In Greek mythology the Hydra is a nine-headed serpent that guards the entrance to the Underworld beneath Lake Lerna. In modern terms, the Underworld is the deep unconscious psyche, home of the powerful energies that fund our lives with the “rapture of being alive in our bodies.” *
As the myth goes, it took the hero Hercules to slay the Hydra and gain access to the magical, mystical, and awesome energies of the Underworld. In our own lives, we too must access our Hero selves in order to slay the worthy opponent that ferociously guards the gateway to our own magical inner treasures.
Ironically, the Hero and the Hydra are fraternal twins, two sides of the same being, the being of our Ego self. The Ego self was birthed at the moment of decision to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, as another myth portrays it, which led to expulsion from the Garden, the garden of blissful wholeness with nature. Like all children, the Ego, with consciousness and autonomy, must leave the womb of unconscious wholeness and go out and establish itself in the world, separate and distinct from the wholeness of its unconscious origin. To accomplish this, the Ego must break ranks with its deep unconscious nature and become a rational, controlled being, while simultaneously installing the Hydra with all its deadly defenses—projection, denial, repression, resistance, etc.—to defend it from the energies and controls of nature’s instincts.
The Hydra is the greedy, sensually-driven part of the Ego self, the child in us who wants it all. The Hydra is also the power-driven competitor in us who thrives on attention. The Hydra is the frightened child in us who shuns life in self-hate and self-pity. The Hydra is the stoic in us who denies our needs. The Hydra is the defender in us, the repressor, suppressor, who guards the gate to the Underworld and shields us from the truths of our recapitulations, keeping them safely stored just beyond the door to the Underworld. The Hydra is neither good nor bad. It’s the house we’ve constructed to manage our lives. We all need defenses to stem the tidal waves of fear, abandonment, dissolution, and all manner of traumatic events.
Once the Ego has gained a foothold in the world, it desperately seeks its wholeness, that is, access to the deep energies that inspire and electrify life in human form. At this point, the Ego twins are pitted against each other. The Hero seeks to win individuation, that is, union with its alienated, deeper self, in fact, also with the Hydra. This is the moment when the Hero must go to battle, slaying through to everything that has been stored away beyond the entryway to the unconscious, safely protected from memory by the ferocious Hydra. The Hero must face and subdue the Hydra on its journey to adulthood, for its wholeness requires knowing and unification with all the truths of life, as well as the truths of the primal energies that flow just beyond the entryway to the Underworld, in the darkness of the mythological Lake Lerner.
The Hydra, in its stead, has the task of testing the worthiness of the Hero, proving the Hero’s readiness to undertake the journey into the Underworld and reunite with the powerful energies in the darkness below. The Hero may initiate the journey by undertaking therapy, recapitulation, or some form of initiation or night sea journey into the unknown.
The Hydra is a mighty opponent, a worthy guardian at the door of the deeper self, throwing all the sensual delights at the Hero—food, drink, diet, pleasure, denial of pleasure, etc.—to waylay the journey. If one head is cut off, two heads appear in its stead. In this manner, the Hydra presents distractions, projections, crises, and must dos to snarl and challenge the Hero’s intent—entitlements, resentments, sleepiness, and sloth—in cycles of groundhog days that deplete the Hero’s energy and defeat the Hero’s resolve to complete the journey.
Only if the Hero succeeds in defeating all the Hydra’s heads will the Hydra grant access through the gate, to a Hero proven worthy of feeling the full impact of stored traumas and the numinous reward of the energies of the deeper self. Only with the defeat of the Hydra is the Hero truly ready to join with its wholeness, truly ready to funnel the deepest of energies into rapturous life.
And so, ultimately, these fraternal ego twins—Hero and Hydra—must become necessary partners in our quest for wholeness. May we honor them both for the roles they play in serving to launch us into fulfillment.
On the battlefield,
* Quote from Joseph Campbell.