In Sea Fables Explained, Henry Lee makes an interesting suggestion I had not heard before. He argued (along with Francis Buckland in the 1870s but not reported until the 1890s) that the Lernean Hydra, the multi-headed snake monster slain by Heracles, was a mythologized version of the octopus. Here is how Apollodorus described the monster in his Library (2.5.2):
Diodorus Siculus (4.11.5-6) suggests a hundred heads instead, but the point remains the same.
According to Lee, the story would have been inspired by the ancient observation that an octopus can re-grow a severed limb. Additionally, Aristotle knew that octopuses could walk on dry land, and Pliny and Aelian knew that the octopus was capable of feats of great strength, even going to the wharves to crush barrels for a quick meal of the caught fish stored within.
Finally, vase paintings of the hydra bear a distinct resemblance to the octopus.
The French symbolic mythologist Gilbert Durand suggested the similarity of octopus and hydra is due to both being symbols for vaginas. I don’t buy that. The ancients weren’t shy about genitalia. They had festivals for giant phalluses. If they wanted a giant vagina, they’d have said “giant vagina.”
Of course, the rejoinder to the theory of the octopus as inspiration for the hydra is that the octopus has been known and understood since at least Minoan times (it was a common Minoan artistic motif), raising the question of how an octopus myth could be transformed into a reptile myth.
I suppose the answer to that is Cthulhu.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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