Mormon Hydra 1 of 2

By July 21, 2013

The Hydra, or more specifically, the Lernaean Hydra, was a poly-cephalic reptilian killed by Heracles/Hercules in Greek mythology. It had, depending on the source, nine or fifty heads; if one were cut off, two grew to replace it; its breath and blood were poisonous. [1] Both pro- and anti-Mormon writers and orators used Hydra rhetoric in their contests.

The hydra was a common polemic image applied to various groups and ideas on both sides of the Atlantic from at least the 1700s on. [2] A particularly prominent instance in the US arose in connection with the 1830s “Bank War” in which President Andrew Jackson railed against the (Second) Bank of the United States as a “hydra of corruption” (see images below). [3]

AndrewJackson Hydra composite 20130719a

Like most popular rhetorical devices, the Hydra was put to multiple, sometimes contradictory, uses. [4] All the instances I found, however, were pejorative. [5] By the nineteenth century the beast of Revelation (“seven heads and ten horns,” Rev 13:1) and a crowd/mob could be “hydra-headed” without necessarily implying a Hydra metaphor. [6]

While I’m clarifying: the Hydra under discussion is not the genus of Cnidarians (see images below). [7]

Hydra Mo v NonMo 20130719a

The earliest Mormon-connected Hydra I have found comes from Oliver Cowdery (1834), who argued that if God were really the author of the Bible and the “confused mass of heathenism, mockery, and idolatry” that Cowdery perceived in the Christian sects of his day, then God “must be possessed of as many different natures as the ‘hydra’ was of heads.” [8]

Cowdery uses the Hydra comparison merely as an example of a large number, [9] but two decades later (1857), a Mormon author explicitly described all other Christian churches as parts of a Hydra:

We affirm, in relation to the multitudinous sects of the day, that they are all wrong—that not one of them is acknowledged as the Church of Christ. It is true that the members of the great modern Hydra (soon to be vanquished by a greater than Hercules,) confidently assume that they are all one—merely different denominations of one and the same church. But what ‘different denominations’ of a true church or religion can really mean, we are totally unable to determine. [10]

In 1866 another Mormon author communicated the same idea using the beast of Revelation. [11]

ThePeopleIsABeastWhichHeadsHathMany HowellJ 1661 cropped jpegMormon-connected hydras showed up pretty frequently in the 1840s. Pro-Mormon writers referred to “mobocracy,” “persecution,” and the like as “hydra-headed.” [12] None of the 1840s mob comments I have found seem to have intended a clear Hydra reference but rather “This many-headed monster, Multitude.” [13] In these instances, the Mormons were utilizing a long-lived trope of democracy or a crowd as a “many-headed monster” (see image at right, 1661). [14]

In his anti-Mormon The History of the Saints (1842), Bennett used three Hydras to characterize Mormons, two of the etymological sort—“violence and misrule hide their hydra head”; “folly, fraud, and imposture, hide their hydra head”—and one clearly classical:

They seek my life in order to save their Prophet—that Grand Tartarean Hydra, whose face and hands are yet dripping with the blood of murder—from reaping the reward of his iniquity, the just penalty of violated laws… [15]

Unlike Cowdery’s, Bennett’s Hydra is unambiguously monstrous. [16] Bennett seems to portray the Mormon hierarchy as a Hydra, with Smith as the “main head” and his subordinates—the ones who actually did the (alleged) killing—as the other heads. [17] An 1845 critique of Parley P Pratt employed a similar device, but with a “hydra-headed monster” presumably from Revelation. [18]

After Smith’s death, the Hydra appeared in the contest between Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon as part of the “Succession Crisis” (1844). In evaluating their respective counter-proposals about how Mormonism should be governed in Smith’s absence, both sides seem to have found similar defects in the opposite plan:

“where there are many heads there is no head at all; and a thing that has got many heads must be a hydra, —a monster: a house divided against itself cannot stand” (Young supporter);

“the order of things established at Nauvoo is a monster, a hydra with twelve or more heads, assuming the place of the heavenly triune, and destined to destruction, with all the corruptions and innovations of mystical Babylon….” (Rigdon supporter). [19]

The Rigdonite quote seems to use the Hydra as an example of a perversion or deformity, which would fail because it was not what God intended. [20] The Brighamite quote seems to take a more pragmatic approach, arguing that a metaphorical Hydra would be incapable of coordinating the action of all the heads in the absence of a single, controlling head. In this sense they echoed the critiques of democracy-as-Hydra cited earlier. Brighamites were still extolling the virtues of hierarchical authority decades later, both in contrast to other Christian churches’ “hydra-headed and many sided system” and as a general principle for homes, schools, businesses, and churches: “Hydra-headed rule would be as monstrous and as mythical as the fancied serpent of a barbarous age.” [21]

Next week, in Part 2 of 2: classical Hydra metaphors in general, a (perhaps) unique Mormon sub-species, and an anti-Mormon political cartoon that (I think) has not been previously noted by scholars.

