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The Twelve Labors of Hercules II - The Hydra

The Second Labor – To Destroy the Lernaean Hydra (revised version, spring 2016)

 

         Hercules’ second labor is the first task he took on after arming himself with an invincible philosophy. There are some variations in the story, but the gist is this. Hercules was asked to destroy the Hydra, a water dragon or serpent, living in the Swamp of Lerna. It had many heads, at least nine, and was so venomous that its very breath was poisonous. Hercules lured it out of its lair with flaming arrows. It caught his foot in one of its coils and the battle was on. Hercules would smash a head with his club, but a new one grew right back. In some versions two grew back. Luckily Hercules was accompanied by his friend and charioteer Iolaus, a role similar to Krishna’s in the Bhagavad Gita by the way. With his help the Hydra was conquered. First Hercules would bash a head to smithereens, then Iolaus would cauterize the neck with either a torch or a red-hot iron. That took care of all but the last head, which turned out to be immortal. Hercules cut it off and buried it in the earth, rolling a huge stone over it to keep it in place. Then he dipped his arrows in the poisonous blood of the serpent, and headed off for his next labor.

         What this demonstrates is that problems often are very persistent. As soon as you deal with one, two more spring up in its place. That’s because we aren’t getting to the root of the problem, but only dealing with its most superficial aspect, its face or head. We won’t thoroughly overcome our problems until they are dealt with at the source. This is by no means an easy task. It takes an intense fire of intelligence to discern the root of a problem and confront it there. Most of the time we have to have help; we can’t do it alone.

         The fact that one of the Hydra’s heads is immortal tells us that we will always face challenges. A happy life includes knowing how to effectively deal with problems, because they never disappear permanently.

         Even ordinary activities have a proliferating nature resembling the Hydra’s regenerative powers. When we decide to do something simple, more and more sacrifices are necessitated by it. For instance, if a person wants to have sex, they can’t just walk up to someone and do it, they have to preen and make themselves look respectable. They have to earn money for a date. They may even have to get married, which means they have to get a job first, which means they have to study in school first, and so on. So one simple desire breeds a thousand necessities before it can be satisfied.

         Or you want to start a business. It starts with a simple impulse, but then there are endless details to be dealt with. It becomes a never-ending nightmare of attending to minutia, where the simple act of buying and selling is overwhelmed in regulations and compromises, in scheming and deceit. And once we engage with this “monster” of resistance to our goals—what my father used to call the obstinacy of the inanimate— in whatever form we have decided to meet it, we may well become caught up in its coils to the point where there is no escape.

          We can see this myth played out all around us in the transactional world. But the ancient rishis didn’t write myths to caution us about courting or business practices. As Dr. Mees reminds us, the purpose of myths “is more profound. The aim of religion is to make man happier and to help him find peace and bliss, within himself and in his relation to the world without. It does not make anyone happier to know how the material world is created (assuming that such knowledge is possible at all) and how the physical processes take place and can be controlled.” (The Key to Genesis, p. 9) We must look deeper yet to reveal what the Herculean myth is getting at.

         Invincible philosophy in hand, the first order of business for a budding spiritual aspirant is to confront the negative aspects of the psyche lying buried in the subconscious. In Vedanta these are referred to as samskaras and vasanas, the seeds of past actions and misunderstandings, which sprout and proliferate primarily as hindrances, but also opportunities. A novice treats these as “evil” and desperately tries to suppress them, and especially to keep them out of sight of other people, who might then judge the novice as being bad or at least inferior. Fearing exposure, the ego strives mightily for suppression of these “monsters from the id,” but suppression causes them to come back Hydra-like, with redoubled force. Like a steam boiler without a relief valve, pressure builds up to a maddening degree. At first the system is poisoned, but eventually the whole tank may rupture, causing a psychic explosion. It is thus critical to find a way other than repression to curb chaotic inner urges.

         This actually happened already to Hercules, who killed his whole family in a fit a madness. His Labors are his means to expiate the disaster he caused. Many of us ordinary mortals are also initiated into spirituality as a means to expiate our guilt for bad behavior. If we think of “killing” as including alienating or emotionally devastating our close friends, then many of us have exploded in a similar manner to Hercules….

         Much of what passes for spirituality is the dominance of libidinal inner pressures by a hyperactive ego dedicated to their forceful eradication. By contrast, the healthy spirituality that Hercules is seeking will be a harmonious expression of the same inner forces, which are not innately good or evil, but only subterranean. Antisocial, or even impolite, you might say. The Bible refers to this aspect in Luke 19:37-40. Jesus’ disciples are excited and carrying on, and the guardians of social propriety insist that he shut them up, make them behave. He replies, “I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.” He knew they needed to let off libidinal steam.

