Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Monday, 10 August 2015


Exquisite depiction of Heracles battling the hydra by John Singer Sargent, 1921 (public domain)

Among the most unusual, and deadly, dragons, of classical mythology was the Lernaean hydra - whose slaying constituted one of the twelve great labours of the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology).

Although this monster is usually depicted as wingless and only two-legged, thereby resembling the lindorm morphological category of dragon, it was more than ably compensated by virtue of its numerous heads (generally given as nine, but sometimes only seven, or as many as thirteen), each borne upon a separate neck. And each time that a head was cut off, two new ones grew in its stead, until Heracles successfully countered this by burning each neck as soon as its head was lopped off.

Yet despite this brave act putting an end to the hydra as a living entity, its name and fame have lived on, passing down throughout history, remaining vibrant and indescribably versatile even today - as will now be revealed.

The hydra as portrayed in Conrad Gesner's famous bestiary Historiae Animalium (1558) (public domain)


The chimaera - a lion-headed monstrosity with a goat's head sprouting from its back, and a living serpent for a tail. The dragon Ladon - ferocious protector of the Hesperides' garden of the golden apples. Orthos, a fearful hound with two heads - and his even more hideous brother, the three-headed hell-hound, Cerberus. These were just a few of the gruesome monsters spawned in ancient Greece by the union of a terrifying hundred-headed giant called Typhon and his equally loathsome bride, the serpent-bodied Echidna - but none was more horrifying than the most terrible member of their vile brood, for that was the hydra.

Little wonder, then, that even the fearless hero Heracles was somewhat apprehensive as he stood outside the vast dank cave at Lerna that harboured this monstrous creature. As the second of his twelve great labours, he had been sent to this tormented district of Argolis, in southern Greece, by the cowardly king Eurystheus, who had commanded him to liberate Lerna by slaying the hydra - which was wilfully slaughtering its populace, and blighting with virulent vapour its countryside, transforming it into a gloomy wilderness of marshland.

French engraver Bernard Picart's dramatic depiction of Heracles clubbing the hydra (public domain)

Assisted by his nephew Iolaus, who had faithfully accompanied him on this dangerous quest, Heracles lit a series of torches that they had fashioned from bundles of grass, and fired them into the hydra's grim lair in order to expel its foul occupant. Great clouds of evil-smelling smoke billowed out of the cave-mouth, and at the very heart of this choking mass of fumes something writhed, and roared. The two men backed away, coughing and wiping the acrid vapour from their streaming eyes - and when they looked back, they beheld a sight so dreadful that even the fiery blood of Heracles ran cold in his veins.

The smoke had dispelled, exposing an immense bloated mass of pulsating flesh, obscenely corpulent and of a sickening pallid hue. Superficially, it invited comparison with a grotesque octopus or squid, for above this obese, sac-like body thrashed a flailing mass of lengthy tentacle-like appendages - but that was where any such resemblance abruptly ended. For as Heracles and Iolaus could see only too clearly, these 'tentacles' were, in fact, long, powerful necks - and each of these necks, nine in total number, terminated in an evil horned head, the head of a dragon. This, then, was Heracles's grisly adversary - the Lernaean hydra.

Heracles and Iolaus dispatching the hydra with club and fire, depicted in 1545 by German engraver-painter Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550) (public domain)

When its heads spied him, they emitted a deafening sibilation of hissing fury that whistled through his ears like a thousand shrieking ghosts, and each lunged forward, intent upon seizing this puny, vainglorious human in its bone-crunching jaws. Undaunted, Heracles raised his mighty club, and swung it down with terrible force, crushing into a shapeless mass the skull of the nearest of the nine - but to his horror, the head did not die. Instead, its flattened cranium promptly expanded, enlarged, and split into two - and each of the two halves immediately transformed into a new head. From the single original version, shattered by Heracles's club, two brand-new heads had instantly regenerated! Moreover, this deadly duplication occurred every time that he succeeded in destroying one of its heads.

Soon, the hydra would possess such a quantity of heads that it would certainly quash even the unrivalled monster-annihilating prowess of Greece's most exalted hero - unless he could devise a method of preventing them from replicating. Glancing at the smouldering sheaves of grass that he had used to drive out the beast from its cavernous retreat, however, Heracles suddenly saw an answer to his dilemma, and he quickly set Iolaus to work, preparing a new set of flaming torches.