Bonus images: Austrian WW1 postcard, Russian Civil-War poster, and a John Singer Sargent mural. [22]

Hydra WW1 era composite 20130719a


[1] In Roman mythology a Hydra with fifty heads was a guardian of Tartarus, which was where sinners were punished after death. Almost all the uses of Hydra I’ve encountered either referred to a non-specific “hydra” without specifying the number of heads, the location, or other details, or they referred to the contest with Hercules (and everyone who mentioned him used the Romanized “Hercules” rather than “Heracles”).

[2] I don’t know how it fared elsewhere in the world.

[3] “The hydra of corruption is only scotched, not dead.” Andrew Jackson in letter to James K Polk, 1832 Dec 16, as quoted in Sean Wilentz, Andrew Jackson: The 7th President, 1829-1837, The American Presidents Series (New York: Times Books, 2005), 104. “I have no hesitation to say, if they can recharter the bank, with its hydra of corruption, they will rule the nation… [~150 words]… But until I can strangle this hydra of corruption, the Bank, I will not shrink from my duty, or my part.” Andrew Jackson in letter to Hardy M Cryer, Washington, 1833 Apr 07, as reprinted in Samuel Gordon Heiskell, Andrew Jackson and Early Tennessee History Illustrated, in 2 volumes, Volume 1, 2nd edition (Nashville, TN: Ambrose Printing Co, 1920), 614 (613-615). The bank was also represented as poly-cephalic in “On the Way to Araby” (1836 Mar; published by HR Robinson, same publisher as image on left), and “Independent Treasury and Liberty; Martin Van Buren” (1840), both courtesy of HarpWeek.

Image on left: No artist listed, printed by Henry R Robinson, “General Jackson slaying the many headed monster,” 1836 Mar 29; image courtesy of the Library of Congress, though the Brown University Library Center for Digital Scholarship offers higher resolution. The image is a satire on Andrew Jackson’s efforts to prevent the re-charter of the (Second) Bank of the United States (BUS). Three characters, Jackson, Vice President Martin Van Buren, and Major Jack Downing (a fictional character often portrayed as a friend of Jackson’s) fight a many-headed snake / Hydra with heads representing each of the states as of 1836.

Jackson (left, with eyeglasses, swinging a cane labeled “Veto”) says: “Biddle thou Monster Avaunt!! avaunt I say! or by the Great Eternal I’ll cleave thee to the earth, aye thou and thy Four and twenty hideous satellites. Matty if thou art true, by the Eternal, come on, if thou art false, may the venomous monster turn his dire fang upon thee. Well done Major, by the Great Eternal, at him again, and let us surround them!” Van Buren (center, holding reptile): “Well done General, Major Jack Downing, Adams, Clay, well done all. I dislike dissentions beyond every thing, for it often compels a man to play a double part, were it only for his own safety. Policy, policy is my motto, but intrigues I cannot countenance.” Downing (right, in military uniform, dropping his axe): “How now you nasty varmint, be you imperishable? I swan Gineral that are beats all I reckon, that’s the horrible wiper wot wommits wenemous heads I guess. Yes Gineral I’ll at him agin as soon as I’ve taken breath & no mistake.”

The snake / hydra has, depending on how we count, twenty-four heads with twenty-six faces or twenty-six heads (the head labeled “Louisa” [center-right, next to Downing’s axe handle] has two unlabeled companion faces without separate necks). The largest head wears a top hat labeled “PENN” (Pennsylvania) with “$35 000 000” on the hatband. The face seems to be Nicholas Biddle’s, president of the BUS (which was headquartered in Philadelphia, PA) and Jackson’s chief opponent. The capitalization of the BUS was $35 million (The 2nd BUS, p 6). The other heads are labeled with the names of states: [around Jackson, starting at left near Jackson’s cane hand, clockwise]: “Maine,” “N. Hamp.,” “R. Isl.,” “Ver.,” “Conn.,” “N. York,” “N. Jer.,” “Maryl.d,” “Delaware,” “Massa.”; [around Biddle, starting at Van Buren’s speech bubble, clockwise]: “Virginia,” “Kentuc,” “N. Car.,” “S. Car.,” “Mississ.,” “Louisa”; [by Downing’s axe-head]: “Alaba.”; [by Downing’s waist]: “Illino”; [above Downing, starting above his right hand, clockwise]: “Georg.,” “Missouri,” “Tenn.,” “Ohio.,” and “Inda.”

