Hail Hydra-Slayer: On The Mythic Combat Of Herakles And Athena – Indra And Vak Saraswati, Against The Demon-Dragon Of The Water

Herakles against the Hydra, Indra against Vritra – these are surely some of the best-known mythic combats in each of the Greek/Classical and Vedic/Hindu legendariums. Similarities immediately begin to suggest themselves – clearly, each is a fight of the Thunderer/Striker against a Demon-Dragon that is to be found ‘midst waters. However, there is another, less frequently remarked upon coterminity. One that is rendered all the more striking precisely because of its unexpectedness. And which helps to more strongly demonstrate the fundamental kinship of the Indo-European faith.

I am speaking, of course, about the help which both Herakles and Indra had in Their respective dragon-slaying ventures. And no, I do not mean Iolaus.

You see, in both cases, the essential ingredient of the Striker/Thunderer’s Victory – is the aid and availment provided by a certain Goddess. Hailed amidst the Greeks as Athena, known to the Vedic religion as Vak and Saraswati. Without Her Intervention, the combats in question may have turned out rather differently. And while it is true to state that Athena’s direct and vital involvement in the myth is not universally attested amidst the Greek canon – nor, for that matter, Vak / Saraswati’s involvement found overtly stated in all the RigVedic accounts of Indra against Vritra – the fact that these two cultures accord about the presence of the Goddess in the myth, and that Athena is very much there in the oldest Greek version of the tale available to us (that contained in Hesiod’s Theogony), would appear to suggest it unlikely that it was a spontaneous case of ‘convergent evolution’ in two cultures thousands of miles and a thousand years apart. Rather, I would infer from this that it is a shared tradition – one which has its ultimate origins back in the Proto-Indo-European mythology of the Urheimat (potentially as one variety of the myth of the Thunderer/Striker vs the Demon-Dragon, amidst others that may have been in circulation even then). Or, at least, at the point wherein the Greeks diverged from Indo-Iranian if you want to go down that alternate hypothetical lineage of ethnogenesis.

This would accord rather well with the concordance of certain other elements of the Greek scripture concerning Athena which find almost 1:1 parallel with RigVedic / Brahmana scriptural materials, as I have already demonstrated in “MahaShivRatri And The Mytholinguistics Of War [Part 3] – The Mind, The Mania, The Manyu”.

So, let us (briefly) compare what the two canons have to say upon the matter.

Hesiod, writing in or about the 700s B.C. put it thus: “… thirdly [Echidna] bore the grim Hydra of Lerna which Hera the goddess with white arms fostered to gratify her implacable hostility to the might of Herakles. But Herakles the son of Zeus and the son of Amphitryon killed this monster with his pitiless sword, aided by warlike Iolaos and instructed by Athena, the goddess of plunder.” (N.O. Brown translation; others choose to phrase it as the Hydra dying at Herakles’ hand “by the design of” or “through the plans of” Athena – which renders us with the intriguing potentiality that rather than simply ‘instructing’ Herakles, Athena may have placed Herakles up against the Hydra as a deliberate stratagem to ensure the beast’s downfall) As I say, this is pretty much the oldest directly available Greek source upon the matter, and is also corroborated by artistic depictions found to date from the similar period as well as later.

Other Greek (and later, Roman) sources across the next thousand years or so are surprisingly sparse with the actual details of the encounter, and go backward and forward about particular elements in a manner which makes it hard to pin down definitive facts (for instance – whether the Hydra is taken out of action by having its central head incapacitated, whether it’s fire or its own burning blood which seals its fate, whether Herakles makes use of His bow and arrows against the beast beforehand, etc.); and whether they choose to mention Athena’s specific presence and involvement there.

It seems evident that some of these writers and artisans were making direct transpositions from living mytho-religious traditions, now preserved for posterity – whereas others, as with some of the Classical playwrights and literary authors,(including Plato), were utilizing these traditions as more of a starting-point and a spring-bard in order to showcase their own conceits. The combination of all of this making it not hard to see how the Classical and later Modern-Pop-Cultural impression of the combat wound up somewhat ‘jumbled’ in some particulars as compared to the Vedic tradition’s preserved account from perhaps a thousand years earlier.

