‘The evil-minded Hydra of Lerna, whom the goddess, white-armed Hera nourished, being angry beyond measure with the mighty Heracles. And her Heracles, the son of Zeus, of the house of Amphitryon, together with warlike Iolaus, destroyed with the unpitying sword through the plans of Athena the spoil driver.’
Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. (Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914).
Image of the Lernaean Hydra in Wolfgang Höfer, Hercules medicus; sive, Locorum communium liber … (Nuremberg, 1675), engraved title page.
This image, from Wolfgang Höfer’s Hercules medicus (Nuremberg, 1675), depicts Hercules in the act of slaying the many-headed Hydra. One of the first accounts comes in Hesiod’s Theogony and Worth would have been familiar with it from his copy of Daniel Heinsius’ 1622 edition. Höfer’s title refers to the fact that Hercules was regarded as a god of health. Worth, as a medical practitioner, would have been well aware of this iconographical link for he had only to look at the 1692 seal of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (an institution of which he was elected president on two occasions), to note that it too used the iconography of Hercules and the Hydra to symbolise its mission.
The slaying of the Lernaean Hydra was the second of the famous twelve labours of Hercules. As its name implies, the Hydra was a sea monster, found at the Lake of Lerna, a place regarded as a gateway to the underworld. Hercules’ mission was to destroy it but it was by no means an easy task for the Hydra had a number of formidable defences: her many heads, if cut off, would grow back; her breath was fatal; and, to make matters worse, her blood was poisonous. It was for this reason that Hercules decided to kill her by sword, club, and fire – sword to cut of her heads and fire to cauterize the wound so a head could not regenerate. Even at that he had to ask the help of Iolaus for the middle head was immortal and could not be destroyed – that one he decided to bury. The Hydra’s blood he carefully collected to put on his arrow tips to aid him in later labours but this proved to be a fateful decision for ultimately the blood of the Hydra seeped through the legend of Hercules and killed him. For Hercules used a tipped arrow to kill the centaur Nessus who, before he died, tricked Hercules’ wife into offering the hero his shirt as a love token – a love token steeped in the blood of the Hydra.
Image of a Hydra in Conrad Gessner, Historiae Animalium (Frankfurt, 1620), iv, p. 459.
One might say that the Hydra enjoyed a type of renaissance in the sixteenth century. Wes Williams notes that in the poetry of Ronsard the image of the Hydra appears again and again as an icon of rebellion. As Smith and Findlen state, the ‘most popular fabrications of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were hydras and basilisks. One reason for this was because they were big business: Conrad Gessner describes one such hydra, depicted here and bought in 1530 by François I of France (1494-1547), for the truly princely sum of 6,000 ducats. However, Gessner had his doubts: ‘The ears, tongue, nose, and faces are different from the nature of all species of serpents. But if the author of such an invented natural thing were not ignorant, he would be able, with great artifice, to trick observers’.
Image of a Hydra in Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo (Bologna, 1640), p. 388.
Aldrovandi, no innocent when it came to fabricating mythical animals (see his famous Dragon of Bologna), pointed out one particular problem with replicating the hydra – there was no consensus on how many heads the animal had. In both Gessner and Aldrovandi’s representations, the number had settled down at seven (probably influenced, as noted by Findlen, by Dürer’s 1498 Whore of Babylon), but as Höfer’s engraved title page demonstrates, a hydra might have more than seven heads – depending on the artist drawing it. Aldrovandi noted that it would not be too difficult to put together something resembling a hydra and was cautious in his assessment of the ‘Hydra of Ferrara’, when called upon to judge whether it is was the ‘real thing’.
Aldrovandi paid close attention to the Hydra and included it in his book on dragons. Here we have chosen to include it in our section on the ‘Ancient World’ since the most famous Hydra is the Lernaean Hydra.
Images of Hydras in Joannes Jonstonus, Historiae naturalis: De serpentibus (Amsterdam, 1657), Plate 10.
Findlen, Paula, ‘Commernce, Art, and Science in the Early Modern Cabinet of Curiosities’, in Pamela Smith and Paula Findlen (eds), Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science and Art in Early Modern Europe (London, 2002), pp 297-323.
Landes, Joan B., ‘Revolutionary Anatomies’, in Laura Lunger Knoppers and Joan B. Landes (eds), Monstrous Bodies/Political Monstrosities in Early Modern Europe (Ithaca and London, 2004), pp 148-176.
McN. Alexander, R., ‘The Evolution of the Basilisk’, Greece and Rome, 10, no. 2 (1963), 170-181.
Williams, Wes, Monsters and their Meanings in Early Modern Culture (Oxford, 2011), p. 101.
Text: Dr. Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.
 R. McN. Alexander, ‘The Evolution of the Basilisk’, Greece and Rome, 10, no. 2 (1963), 172.
 Wes Williams, Monsters and their Meanings in Early Modern Culture (Oxford, 2011), p. 101. Joan B. Landes notes that this was a trope which was continued in the political discourse of the French Revolution; Joan B. Landes, ‘Revolutionary Anatomies’ in Laura Lunger Knoppers and Joan B. Landes (eds), Monstrous Bodies/Political Monstrosities in Early Modern Europe (Ithaca and London, 2004), p. 155.
 Paula Findlen, ‘Commerce, Art, and Science in the Early Modern Cabinet of Curiosities’, in Pamela Smith and Paula Findlen (eds), Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science and Art in Early Modern Europe (London, 2002), p. 307.
 Ibid., pp 308-9.
 Ibid., p. 308.