Crete, Phaistos - The Lernean Hydra

Article Image

The obverse of this coin depicts the second of Herakles’ Twelve Labours set by Eurystheos, the agent of Hera. He was tasked with slaying the ancient serpent-like monster that resided in the lake of Lerna in the Argolid, which guarded an underwater entrance to the underworld.

Upon cutting off each of the Hydra’s heads however, Herakles found that two more would grow back in its place, an expression of the hopelessness of such a struggle for any but the hero. Realizing that he could not defeat the Hydra in this way, Herakles called on his nephew Iolaos for help. Iolaos then came upon the idea (possibly inspired by Athena) of using a firebrand to cauterize the stumps after each decapitation. When Hera saw that Herakles was gaining the upper hand she sent a large crab to distract the hero, but Herakles crushed it underfoot. He cut off the last and strongest of the Hydra’s heads with a golden sword given to him by Athena, and so completed his task. Hera, upset that Herakles had slain the beast she raised to kill him, placed it in the vault of the heavens as the constellation Hydra, and she turned the crab into the constellation Cancer.

The encounter with the Lernean Hydra is not only well attested in epic, but is also the subject of some of the earliest securely identifiable Herakles scenes in Greek art. On two Boiotian fibulae of c. 750-700 BC (BM 3025, Philadelphia 75-35-1), the hydra is attacked by Herakles, at whose feet is the crab sent by Hera. This particular form of the scene would later be replicated on the coins of Phaistos (cf. Svoronos 60, pl. XXIV, 20), even including the crab.

The present example is the earliest in the Herakles-Hydra series at Phaistos, and consequently is more archaistic in style. It has been extensively argued that the later designs of Phaistos copy a now lost masterpiece of sculpture or painting, perhaps even a statue group by the great sculptor Lysippos (see Lehmann, ‘Statues on Coins’, New York 1946; see also Lacroix, ‘Les Reproductions de Statues sur les Monnaies Grecques’, Liege 1949; see also Lattimore, ‘Lysippian Sculpture on Greek Coins’, California Studies in Classical Antiquity Vol. 5 1972). The present type however most likely draws its inspiration from a locally significant vase or wall painting, given that the composition is pictorial in nature, showing Herakles’ bow and quiver behind him in the field. Though the particular source of inspiration for this type is not known, clear parallels can be seen in surviving Greek art of the late Archaic and early Classical periods, notably on an Attic black figure Lekythos now in the Louvre (CA598) which depicts Herakles and the Hydra in a similar combat pose.

Crete, Phaistos AR Stater. Mid 4th century BC. Herakles standing in fighting attitude to right, wearing Nemean lion skin, seizing with his left hand one of the heads of the Lernean Hydra, and with his right hand preparing to strike with; bow and bowcase in left field / Bull standing to left. Svoronos 66, pl. XXIV, 23 (these dies); Le Rider pl. XXIII, 11 (same dies); BMFA Suppl. 125 (same dies). 11.41g, 27mm, 4h.

Near Extremely Fine. Extremely Rare, only two examples recorded by Le Rider.

From the Eckenheimer Collection.