If you were to ask somebody the question “Who slayed Vritra”, you would be presented with quite a simple answer. “I don’t know, who’s Vritra”, probably. But for those even cursorily aware of the Indo-European mythology – more specifically its Vedic formulation – the reply would almost certainly come “Indra”.
And that is not (necessarily) incorrect – certainly, Vritrahan is a well-attested hailing of Lord Indra. Yet it IS incomplete. As we covered in several previous works (for example, “HAIL HYDRA-SLAYER” and “FOE-SLAYER CLAIMS OUR EULOGY”), what we actually see in the mythology, in the scriptural accounts is rather different – Devi Vak Saraswati plays a hugely important role in the Smiting of the Demon-Dragon Who Lies In The Water , to the point that She, too, is hailed as Vritrahan : the Slayer of Vritra.
This mirrors, of course, Athena’s contributory role to Herakles’ own slaying of the Hydra (a rather literal ‘water-dragon’ via both habitat and nomenclature) , which is just as we should expect. Athena and Vak Devi are heavily cognate in theological terms, as we have repeatedly demonstrated; and Herakles, just as Indra and Thor, is an expression of the Striker/Thunderer Indo-European Deific.
And yet … in technical terms, there is a THIRD figure (indeed, that is exactly the right designation for Him – Third ) which we should mention amidst the illustrious ranks of the Illuyanka-incinerators.
You see, the Hydra-slaying myth of the Greeks effectively combines together elements from at least two portions of the Vedic mythology – the slaying of Vritra, of course, as we have already covered .. yet it also, in its more archaic forms, bears closer resemblance to Indra’s combat against another figure. Trisiras – the Three-Headed Dragon. For the Hydra, per various accounts, has a close association in its number of heads with the number three. (Vritra, in case you were wondering, is more often *two* headed – and we do also find a mention in Euripides for the Hydra as bicephalic likewise) This is often overlooked in favour of emphasizing both the high number and the regenerative capacity of the Hydra’s heads; and yet whether it is six (as frequently seen in earlier art), or it is nine (as in Alcaeus and Apollodorus) – or, as we see in Euripides and Sophocles, three heads that spring up directly – the pattern is quite clear (indeed, even the more pop-culture familiar ‘strike down one, two more spring up) is an expression of the number three). Of additional interest is that of these three heads, or these multiples-of-three heads, we tend to find that one in particular is the ‘immortal’ one or ‘golden’ one – as attested in Sophocles, in Apollodorus, in Aristonicus of Tarentum, and in a certain manner in Euripides (who holds that it is enough that one of three survive for the beast itself to be still vital and threatening).
Now why is this interesting and of direct saliency to our linking of the Vedic and Greek accounts? Well, for a start, the archaic depiction of Trisiras has the three heads all doing something different – one of which is drinking the Soma, the vital liquid of immortality. There is also some ambiguity in the Hindu source material as to whether Trisiras is killed via the smiting off of *all three* of His Heads at once – or whether it is one head in particular that is severed from the body to slay the Dragon.
Yet it is ultimately the same myth in either case – for what actually kills the Hydra , what actually kills Trisiras … while in some tellings it is the Striker/Thunderer – Indra , Herakles , Perseus – in other tellings common to both the Greek and the Vedic mythoreligions (and with potential parallel expression to an extent amongst the Hittites), it is an associate working *with* the Striker/Thunderer Who ultimately bears both the honour and the opprobrium of the death’s delivery.
The Greek occurrence is well-known. The figure of Iolaus aids Herakles in the Hydra-slaying – and in many versions is directly responsible for the victory via the judicious application of fire as a problem-solving tool. Truly, in times of darkness, it is better to light the flamethrower than merely idly curse the trouble – and, when calling upon one’s comrade … it is the flamer, nay the *heavy* flamer that is called for. Although more upon that, particularly in the Vedic typology, later.
The results of Iolaus’ actions (immanentizing the wise guidance of Athena to the pair) , are not only the Hydra’s demise – but a denial of the ‘credit’ for the kill to Herakles by the taskmaster Eurystheus. Eurystheus, the figure responsible for directing Herakles off upon his penitential quests (and more upon *that* also, to come!), argued that the Hydra-slaying should not count against Hercules’ tally of ten as it had not been Herakles Who had killed the creature.
The directly parallel Indo-Iranian occurrence, however, is much less prominent in the minds of many – except in Zoroastrian/post-Zoroastrian Iran, for reasons which we shall look at in a moment. There, it is the aforementioned figure of Third (‘Trita’) who carries out one of the acts of dragon-vanquishing in question (and, in fact, potentially more than one – RV I 187 1 has Trita slaying Vritra, also; and RV I 52 5 has Trita either present for Indra contra Vritra, or having carried out offensive role against Vala, a third demon-dragon). Via lopping off at least one of the heads of Trisiras … and, importantly, doing so armed with the weapons of prayerful conduct provided by Lord Agni. Prayerful conduct, for the Vedic man almost axiomatically entailing ‘fire’, even before we consider the Agni association. Trita is an associate of Lord Indra’s, and is depicted as accompanying Him to the fight – before ultimately stepping in and delivering the final blow to vanquish the multi-headed draconic creature, in a manner that evidently has something to do with fire (and it is not coincidental, either, that we find Trita’s situation relative to Indra being explicitly couched as that of a Brahmin and a Lord). Although it should be noted that in later texts, this had been somewhat bowdlerized down to a mere act of decapitation accomplished via an axe; and the otherwise obvious discrepancy over whether Indra or Trita is to be accredited with the victory is resolved in some similarly later tellings via ‘codifying’ the matter as Indra killing Trisiras, and then having Trita prevent Trisiras from coming back to life.
Now straightaway, we can begin to see the direct and clear parallels with the Greek myth. The Striker/Thunderer (Herakles , Indra) goes to slay the multi-headed serpentine opponent (the Hydra , Trisiras) , and is ultimately not the one to do so, even despite smiting the heads of the adversary – for His companion (Iolaus , Trita) is the one to actually accomplish the deed, in a manner that makes fairly active use of Fire as well as Decapitation so as to counteract the regenerative capacity of the foe. And who winds up bearing the resultant moral status of having done so. And that’s where things get interesting.