Monster battle: Ancient altar art showcases Hercules’ son fighting against the Hydra


The ancients also had a penchant for ‘super-heroes’, as is evident from numerous mythological works that depict such characters. And one of such depictions is quite evident from a recently discovered marble altar that represents a heroic warrior battling a monster in all their primeval glory. Found near the Akçay River in Turkey (by experts from Ege University and Aydin Museum), the pedestal dates from around 2nd century AD, when most of Anatolia was under the rule of the Roman Empire. However in spite of the specific time period, the archaeologists are still not sure about the interpretation of this fascinating depiction. Their hypothesis pertains to the representation of Bargasos, who was one of the sons of Hercules, fighting a many-headed serpent in a climactic encounter that would invoke Harpasos, a river god. This conjecture is based on the fact that the ancient altar itself is dedicated to Harpasos.

In fact, during the 2nd century period, the Akçay River was actually known as the Harpasos River. To that end, a small inscription on the pedestal pretty much confirms that the altar’s foundation was led down by one Flavius Ouliades in dedication to Harpasos, after he was apparently commanded so in his dream. Now of course, from the ‘profitable’ perspective, beyond dreams, it was probably the prospect of a good harvest that drove Ouliades to construct the altar. In another interesting possibility, he might have built the altar to appease the river god, so that Harpasos would protect him (and his animals) from falling down the steep river bank or even cure them from its healing waters.

As for the depiction of the battle in question, the male warrior is represented with an ostentatious crested helmet who is armed with a dagger and a shield (though he is fighting in nude). The monster on the other hand is depicted as a serpent-like creature coiled up to strike the hero – and this beast probably pertained to the Hydra, a mythical beast with multiple heads (and additionally ‘armed’ with poisonous breath and virulent blood). Interestingly, in accordance to mythological anecdotes, the Hydra was the very same monster that Hercules killed to clear the Lerna swampland in Greece, and this paved the way for the region to become more habitable.

But in this case, the archaeologists have hypothesized that the ancient artisans had given a twist to this legend by depicting a slightly different scenario. So instead of Hercules, the stele showcases his son Bargasos, whose mother was a woman named Barge. Bargasa, an ancient town in Turkey, was also named after this relatively unknown hero. Moreover, the battle scene etched on the marble was probably the mythological source of the river god Harpasos. As two of the archaeologists involved in the project, wrote (in the journal Epigraphica Anatolica) –

The Harpasos valley, with a zone of sand where numerous arms join the river Harpasos, was comparable to Lerna. The “scene on our altar may be a representation of a local myth telling about Bargasos’ fight against the ravaging river with many arms. [After the warrior defeated the many-headed Hydra] the river turned into a beneficial deity [the river-god Harpasos], the recipient of our dedication.


Credit: Hasan Malay.

Source: Live Science

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