The precise form of Athena’s assistance to Herakles is left almost intentionally vague in most of these renditions, however given the prominence of Fire as Problem-Solving-Tool presented in various of the more enduringly popular accounts, it is unsurprising that some have ascribed the spark for the concept to Her. Valerius Flaccus, for instance, in his ‘Argonautica’, written seven centuries or more following Hesiod, describes it thus: “The Tirynthian [Herakles] wearied in fight against the Hydra’s dreadful hosts turned to the fires of Pallas” (Mozley translation). Pallas, of course, being the well-known epithet of Athena; and the Fires of Pallas assumedly referring to the Fire that which Herakles was instructed to make use of against his mortal foe, by Her.

If it were the ‘Provision of Insight’ which Athena’s aid to the Hero took here, then this would indeed conceptually fit rather well with various other instances and occurrences from the Classical milieu. Most prominently, perhaps, Her impartment of a particular quality of ‘Menos’ to Diomedes immediately before the latter is empowered to be able to fight and win against a succession of Greek Gods Who have taken to the field of war afore Troy. Interestingly, if memory serves, in the cases of both Diomedes and Achilles, Athena’s assistance is effectively represented in poetic terms as ‘flame’, ‘fire’ about their brows. [For more detail upon this manifestation, please see my earlier ‘MahaShivRatri And The Mytholinguistics Of War [Part 3] – The Mind, The Mania, The Manyu’]

It would not, perhaps, be hard to see how over a thousand years or more, the ‘received understanding’ of the myth might shift from Athena providing empowerment, inspiration and insight to Herakles, accompanied by a visually apparent ‘flame’, therefore enabling Him to slay the dragon … through to Athena providing the inspiration to use flame to enable the dragon to be slain.

There are also suggestions in various modern writeups that the manner of Athena’s assistance to Herakles took the form of a (golden) sword, the only weapon capable of truly killing the beast’s otherwise immortal central head. However, I have as yet been unable to track down any direct and primary-text attestation for this; and instead suspect it may be something of a conflation between the boon-bestowing of various Gods to Herakles at the outset of His Labours as mentioned in Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca … and the bit immediately preceding that in the Bibliotheca in which Athena does provide Herakles with weapons in order to fight Erginus and the Minyans at Thebes.

But let us move over (and backwards in time) to the Vedic accounts of relevancy here. These are contained in several RigVedic Hymnals and their associated Brahmana commentary layer; and it is necessary to place several of these alongside one another in order to get a more full picture of proceedings than afforded by any of these sources alone. This does not make it an act of artificial ‘conflation’ to bring these elements together, however – only an acknowledgement that the short portions of the relevant mythic recounting in each Hymnal are the result of the Vedic Rsis [Seers] in question prioritizing what portion of the tale was most important for the devotional purpose contained within each at the time.

The main such Hymnal in question, being RV VIII 100 [inexplicably numbered RV VIII 89 in some Griffith versions] – which is dedicated to both Indra and Vak, and which contains a synopsis of various of the assistances rendered to Indra afore His mighty combat against the demon-dragon despoiler, Vritra. These include elements well-known and talked about elsewhere, such as Shyena the Falcon (Agni) bringing the Soma from the Heavens for Indra’s Empowerment (and I note that this would therefore, too, connote ‘Fire’ as symbolic of both Divine Inspiration, and the vitally important facilitator for Dragon-Slaying, as we briefly examined earlier in reference to Herakles); but also – and rather more interestingly, for our purposes – the strong element played by the Goddess in Indra’s Victory ‘gainst Vritra.

A debt which Indra acknowledges in the course of the relevant Hymnal, wherein He not only insists that Vak be given the honour-share of the Soma sacrificial rite in recognition for Her contribution, but also enthusiastically voices His acceptance of Her offer of assistance: “Thou on my right shalt be my friend and comrade: then shall we two smite dead full many a foeman.” [RV VIII 100 2]

