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The Second Labor – A Non-Canonical Interpretation for the Lernaean Hydra

Triton XXI, Lot: 151. Estimate $3000.
Sold for $3500. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

EGYPT, Alexandria. Antoninus Pius. AD 138-161. Æ Drachm (31mm, 25.25 g, 12h). Labors of Herakles series. Dated RY 5 (AD 141/142). [AYT K T AI]Λ A∆P AN[TωNINOC CЄB ЄYC], laureate and draped bust right / Herakles and the Lernaean Hydra – Herakles standing left, lion skin over his left shoulder, holding club overhead with his right hand, in his left hand is the right arm-tentacle of the anthropomorphized Lernaean Hydra; L Є (date) across field. Köln –; Dattari (Savio) 2598; K&G –; Emmett 1545.5 (R5); Staffieri, Alexandria In Nummis 154 (this coin). VF, dark green patina with patches of red, flan a little irregular. Extremely rare. Emmett lists this types as being struck for three of Pius’ regnal years: 4, 5, and 6. Another variant exists with Herakles standing right, and the Hydra facing left, which was struck for years 8 and 10 (Emmett 1546).

From the Giovanni Maria Staffieri Collection. Ex Paul-Francis Jacquier FPL 29 (Summer 2002), no. 284.

For his second labor, Herakles had to kill the Lernaean Hydra, the offspring of Typhon and Echidna, and the sibling of the Nemean Lion, the Chimaera, and Kerberos. Inhabiting the swamp near Lake Lerna in the Argolid, the creature possessed numerous mortal and one immortal head on its single body; should one head be removed, two more would grow in its place. When Herakles reached the swamp where the Hydra dwelt, he drew it out of its lair near the spring of Amymone. Thereupon, wielding a harvesting sickle, he attempted to decapitate the creature. When this proved unsuccessful, because of the Hydra’s regenerative ability, Herakles enlisted the assistance of his nephew Iolaos, who devised a plan: once Herakles had cut off one of the creature’s heads, Iolaos would cauterize the stump with a burning firebrand. The plan succeeded, and the Hydra was destroyed. Herakles placed its one immortal head under a large rock on the sacred way between Lerna and Elaius and dipped his arrows in its poisonous blood.

On this rare Alexandrian type, Hydra is anthropomorphized as a giantess, which as been interpreted in the past as “the giantess Echidna raising her son Hydra against Herakles in defense.” It remains a mystery as to why the engravers at the Alexandrian mint chose this non-canonical interpretation for the Lernaean Hydra, especially when other provincial mints that struck coins for the various labors used the more traditional representation.