Heracles clubbing the ferocious hydra, depicted by the Baroque-Era French engraver Gilles Rousselet (1610-1686) (public domain)

Yet another of the hydra's heads swung down, jaws fully agape in a bid to grasp Heracles with its venomous fangs, and once again he crushed its skull with a single crunching blow of his bloodied club - but before it could begin to bifurcate into two new heads, Iolaus handed him a fiery brand, which he thrust into the gory pulp of the original smashed skull. The flames incinerated its flesh, which meant that it could no longer replicate - Heracles had discovered the secret of destroying the hydra!

From then on, the battle became increasingly one-sided - each head that attacked was swiftly destroyed with physical force and burning flame, until at last only a single head remained. This one, however, was immortal, immune to the scorching rapture of fire - but not to the merciless, decapitating thrust that it received from Heracles's razor-sharp sword.

An uncommonly hirsute seven-headed dragon, as portrayed in this early 20th Century illustration by John D. Batten (public domain)

The most terrible polycephalic dragon that the world had ever seen was no more, and never would be again - not even Typhon and Echidna could have spawned its hideous likeness a second time.


It is interesting to note that certain depictions of the Lernaean hydra on ancient Greek pottery were quite evidently inspired not by a reptilian dragon, but rather by either an octopus or a squid.

Heracles and the Hydra Water Jar (Etruscan, c. 525 BC) (© Getty Villa - Collection /Wikipedia)

Both of these multi-tentacled cephalopod molluscs are common in the seas off Greece and its islands, and it is easy to understand how, after seeing a captured specimen on land flailing its tentacles about its large bulbous body, the legend of a monster with numerous necks could have arisen.

Depiction of Heracles battling an octopus-like hydra on ancient Greek pottery, as reproduced upon a Greek postage stamp from 1970 in my collection (© Greek postal service)

In modern-day zoology, the hydra lives on at least in name if not in nature, courtesy of a group of small freshwater cnidarian polyps known as hydras. These can readily yield multi-headed forms if injury, or deliberate intent via laboratory experiments, divides their original single heads into two or more sections, each section duly regenerating into a complete head but remaining attached to the single body. Also, several buds can develop asexually from a single body, each with its own head; usually they then break off to become separate entities, but sometimes they remain attached to their progenitor polyp.

Vintage illustration from The Naturalist's Miscellany, vol. 1, 1789, depicting the green hydra Hydra viridis (public domain)


Truly marvellous in its own deceiving manner was the hoaxed hydra that was removed from a church in Prague in 1648 and subsequently owned by Johann Anderson, the Burgomaster of Hamburg. So spectacular was this preserved wonder that Anderson even rejected an offer of 30,000 thalers for it from Frederick IV, king of Denmark. In basic form, the hydra resembled a standard lindorm, sporting a long tail and sturdy scaled body but only two limbs and no wings. Instead of just a single neck and head, however, it boasted no less than seven of each, with all of the necks emerging from a common base.

Yet despite the hydra's extraordinary appearance, its perceived monetary value eventually decreased, until by 1735 negotiations had begun for its sale at a mere 2000 thalers. Before these could be completed, however, eminent naturalist Carl Linné (who subsequently Latinised his name to Linnaeus) examined this celebrated specimen, and exposed it as a fraud. The heads, jaws, and feet were those of weasels, and a series of snake skins had been pasted all over its body.

Depiction of the hoaxed hydra of Hamburg in Albertus Seba's Cabinet of Natural Curiosities (Vol. 1), 1734 (public domain)

Linnaeus speculated, however, that this exhibit had probably been created not by wily vendors to sell as a supposedly genuine hydra to some unwary buyer for an eye-watering sum of money, but rather by monks as a representation of the seven-headed dragon of the Apocalypse with which to chastise and terrify disbelievers. Yet whatever the reason, the result was outstanding, but even so, once this hoaxed hydra's true nature had been revealed by Linnaeus, the deal for its sale fell through, and shortly afterwards the hydra itself vanished – never to be seen again.

Incidentally, the seven-headed dragon of the Apocalypse, bearing ten horns and seven crowns, was the guise assumed by the devil, who fought with his rebel angels against the valiant St Michael and the mighty hosts of Heaven, as narrated in the Bible's Book of The Revelation of St John the Divine. Ultimately, St Michael cast the dragon out, hurling him down to earth with his mutinous acolytes. It is illustrated in various of the tapestries constituting the medieval French Apocalypse Tapestry (Tapisserie de l'Apocalypse), which depicts the Apocalypse from the Revelation of St John. The oldest surviving French tapestry, it was commissioned by Louis I, the Duke of Anjou, and was produced between 1377 and 1382.

'The Beast From the Sea' ('La Bête de la Mer'), one of a series of tapestries constituting the medieval Apocalypse Tapestry (Tapisserie de l'Apocalypse); this one depicts the Dragon of the Apocalypse handing its sceptre of authority to the leopard-bodied Beast from the Sea, also seven-headed but with lion heads, not dragon heads (public domain)


Different types of dragon mean different things in dreams. A classical dragon with wings, for instance, can epitomise a transition, an ascent from a lower to a higher level of maturity. A many-headed hydra, conversely, signifies that the dreamer is plagued by a recurrent problem, one that he has tried to deal with several times but always unsuccessfully, so it is still appearing in his life, awaiting a satisfactory, conclusive resolution.

Heracles attacking and being attacked by the hydra as portrayed in this postage stamp issued by Monaco in 1981, from my collection (© Monaco postal services)

Heracles's most formidable foe is represented in the night sky by a constellation, but no ordinary, insignificant one – nothing less than Hydra, the largest constellation of all, and one of the 48 constellations first recognised by Ptolemy. Yet despite its name, the distribution of its stars across the sky is such that Hydra the constellation bears much more of a resemblance in shape to a writhing single-headed serpent than to the polycephalic monster battled by Heracles. This in turn can cause a degree of confusion with another constellation, Hydrus, which is represented as a water snake. Moreover, Hydra itself is adapted from an ancient Babylonian serpent constellation.

Hydra constellation, in Urania's Mirror (public domain)

Heracles himself is also represented in the night sky by a constellation – Hercules (his Roman name). Fifth largest in the night sky and another of Ptolemy's 48 originals, this constellation, interestingly, is believed by some researchers to have originally been united by ancient Babylonian sky-watchers with Draco, yielding a serpent-bodied human.

The dragon is a very popular symbol in heraldry, and appears in many different forms. One of these is the hydra, but no ordinary one. As if this monstrous creature were not deadly enough already, a seven-headed hydra sporting a pair of wings appears in the crest of various French families, including Barret, Crespine, and Lownes.

The hydra being clubbed by Heracles in a painting by Antonio del Pollaiolo (public domain)

Popular subjects for Renaissance artwork were the twelve labours of Heracles, including the slaying of the Lernaean hydra. Having said that, it was a decidedly scrawny, unimpressive specimen that was clubbed senseless by the hero in the painting by Italian artist and sculptor Antonio del Pollaiolo (1432-1498). Equally unimposing (albeit feather-winged) was the individual confronted by Heracles in an oil painting on wood from 1555-56 by Italian painter Marco Marchetti of Faenza.

Hydra oil painting by Marco Marchetti of Faenza (public domain)

Fortunately, however, more formidable depictions of this many-headed lindorm also exist, such as the robust portrayal by Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), as well as various post-Renaissance examples, like the vibrant engraving by Bernard Picart (1673-1733), and a truly exquisite portrayal by American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), which opens this present ShukerNature blog article.

Francisco de Zurbarán's dark, nightmarish portrayal of the battle between the hydra and Heracles, painted in 1654 (public domain)

Nor could we – or should we – forget the huge, spectacular sculpture of Heracles confronting a truly terrifying hydra created by Danish Symbolist-allied sculptor Rudolph Tegner (1873-1950), installed in Elsinore, Denmark.

Rudolph Tegner's spectacular sculpture at Elsinore, Denmark (© Rudolph Tegner/Flickr / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

Perhaps the strangest hydra portrait, however, is its depiction as a giant multi-limbed lobster-bodied monstrosity battling Heracles and Iolaus in an engraving dating from 1565.

The hydra portrayed as a weird composite of many-headed dragon and multi-limbed, carapace-bodied crustacean (public domain)


The hydra has featured in a number of films, and also in various works of fiction.

In the classic stop-motion fantasy film 'Jason and the Argonauts' (1963), featuring the astonishing creations of Ray Harryhausen, the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and his men is guarded by the Colchis dragon. Although this is usually depicted as a winged classical dragon, for maximum visual appeal Harryhausen represented it in this film as a multi-headed hydra-like version instead. It kills one of Jason's men, the treacherous Acastus, before being slain by Jason himself, who is then able to steal the Golden Fleece, and later returns with it in triumph to Thessaly.

Ray Harryhausen's spectacular Colchis hydra in the 1963 British Columbia Pictures fantasy movie 'Jason and the Argonauts' (© Columbia Pictures / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

In 1997, the Disney animated feature film 'Hercules' was released, and, as befitting a movie based (albeit loosely) upon tales from Greek mythology, it included an epic battle between the young demi-god hero and the Lernaean hydra. This multi-headed dragon has been summoned by Hades to destroy Hercules, but when he successfully kills it by causing a landslide, our hero finds himself elevated to celebrity status among the general public.