In 1836 there were twenty-four states and, as of 1830, twenty-six elements in the BUS system (the main bank in Philadelphia and twenty-five branches). It is not clear whether the artist intended the hydra heads to represent the twenty-four states, the respective state banks, or the twenty-six outlets of the BUS. The extra heads/faces on Louisiana and the fact that they are part of the same organism support the latter while the use of state rather than branch names supports the former since not every state had a branch. (Delaware, New Jersey, Indiana, and Illinois had no BUS branches while Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio had two each and New York three; Washington DC also had a BUS branch. See The 2nd BUS, p 8.) The “imperishable” Hydra might also refer to Biddle’s re-chartering (1836) of the BUS as a state-chartered corporation in Pennsylvania. See also: The 2nd BUS: No author listed, pamphlet, “The Second Bank of the United States: A Chapter in the History of Central Banking,” Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia (2010 Dec), p 8. [Direct link to 3.8Mb PDF].

Image on right: No artist listed, published by Ezra Bisbee, “Political Quixotism shewing the consequences of sleeping in patent magic spectacles,” c 1830-1835; image courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia; the Library of Congress has not processed the image; Bridgeman Art / The New York Historical Society have a colored version.

The text beneath the image says: [top left]: “Published by E. Bisbee, 95, Canal, St. N.Y.” [top center to top right]: “From a very big picter in the Jinerals Bed-Room draw’d off from Nater by Zck Downing, Historical Painter to Uncle Jack & Jineral Jackson.” [middle center, in larger letters]: “The Diplomatic Hercules Attacking the Political Hydra.” [bottom left]: “General {Stamp the horrid Monster!!! Crush it!!! Nick Biddle!!! Hell & the Devil!!! Bribery & Corruption!!! Assasination!! Fire!! Murder Murder!! – – – – – – – – – – – – – Where are you Major?” [bottom right]: “Major { Cum along to bed agin, Jineral: I tell you Biddle aint here , nor the devil nother [neither? followed by what appears to be “as I no on”].

In the image General (President) Andrew Jackson (with eyeglasses and sword) has a nightmare in which he fights a hydra representing Nick Biddle and various political issues. His friend, Major Jack Downing, tries to calm him down and pull Jackson back to bed by his suspenders. Downing was a recurring fictitious character in Jacksonian political humor. The hydra heads are labeled, starting with the largest head (closest to Jackson at upper right) and moving clockwise: “U. S. Bank,” “Pension F. [Fund?],” “[illegible: Morals?] of the People,” “Corruption of the Press,” [illegible, possibly three words, middle possibly “foreign”; head has crown], “Bribery,” “Deposits,” and [illegible; head facing away from viewer, next to US Bank].

[4] To describe something as “hydra-headed” or equate it more specifically with the Hydra could indicate that it was:

  1. Monstrous in a generic sense
  2. Monstrous specifically because polycephaly was scary, ugly, or a deformity
  3. Incapable of concerted action (multiple heads with no controlling mind)
  4. Capable of action on multiple fronts (multiple heads working together)
  5. Capable of manifesting in various ways, multi-faceted [iv]
  6. Hard to defeat in a generic sense
  7. Hard to defeat specifically because it grew stronger from apparent defeat
  8. Mythical in the did-not-exist sense

[5] My study period was approximately 1820-1930. The Hydras I encountered were all pejorative, but I did find one instance where a White author identifies White society as a “many-headed monster”: “We form our opinions of the Indian character from the miserable hordes that infest our frontiers. These, however, are degenerate beings enfeebled by the vices of society without being benefited by its arts of living. Society has advanced upon them like a many-headed monster, breathing every variety of misery. Before it went pestilence, famine and the sword, and in its train came the slow but exterminating curse of the trader. What the former did not sweep [p 131] away, the latter has gradually blighted. It has increased the wants without increasing their means of gratification. …” No author listed, “The Indians,” The Church at Home and Abroad 15:86 (1894 Feb): 130-131.

[6] The Hydra and the Beast weren’t the only many-headed contenders. I have not systematically searched for them, but there are a few references in the notes below to Briareus and Geryon. I imagine I could also find some references to Cerberus. For example: [Not-Mormon-related, discussing a Congregationalist preacher]: “And therefore he has thrown a sop to the many-headed Cerberus of Dissent, to soothe him, that with the staff of his feeble ‘minority’ he may, unmolested, belabor the odious monster of Prelacy.” No author listed, Article IV, “President Hopkins’ Discourse and the Church,” The American Quarterly Church Review 12:2 (1859 Jul): 276 (263-280).

[7] Image on left: detail of a vase showing Hercules and Iolaus fighting the Lernean hydra. The vase is a “Caeretan hydria,” c 525 BCE, held by the J Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, CA (Malibu 83.AE.346). Image on right: Hydra oligactis, image credit: Lifetrance at en.wikipedia, license: CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.

[8] “This thing is certain, however, if one is right, all the others are wrong, and if they are all right the Bible is not true; for when the doctrine therein advocated is compared with this confused mass of heathenism, mockery, and idolatry, the resemblance is so foreign, that a candid mind would say at once, that if the same being was author of these, and that book too, he must be possessed of as many different natures as the ‘hydra’ was of heads” (italics in original). Author listed as “Editor of the Star,” which was Oliver Cowdery, “The Saints,” Evening and Morning Star 2:20 (1834 May): 158 (158-159); for image of original, see HBLL LTPSC; reprinted as No author listed, “The Saints,” in The True Latter-Day-Saints’ Herald 4:4 (Plano, IL, 1863 Aug 15): 59 (59-60).

[9] On the theory that Cowdery inserted the Hydra on purpose rather than just saying “the author has a dozen natures,” it seems Cowdery might be alluding both to the Hydra’s hideousness and not-real-ness and thus implicating his opponents as polytheistic non-Christians.

I’ve identified three other instances of Mormon/Hydra imagery that depend on the anatomy of the Hydra and only indirectly (and not necessarily) on an emotional reaction to it as a monster: [ridiculing Mormons having visions]: “Some had visions of beasts of all imaginable shapes and sizes, with more heads than the hydra of Hercules, and more horns than the mystery of the Apocalypse.” Maria Ward, Female Life among the Mormons: A Narrative of Many Years’ Personal Experience, by the Wife of a Mormon Elder, Recently from Utah (London: G Routledge, 1855), 57. Translated into Danish, 1855. “The caravan lay like a [p 87] slowly writhing hydra over the land. Along its snaky bends, where dragon-wings should be, were herds of cattle, plodding beside the ‘trailing-footed’ teams, and little companies of Saints lounging leisurely toward their evening’s goal, their unbuilt hostelry on the plain. [¶] Presently the hydra became a two-headed monster. The foremost wagon bent to the right, the second off to the left. Each successor, as it came to the point of divergence, filed to the right or left alternately. The split creature expanded itself. The two wings moved on over a broad grassy level north of the fort, describing in regular curve a great ellipse, a third of a mile long, half as much across.” Theodore Winthrop, John Brent, 14th edition (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864), 86-87. “Of two evils, a Mormon chooses neither, but goes in for all good and more good; which, if, as Solomon said, a good wife is a good thing, then the more you have the more good you have….[~130 words; p 251]… This convenient rule would give a wife a score of husbands. Upon the same principle, a man should have as many heads as a hydra, as many arms as Briareus, and as many legs as a spider; and Nature was a niggard of her favors when she made him up.” Benjamin G. Ferris, Utah and the Mormons: The History, Government, Doctrines, Customs and Prospects of the Latter Day Saints, from Personal Observation During a Six Months’ Residence at Great Salt Lake City (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1854), 251.

[10] Henry Whittall, “Anti-Mormon Objections Answered,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 19:32 (1857 Aug 08 Sat): 498 (cont’d, 497-500, cont’d). Contrast the Hydra metaphor with the more common “great and abominable church” from the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 13:5-6).

[11] “Already the first scenery in the frightful panorama has been exhibited, in pictures of blood, upon the broad canvas of the American soil. Picture after picture will succeed, in rapid succession, until Catholic, Greek, and Protestant churches shall be known no more, until the many-headed beast, who has carried the filthy whore, and sustained her by the civil power, shall be utterly exterminated.” OP [Orson Pratt?], “The Mother of Harlots,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 28:47 (1866 Nov 24 Sat): 747 (746-748). Another piece communicates a similar idea, but without a clear mythological or scriptural allusion: “Touching the religious part of the question, inasmuch as the Gospel of Christ comprehends oneness and brotherhood, we cannot conceive how this many-headed, many-bodied monster, sectarianism, can contribute to the success of Christianity.” No author listed, “Oneness of the Saints—The Brotherhood of Christ,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 18:50 (1856 Dec 13 Sat): 786.

[12] In 1842 but before his defection, John C Bennett wrote a letter to Joseph Smith about Mormon grievances in Missouri in which he swore: “that the sword shall not depart from my thigh, nor the buckler from my arm, until the trust is consummated, and the hydra-headed, fiery dragon slain.” John C Bennett, letter to Joseph Smith, Nauvoo, Illinois, 1842 Mar 08, as reprinted in “Correspondence,” Times and Seasons 3:10 (Nauvoo, IL, 1842 Mar 15): 725 (723-725).

Other examples of pro-Mormons referring to “hydra-headed” (or similar) mobs: [writing about Joseph Smith]: “…consequently, when mobs raged, and persecution had reared its hydra head, and death with all its horrors, stared him full in the face, he stood firm and unshaken….” No author listed [editors: E Robinson and DC Smith], no title, Times and Seasons 1:4 (Commerce, IL, 1840 Feb): 57; PDF at BYU HBLL LTPSC.  “Mobocracy—in America—the land of boasted liberty and ‘equal rights’—has been allowed to raise its hydra-head, and many of the saints have fallen martyrs at its unhallowed shrine.” LO Littlefield, “The Church,” Times and Seasons 2:22 (Commerce, IL, 1841 Sep 15): 546 (545-547); PDF at BYU HBLL LTPSC. [At the end of an article that began: “Who are the leaders of this mobocratic party?”]:  “Has it come to this, that renegades, blacklegs, and counterfeiters have sufficient influence to excite the feelings of community so as to come armed against a virtuous, innocent, and law-abiding people; and is there no power to check the torrent? Are there no persons to be found who have the moral courage to meet the hydra-headed monster, and stand up in defense of those institutions for which our fathers bled: to maintain, ‘free trade and sailors’ rights’?” No author listed, “A Question!,” The Nauvoo Neighbor, Nauvoo, IL, 1844 Jun 26 Wed, no printed page number, 2nd page of issue (with hand-written pagination, “244”); direct link to PDF, courtesy of The Book of Abraham Project; reprinted in No author listed, “A Question,” Journal of History 8:3 (Lamoni, IA, 1915 Jul): 343 (339-349). “Let us prove to the United States, that when they drove the Saints from them, they… drove from their midst… the firmest supporters of American Independence. … Should the infernal monster despotism dare lift its hydra head upon this western Territory, …we… are ready at any moment to step forth and unsheath the sword in defense of that which our fathers have taught us to hold dearer than life.” No author listed, speech presented by Phineas Richards, 1849 Jul 24, as quoted in Eliza Roxcy Snow Smith, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow: One of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1884), 104. Brigham Young echoed the characterization fourteen years later: “…nor yet in Missouri, where cloven-footed and hydra-headed mobocracy held her fearful orgies.”Brigham Young, speech given 1856 Jul 04, as reported in “Utah,” New York Daily Tribune, New York, 1856 Sep 05, p 6, columns 1-4. Parts of the speech were excerpted to anti-Mormon effect, to which the Deseret News responded: No author listed, “Patriotic Expressions Misconstrued,” The Deseret Weekly 41:9 (1890 Aug 23 Sat): 286 (286-287).

[13] Samuel Daniel, The First Fowre Bookes of the civile wars between the two houses of Lancaster and Yorke [History of the Civil War], book 2, stanza 12, in The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Samuel Daniel, in four volumes, Volume 2, edited by Alexander B Grosart (London: Spenser Society, 1885), 59.

Some examples of “many-headed” meaning “common people” or, merely “a group of people”: “In Wyoming another kind of transformation is in progress. There, again, a great monopoly is passing away to make room for the many-headed people.” William E Smythe, “The Irrigation Idea and Its Coming Congress,” Review of Reviews 8:4 (New York, 1893 Oct): 403 (394-406). [RF Burton liked the phrase “many-headed”]: “…by no means intended for the many-headed but solely for the few who are not too wise to learn or so ignorant as to ignore their own ignorance.” (256); “The dictum may fairly be extended from medical knowledge to general information amonst the many-headed of England; and the Publisher, when rejecting a too recondite book, will repeat parrot-fashion, The English public is not a learned body.” (269); [writing about copyright]: “It is chargeable with the Law of Copyright, which is not only legalized plunder of the foreigner, but is unfair, unjust and ungenerous to native [p 272] talent for the exclusive benefit of the short-sighted many-headed.” (271-272). Richard F Burton (United Service Club, 1888 Sep 30), “The Biography of the Book, and It’s Reviewers Reviewed,” in The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (Supplemental Nights), in 12 volumes, Volume 11, edited by Leonard C Smithers (London: HS Nichols, 1897), 200-279. “Unfortunately populus vult decipi: the many-headed read the romance greedily, and they turned away in ennui from the sober and truthful recital which followed it.” Richard F Burton, review of L’Afrique Equatoriale (Le Marquis de Compiègne, Paris: E Plon, 1875), in The Academy 182 (1875 Oct 30): 445 (444-446). “And very soon not the select few will know about missions and pray for missions and give to missions, but the many-headed multitude of young Christians in every church will that upon their shoulders, too, rests something of the responsibility of our Lord’s great commission, ‘Go ye into all the world.’” Francis E Clark, “The Young Christian at Work,” The Church at Home and Abroad 16:91 (1894 Jul): 66 (64-66).

[14] The image is the frontispiece of James Howell, Divers historicall discourses of the late popular insurrections in Great Britain and Ireland tending all, to the asserting of the truth, in vindication of Their Majesties (London: J Grismond, 1661), frontispiece. The text at the bottom says: “The People is a Beast which Heads hath many. England of late hath shew’d This more then any.” The top says the same in (what seems to me to be clumsy) Latin: “Belua multorum capitum Plebs vana vocatur, Plus satis Hoc Angli super docuere Popelli.” Beneath that it says, in Greek, “many-headed monster” (I’ve had bad luck getting Greek scripts to work in WordPress, but the transliteration is “pelor polykephalon”), and beneath that, “JH,” the author’s initials.

The idea of a democracy or a mob—or any group without centralized control—as a Hydra / many-headed monster shows up in various places and times. Hercules (and the Hydra) became important symbols in the French Revolution, but first Hercules had to change from a symbol of centralized power to one of democratic power. There were similar changes in North America. For example, George Washington: “We are either a united people or we are not so; if the former, let us in all matter of national concern act as a nation which has a national character to support. If the states individually attempt to regulate commerce, an abortion or a many-headed monster will be the issue.” George Washington (no source cited, 1787, at Mount Vernon), as quoted in “The Origin of the Federal Constitution,” by Francis Norton Thorpe, Magazine of American History 18:2 (1887 Aug): 138 (130-141). Illinois Governor Thomas Ford, writing about the Mormon situation in 1840s Illinois, wrote of “that state of disorder when men will consent to be slaves rather than without the protection of government; when men fly from the tyranny and misrule of the many-headed monster for protection to the despotism of one man.” Thomas Ford, A History of Illinois from Its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847 (Chicago: SC Griggs, 1854), 436.

See also: Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Buford Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000). Christopher Hill, “The many-headed monster in later Tudor and early Stuart political thinking,” in From the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation: Essays in Honor of Garrett Mattingly, edited by Charles H Carter (New York: Random House, 1965), 296-324; reprinted in Christopher Hill, Change and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century England, revised edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 181-204.

[15] John Coleman Bennett, The History of the Saints: Or an Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism, 3rd edition (Boston: Leland & Whiting, 1842): “violence and misrule,” p 265; “folly, fraud, and imposture,” p 292; and  “They seek my life,” p 292 (~180 words before “folly, fraud,…”).

[16] Tartarus was the Roman analog of medieval Christian Hell, a place for the gruesome torture of sinners, so a “Tartarean Hydra” could be translated into present vernacular as a “Hell Hydra,” which is not to be confused with “Hail, Hydra!,” which is from a comic book. Also, in specifying the “Tartarean Hydra,” Bennett seems to be drawing on non-Herculean Roman (or at the least, late Greek) mythology since the early Greeks did not associate the Hydra with Tartarus.

[17] Bennett could be using the Hydra simply as a generic “monster” without implying anything particular about the multiple heads. However, Bennett’s critique of Smith depended on Smith being the leader of what we would now call a “conspiracy to commit murder” rather than Smith himself going around killing people. Further (and more conjecturally), with the “Grand” prefix Bennett possibly alluded to Masonic officer titles (eg, Grand Master) and thus made the Hydra a metaphor for Mormon hierarchy.

[18] “Why sir you are ten times worse than a professed Infidel; for an Infidel is willing at all times, to back up his theory, by the power of logic and reason; but I, P. P. Pratt, an Apostle, and one of the twelve horns of the Church (as it is called) at Nauvoo, having been duly commissioned, and qualified, as a part of the hydra-headed monster, to preside over and take the head of all the Church affairs in the eastern states, will never debate the question, whether I have in reality any authority or not. Oh! consistency, whither hast thou fled? Now Paul says, prove all things, and hold fast that which is good; but Parley says, prove nothing, and hold fast to as many wives as you can get.” Gibson Divine, “Parley P Pratt,” The Latter Day Saint’s Messenger and Advocate 1:13 (Pittsburgh, 1845 May 15).

[19] “Elder Rigdon says he claims no jurisdiction over the Twelve, nor the Twelve over him.  Says I, Elder Rigdon, such a course as this will lead to a division of the church. He replied there will be a good many churches built up all over the world, I asked if all these churches would be subject to one common head. He answered they would not. Elder Young replied, then there will be many bodies. He replied, Oh no! I then said where there are many heads there is no head at all; and a thing that has got many heads must be a hydra, —a monster: a house divided against itself cannot stand. Elder Rigdon is now going to work to make a division, and yet he said on the stand, he did not want to make a division….” Orson Hyde, minutes of a meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Nauvoo, 1844 Sep 08 Sun, September 8, 1844, as quoted in Jedediah M Grant, pamphlet: A Collection of Facts Relative to the Course Taken by Elder Sidney Rigdon in the States of Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Brown, Bickering & Guilbert, 1844), 23. The “hydra” line is reproduced in “The Life and Labors of Sidney Rigdon, VII,” Improvement Era 3:8 (1900 Jun): 579-587. “We think it is clear, that the duties of the first presidency, and the duties of the twelve, are incompatible, the one with the other; we have, we think, satisfactorily shown, that no quorum of the church can be dispensed with, that we can not alter or amend the order of God with impunity, or without rendering it nugatory as a plan of salvation. We are then forced to the conclusion, that the order of things established at Nauvoo is a monster, a hydra with twelve or more heads, assuming the place of the heavenly triune, and destined to destruction, with all the corruptions and innovations of mystical Babylon, the mother of harlots, and abominations of the earth.” S Bennett, “The First Presidency,” The Latter Day Saint’s Messenger and Advocate 1:3 (Pittsburgh, 1844 Dec 02): 36 (35-40); note that this is a Rigdonite paper, distinct from the earlier Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate published at Kirtland, OH.

[20] The idea of a “hydra head” as a deformity appeared several decades later in an RLDS text. “Now his long abuse and misrepresentation of the characters of Mr. Smith, Rigdon and others last evening is entirely foreign to the question under discussion. Suppose that they did do wrong and many absurd and foolish things! what weight can that have in determining whether the part God is said to have done is wrong? Try this matter upon its merits. I do not, nor does the church of which Mr. Smith was under divine Providence the founder, claim for these men perfection. Many of the things that he stated about these men and what they did may be true; but as to the majority I am satisfied they are as false as hell itself. And the list which he calls “Mormon Chronology,” is dotted about occasionally with a fact, that he may thereby hide the deformity of a hydra-head, which he hopes to force upon the people. But his chronology as a whole is a brazen piece of deception and of false statements, drawn from such works as Howe, Tucker, &c.” Edmund Levi Kelley, as reported in “Mr. Kelley’s Ninth Speech,” Public Discussion of the Issues between The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and The Church of Christ (Disciples), Held in Kirtland, Ohio, Beginning February 12, and Closing March 8, 1884, between E. L. Kelley, of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and Clark Braden, of The Church of Christ (Lamoni, Iowa, Herald Publishing House, 1913), 93. Also in “Braden-Kelley Discussion; Elder Kelley’s Ninth Speech,” The Saints’ Herald 31:28 (Lamoni, Iowa, 1884 Jul 12).

[21] “The difficulty with the representatives of the various sections of Christendom will be their inability to cope with the arguments which these disciples of unbelief can advance, against their hydra-headed and many sided system. It is a dead Christianity which they have to offer to the eastern nations now awakening from the dreams of heathenism.” No author listed, credited to Deseret News, “The Spread of Skepticism,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 40:30 (1878 Aug 05 Mon): 486. “And as it is in the home, so it must be in the school, in business, and in the church. Hydra-headed rule would be as monstrous and as mythical as the fancied serpent of a barbarous age, for the teacher is not honored and obeyed because he is infallible any more than the Bishop, and the scholar—the pupil—listens to this voice, or chaos would come again.” No author listed, “Infallibility What of It?” The Deseret Weekly 50:26 (1895 Jun 14): 825.

[22] Image, left: No artist listed, “Die achtköpfige Hydra” [German: “The eight-headed-hydra”], postcard, World War 1 era: 1915-1918, published by the Postkartenverlag Brüder Kohn [Kohn Brothers Postcard Publishers], Vienna, Austria, image courtesy of The Lewis H. Beck Center for Electronic Collections, Emory University. In the image two soldiers, a German (left) and an Austro-Hungarian (right), fight a serpentine Hydra with eight heads, each wearing headgear to indicate a different nation. The German soldier is decorated with what appears to be an Iron Cross, Second Class (Eisernes Kreuz 2. Klasse). The Austro-Hungarian soldier is decorated with what appear to be both a Gold and a Silver Medal for Bravery (Tapferkeitsmedaille). The Hydra heads are, counter-clockwise from top right: Italy (plumed helmet (of the Bersaglieri); the former ally attacks from behind), Great Britain (left, top; presumably: I don’t recognize the headgear), France, Romania (red, yellow, blue hat), Japan, Russia (Cossack hat), Montenegro(?), and Serbia(?) (on ground, defeated; the hats for Serbia and Montenegro are plausibly interchangeable but Serbia was occupied first). Printed on the reverse of the postcard is: “Postkartenverlag Brüder Kohn Wien” and “B.K.W.I. 259-137.”

Image, center: Alexander Apsit, “????????? ??????? (? ??????????????? ?????)” / “Obmanutym Bratyam (v Belogvardeyskie Okopy)” [Russian: “To Deceived Brothers (in White Army Trenches)”], poster, 104.5 x 70 cm, ???????????? ?????????????? ???????????? ??????????????? ???????? ?????? ???????, ???????????, ??????????????? ? ???????? ????????? / Izdatelstvo Vserossiyskogo Tsentralnogo Ispolnitelnogo Komiteta Soveta rabochikh, krestyanskikh, krasnoarmeyskikh i kazachikh deputatov [Publisher of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Board of Workers, Peasants, Red Army, and Cossack Deputies], 1918. At the bottom of the poster is poetry by Demyan Bedny [Damian the Poor; Yefim Alekseevich Pridvorov]. Cafepress describes the poster as “Soviets slay the hydra of Capital, Germans, Church, Rich Land Owners, and Monarchy.” For comment on Apsit’s work, see Stephen White, The Bolshevik Poster (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 34.

Image, right: John Singer Sargent, Hercules and the Hydra, painting, oil on canvas, 347.98 x 317.5 cm, 1922-1925, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. For more information on Sargent, see

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Interesting that both Mormons and non-Mormons used the image!

    Comment by Saskia — July 21, 2013 @ 3:33 am

  2. Brilliant stuff. I love how you take one common image and show the many nuances and assumptions that undergird how it was used. The comparison of the Brighamite and Rigdonite was perfect.

    Comment by Ben P — July 21, 2013 @ 7:59 am

  3. Thanks, Ben and Saskia.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 22, 2013 @ 10:53 am

  4. The Mormon/Not Mormon image is one of my all time favorite edjeism. I wasn’t expecting it, and got quite a laugh. Cheers.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 22, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

  5. Thanks, J.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 23, 2013 @ 9:37 am

  6. I’ve been a little slow in my reading, but this whole series is really fantastic. Well done, Edje.

    Comment by jjohnson — July 23, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

  7. As always, wonderful stuff, Edje.

    Comment by Christopher — July 23, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

  8. […] the examples in the first post showed, a Hydra could represent an individual (Joseph Smith), an institution (the Church), or a […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormon Hydra 2 of 2 — July 28, 2013 @ 12:01 am


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