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Hercules Fights the Hydra of Lerna, a painting by Francisco de Zurbarán

Like Father, like Son: Altar shows heroic son of Hercules slaying a many-headed Hydra

A second century AD altarpiece carved in marble and showing a strongman battling a monster has been found near a river by villagers in Turkey. Experts think the mythic scene may depict Bargasos, a son of the hero Hercules, doing battle with a Hydra to invoke the river god Harpasos. An inscription across the top dedicates the altar to Harpasos.

Live Science reports that villagers found the altar near the River Akçay in an area that was controlled by the Roman Empire in the second century. When the altar was carved, at the behest of a man named Flavius Ouliades, the river was called the Harpasos.

A son of Hercules does battle with a many-headed Hydra in a scene from an ancient altar found in Turkey. The battle recalls Hercules’ own fight with the Hydra.

A son of Hercules does battle with a many-headed Hydra in a scene from an ancient altar found in Turkey. The battle recalls Hercules’ own fight with the Hydra. (Photo by Hasan Malay)

"According to a dream, Flavius Ouliades set this up to the god Harpasos," says the  Greek inscription  along the altar’s top.

“As a result of a communication with the river god Harpasos in a dream, Flavius Ouliades was requested to dedicate an altar," wrote Professor Hasan Malay of Ege University in Turkey, and archaeologist Funda Ertugrul of the Aydin Museum, in the journal Epigraphica Anatolica . They believe Flavius Ouliades was a firm believer in Harpasos, the god of the river.

They wrote that Flavius may have been asking Harpasos "for a good harvest or protection (for himself or his animals) from flooding or falling down the steep slopes or cure from its healing waters.”

As one of his 12 Labors, Hercules also battled a Hydra, a serpentine monster with many heads, in the Lerna marsh. After Hercules defeated the Hydra, the marsh was drained and became cultivable and was put to good use.

Hercules and the Hydra, c. 1475, Uffizi Gallery

Hercules and the Hydra, c. 1475, Uffizi Gallery ( public domain )

The altar found in Turkey shows Bargasos, son of Hercules and Barge, fighting the Hydra with a shield and a dagger. He is wearing nothing except a crested helmet. The altar is .45 meter (1.5 feet) wide and .61 meter (2 feet) high. It is in the Aydin Museum in Turkey.

Ertugrul and Malay wrote that the story of Bargasos and the Hydra is similar to that told of his father. The Harpasos River had many tributaries in a sandy landscape and was comparable to the area around the Lerna marsh in Greece. It’s possible, the researchers wrote, that after the battle the river god Harpasos was first invoked.

The “scene on our altar may be a representation of a local myth telling about Bargasos’ fight against the ravaging river with many arms,” Malay and Ertugrul wrote in their paper. “The river turned into a beneficial deity [Harpasos], the recipient of our dedication."

An ancient town in Turkey was named Bargasa in the son's honor.

In ancient belief, the Hydra had nine heads, and if one was lopped off, two grew back immediately in its place. So it seemed impossible to defeat. Hercules solved the dilemma by having his chariot driver press burning brands to the stumps after he chopped off the heads, preventing regeneration.

Hercules’ chariot driver burns the stumps to prevent the heads regenerating

Hercules’ chariot driver burns the stumps to prevent the heads regenerating ( public domain )

Pseudo-Apollodorus, a Greek mythographer of the second century wrote about the great battle:

"For his second labour Herakles was instructed to slay the Lernaian Hydra. The beast was nurtured in the marshes of Lerna, from where she would go out onto the flatland to raid flocks and ruin the land. The Hydra was of enormous size, with eight mortal heads, and a ninth one in the middle that was immortal. With Iolaos driving, Herakles rode a chariot to Lerna, and there, stopping the horses, he found the Hydra on a ridge beside the springs of Amymone where she nested. By throwing flaming spears at her he forced her to emerge, and as she did he was able to catch hold. But she hung on to him by wrapping herself round one of his feet, and he was unable to help matters by striking her with his club, for as soon as one head was pounded off two others would grow in its place. Then a giant crab came along to help the Hydra, and bit Herakles on the foot. For this he killed the crab, and called on his own behalf to Iolaos for help. Iolaos made some torches by setting fire to a portion of the adjoining woods, and, by using these to burn the buddings of the heads, he kept them from growing. When he had overcome this problem, Herakles lopped off the immortal head, which he buried and covered with a heavy boulder at the side of the road that runs through Lerna to Elaios. He cut up the Hydra's body and dipped his arrows in its venom."

Featured image: Hercules Fights the Hydra of Lerna, a painting by Francisco de Zurbarán ( Wikimedia Commons )

By: Mark Miller

 

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