Sea Monsters

The Lernean Hydra

The mystery of the Kraken, of which I treated in a companion volume to the present, recently published, is not difficult to unravel. The clue to it is plain, and when properly taken up is as easily

unwound, to arrive at the truth, as a cocoon of silk, to get at the chrysalis within it. It was a boorish exaggeration, a legend of ignorance, superstition, and wonder. But when such a skein of facts has passed through the hands of the poets, it is sure to be found in a much more intricate tangle; and many a knot of pure invention may have to be cut before it is made clear.

Nevertheless, we shall be able to discern that more than one of the most famous and hideous monsters of old classical lore originated, like the Kraken, in a knowledge by their authors of the form and habits of those strange sea-creatures, the head-footed mollusks. There can be little doubt that the octopus was the model from which the old poets and artists formed their ideas, and drew their pictures of the Lernean Hydra, whose heads grew again when cut off by Hercules; and also of the monster Scylla, who, with six heads and six long writhing necks, snatched men off the decks of passing ships and devoured them in the recesses of her gloomy cavern.

Of the Hydra Diodorus relates that it had a hundred heads; Simonides says fifty; but the generally received opinion was that of Apollodorus, Hyginus, and others, that it had only nine.

Apollodorus of Athens, son of Asclepiades, who wrote in stiff, quaint Greek about 120 B.C., gives in his 'Bibliotheca' (book ii. chapter 5, section 2) the following account of the many-headed monster. "This Hydra," he says, "nourished in the marshes of Lerne, went forth into the open country and destroyed the herds of the land. It had a huge body and nine heads, eight mortal, but the ninth immortal. Having mounted his chariot, which was driven by Iolaus, Hercules got to Lerne and stopped his horses. Finding the Hydra on a certain raised ground near the source of the Amymon, where its lair was, he made it come out by pelting it with burning missiles. He seized and stopped it, but having twisted itself round one of his feet, it struggled with him. He broke its head with his club: but that was useless; for when one head was broken two sprang up, and a huge crab helped the Hydra by biting the foot of Hercules. This he killed, and called Iolaus, who, setting on fire part of the adjoining forest, burned with torches the germs of the growing heads, and stopped their development. Having thus out-manœuvred the growing heads, he cut off the immortal head, buried it, and put a heavy stone upon it, beside the road going from Lerne to Eleonta, and having opened the Hydra, dipped his arrows in its gall."

If we wish to find in nature the counterpart of this Hydra, we must seek, firstly, for an animal with eight out-growths from its trunk, which it can develop afresh, or replace by new ones, in case of any or all of them being amputated or injured. We must also show that this animal, so strange in form and possessing such remarkable attributes, was well known in the locality where the legend was believed. We have it in the octopus, which abounded in the Mediterranean and Ægean seas, and whose eight prehensile arms, or tentacles, spring from its central body, the immortal head, and which, if lost or mutilated by misadventure, are capable of reproduction.

FIG. 18.—FIGURE OF A CALAMARY. From the temple of Bayr-el-Bahree.

That a knowledge of the octopus existed at a very early period of man's history we have abundant evidence. The ancient Egyptians figured it amongst their hieroglyphics, and an interesting proof that they were also acquainted with other cephalopods was given to me by the late Mr. E. W. Cooke, R.A. Whilst on a trip up the Nile, in January, 1875, he visited the temple of Bayr-el-Bahree, Thebes (date 1700 B.C.), the entrance to which had been deeply buried beneath the light, wind-drifted sand, accumulated during many centuries. By order of the Khedive, access had just at that time been obtained to its interior, by the excavation and removal of this deep deposit, and, amongst the hieroglyphics on the walls, were found, between the zig-zag lines which represent water, figures of various fishes, copies of which Mr. Cooke kindly gave me, and which are so accurately portrayed as to be easily identified. With them was the outline of a squid fourteen inches long, a figure of which, from Mr. Cooke's drawing, is here shown. As this temple is five hundred miles from the delta of the Nile, it is remarkable that nearly all the fishes there represented are of marine species.


