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Copyright © 1997 Carlos Parada and Maicar Förlag.


1804: Hercules and the Hydra, 1918-19. Statue by Rudolph Tegner, 1873-1950. Rudolph Tegners Museum, Denmark.

Lerna is a city and fountain in a swampy region south of Argos, known for the quality of its water:

"The dinner being slow in coming, a discussion arose concerning water—which was the sweetest? Some praised the water of Lerna, others, again, the water of Peirene …" (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 4.156e).

… which was, they say, the gift that Poseidon gave to the region when he met Amymone 1, one of the DANAIDS. That is why it was also said from old:

"The daughters of Danaus rendered Argos, which was waterless, Argos the well watered …"

And the geographer Strabo adds:

"And Lake Lerna, the scene of the story of the Hydra, lies in Argeia and the Mycenaean territory; and on account of the cleansings that take place in it there arose a proverb, 'A Lerna of ills.' Now writers agree that the county has plenty of water, and that, although the city itself lies in a waterless district, it has an abundance of wells. These wells they ascribe to the daughters of Danaus, believing that they discovered them … but they add that four of the wells not only were designated as sacred but are especially revered, thus introducing the false notion that there is a lack of water where there is an abundance of it." (Strabo, Geography 8.6.8).

And concerning the cleansings and sacred ceremonies that took place at Lerna, it has also been said that

"On Mount Crathis (northern Arcadia, bordering Achaea). is a sanctuary of Artemis Pyronia (Fire-goddess), and in more ancient days the Argives used to bring from this goddess fire for their Lernaean ceremonies." (Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.15.8).

The mysteries of Lerna were established, they say, by Philammon (Pau.2.37.1), son of Apollo (or perhaps of Hephaestus), and father of Thamyris 1, the minstrel who lost his eyes in a contest with the MUSES. According to some accounts, it was near Lerna that Hades descended to the Underworld when he carried off Persephone. Thus in Lerna the mysteries in honour of Lernaean Demeter (mother of Persephone) were celebrated (Pau.2.36.6). And also yearly nocturnal rites in honour of Dionysus 2 were performed at Lerna, the contents of which are not divulged by the traveller Pausanias, who always abides, in these matters, by his usual reservation. For also Dionysus 2 descended to the Underworld in this place (the Alcyonian Lake) when he went down in search of his mother Semele. Concerning the depth of this lake's perilous waters, says Pausanias:

"There is no limit to the depth of the Alcyonian Lake, and I know of nobody who by any contrivance has been able to reach the bottom of it since not even Nero, who had ropes made several stades long and fastened them together, tying lead to them, and omitting nothing that might help his experiment, was able to discover any limit to its depth. This, too, I heard. The water of the lake is, to all appearance, calm and quiet but, although it is such to look at, every swimmer who ventures to cross it is dragged down, sucked into the depths, and swept away." (Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.37.4).


Yet, some have regarded Lerna as a fertile district even before that time. For they have represented the dreams that guided Io as saying:

"O damsel greatly blessed of fortune, why linger in your maidenhood so long when it is within your power to win a union of the highest? Zeus is inflamed by passion's dart for you and is eager to unite with you in love. Do not, my child, spurn the bed of Zeus, but go forth to Lerna's meadow land of pastures deep and to your father's flocks and where his cattle feed, so that the eye of Zeus may find respite from its longing." (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 650).

Having obeyed the dreams, Io was embraced by Zeus, and then turned into a cow and forced to wander over the whole world:

"… with horns … upon my forehead … stung by a sharp-fanged gadfly I rushed with frantic bounds to Cerchnea's sweet stream and Lerna's spring." (Io to Prometheus 1. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 675).

This story was later disbelieved, and the disappearance of Io was attributed to the perfidy of Phoenician merchants, who kidnapped her and brought her to Egypt:

"On the fifth or sixth day after their arrival, when their wares were almost all sold, many women came to the shore and among them especially the daughter of the king, whose name was Io (according to Persians and Greeks alike), the daughter of Inachus. As these stood about the stern of the ship bargaining for the wares they liked, the Phoenicians incited one another to set upon them. Most of the women escaped: Io and others were seized and thrown into the ship, which then sailed away for Egypt." (Herodotus, History 1.1.3).

