Reflections: Anna Sapenuk on a Hydra Hydria

Getty Art + Ideas
Getty Art + Ideas
Reflections: Anna Sapenuk on a Hydra Hydria

We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.

This week, educator Anna Sapenuk finds parallels in Herakles and Iolaos’s fight against the Hydra and our global battle against the coronavirus. To learn more about this artwork, visit:

Over the next few weeks, look for new recordings every other Tuesday.

JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. In a new podcast feature, we’re asking members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. We’ll be releasing new recordings every other Tuesday. I hope you’ll find these stories about our daily lives—from laundry on the line to a dog at a scholar’s feet—thought provoking, illuminating, and entertaining.

ANNA SAPENUK: Hello my name is Anna Sapenuk, and I’m an educator at the Getty Center and the Getty Villa. Lately, I’ve been thinking how relevant certain works of art are to the struggle of the coronavirus and us battling this multi-dimensional monster, so to speak. The work of art that I have in mind is this really wonderful hydria or water jug from the Getty Villa. It is one of my favorite pieces there.

And the star of the show on this hydria is this Hydra or watersnake, this mythical watersnake, that is nine headed. And in antiquity, it was known to kill people, even with the smell coming from it.

And on the hydria itself, the watersnake is coiling its body and its nine heads are emerging out of it, ready to strike. In this work of art, not only the watersnake is shown, but also there are two characters that are fighting with it. Those two figures are those of Herakles and his nephew Iolaos. And of course, you know, Herakles, he’s a super strong mythological figure, and what he’s doing is he’s raising his club to take off one of Hydra’s heads. And Iolaos, his nephew, kind of his henchmen, he has a sickle to cut one of the heads of the Hydra.

But the issue of the Hydra, much like the issue that we have with the coronavirus, is that, you know, if you cut one of his head, two heads grow in its place. So it’s a very complex problem that they’re dealing with and that we’re dealing with today.

So they come up with a really smart solution to this problem. There’s actually a flame, and they use the heat from the flame to cauterize where the heads were chopped off so that new heads don’t grow in its place.
And it’s just immediately so connected, I feel, to our struggle with the coronavirus that is also a many-headed monster, in many ways, and we need so many different approaches to battle with it. Like we have to continue social distancing, and wear masks, and the vaccine is still in development.

These two heroes, Herakles and Iolaos, end up defeating the Hydra, and I hope that the same can be said for us and our fight with the coronavirus. I hope that we find those solutions that we’re seeking, and that we defeat this many-headed monster in our own right.

CUNO: To view this hydria, or water jug, featuring Herakles and Iolaos slaying the Hydra, made in Etruria around 520 to 510 BCE, click the link in this episode’s description or look for it on

Author: Getty Media

Getty staff select highlights of Getty multimedia, new and from the archives.