That the octopus was a familiar object with the ancient Greeks, we know by the frequency with which its portrait is found on their coins, gems, and ornaments. Aldrovandus describes "very ancient coins" found at Syracuse and Tarentum bearing the figure of an octopus. He says the Syracusans had two coins, one of bronze, the other of gold, both of which had an octopus alone on one side. On the reverse of the bronze one was a veiled female face in profile, with the inscription [Greek: SURA]. I have one of these bronze Syracusan coins; it was kindly given to me, some years ago, by my friend, Dr. John Millar, F.L.S. The octopus is really well depicted. On the gold coin the female head was differently veiled, and at the back of the neck was a fish. The inscription on this coin was [Greek: SURAKOSIÔN]. Goltzius was of the opinion that the head was that of Arethusa. The coins found at Tarentum had on one side a figure of Neptune seated on a dolphin, and holding an octopus in one hand and a trident in the other.


Lerne, or Lerna, the reputed home of the Hydra, was a port of Southern Greece, situated at the head of the Gulf of Nauplia, and between the existing towns of Argos and Tripolitza. Within a few miles of it was Mycenæ; and it is remarkable that Dr. Schliemann, during his excavations there in 1876, found in a tomb a gold plate, or button, two and a half inches in diameter (Fig. 19), on which is figured an octopus, the eight arms of which are converted into spirals, the head and the two eyes being distinctly visible. In another sepulchre he discovered fifty-three golden models of the octopus (Fig. 20), all exactly alike, and apparently cast in the same mould. The arms are very naturally carved. By the kindness of Mr. Murray, his publisher, I am enabled to give illustrations of these and two other handsome ornaments.

Having ascertained that the octopus was a familiar object in the very locality where the combat between Hercules and the Hydra is supposed to have taken place, let us compare the animal as it exists with the monstrous offspring of Typhon and Echidna.

FIG. 21.
FIG. 22.


It is a not uncommon occurrence that when an octopus is caught it is found to have one or more of its arms shorter than the rest, and showing marks of having been amputated, and of the formation of a new growth from the old cicatrix. Several such specimens were brought to the Brighton Aquarium whilst I had charge of its Natural History Department. One of them was particularly interesting. Two of its arms had evidently been bitten off about four inches from the base: and out from the end of each healed stump (which in proportion to the length of the limb was as if a man's arm had been amputated halfway between the shoulder and the elbow), grew a slender little piece of newly-formed arm, about as large as a lady's stiletto, or a small button-hook—in fact just the equivalent of worthy Captain Cuttle's iron hook, which did duty for his lost hand. It was an illustrative example of the commencement of the repair and restoration of mutilated limbs.

This mutilation is so common in some localities, that that almost every octopus he has examined has had one or two arms reproduced; and that he has seen females in which all the eight arms had been lost, but were more or less restored. He also mentions a male in which this was the case as to seven of its arms. He adds that whilst the Octopoda possess the power of reproducing with great facility and rapidity their arms, which are exposed to so many enemies, the Decapoda—the Sepiidæ and Squids—appear to be incapable of thus repairing and replacing accidental injuries. This is entirely in accord with my own observations.

This reparative power is possessed by some other animals, of which the starfishes and crustacea are the most familiar instances. In the case of the lobster or crab, however, the only joint from which new growth can start is that connected with the body, so that if a limb be injured in any part, the whole of it must be got rid of, and the animal has, therefore, the power of casting it off at will. The octopus, on the contrary, is incapable of voluntary dismemberment, but reproduces the lost portion of an injured arm, as an out-growth from the old stump.

The ancients were well acquainted with this reparative faculty of the octopus: but of course the simple fact was insufficient for an imaginative people: and they therefore embellished it with some fancies of their own. There lingers still amongst the fishermen of the Mediterranean a very old belief that the octopus when pushed by hunger will gnaw and devour portions of its arms. Aristotle knew of this belief, and positively contradicted it; but a fallacy once planted is hard to eradicate. You may cut it down, and apparently destroy it, root and branch, but its seeds are scattered abroad, and spring up elsewhere, and in unexpected places. Accordingly, we find Oppian, more than five centuries later, disseminating the same old notion, and comparing this habit of the animal with that of the bear obtaining nutriment from his paws by sucking them during his hybernation.