Apparently, no evidence was ever produced to prove that charge against the Phoenicians. But since the tale of Io turning into a cow and being loved by a god came to be regarded as unlikely, the Phoenicians were, with or without evidence, thoroughly cursed:

"My curse, first, upon the Carnite (Phoenician) sailor hounds! the merchant wolves who carried off from Lerna the ox-eyed girl (Io) …" (Cassandra. Lycophron, Alexandra 1291).

Accordingly, later abductions were regarded as retaliations for the first. Thus when the Europeans carried off the Phoenician princess Europa, they believed that Asia and Europe were then even. However, that was taken as yet one loop in the chain of affronts that Asia and Europe inflicted upon each other.

Danaus 1

In Egypt, Io gave birth to Epaphus 1, son of Zeus. Epaphus 1 fathered Libya, who having consorted with Poseidon, gave birth, among others, to Belus 1. Belus 1, who inherited the kingdom of Egypt, married Anchinoe (daughter of Nilus), and had by her many children, among which Danaus 1 and Aegyptus 1. Danaus 1 felt threatened by Aegyptus 1 and his fifty sons, and decided that he and his fifty daughters would leave Egypt and emigrate to Argos, the country of their ancestor Io. After having touched Rhodes, Danaus 1 arrived to Argos, then ruled by Gelanor (whom Danaus 1 overthrew), or perhaps by Pelasgus 1. The sons of Aegyptus 1, however, came after them and demanded to be wedded to the daughters of Danaus 1 (the DANAIDS). Danaus 1, being threatened, consented to the marriage, and allotted his daughters among them. But at the same time, he instructed the girls to kill the bridegrooms on their wedding night, giving them daggers for that purpose.

The heads of the bridegrooms

Thus all the DANAIDS except one killed their bridegrooms on their wedding night, burying their heads in Lerna. Now, some may think that the many heads of the Lernaean Hydra—a monster that appeared afterwards—could be the reincarnated heads of the murdered bridegrooms, a curse from the past. However, others have affirmed that the bodies of the sons of Aegyptus 1 were buried by the DANAIDS in Lerna, and not the heads, which were buried in Larisa, the citadel of Argos. It is said that the girls were purified of their crime by Athena and Hermes at the command of Zeus. Yet, it is also told that the DANAIDS are still being punished in the Underworld for their crime.

Location of Lerna in the Peloponnesus

Poseidon grants water

Before these bloody events, Poseidon and Hera had a dispute for the patronage of Argos, and a tribunal of three RIVER GODS—Inachus (father of Io), Cephisus, and Asterion 2—decided that the territory would belong to Hera and not to Poseidon. Disappointed with this ruling, the god made their waters disappear, so that their streams being dry during the summer, they would never provide any water except after rain. In addition, Poseidon, disappointed with the decision of the RIVER GODS, inundated many of the region's districts because. Lerna was, however, excepted; for it was here that Amymone 1 (one of the DANAIDS) yielded to Poseidon on condition that she might have water, and the god, being in love with her, revealed to her the springs at Lerna. This happened when Danaus 1 sent his daughters to draw water. Amymone 1, apparently combining her search for water with hunting, threw a dart at a deer, hitting a sleeping Satyr, who then attempted to rape her. It was then that Poseidon appeared, and having driven the Satyr away, lay with the girl, revealing to her the springs at Lerna. It is told that the god hurled his trident at the Satyr and that it became fixed in a rock. Then he asked Amymone 1 what she was doing in the wilderness, and as she replied that her father had sent her to get water, the god bid her to draw the trident from the rock. And when she did so, three streams of water flowed from the earth (one for each of the trident's prongs). That was the gift that Poseidon bestowed on the girl in exchange for her love—more than the Satyr could ever have offered her (if anything). And from their union, Nauplius 1 (the father of Palamedes) was born, as some say. But others deny this, arguing that Nauplius 1, being still alive after the end of the Trojan War, could by no means be the son of the Danaid, who lived many generations before him:

