pace right at his master’s side.  For Durer, the dog was a symbol of Loyalty, and would rest when the master was safe and be afoot if the master was not.

Another example of pulling apart the symbols to get meaning can be found in my previous entry on Divine Melancholy where I talk about “Melencolia I” a bit.

Solve (Dissolve)

The Hydra

The Hydra is described by most as having the body of a serpent and nine heads, one of which is immortal and gold.  Her body contains poison coursing through it, especially her gall which Hercules used to poison his arrows.  The heads are forced to stay together, bound by a common body.

Regenerating Heads

The heads of the Hydra regenerate when destroyed.  Not only do they regenerate, but two grow back where one was.  This geometric progression increases the threat and thwarts the usefulness of Hercules’ raw strength.


Hercules is the hero of the story, and what makes him a hero in most of the stories is his strength.  However, in this story his strength is only good for defense, not offense.  If he used sheer strength

And third again she [Ekhidna (Echidna)] bore the grisly-minded Lernaian (Lernaean) Hydra, whom the goddess white-armed Hera nourished because of her quenchless grudge against the strong Herakles (Heracles). Yet he, Herakles, son of Zeus, of the line of Amphitryon, by design of Athene the spoiler and with help from warlike Iolaos, killed this beast with the pitiless bronze sword.

~ Hesiod, Theogony

against the Hydra, smashing the heads as fast as he could, he would have failed.  His strength comes into play offensively only against the Crab.  For the Hydra, his brute strength alone would not have won the battle, and thus mostly provided a defense for him.


Iolaus is Hercules’ nephew and charioteer.  Iolaus is not of the gods as is Hercules, but he is brave, loyal, and true.  We know this because out of everyone in the world, Hercules asked Iolaus to come with him.  Iolaus also bore the wisdom of Athena into the battle when he followed her counsel and cauterized the severed heads to stop them from growing back.

A Club

The weapon used against the Hydra in most versions of the stories is a club.  A club is a brute-force weapon, much more so than any other weapon.  While a sword does some of the work by cutting, a club is used to bludgeon, so its effectiveness relies completely on the strength of the person wielding it.


When Hera sees that Hercules is holding his own, she sends a crab to attack him.

A Sword

Hercules uses a sword to sever the immortal head.  This sword was given to him by Hermes.  Hermes, among other things, was the god of communication, guile, persuasion, writing, and language.  Swords are often symbolic of Wisdom such as the use of one in the Gordian Knot or with Arthur being worthy to draw Excalibur from the stone (and Iolaus is to Hercules as Merlin is to Arthur in a manner of speaking).  In some versions, it is a golden sword given to Hercules by Athena; even so, that is still a symbol of Wisdom in that it was given to him by the goddess of wisdom.


Cauterization is actually burning part of a body to seal it shut.  Sealing the stumps of the severed heads is what stopped new – and multiple – ones from growing back.  In some versions it is said that Athena told Iolaus to do this, so it is symbolic of using Wisdom to complete the task.

Venomous GALL

The Hydra was filled with a poisonous and acidic gall.  Philosophically this is black bile or acid phlegm and causes melancholia ultimately resulting in a deranged conception of things.

Serum is of two kinds: one is the mild whey of the blood; the other, being derived from black and acid bile, is malignant whenever it is imbued with a saline quality through the action of heat; and this kind is termed “acid phlegm.”2

“Black bile [melancholia] vexes us with too much care or much silliness, and disturbs the soul and judgment.  It does this so much that it would not be wrong to say that scholars would be … the happiest and wisest people of all if it were not for black bile trouble, driving them to sadness or to silliness.”3

[The infant Herakles killed two serpents] crushing their swollen throats with his baby hands, he practised for the Hydra.

~ Seneca, Hercules Furens


Hera resented Hercules because he was the illegitimate offspring of her husband, Zeus.  In fact, when Hercules was born, Hera sent snakes to his crib to try and kill him.  Hercules, being strong even as an infant, quickly dispatched them.  Seneca states that this was his practice for the Hydra. She was infamous for being jealous and spiteful.