         Actually, processing these inner urges is one of the most complex and pressing tasks set before the aspirant. The Greek myth counsels us that fire, symbolizing conscious intelligence, is the key. Intense concentration—intense caring—is needed to make the fire hot enough. Hercules first coaxes the demon out of its cave with flaming arrows, which are well-directed and penetrating thoughts aimed precisely at the problem. The heads are later seared with a hand-held torch, ever a symbol of the light of wisdom shining forth in the darkness. We can think of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. Luckily, Hercules is already armed with an excellent philosophy, filled with light. Plus, he has a helper. This is one task he cannot possible do alone. Our low-grade personal fire is not likely to be bright enough for the task, but a wise teacher can help us bring the necessary intense heat to bear in the right places.

         Indian rishis speak of roasting the seeds of karma (vasanas) so that they can’t sprout. The cauterization of the Hydra heads is the same process. They must be destroyed by the fire of wisdom. Until you really grasp how harmful they are, how useless, part of the mind wants to trot them out and take a look at them one more time. It keeps a few in reserve, just in case it wants to play with them. When you truly understand how past conditioning binds you—like being held fast in the coils of the Hydra—the realization can develop enough heat to finally scorch the vasanas once and for all.

         Tapas, referring to the effort involved with spiritual striving, literally means generating heat, or transforming with heat. Often this is taken to mean the heat of repressed emotions, stemming from the conflict between personal desires and scriptural injunctions. The myth and the rishis suggest otherwise: tapas is the white heat of uncompromising awareness, of being fully cognizant of what normally lurks in the shadows. Bringing light automatically dispels darkness. All we have to do is keep ourselves from shrinking back or running away. There is real courage involved in entering the demon’s lair.

         The Bhagavad Gita refers to the equivalent of the Hydra myth in this way: “Here (in yoga) the well-founded reasoning is unitive, but many branched and endless are the reasonings of them in whom reason is ill-founded.” (II, 41) This means that the original unity of reality can be viewed as either pro or con, good or evil. Once that happens, each side can be taken in isolation, and they will be found to have ever more pros and cons. Each of these increasingly peripheral arguments has its strong and weak points, and so on, ad infinitum. At each stage the original unity becomes more remote, until it is obliterated entirely.

         The club Hercules uses to smash each head might represent the crude examination of ordinary, or ill-founded, reason. It is obviously inadequate for the task at hand. It works only for a second. Luckily this crude handling is followed up by the application of the fire of intelligence by Iolaus, who may well be acting as his guru. Like Krishna. The fire is applied with a red-hot iron, indicating intense determination, as in a will of iron. When the coils of karma want to sweep you off your feet, you have to put all you’ve got into standing firm, even at times to holding on to your very sanity, which may be severely shaken.

         Nitya Chaitanya Yati speaks eloquently of this stage of spiritual unfoldment:

 

When you come to this level, all single items of experience are like fuel for the fire of your understanding. That is why the Bhagavad Gita says the fire of wisdom burns away all ignorance. And what is this ignorance we speak of? In Vedanta, ignorance is considered to be that which creates a desire.

   Desires create the visualization of ways to satisfy them. The visualization of means to satisfactory ends initiates action; the idea of action builds momentum in you to act; and ultimately the action brings about an apparently new situation. As the new situation ebbs it is replaced by a sense of loss, which in turn initiates another desire. From the new desire arises the need to have another action. Thus one action leads to another, endlessly. This is called bondage.

   [To be released from bondage] you have to make a distinction between taking a relativistic path through life, with many compromises and half-baked notions about things—in other words, a pretentious life—and a thoroughgoing search made with great intensity, into which you put your whole mind and spirit, and where you will accept nothing less than complete understanding in every situation. This allows you to own your life entirely and live it with absolute clarity. Until it becomes totally clear to you, you refuse to take it. That changes your stature from a relativist to an absolutist.

   The contemplative… is not just a person who sits in lotus pose in a room with his eyes closed, meditating, but one whose whole life is engulfed in the white heat of a meaningful search. The search can take any form, but it is its thoroughness, the intensity of the pursuit, and the minute details to which one's best attention is given in all earnestness, that [are what is required]. You don't slack up even for a second. (That Alone, verse 82)

 

         Hercules exemplifies this intensity in his battle with the Hydra. If he slacks off for even an instant he will be destroyed! Sharp fangs and poisonous breath are assaulting him from every angle. But he stays with it, full of righteous intensity. One by one the hostile heads are crushed and then cauterized with determination.