"When wintry skies o'er the black ocean frown,  And clouds hang low with ripen'd storms o'ergrown,  Close in the shelter of some vaulted cave  The soft-skinn'd prekes their porous bodies save.  But forc'd by want, while rougher seas they dread,  On their own feet, necessitous, are fed.  But when returning spring serenes the skies,  Nature the growing parts anew supplies.  Again on breezy sands the roamers creep,  Twine to the rocks, or paddle in the deep.  Doubtless the God whose will commands the seas,  Whom liquid worlds and wat'ry natives please,  Has taught the fish by tedious wants opprest  Life to preserve and be himself the feast."

The fact is, that the larger predatory fishes regard an octopus as very acceptable food, and there is no better bait for many of them than a portion of one of its arms. Some of the cetacea also are very fond of them, and whalers have often reported that when a "fish" (as they call it) is struck it disgorges the contents of its stomach, amongst which they have noticed parts of the arms of cuttles which, judging from the size of their limbs, must have been very large specimens. The food of the sperm whale consists largely of the gregarious squids, and the presence in spermaceti of their undigested beaks is accepted as a test of its being genuine. That old fish-reptile, the Ichthyosaurus, also, preyed upon them; and portions of the horny rings of their suckers were discovered in its coprolites by Dean Buckland. Amongst the worst enemies of the octopus is the conger. They are both rock-dwellers, and if the voracious fish come upon his cephalopod neighbour unseen, he makes a meal of him, or, failing to drag him from his hold, bites off as much of one or two of his arms as he can conveniently obtain. The conger, therefore, is generally the author of the injury which the octopus has been unfairly accused of inflicting on itself.

Continuing our comparison with the hydra, we have in the octopus an animal capable of quitting its rocky lurking-place in the sea, and going on a buccaneering expedition on dry land. Many incidents have been related in connection with this; but I can attest it from my own observation. I have seen an octopus travel over the floor of a room at a very fair rate of speed, toppling and sprawling along in its own ungainly fashion; and in May, 1873, we had one at the Brighton Aquarium which used regularly every night to quit its tank, and make its way along the wall to another tank at some distance from it, in which were some young lump-fishes. Day after day, one of these was missing, until, at last, the marauder was discovered. Many days elapsed, however, before he was detected, for after helping himself to, and devouring a young "lump-sucker," he demurely returned before daylight to his own quarters.

Of this habit of the octopus the ancients were, also, fully aware. Aristotle wrote that it left the water and walked in stony places, and Pliny and Ælian related tales of this animal stealing barrels of salt fish from the wharves, and crushing their staves to get at the contents. An octopus that could do this would be as formidable a predatory monster as the Lernean Hydra, which had the evil reputation of devouring the Peloponnesian cattle.

Whoever first described the counter-attack of the Hydra on Hercules must have had the octopus in his thoughts. "It twisted itself round one of his feet"—exactly that which an octopus would do.

FIG. 23.—HERCULES SLAYING THE LERNEAN HYDRA. From Smith's 'Classical Dictionary.'

Finally, according to the legend, Hercules dipped his arrow-heads in the gall of the Hydra, and, from its poisonous nature, all the wounds he inflicted with them upon his enemies proved fatal. It is worthy of notice that the ancients attributed to the octopus the possession of a similarly venomous secretion. Thus Oppian writes:

"The crawling preke a deadly juice contains  Injected poison fires the wounded veins."

The accompanying illustration (Fig. 23) of Hercules slaying the Hydra is taken from a marble tablet in the Vatican. It will be immediately seen how closely the Hydra, as there depicted, resembles an octopus. The body is elongated, but the eight necks with small heads on them bear about the same proportion to the body as the arms to the body of an octopus.

The Reverend James Spence, in his 'Polymetis,' published in 1755, gives a figure, almost the counterpart of this, copied from an antique gem, a carnelian, in the collection of the Grand Duke of Tuscany at Florence. Only seven necks of the hydra are, however, there visible, and there are two coils in the elongated body. On the upper part are two spots which have been supposed to represent breasts. This was probably intended by the artificer; but that the idea originated from a duplication of the syphon tube is evident from the figures (Figs. 21, 22) of the octopus on the smaller gold ornaments found by Dr. Schliemann at Mycenæ. In the same work is also an engraving from a picture in the Vatican Virgil, entitled 'The River, or Hateful Passage into the Kingdom of Ades,' wherein an octopus-hydra, of which only six heads and necks are shown, is one of the monsters called by the author "Terrors of the Imagination."

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