Athena is the goddess of victory in battle and of wisdom.  Unlike Aries, the way she is victorious in battle is via strategy and prudence rather than brute force.  She is the half-sister of Hercules, both having Zeus as their father.  “When Hercules went mad and killed his children, Athena stopped the disaster from getting worse. Just as the insane hero turned to kill Amphitryon, Athena threw a stone at Hercules, knocking him unconscious, so his mortal father was spared.”

Coagula (Coagulate)

So now we have a list of items that may serve as symbols, and we will put them back together to see what happens.

The Hydra is a water serpent with eight regenerative heads and a ninth golden immortal one.  It is interesting that the immortal one is golden.  Two things that live long past a person, that are in fact immortal, are one’s ideas (the head) and one’s wealth (gold).  It is also good to be remembered that even though it was taken from the beast, it is still alive and must be kept contained so it can do no further harm. The other heads regenerate, so brute force won’t destroy them.  It is only through Wisdom symbolized by the cauterization that Iolaus applied on the advice of Athena that they are destroyed.

She is filled with poison, most likely black bile.  According to Plato, Ficino, and Agrippa, the build up of black bile makes one malicious and nasty.  It is a special risk of philosophers for several reasons.  In a sense it is a sign of a philosopher having gone down the wrong path.  The path of sophistry (foolishness or maliciousness). The divine sponsor of the Hydra is Hera, also known as being malicious and nasty if she were crossed.

Against this we have Hercules, whose strength is renown.  But Hera, knowing this, made it so his strength would be of little use against the Hydra because for each head he destroyed, two would grow back.  And the immortal head has to be severed by a sword – symbolic of Wisdom and tactical thought – rather than the club, a brute force weapon.  Luckily, his sponsor for this battle wasn’t Aries or he would be in serious trouble flailing against the Hydra facing a geometric progression of assaults.  Rather it was Athena, goddess of Wisdom.

So we have Hercules, sponsored by Wisdom, followed into battle by Iolaus, a loyal friend and bearer of Athena’s wisdom.  Hercules is wielding a sword given to him by the god of language and persuasion against a beast filled with black bile and sophistry.  Note, as well, that Hercules and Iolaus are individuals capable of independent thought and reason while the heads of the Hydra are conjoined at the body and therefore must work in lockstep.

It seems the story is telling us that the way to defeat sophistry, bad thinking, and malicious and nasty bile is with wisdom and the aid of loyalty rather than brute force.

Applying it Back to the Political

Let’s read what Ms. Horton wrote:

“Conservatives: The Hercules to the Liberal Hydra” was the title, and within the essay she says,  “Third Wave Feminism, Social Justice, Black Lives Matter, the LGBT, the entertainment industry, and all of the other organizations that serve as a catalyst for cultivating leftist activity are merely the multiple heads of the Hydra, and cutting them off will only cause them to regenerate.”4

Let’s compare Ms. Horton’s assignment of Conservatives to Hercules and Progressives to the Hydra using the attributes we discerned and see how it pans out.

  1. Conservatives
  2. Hercules
  3. Wisdom and persuasion
  4. Individual thought and action
  5. Hercules and Iolaus together out of Loyalty
  6. Good ideas given by Athena (Wisdom)
  7. Weapon from Wisdom (sword)
  1. Progressives
  2. Hydra
  3. Maliciousness and sophistry
  4. All heads forced to act together
  5. Hydra and Crab together only because of Hera’s orders
  6. Bad ideas that won’t die like Marxism and a lot of funding from a few sources (e.g., Soros)
  7. Weapon from Sophistry / Wisdom gone wrong (bile and venom)

It seems to fit well, better than one might have thought if it hadn’t been dissolved and coagulated.  But, as always, it is good to turn to the father of Western Philosophy, Plato, to see what he might have to say about it.

Do you find that your brother, who knows everything, has not spoken aright?

I a brother of Euthydemus? quickly interposed Dionysodorus.

Whereupon I said: Let me alone, good sir, till Euthydemus has taught me that I know that good men are unjust, and do not grudge me this lesson.