"After Temenium comes Nauplia, the naval station of the Argives: and the name is derived from the fact that the place is accessible to ships. And it is on the basis of this name, it is said, that the myth of Nauplius and his sons has been fabricated by the more recent writers of myth, for Homer would not have failed to mention these, if Palamedes had displayed such wisdom and sagacity, and if he was unjustly and treacherously murdered, and if Nauplius wrought destruction to so many men at Cape Caphereus. But in addition to its fabulous character the genealogy of Nauplius is also wholly incorrect in respect to the times involved; for, granting that he was the son of Poseidon, how could a man who was still alive at the time of the Trojan war have been the son of Amymone?" (Strabo, Geography 8.6.2).

The mythographer Apollodorus was well aware of this, since he writes:

"Amymone had a son Nauplius by Poseidon. This Nauplius lived to a great age …" (Apollodorus, Library "Epitome" 2.1.5).

But Apollodorus does not argue on the issue of the age of Nauplius 1, and few could in fact guess for how long the son of a god might live. Zeus, for example, granted life for three generations to his son Sarpedon 1 … And concerning naval stations, Lerna apparently was one, since we read that Heracles 1's son Tlepolemus 1, the leader of the Rhodians against Troy (who, by the way, was killed in the war by the same Sarpedon 1), sailed to Rhodes from Lerna when he emigrated to the island. Coincidentally (but sailing in the opposite direction), Danaus 1 had landed in a place near Lerna, after having touched Rhodes, on his way from Egypt (Apd.2.1.4; Pau.2.38.4).

The Hydra of Lerna

Swampy Lerna gained even more renown when Heracles 1 performed there his second Labour, which consisted in destroying the Hydra, a beast with nine heads, eight of which were mortal, the middle one being immortal; or else with one hundred heads of serpent, or even countless heads (the scepticism of later authors proclaimed that the Hydra had only one head). Some say that the monster was so poisonous that she could kill a man with her breath. The Hydra of Lerna, offspring of Typhon and Echidna, was nourished by Hera, who was then angry at Heracles 1. Having discovered the Hydra on a hill beside the Amymonian springs, Heracles 1 attacked the monster with fiery shafts to force it to come forth. Then he commanded his helper Iolaus 1 to prevent new heads from sprouting by searing with a burning brand the part that had been severed. In that way the flow of the Hydra's blood was checked in its necks, and after cutting off all the mortal heads, Heracles 1 chopped off the immortal one as well. This one he buried beside the road that leads from Lerna to Elaeus, putting a heavy rock on it. Heracles 1 then slit up the body of the Hydra and dipped his arrows in its gall; for this reason the wounds produced by his arrows became incurable, as that of Chiron, that of the Centaur Pholus 1, that of Geryon, and that of Paris (who was killed by Philoctetes, the man who inherited Heracles 1's bow and arrows). And indeed the slayer of the Hydra himself was, years later, destroyed by its venom, through the love-charm that the Centaur Nessus 2 gave to Heracles 1's wife Deianira 1. (See also HERACLES 1'S LABOURS.)

Related sections Map of Greece, Io, Argos, HERACLES 1'S LABOURS 

Apd.2.1.4, 2.1.5, 2.5.2, 3.5.3; Arg.3.1241, 4.1404; Eur.Her.420; Eur.Ion.190; Hes.The.316; Hyg.Ast.2.5; Hyg.Fab.30, 34, 151, 169, 169a; Nonn.8.240, 25.209, 25.213, 32.67; Ov.Met.1.597, 9.69, 9.130, 9.158; Pau.2.15.5, 2.24.2, 2.36.6, 2.37.1, 2.37.4, 2.38.1, 2.38.4, 8.15.8; Pin.Oly 7.32; Soph.Tra.570, 1095; Strab.8.6.2, 8.6.8

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