Hydra, the Water Snake

 by Lana Rings

Fort Worth and Arlington, Texas



Bird (perhaps an owl) on cup


Hydra is another constellation having to do with snakes, for the Hydra itself or herself is a water snake, and Hydra is the feminine form of the word (Hydrus the masculine form).

In the night sky Hydra appears at the same time as Virgo, the Virgin, does. The Hydra is a very long constellation, according to Rey covering one quarter the length of the night sky, probably important for that very reason. The fact that the constellation takes up such a long part of the sky, made up of stars which could be used in other constellations, should be indicative that this was an important constellation. It is below the ecliptic, and therefore below the sun sign Virgo. It is also below the sun sign Leo, the lion, another animal significant to many goddess figures. (In fact, it "stretches 70 degrees across the night sky [Cancer through Libra!]" Griffon 1992, 48.) The Hydra seems to be female, just like Virgo, and appears near that very female part of the sky containing the Serpent Holder and Scorpio, which, it has been argued, are significant parts of the autumnal heliacal (rising/setting at about the same time as the sun) sky

The Hydra is also associated with two other symbols almost literally riding above or on it: the crow, or raven, and the cup (perhaps cauldron), all three holy symbols of those ancient religions. The snake, water snake, raven, and cauldron are all holy symbols. The constellations look like this, according to Rey, and are best seen in the twentieth century from February through May. (See Rey's charts for more detailed viewing times and place in the sky.)

The stars of Hydra, connected by dots, together with the crow and cup on top of it (crow left, cup right). Part of Virgo is also showing in the upper left hand corner.

Now, Hydra herself is not one of the brightest constellations in the sky. So it is not particularly important from the standpoint of brightness, but it is important because of its length. Also, according to Rey, "Hydra's head ... is a pretty little group of stars and worth looking for.... Hydra is hard to see in middle latitudes but farther south, where it rises higher, its graceful shape can be traced easily on clear dark nights" (48). Rey uses a 40 degree latitude as his point of departure, an imaginary line crossing the United States at the northern boundary of Kansas and crossing southern Italy, northern Greece and Turkey. So further south would be, for example, 30 degrees, approximately Houston, Texas, northern Florida, northern Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Much (though not all) of the Fertile Crescent, from which the myths come is between 40 and 20 degrees latitude north of the Equator. Thus, the people of Athens, Crete, southern Anatolia (Turkey), Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia would have been able to spot Hydra quite well, especially since they didn't have all those electric night lights to disturb their star gazing!

According to Greek mythology, the story of the raven, the water snake, and the cup is as follows: Apollo sent the raven with a cup to fetch water while at a feast for Jupiter. While on his way, the raven became attracted by a fig tree* and waited for the fruit to ripen so he could eat it. But then he realized he had dallied, so he picked up the poor snake and took it to Apollo, telling the god that he had been delayed by it. Apollo was so aggravated by the whole thing that he put all three, raven, cup, and snake into the sky as a memorial!!! (Griffon 1992, 48)

But this is only one tale, one of the latest tales, the Greek tale. There are other tales about the Hydra of the sky as well. According to Allen, Hydra has been called Coluber, the Snake, Echidna, the Viper, the Arabic Al Hayyah, perhaps a relative of Ladon, sometimes three-headed, the Nile, the moon's nodes. Its brightest star Alphard has been called the backbone, neck, or heart of Hydra.

If Hydra is Echidna, the Viper, she is half snake and half nymph, according to Allen. According to Walker, a nymph is "a bride or a nubile young woman. The same word was applied to female-genital symbols like the lotus flower, water lilies, and certain shells. 'Nymphs' served as priestesses in ancient temples of the Goddess, especially in sexual ceremonies, where they represented the divine principle of flowering fertility and were sometimes known as Brides of God" (1983, 732). If one looks up 'Echidna', one finds that she is the daughter of Gaea (Earth!!). One also finds that she is the mother of Cerberus (see "Dog"), who is the hound of Hades, the hound of Hel (the goddess Hel); and she is the mother of the Nemean lion, also a holy animal of the Goddess(es). Finally, and for our constellation, most importantly, she is the mother of the Lernaean Hydra, the Hydra of Lerna, who, by the time of the Greeks, had become of monstrous multi-headed monster whom Heracles (Hercules) killed.

Indeed, in earlier days the Lernean Hydra may have been something quite different from that monster the Greeks hated so and Heracles killed. In Ur (Iraq) of the fourth millenium BCE (somewhere between 5000 to 6000 years ago, and several millenia before the Greek stories, there existed serpent headed Goddess figures, suckling infants, (I say, perhaps an early, beneficent version, this half snake, half female figure?) (Johnson 1981, 133). In the early fifth millenium BCE, there is an icon, described by Johnson as follows: "Stripes on the enthroned Madonna suggest a Snake Goddess, Sesklo, Greece" (125). In Egypt Neith appears as the "golden cobra [who] wears the shuttle on her breast, ca. 1325 BCE" (125). (See Casseopeia and Isis and cobras.)