The precise nature of Vak’s role in this triumph as seen through RV VIII 100 is a complex matter, and for reasons of space I have chosen to leave its in-depth explication for another article more directly upon the subject to be published in the near future. But suffice to say, there are several strongly coterminous ways in which Vak contributes to the conflict, contingent upon which account of the combat one is prioritizing; with a general theme that it is pious co-operation with Vak which makes available the essential tools to take down the Dragon. These range in scope from Vak’s role in the proper sacrificial conduct (and honouring therein of Her) which ‘unlocks’ the Soma for Indra’s use [for more details upon Vak/Saraswati’s role in this, please consult my earlier ‘Soma Kvasir – The Eddic-Vedic Myth Of The Meath of Poetry’], through to Saraswati’s role in preparing Indra’s uniquely attuned weapon for the especial vulnerability of the foe [c.f the Shatapatha Brahmana commentary upon the slaying of Namuci; which I shall cover at greater length in the upcoming article] or otherwise making it available from the conceptual space of The Waters (with what that represents in terms of congealed Cosmic Law actively weaponized for demon-slaying), Vak as the Weapon when the conjuring of the Vajra is done via Sacred Speech as was done by Brihaspati (alongside Indra in some versions, wherein the Vajra may take the form of a Meteor, a mountain being dropped from the Heavens in an act of orbital bombardment .. just to be sure; and which interestingly accords with some of the Greek accounts having the death of the Hydra only possible once Herakles does likewise and drops a seriously large rock upon the beast’s ‘immortal’ head); as well as last, but most certainly not least, the rather dramatic epithet of Saraswati in RV VI 61 7 , ‘Vrtraghni’ – ‘Slayer of Vritra’. This theonym and its closely related forms [e.g. ‘Vritrahan’ etc.] is also more frequently encountered as an epithet of Lord Indra, although is also occasionally found in reference to Agni [for instance, RV III 16 1]. ‘Fire’ as the Dragon-Slayer would most certainly accord rather well with the design of Athena for the Victory of Herakles – especially when it is ‘Agni’ in the sense of more than mere ‘mortal’ and mundane ignition .. but rather, as Pious Flame – the flame of Prayer, Sacrifice, and the direct conduit to the Divine. Perhaps this also resonates with the ‘terrifying Golden Path’ associated with Saraswati’s appearance as Vritraghni in RV VI 61.

‘Vritraghni’ / ‘Vritrahan’ can also be translated in other ways, of course, as I explored in ‘Saraswati Puja – The Power Of The Smiter Of Foes’; and in other contexts, ‘Smiter of Resistance’, has been offered, due to ‘Vritra’ carrying a meaning of an ‘envelopment’ or an ‘encirclement’. These are, in effect, non-exclusive interpretations – as Vritra’s role within the myth is precisely to be an ‘envelopment’ and ‘ensnarement’ of The Waters and other such wealth, while offering resistance against his Divine Reclaimer Adversaries; a resistance which, given Vritra’s serpentine nature, would quite plausibly entail just such an enveloping constriction. The figure with the power to break through his coils in order to liberate that which he had illegitimately seized, therefore, would be Vritrahan at least thrice over. ‘Foe-Slayer’, meanwhile, is supposed to suggest something more specific than the general notion of a Deity carrying out the killing of their enemies. After all, it would hardly be a noteworthy sobriquet if so. Instead, the idea is to connote that the Deity in question is capable of vanquishing that tier of foe – those equal to Vritra, a figure who was powerful enough to give even much of the assembled Pantheon pause and require quite especial preparatory measures before the chosen champion (in this case, Lord Indra) is capable to take to the field with victory assured.

Although to bring the matter back to Vak / Saraswati in the context of this specific myth – there seems no reason to de-emphasize the rather literal and directly straightforward meaning of the epithet. It seems quite clear that ‘but for’ Vak’s involvement in proceedings, Vritra would not have been slain. The only serious question is just how ‘hands on’ Vak’s contribution may have been. Whether it is, as we see in the much later Varaha Purana when Devi kills the reincarnated Vritra (again) personally (or, for that matter, the literal litany of Devi demon-slaying which forms the elegant core of the Shakta scriptural canon). Or whether it is closer to what we see in the DeviSukta [RV X 125 6] wherein Devi’s dual contribution is to empower the prime Divine Weapon and its Wielder to actually work for its designated and over-powering purpose – while planning and maneuvering in the manner of a General, a ‘chessmaster’ or strategic planner, to ensure the combat happens in the manner that ensures victory. And even if it is the latter (and leaving aside the metaphysical aspect of Vak as the Weapon in some understandings), this would still render Vak as much ‘Slayer of Vritra’ as Napoleon was ‘Conqueror of Europe’. A General does not necessarily personally take up arms in the field in order to be responsible for a victory – indeed, the men and materials under their command are the weapons with which they fight. A pattern which may also bear itself out when we consider Athena’s utilization of Diomedes, suitably divinely empowered and guided, to fight off various other Olympians acting in service of the Trojans, Whom She was barred from personally engaging. In one of those combats in particular, that of Diomedes against the War God Ares, it may be Diomedes who throws the spear at Ares – but it is (the invisible thanks to Hades’ helm) Athena Who grabs and deflects Ares’ spear away from Her Favoured so that Diomedes lives to take his shot … and it is Athena Herself Who “drove the spear into the pit of Ares’ stomach” once he had launched it. Perhaps a similar pattern helps to explicate the ‘Vritrahan / Vrtraghni’ theonym of Saraswati that She shares with Indra.