         The last of the heads turned out to be immortal, unkillable. This refers to the eternal nature of vasanas. Everything we do, good, bad or indifferent, plants seeds of future travails. Therefore the last vestigial urges of selfishness cannot be totally destroyed, but they can be pinned down under a rock of firm determination so that they cannot rise again. I also see this as possibly communicating the sympathetic humor of some bygone guru, letting us know that we will never be fully free of vasanas until we are liberated by the grave. Only when we are safely tucked in the ground with a stone over our head will the Hydra leave us in perfect peace….

         Lastly Hercules does an interesting thing: he dips his arrows in the poisonous blood of the monster. This demonstrates that we must take what we’ve learned from every encounter. We don’t just walk away and that’s it. The very thing that caused the repulsion and the striving can become a positive factor to bring to bear on the next challenge. As Nataraja Guru would tell us, there is no principle of the excluded middle in this philosophy. Ancient wisdom is dialectic. Good never triumphs over evil, nor evil over good. Through wisdom they are brought together in harmony. The modern cliché is we learn from our mistakes. If there is no connection between our good side and the evil we encounter, the conflict would be essentially meaningless.

         Oddly enough, precisely because Hercules relies on his helper’s expertise and not purely his own, this labor “didn’t count” toward expiating the guilt that propelled him into his spiritual struggles. Eurystheus, the Mycenean king who set the labors, did not consider this a victory by Hercules. This may be only an afterthought, a later addition to the myth, or it may be significant. Triumphing over the vasanas is a tremendous accomplishment, and few if any of us will ever achieve it alone. Kings, however, are famous for their ill-considered opinions in myth and fable and even in actuality. By rights Eurystheus should represent a wise teacher though. Probably, like Marpa, or for that matter Nataraja Guru, he is using a technicality, a trick to keep Hercules busy with his spiritual unfoldment. Realization requires far more than just two Labors! And it’s reasonable to admit that whatever we do on someone else’s coattails is preliminary to us exercising our full recognizance.

         However you read it, Hercules’ second labor speaks to us from the primordial past in vivid pictorial language, imparting a timeless spiritual lesson for those to read who will.

 

         Coincidentally I recently came across the Northwest Native American myth of the Sisiutl, which resembles the Hydra in some intriguing respects. Here are a couple of citations from the internet:

 

The sea monster, Sisiutl, roamed the land and sea of the Kwakiutl and Nootka peoples. It had two heads, and could transform itself into different sizes and shapes. It was believed that anyone viewing a Sisiutl would be turned to stone, but if a warrior could obtain Sisiutl blood and rub it on his skin, it would render his skin impenetrable to enemy weapons. (http://www.metalartsgroup.com/legends.php?lcd=sisiutl)

 

And:

A mythical two-headed sea serpent that guarded the entrance to the homes of the supernaturals, Sisiutl was believed to kill and eat anyone who saw it; washing in its blood turned a person to stone. Transformed into a self-propelled canoe that must be fed seals, this is a creature unique to Kwagiutl mythology. (http://www.tourismvictoria.com/Content/EN/604.asp 3/03)

 

It makes one wonder if there could be some arcane connection with the ancient Greeks. Finally, there is a fine book of Native American stories by Anne Cameron, called Daughters of Copper Woman, (Vancouver, B.C: Press Gang Publishers, 1981), in which the Sisiutl appears. The entire story is very powerful, and worth seeking out. I’ve selected two brief highlights that resonate with the interpretations of Hercules above, and can serve as a final blessing for us on our journey of self-discovery:

 

When you see Sisiutl you must stand and face him. Face the horror. Face the fear. If you break faith with what you Know, if you try to flee, Sisiutl will blow with both mouths at once and you will begin to spin. Not rooted in the earth as are the trees and rocks, not eternal as are the tides and currents, your corkscrew spinning will cause you to leave the earth, to wander forever, a lost soul, and your voice will be heard in the screaming winds of first autumn, sobbing, pleading, begging for release….

 

When you see Sisiutl the terrifying, though you be frightened; stand firm. There is no shame in being frightened, only a fool would not be afraid of Sisiutl the horror.

Scott Teitsworth

rsteitsworth(at)yahoo.com