NOW the Hydra was more formidable than the lion;—nobody in his senses would dream of attacking it with the least hope of succeeding. It was a huge water-snake which lived in Lake Lerna, whence it used to issue to seek for human food. It had a hundred heads, and from each of its hundred mouths darted a forked tongue of flame, dripping with deadly poison.
I said that nobody in his senses would attack the Hydra. But I was not quite right. There was just one sense which would lead a man to attack any evil, even without hope—of course I mean the sense of Duty. And it was in that sense that Hercules set forth for Lake Lerna. But he did not go to work without ample forethought, and taking all the precautions he could think of. He remembered the thickness and toughness of the Nemæan lion's skin; so he had it made into a sort of cloak, which served him for armor better than brass or steel. He also made the young oak-tree into a regular club, which thenceforth became his favorite weapon. And instead of going alone, he took with him his friend and kinsman Iolas, to act as his squire. You may always know Hercules in pictures and statues by his knotted club and his lion-skin.
It was easy enough to find the Hydra—only too easy. It had its nest in a foul stagnant swamp, the air of which its breath turned to poison. Giving Iolas his other arms to hold, Hercules attacked the Hydra with his club alone, trusting to his lion-skin to receive the strokes of the creature's fangs. With a tremendous blow he crushed one of the Hydra's hundred heads, leaving ninety-nine more to destroy if he could hold out so long. That was bad enough to think of—but, to his dismay, out of the crushed head sprang two new living heads: and out of each of these, when he beat them to pieces, sprang forth two more. And so it was with every head the Hydra had: so that, in truth, the more Hercules destroyed it, the stronger it grew—its hundred heads were rapidly becoming a thousand; and the thousand would become ten thousand; and so on, forever.
Just as Hercules realized the hopelessness of the labor, and was finding it work enough to ward off the innumerable fangs, a wretched crab crawled out of the ooze and seized him by the foot, so that he almost fainted with the sudden pain. It was too cruel, in the midst of such a battle as that, to feel himself at the mercy of the miserable vermin of the slime.
However, he crushed the crab under his heel, and, ceasing to multiply his enemies by killing them, contented himself with defense, while he thought what could possibly be done.
"No doubt those first hundred heads must all have come from some one head," thought he. "They could not grow like that without a root; so that if I could only destroy the root they would cease to grow. This is my mistake: I am fighting only with what I see, instead of going to the root of things, and attacking the evil there."
So he called out to Iolas to heat a piece of iron red-hot; and when this was ready, to stand by, and to scorch with it the place of every head which the club shattered. The plan answered wonderfully. Hercules crushed head after head; Iolas applied the red-hot iron; and so root after root was burned up and perished. And at last they came to the root of all the heads; and when this was reached and burned, the monster sputtered and died, just when Hercules felt that he, strong as he was, could scarce have struck another blow.
Hercules cut open the Hydra, and dipped his arrows in its gall, so that they should give deadly wounds. Wearily he returned to Mycenæ hoping for a little rest. But Eurystheus had hidden himself in his brazen pot again, whence he cried out:—
"Be off at once; and catch the stag of Œnoe alive!"