The snake and female figures are heavily entwined here as one and the same concept, entity, or symbol. At other places and times, perhaps in later versions or modifications of other traditions, female figures and snakes are still connected, but are no longer one and the same figure as icons. Instead, the snakes accompany the female figures, either as the Lady of the Beasts (Khafaje, Sumer, 2500 BCE, Johnson, 139), the Minoan Snake Goddesses/women (sixteenth century BCE, Johnson, 143-144), the Goddess Anat (Syria, thirteenth century BCE, Johnson, 152), or the Goddess of Canaan, ca. 1200 BCE (Johnson, 139).

Another possibility is that the Hydra is Al Hayyah, the Arabic name for her, meaning--what else--snake! Is Al Hayyah a variation of the Arabic hayyat, meaning Eve, Life, Serpent? By the time of Eve, of course, the female, the tree, and the snake had become negative symbols, for the warrior god became angry when they all got together and threw them out of Paradise. The relationship of similar words to Eve is discussed in detail in the section on the Serpent Holder.

The Hydra is possibly also the dragon who guarded the apples of Hera in the Hesperides. Thus Hydra could have some relationship to Hera as well. And, of course, in the Hesperides there was a tree with Hera's golden apples on it and a snake who guarded the holy tree. Very similar to the Eve story, but here not yet as completely negative as Eve's story.

Thus, the Hydra could be related to Draco (and the Serpent Holder).

Be that as it may, it is quite interesting to note that birds and snakes were perceived as very holy symbols in quite ancient times. According to Gimbutas "when she is prophesying death, this Goddess manifests as an owl or crow--birds of prey. European folklore is full of the same kinds of warnings from birds of prey to this day..." (1991, 238). Regarding the snake, "the snake of Old Europe, however, represents the antithesis of Christian, Semitic, and Indo-European religions. She assures the well-being and continuity of life through intimate identification and harmony with the cycles of nature. Through seasonal renewal of vital energy, the snake assures and protects the life of humans and animals. There are hundreds of beliefs in the snake's magical plants and flowers which can heal the sick and even raise the dead. Even the snake's body was used as medicine. The snake is also present in her poisonous aspect, appearing as the Goddess of Death" (236).

Thus, the Hydra of the sky could be related to any of these aspects of ancient religions going back thousands of years. If she is retained in the Greek versions of Echidna and the Lernean Hydra at all, she has been completely vilified so that the poisonous aspect of her has been exaggerated beyond all proportion, for the Lernea Hydra of the Greeks became an evil, killing monster, and that was all.

Yet, the earlier snake and crow stories make much more sense to me than the later Greek Apollo aggravation story. A holy snake and crow and cup would be placed in the sky by a people for whom they were important, not as punishment. They would be there for the people to see, reminding them of their spiritual beliefs. So, as far as I am concerned (and corrobated by findings in myth and archeology), it makes much more sense to view the later Greek myth as a covering over of the ancient ideas by newer, conquering belief systems. But since the manuscript of the sky was already there for all to see, and could not be destroyed, the later Greeks had to fit some kind of story onto and over the existing ones. Thus, the stories seem weird and do not make much sense. For while some gods are throwing things into the sky as punishment, other gods and goddesses and rewarding human and animal figures by placing them in the sky as well. It's hard to make much sense of that unless one does view them all in the context of what went before: the beliefs more ancient than those of the Greeks of the first millennium B.C.E.!

According to Allen, the Hydra was called by some "three-headed,"** which is quite interesting, because the Lernean Hydra was nine-headed. There may be some connection there, because the numbers three and nine are important in vegetation cycle belief systems: three is important in the waxing, maturing, and waning belief system representative of the moon's course, and of course of the three parts of the year: spring (waxing), summer (maturing), autumn (waning), with winter being a time of waiting for the next cycle to begin. Also, the number nine is important because of the nine month vegetation cycle and because of the human gestation period. These ideas had to be important after the solar calendar was created, since a human pregnancy takes 10 lunar months, or lunations. Thus, there could be some relationship there.

Allen cites another definition of the sky Hydra as the winding course of the moon: "For an unknown period its winding course symbolized that of the moon; hence the latter's nodes are called the Dragon's Head and Tail" (1963 [1899], 249). Here is another instance in which the Hydra and the moon are linked, indeed in which the Hydra symbolizes the moon in its course. As has been said, it is thought that the lunar calendar was the first calendar ever, because it would have been easier to watch the moon in its wanderings over a month than to watch the sun for a year. However, ancient peoples, at least in the area we call Great Britain, of about 1600 BCE, knew the 56-year cycle of the moon and sun before they complete cycles and meet again. The nodes of the moon are imaginary points on the ecliptic, the place where the moon crosses the ecliptic when rising and setting and are known, as here stated, as the Dragon's Head and Tail. Thus, the dragon, or snake, is still extremely important in the sky zodiac of later periods, although it has become a negative aspect in many ways at the time of the Hellenic Greeks. The ecliptic is an imaginary line in the heavens, delineating the sun's apparent passage through the sky every day. The constellations appearing on the ecliptic are those through which the sun passes. These constellations are the zodiac signs, except for the Serpent Holder, which for some reason is not part of the zodiac (deleted because of its importance to ancient religion?).

Hydra was also at one time representative of the Nile River and given the name of their river by the Egyptians. Of course, the Nile was all-important to the ancient Egyptians, and they used the stars, especially Sirius (in the Big Dog ["Bitch" used as positive word] constellation, to know when the Nile would flood each spring. The Nile was a source river for them. And as waters are important in ancient cosmic belief, there may have been a connection between the Nile as source and the snake as representative of birth (as well as death and resurrection).

In addition, for the Euphrateans of 1200 BCE (Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq), from which much of astronomy/astrology as we know them came, "Hydra is supposed to be the snake shown on a uranographic stone,... 'identified with the source of the fountains of the great deep,' and one of the several sky symbols of the great dragon Tiamat (see Draco). Here we have Tiamat again and her identification with the great deep which is found in the Bible as the "cosmic stuff" out of which God (Elohim, the Gods) produced creation. Tiamat herself is in some stories the original creatrix as well, the great serpent who was killed by Marduk later when he took over the universe in ancient myth.

Finally, Alphard, the brightest star in the Hydra constellation, is known by several names: "Solitary One in the Serpent," or backbone or neck of the Serpent, or Hydra's Heart--all body parts important important in the anatomy.

Thus, it seems quite reasonable to believe that the Hydra means much more than what Apollo makes it in the later Greek myth. Hydra represented important cosmic beliefs of ancient peoples, having to do with the forces of creation -- the great chaos or deep or waters which existed prior to creation, and out of which creation was formed, often in female form. Hydra as snake also contained some of the representations of that for which the symbol snake stood: birth, life, death, rebirth, regeneration. It makes much more sense that the Hydra would have these important cosmic meanings rather than the simple, seemingly stupid, story of a ticked-off God punishing a raven and a poor helpless snake by throwing them into the sky.

Looking back at all of these stories and definitions, it seems quite clear that the Hydra here is not an evil watersnake, as the Lernean Hydra is portrayed. Whether there is a connection between this Hydra and the Lernean Hydra is not completely clear to me. However, there may be a connection between the triple-headed Hydra here and the Lernean Hydra. Another connection could be made through reading Graves' interpretations of Lerna and the Lernean Hydra. The area around Lerna was definitely a pre-Greek pagan site. The sky Hydra, when reading Allen, seems to have symbols of death associated with it: the raven, the viper (death-dealing snake), the word 'furious.' Also the crab and scorpion are some interpretations of it. The scorpion is associated with death, I believe. But the watersnake is also a symbol of the course of the moon, of life, therefore (waxing, maturing, waning), and if related to the triple Goddess also symbolic of the life cycle process. (Remember the three maidens and the three heads.) Also, the Hydra is related possibly to Hera (of the triple deity Hebe, Hera, Hecate), maybe to Eve, and maybe to the Greek Echidna nymph-snake, all possibly remnants of the female snake deities representing life and death, and immortality -- resurrection as well.

It seems quite evident that the Hydra's story did not begin with the Greeks' notion of a dumb snake involved in the story of the cup of water and the raven. It seems that must be a later Greek re-writing of an ancient holy symbol. The Hydra is quite long and, though faint, still impressive in the sky and is also near that great autumnal helical sky containing the serpent holder, scorpion, etc. A marvelous sky of female pagan symbols, most probably, and related to the dying time of the yearly cycle, but having the seeds of rebirth and immortality there as well. It is also right under Virgo! So I think Hydra, far from being simply a poisonous, venom-dripping serpent of many heads, as the Lernean Hydra became, and far from being a dumb snake caught up in the disobedience of Zeus by a raven going to get him a drink from the cup, the Hydra was the awe-inspiring snake, giver of life, death, and rebirth, symbol of the life's cycles: furious, but also great and sublime. Wonderful.

Bye-bye, Greek story of little meaning. Hello, much more understandable symbol of an ancient religion whose manuscript the Greeks had to re-interpret to their own ends and belief systems.

* Stone makes a case for the tree in the Garden of Eden to have been a fig tree! She also observes that it was fig leaves that Adam and Eve used to cover up their genitals. Note the connection: Eve, snake, tree, figs, this story. And in this story, note that fig and snake are connected, and that the "fig tree" attracted the raven (a very bad thing for the raven to do), just as the snake attracted Eve to eat of the fruit (a very bad thing for Eve to do). Might there be some kind of connection between the Greek and the Hebrew stories?

source: http://langlab.uta.edu

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