CineTel Films released a made-for-cable-television movie entitled 'Hydra' in 2009, subsequently making it available internationally on DVD. A slick blend of thriller, horror, action, and mythology, it tells the tale of how the legendary Lernaean hydra is reawakened from centuries of dormancy by a major seaquake near its volcanic Mediterranean island domain. The bloodthirsty many-headed monster, no doubt hungry after its prolonged fasting, proceeds to chomp up everyone who sets foot on its island, including a party of man-hunters, some of their ex-convict targets (one of whom is played by Hollywood and television actor George Stults), and even one of the film's two leading protagonists, a female archaeologist. The special effects breathing life into the hydra are as impressive as its rapacity for its human prey is unrelenting.

Poster from the 2009 CineTel Films movie 'Hydra' (© CineTel Films / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

William Beckford's initially anonymous Gothic novel Vathek, published in 1786 and telling the fall from power into eternal damnation of the Caliph Vathek of the Abassides, features a winged hydra called Ouranabad.

A Ballantine Books edition of Vathek (© Ballantine Books / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

Dragons of a traditional, ferocious nature appear in various volumes of the long-running series of children's fantasy novels entitled The Spiderwick Chronicles (2003-2004) and Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles (2007-2009) by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. These include serpent dragons like the venomous worms reared by the evil ogre Mulgarath, and a huge many-headed hydra with gills known as the Wyrm King.

An acid-spitting hydra, whose life-force is linked to the ever-increasing appearance of Monster Donut shops, appears in Rick Riordan's teenagers' fantasy-adventure novel, The Sea of Monsters, the second in his bestselling Percy Jackson series, but it is slain by a cannon from a battleship.

The Wyrm King – Book #3 in the Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles series, published in 2009 (©Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black/Simon & Schuster / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

Inventorum Natura: The Expedition Journal of Pliny the Elder (1979) is a spectacular tome compiled and exquisitely illustrated by fantasy writer-artist Una Woodruff. The premise behind this very skilfully-prepared volume is that it is a painstaking reconstruction of a supposedly long-lost work written in Latin by real-life Roman author-naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), describing the astonishing fauna and flora that he allegedly observed during a purported three-year expedition to distant lands, an incomplete version of which Woodruff happened to rediscover. It includes several types of dragon – the pyrallis, basilisk, sea dragons, dragon-fishes, amphisbaena, Eastern dragons, Western dragons, and a British hydra.

Britain's very own hideous hydra, from Inventorum Natura (© Una Woodruff)


Nor is this the extent of the hydra's popularity – indeed, even today it is virtually ubiquitous in the frequency and diversity of namesakes and commemorations. These include (but are by no means limited to):  Hydra, the outermost known moon of the dwarf planet Pluto, discovered in June 2005; Hydra, an American professional wrestler; Hydra, one of the the Saronic Islands of Greece in the Aegean Sea, which I visited back in 1977 (though technically this is named after the water springs there rather than the monster);  Hydra, a fictional secret terrorist organisation in the Marvel comics, and also a villain in Lee Falk's comic strip 'The Phantom'; Hydra, an American southern rock band; the Hydra Trophy, which is awarded to the winner of the roller derby WFTDA Championships; Hydra, a chess computer; 'HMS Hydra', the name of several different Royal Navy vessels; Hydra, an early computer software operating system, created in 1971 at Carnegie-Mellon University; Hydra 70, an air-to-ground rocket; Hydra, a monstrous opponent waiting to be faced in the role-playing video game 'Titan Quest', released worldwide by THQ in June 2006; 'Hydra', a song by American rock band Toto from their 1979 album 'Hydra'; Hydra, the professional name of Texas-born roller derby skater Jennifer Wilson; and The Hydra, a literary magazine once edited by WW1 war poet Wilfred Owen and including poems by fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon.

The hydra as featured in the role-playing video game 'Titan Quest', released by THQ (public domain)

Its debut may have been countless centuries ago, but from Heracles to Percy Jackson as just two of its numerous assailants upon its lengthy journey through time and culture the hydra shows no sign of diminishing on the world stage, the endless fascination with its terrifying ability to regenerate and duplicate its head count undoubtedly ensuring its survival to scare and surprise us for a very long time to come.

Heracles versus Hydra (© Ken Barthelmey/Deviantart.com - click here to view more of Ken's outstanding artwork in his deviantart gallery)

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and expanded from my books Dragons: A Natural History and Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture.

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