Parallel Minds, 35–40




From the three heads of Cerberus to the snakes writhing around Medusa’s scalp, the idea that the seat of an organism’s thoughts and consciousness might be located in more than one head has given rise to some of the most terrifying monsters in Western mythology. The most famous of these infernal creatures is undoubtedly the Lernaean Hydra, a highly poisonous sea serpent which, according to the myth, was confronted and defeated by Hercules in the second of his twelve labours. What made the Hydra a particularly fearsome adversary was not only its multiple heads—ranging from nine to fifty in different tellings of the story—but its ability to miraculously regenerate them if they were cut off, producing two new heads every time one was destroyed, thus making it impossible to kill. Hercules only managed to defeat the monster by burning the stumps of its severed heads, preventing it from continuing to multiply, and crushing the last remaining head with a boulder. In a sense the Hydra is the true nemesis of Hercules, who in turn embodies the archetype of the Western hero. His twelve labours, which involved battles with many monstrous creatures, tell a tale of the triumph of rational man over the blind forces of brute matter, a matter which boasts an almost inexhaustible capacity to produce all shapes and sizes of abominable creatures in which the bodies of animals, men, and gods are mixed to produce frightening chimeras. Hercules can only have one head, the sole seat of consciousness that makes him a human individual, while the Hydra, a polycephalous organism capable of exponentially multiplying its heads, embodies a sort of metaphysical horror: it represents the disorder and multiplicity that constantly endanger the social and cosmic order, threatening to plunge it into chaos. But I should like to strike a blow in defence of the Hydra…