In any case, I have gone far enough for the moment with expository details from this tradition and that, and should now move through to this piece’s comparative conclusion.

What we can state for certain, is that both the Herakles contra Hydra and Indra against Vritra myths are significantly coterminous. In each case, the relevant Striker/Thunderer figure manages to successfully slay a multi-headed and supernaturally protected demon-dragon figure with watery associations. In each case, as well, there is some special and specific positioning of the demon-dragon within the path of the heroic figure – as He is on a redemptive arc to their journey which runs headlong into the hand of an angry deity. For Herakles, this is the Twelve Labours carried out in penitence for His slaying of His sons, with the wrathful deity being Hera Who has personally nurtured the Hydra for deployment against Herakles. For Indra, in various tellings He is regarded as having attained the ire of Tvastr by killing Tvastr’s son Trisiras (and, in the process, acquiring the moral iniquity of a Brahmin-killer), thus leading to Tvastr’s sending of Vritra against Him as revenge. And in each case, while the various tellings in circulation may differ upon the various particulars of the matter, there is a strongly recurrent theme of the Dragon-Slaying in question requiring unusual means to be seen through to completion, facilitated through the actions and potentially the direct interventions of a certain Wisdom-Warrior Goddess. This may entail the provision of guidance or insight to the Striker/Thunderer about how to fight the Dragon and overcome its wardings, and it may involve the direct provision (or guidance-of-munitions) of the weaponry via which the Dragon is ultimately slain.

There are, to be sure, also significant differences – yet the curious thing is that in many of these cases there is far greater divergence within the Classical or the Vedic canons themselves over these details than between the ‘broad outlines’ of the myth in question housed in either corpus (for example, the number of accounts in each wherein mention is not made of the presence of the Goddess, or some other Divine Figure is present and involved). As previously explicated, an array of this is almost certainly intentional. There are easily dozens of Vedic Hymnals which deal in whole or in part with the fight of Indra against Vritra; many of which have chosen to highlight, de-emphasize, or even outright overlook certain details to the occurrence due to what’s most relevant for their particular ritualine purpose. It would seem fairly plausible that this concept would not be a Vedic innovation – but rather, something which the (Post-)Proto-Indo-European forebears of both Greek and Vedic civilization would also have made use of. Different perspectives upon the same mythic occurrence, for different purposes, and which therefore have slightly (or more than slightly) differing details encapsulated therein.

Meanwhile, the Classical texts which touch upon the myth in question span almost a millennium in their dates of composition (which also means that they are between one and two millennia younger than their Vedic counterparts – hence more time to diverge both internally and from the foundational mythic kernel), and feature contributions (or co-options) from quite the diverse spectrum of writers. Various forms of Greek, Romans, playwrights looking to entertain, Historians looking to present ‘plausible’ sounding (to the ears of the day) vignettes of the past, political propagandists, even potters, painters and sculptors – and the occasional genuinely religious man – have all made their multifarious manners of marks upon the Classical recollection of the myth of Herakles against the Hydra over that time.

All of this, together, means that while the precise formulation of the original Proto-Indo-European myth in question is almost certainly irrecoverable … we can nevertheless state with great confidence that what we have identified fits comfortably and consistently within the general outlines of its bounds.

And marvel once again at the underlying unity of surface-seemingly somewhat disparate Indo-European mythoreligious belief.

There is but one thing left to say, most apt for both a Friday (and also for a Thursday):

वर्त्रघ्नी वष्टि सुष्टुतिम
Vrtraghni Vasti Sustutim
‘Foe-Slayer Claims Our Eulogy’

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