You are running away, Socrates, said Dionysodorus; you refuse to answer.

Yes, and with good reason, I said: for I am weaker than either one of you, so I have no scruple about running away from the two together. You see, I am sadly inferior to Hercules, who was no match for the hydra—that she-professor who was so clever that she sent forth many heads of debate in place of each one that was cut off; nor for another sort of, crab-professor from the sea— freshly, I fancy, arrived on shore; and, when the hero was so bothered with its leftward barks and bites, he summoned his nephew Iolaus to the rescue, and he brought him effective relief. But if my Iolaus were to come, he would do more harm than good.5

Well, answer this, said Dionysodorus, now you have done your descanting: Was Iolaus more Hercules’ nephew than yours?

I see I had best answer you, Dionysodorus, I said. For you will never cease putting questions—I think I may say I am sure of this—in a grudging, obstructing spirit, so that Euthydemus may not teach me that bit of cleverness.

Euthydemus 297b-297d

The dialogue continues with some amusing words games, mental gymnastics, and sophistry just as Socrates predicted.  The part that is relevant to us is this: Socrates was wise (because he knew what he didn’t know) and a philosopher.  He placed himself in the role of Hercules, however not as efficient at dispatching the Hydra.  Socrates referred to Dionysodorus and Euthydemus as the Hydra, they being sophists.  So Plato portrayed Socrates having the same understanding of Hercules as wisdom and the Hydra as sophistry as we have teased out from the original story.

Conservatives are not frozen in place by the gaze of liberalism’s Medusa; they are not constricted to the Procrustean bed of political correctness or chained to Prometheus’ rock of victimization by some dreaded systematic oppression.

~ Avialae Horton

It appears that subconsciously we do understand some universal symbols, at least enough to tease them out with some reflection.  Of course, this is not solely an intellectual or rational exercise.  The understanding is a form of intuitive gnosis, an intuitive understanding where we are no long viewing objects but are in some way experiencing the objects themselves. Part of this intuitive understanding occurs precisely because it is told as a legend in which we can immerse ourselves.  These myths and legends are not children’s stories as one might first suppose.  As Jung might believe, they stir something in our subconscious that has been forgotten.  Again, I will refer to Plato who said learning is actually the act of remembering.

Perhaps this subconscious knowledge is what inspired Ms. Horton to cast Conservatives, whose arguments are based on rational thought, loyal, freed and unchained,  and Progressives, whose arguments are based on emotional response and forced to toe the line for each other, as Hercules and the Hydra respectively.  In any case, it seems it is a very apropos analogy and one that should be mined for further insight and guidance.

Additional Material

Plato’s Dialog Cratylus

Plato’s Dialog Euthydemus

Avialae Horton’s pages


Obligatory metal reference: Spartan – Athena’s Wrath

Athena's Wrath Lyrics

Here, we stand
Defiantly, we bend nor break

And here, we stand
In Phalanx, side by side

Our hearts devoid of fear
Athena’s wrath is

Here, we stand
Our shields and spears are shining bright

And here, we stand
Surrender to no one

So here, we stand
Facing off a legions worth

We fear, no man
For the Gods are on our side!

Athena’s wrath
Athena’s wrath

Athena, our goddess
She guides our swords
Together claim victory
Over the Persian hordes
Lay waste the invaders
Show no remorse
With the Gods behind us
An unrelenting force

Athena’s wrath
Athena’s wrath is

Here we stand, still side by side, wielding shield and spear
Defend, till our final breath, all that we hold dear
Our land, our birthright, the Gods will interfere
Descend, our Goddess of War, for victory we cheer

Athena’s wrath is here


  1. Links to Ms. Horton’s pages in the “Additional Material” section.
  2. Timeaus 83c
  3. Ficino, Marsillo.  The Book of Life
  4. Avialae Horton, “Conservatives: The Hercules to the Liberal Hydra”, The Columbian Post, retrieved 1/26/2018
  5. Socrates means that his Iolaus would just end up dead along with him.


%d bloggers like this: