Ladon was a big, serpent-like dragon, coiled around the trees bearing the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides, high atop a remote mountain. Heracles’ eleventh labor was to take the golden apples and bring them to king Eurystheus.
|Parents||Phorcys and Ceto|
|Region||A remote and nameless mountaintop|
|Siblings||Echidna, the Gorgons, the Graeae, the Sirens, and Thoosa|
|Names||Ladon, Hesperian Dragon,|
|Ancient Greek||Λάδων, Εσπέριος Δράκων|
Origins of Ladon
Ladon is the youngest offspring of the primordial sea deities Phorcys and Ceto. He is the brother of Echidna, the mother of all monsters; the Gorgons, including the ill-famed Medusa; the Graeae; the Sirens; and the sea nymph Thoosa. Ladon was given the task to guard the Garden of the Hesperides nymphs, and mostly the golden apples that grew there. In his eleventh labor, Heracles had to face the dragon before obtaining the apples.
The name Ladon doesn’t appear to have a distinct meaning. A simple hypothesis would suggest that Ladon is the ‘great of the earth’, the large serpent that crawls on the ground.
The dragon Ladon that guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides was said to be an awful snake. Yet, despite his terrible appearance, he was a formidable and worthy protector of the Divine Garden. The golden apples were considered sacred to the Queen of the gods, Hera, and they were forbidden to anyone but her. Hera, who didn’t trust the Hesperides nymphs to safe-keep the apples alone, placed the always awake and deathless serpentine dragon Ladon to watch over the outstanding fruits.
The legend of a snake guarding forbidden apples shares many similarities with the biblical myth of Adam and Eve. Although Ladon is not wholly an evil entity his presence in the story of the Hesperides set the standards for many tales about dragons guarding treasures.
The myth of Ladon
The beautiful and majestic Garden of the Hesperides, named after the nymphs who tended the trees, belonged to the goddess Hera. When Zeus married Hera, Gaia gave to the goddess a branch containing shining golden apples as a wedding gift. Hera was so amazed by the brilliance of the fruits that she had them planted in her garden where the Hesperides nymphs (The Daughters of the Evening) were placed to look after the saplings. Hera also set Ladon, the great serpent with the hundred heads to guard the apples.
The fearsome guardian of the Garden of the Hesperides was a serpentine dragon (probably wingless) with one hundred heads and a long body with black and red scales. Ladon was his name and he was an immortal monster that never slept. His task was to prevent and kill those who would attempt to steal the golden apples.
After killing the Caucasian Eagle and liberating Prometheus from his tormenting imprisonment, Heracles learned how to reach the distant Garden of the Hesperides. Once there however he witnessed the egregious size of the horrible beast that guarded his prize and was taken aback. There was no doubt at all that the dragon Ladon was an intimidating foe.
Yet, Heracles didn’t falter. He took out his bow and his poison arrows (dipped in the terrible Lernaean Hydra’s blood) and fired at the beast, ultimately slaying it. The path to the apples was now clear, but the demigod hero soon found out that he could not obtain them. The trees were too tall for him. So, he asked assistance from another Titan, Atlas, who was holding up the heavens in an area not far from the Garden.
Heracles agreed to take the unbearable burden on his shoulders until Atlas would return with the golden apples. But, the Titan wasn’t willing to hold his end of the bargain and he would have left Heracles in his place forever if not for the cunning of the hero to trick the Titan into holding the sky up again. Thus Heracles took the golden apples and his eleventh labor was deemed successful.
According to most sources, Ladon is presented as a hundred-headed, serpent-like giant dragon, ever watchful and eternal. In art though, the guardian of the Garden of the Hesperides is portrayed as a large snake with one or three heads. Very few scholars gave Ladon wings and fewer still even a fiery breath.
Roles and Responsibilities
Ladon’s duty was to guard the golden apples of the Hesperides against anyone who would seek to steal them.
In the old texts
Ladon appears in Hesiod’s Theogony, Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, Diodorus Siculus’ Bibliotheca Historica, and Pausanias’ Description of Greece.
‘And Ceto was joined in love to Phorcys and bore her youngest,
the awful snake (Ladon) who at the edge of the world,
in the dark depths of the earth, guards the all golden apples.’
Hesiod’s Theogony 333-335
‘…ἷξον δ᾽ ἱερὸν πέδον, ᾧ ἔνι Λάδων
εἰσέτι που χθιζὸν παγχρύσεα ῥύετο μῆλα
χώρῳ ἐν Ἄτλαντος, χθόνιος ὄφις…’
‘…but they came to the sacred plain where Ladon,
until recently guarded the all golden apples
in the garden of Atlas, the serpent of the earth…’
Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica Book 4 1396-1398
The dragon Ladon is mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid, and Hyginus’ Fabulae and De Astronomica.
‘The huge dragon (Ladon) that guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides,
he (Hercules) killed near Mount Atlas, and brought the apples to King Eurystheus.’
Hyginus’ Fabulae 30
At the fabled Garden of the Hesperides, Heracles was wise to fight the deadly Ladon from a distance. He shot at him many of the poison arrows he carried in his quiver. Ladon succumbed to his wounds and perished making the Hesperides nymphs, who had grown fond of their unusual companion, to grieve his loss.
Hera, the Queen of the gods, commanded Ladon, the son of Phorcys and Ceto, to watch over her precious golden apples. The beast, just like Cerberus and the Caucasian Eagle, was obedient enough to accept this sacred task. He remained loyal to Hera until his bitter end by the demigod hero Heracles.
Featured Image Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons