In the Olympian pantheon of classical Greek Mythology, Hera was the wife and older sister of Zeus. She was also called upon as the goddess of marriage, which could explain her oft-referenced jealousy at Zeus's frequent extramarital exploits. Her equivalent in Roman mythology was Juno. The cow and peacock are sacred to her.
Portrayed as majestic and solemn, she is often enthroned and crowned with the polos, the high cylindrical crown worn by several of the Great Goddesses. In her hand, Hera may bear the pomegranate, emblem of fertile blood and death, and a substitute for the narcotic capsule of the opium poppy. Given her evidently lofty cultic status, her portrayal as a foolish and jealous shrew could be a later invention, aimed to discredit her strength as a representation of female divinity. As Burkert notes, "in comparison with the high esteem of her cult, Hera seems to suffer something of a loss of status in Homer and to become almost a comic figure.
Unlike many Olympian deities (whose names are easily translatable), Hera's moniker is something of a linguistic enigma. As Burkert suggests: "The name of Hera, the queen of the gods, admits a variety of mutually exclusive etymologies; one possibility is to connect it with hora, season, and to interpret it as ripe for marriage." Conversely, he also suggests that it could be a feminine version of Heros ("Master"), an etymology that would certainly support the goddess's high station. Another possibility is that her name is derived from "young cow, heifer," which is compatible with Hera's common epithet boopis, "cow-eyed." Thus, unlike some Greek gods, such as Zeus, Hera's name cannot be definitively parsed as a Greek or Indo-European word.
This is compatible with the contested hypothesis that argues she was a survival of a pre-Greek "great goddess" figure, comparable to the powerful female divinities of the Minoan pantheon or of some unidentified pre-Greek ("Pelasgian") people.
Her early importance
Hera's importance in the early archaic period is attested by the large building projects undertaken in her honor. Historically, the shrines to Hera in the two main centers of her cult (at Samos and on the outskirts of Argos) were among the earliest monumental Greek temples constructed, and they were revered for their beauty and majesty. Indeed, Herodotus described the Heraion at Samos as "the largest Greek temple of his time."
At Olympia, Hera's seated cult figure was older than the warrior figure of Zeus that accompanied it. Homer expressed her relationship with Zeus delicately in the Iliad, where she declares to Zeus, "I am Cronus' eldest daughter, and am honorable not on this ground only, but also because I am your wife, and you are king of the gods." The nature of their relationship is also attested to linguistically, as Zeus is often called Zeus Heraios ("Zeus, consort of Hera"). However, and in spite of the historical evidence, Homer's treatment of Hera is less than respectful, and in late anecdotal versions of many myths she appeared to spend most of her time plotting revenge on the nymphs seduced by her Consort.
Hera was especially worshiped at the sanctuary that stood between the former Mycenaean city-states of Argos and Mycenae, where festivals in her honor called Heraia were celebrated. This relationship is commemorated in the Iliad, where the Queen of Heaven states: "The three cities I love best, are Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae of the broad streets." While her other primary cultic center was on the island of Samos, there were also temples to Hera in Olympia, Corinth, Tiryns, Perachora, and on the sacred island of Delos. Indeed, her cult was one of the primary pan-Hellenic religious observances:
It can be traced in most parts of ancient Greece, and had the strongest hold upon the sites of the oldest civilization, Argos, Mycenae, and Sparta…. We may regard the cult then as a primeval heritage of the Greek peoples, or at least of the Achaean and Ionic tribes; for its early and deep influence over these is attested by the antiquity and peculiar sanctity of the Argive and Samian worship.
Though Greek altars of classical times were always placed under the open sky, Hera may have been the first deity to whom an enclosed, roofed temple sanctuary was dedicated. This groundbreaking structure was eventually replaced by the Heraion, one of the largest Greek temples ever built. Intriguingly, archaeological excavations in Samos have revealed votive offerings, many from the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., which reveal that Hera at Samos was not merely a local Greek goddess of the Aegean (at least in terms of her supplicants): The museum there contains figures of gods and suppliants and other votive offerings from Armenia, Babylon, Iran, Assyria, Egypt, testimony to the reputation that this sanctuary of Hera enjoyed. An interesting inter-religious parallel can be seen in the frequent occurrence of pomegranates among the offerings to the deity, as described from new-found archaeological evidence:
Strikingly many terracotta pomegranates and terracotta or ivory poppy pods have been found in the Heraion. A terracotta pinecone has also been found. The feature shared in common by these fruits is that they are rich in seeds and there can be no doubt that this must be seen as a special element of Hera's divinity as a great fertility goddess.
The cosmopolitan nature of the early cult of Hera is also evidenced in her iconographic representations. In Hellenistic imagery, Hera's wagon was pulled by peacocks, birds not known to Greeks before the conquests of Alexander: Alexander's tutor, Aristotle, refers to it as "the Persian bird." The peacock motif was revived in the Renaissance iconography that unified Hera and Juno, and which European painters have kept familiar to the modern world.
Her archaic association was primarily with cattle, and she was especially venerated in "cattle-rich" areas (such as Euboea). In this region, the festival of the Great Daedala, which was especially sacred to Hera, was celebrated following the prescribed sixty-year cycle. Likewise, the Athenians, during the month of Gamelion ("month of marriage") took part in an annual festival commemorating the "Sacred Marriage of Zeus and Hera," and during Metageitnion, celebrated Hera alone, in her role as the "Goddess of Charm." However, the rituals related to the goddess were certainly not constrained by geographic area. Every fourth year, virgins from around the country traveled to Olympia to compete for athletic honors in Hera's name, at an event called the Heraia.
Hera and her children
Hera presides over the right arrangements of the marriage and is the archetype of the union in the marriage bed, but she is not notable as a mother. The legitimate offspring of her union with Zeus are Ares, Hebe, Eris (the goddess of discord), and Eileithyia (goddess of childbirth). Hera was jealous of Zeus' giving birth to Athena without recourse to her, so she decided to give birth to Hephaestus without him any male intervention. Unfortunately, the results were less than optimal and both Hera and Zeus were disgusted with Hephaestus' ugliness. So, they threw him from Mount Olympus.
Hephaestus gained revenge following Hera's shameful rejection of him by making her a magical throne that adhered to her flesh and kept her prisoner. The repulsive god only relented when Hera promised to give him Aphrodite as his wife.
Hera, the nemesis of Heracles
Hera was the stepmother and enemy of Heracles, the hero who, more than even Perseus, Cadmus, or Theseus, introduced the Olympian ways in Greece. When Alcmene was pregnant with Heracles, Hera tried to prevent the birth by tying Alcmene's legs in knots. However, she was foiled by Galanthis, the ailing mother's servant, who told Hera that she had already delivered the baby. Once she realized that she had been misled, Hera transformed the servant into a weasel.
While Heracles was still an infant, Hera sent two serpents to kill him as he lay in his cot. Heracles throttled a single snake in each hand and was found by his nurse playing with their limp bodies as if they were child's toys. The anecdote is built upon a representation of the hero gripping a serpent in each hand, precisely as the familiar Minoan snake-handling goddesses had once done. "The picture of a divine child between two serpents may have been long familiar to the Thebans, who worshiped the Cabeiri, although not represented as a first exploit of a hero."
One account of the origin of the Milky Way is that Zeus had tricked Hera into nursing the infant Heracles: Discovering who he was, she pulled him from her breast, and a spurt of her milk formed the smear across the sky that can be seen to this day.
Conversely, some myths state that Hera befriended Heracles for saving her from a giant who tried to rape her, and that she even gave her daughter Hebe as his bride. Whatever myth-making served to account for an archaic representation of Heracles as "Hera's man," it was thought suitable for the builders of the Heraion (the temple of Hera) at Paestum to depict the exploits of Heracles in bas-relief.
The Twelve Labors
Hera's antipathy to the hero did not end when he reached adulthood. In fact, the Queen of the Gods was seen to have convinced King Eurystheus at Mycenae to assign him the (near-impossible) Twelve Labors. Even worse, she kept trying to cause him to fail while he was attempting to complete these tasks. When Heracles fought the Lernaean Hydra, she sent a crab to bite at his feet in the hopes of distracting him. To annoy Heracles after he took the cattle of Geryon, Hera sent a gadfly to bite the cattle, irritate them, and scatter them. When he finally reached the court of Eurystheus, the cattle were sacrificed to Hera. Eurystheus also wanted to sacrifice the Cretan Bull to Hera. She refused the sacrifice because it reflected glory on Heracles.
As mentioned above, many of the tales of Hera in the extant mythic corpus simply describe her jealous responses to the actions of her philandering husband. Some examples would include the stories of Echo, Leto, Callisto, and Semele.
For a time, a nymph named Echo had the job of distracting Hera from Zeus' affairs by leading her away and flattering her. When Hera discovered the deception, she cursed Echo to only repeat the words of others (providing an etiological explanation for the acoustic phenomenon).
When Hera discovered that Leto was pregnant and that Zeus was the father, she banned Leto from giving birth on "terra-firma," or the mainland, or any island at sea. Fortunately, Leto was able to find the floating island of Delos, which was neither mainland nor a real island and gave birth there. In another version, Hera kidnapped Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to prevent Leto from going into labor. After the mother of Apollo and Artemis suffers for nine days, the other gods eventually convinced Hera to release the midwife god by bribing her with "a necklace of gold and amber thirty feet thick."
Callisto and Arcas
Hera's jealousy also figures in the myth of Callisto/Arcas. A follower of Artemis, Callisto took a vow to remain a virgin. But Zeus fell in love with her and disguised himself as Artemis in order to lure her into his embrace. Enraged, Hera transformed Callisto into a bear. Later, Callisto's son with Zeus, Arcas, nearly killed her in a hunt, at which point the Sky God placed them in the heavens to keep them both safe.
Semele and Dionysus
Dionysus, the god of wine, was another son of Zeus via a tryst with a mortal woman. A jealous Hera again attempted to kill the child, this time by convincing the divine boy's pregnant mother to demand to see her lover's true form. Semele, disbelieving the goddess's words, asked to see Zeus as he actually was. Unable to deny her, the Sky God transformed into a thunderbolt and killed her. Unwilling to let his unborn son die, Zeus then reached into the corpse of his lover and transplanted the fetus into his own thigh.
These tales, while providing a representative sample, are certainly not an exhaustive account. Hera's jealousy can also be seen in the tales of Io, Lamia, Gerana, and many others.
Other mythic accounts
Cydippe, a priestess of Hera, was on her way to a festival in Hera's honor. The oxen that were to pull her cart were overdue, so her sons, Biton and Cleobis, pulled their mother the entire distance (45 stadia, 8 kilometers). Cydippe was impressed with their devotion (both to her and to the goddess), and she asked Hera to give her children the best gift a god could give a person. The goddess decided to allow the two young men to fall asleep and die, as this would preserve their greatness untainted:
Then after they had done this and had been seen by the assembled crowd, there came to their life a most excellent ending; and in this the deity declared that it was better for man to die than to continue to live. For the Argive men were standing round and extolling the strength of the young men, while the Argive women were extolling the mother to whose lot it had fallen to have such sons; and the mother being exceedingly rejoiced both by the deed itself and by the report made of it, took her stand in front of the image of the goddess and prayed that she would give to Cleobis and Biton her sons, who had honored her greatly, that gift which is best for man to receive: And after this prayer, when they had sacrificed and feasted, the young men lay down to sleep within the temple itself, and never rose again, but were held bound in this last end. And the Argives made statues in the likeness of them and dedicated them as offerings at Delphi, thinking that they had proved themselves most excellent.
Herodotus uses this tale as a proof-text for Solon's oft-quoted dictum that one should "call no man happy until he is dead," as it is only at that point that the successfulness of one's life can truly be measured.
In a more humorous vein, Hera is also involved in a tale concerning the Tiresias (the famed seer). Tiresias was a priest of Zeus, who, as a young man, encountered two snakes mating and hit them with a stick. He was then transformed into a woman. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera, married, and had children, including Manto. After seven years as a woman, Tiresias again found mating snakes, struck them with her staff, and became a man once more.
As a result of his (literally) bisexual experiences, Zeus and Hera considered him to be the perfect person to resolve a debate that they were having about which sex, male or female, experienced more pleasure during intercourse. Zeus claimed it was women; Hera claimed it was men. When Tiresias sided with Zeus, Hera struck him blind. Since Zeus could not undo what she had done, he gave him the gift of prophecy.
- Ruck and Staples, 1994.
- Burkert, 132.
- Burkert, 131.
- A.J. van Windekens, Glotta 36 (1958), 309-11.
- Farnell, 192-194.
- A. Cook, 419.
- Price, 47, 53.
- Kyrieleis, 125.
- Homer, The Iliad. Retrieved April 22, 2007.
- Farnell (Vol. 1), 179.
- Burkert 1998.
- Kyrieleis, 138.
- Seznec 1953.
- Gertrude M. Godden, "The Sacred Marriage," Folklore, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Sep., 1895): 225-235.
- Parke, 104.
- Ibid., 179.
- Dillon, 194-195.
- Rose, 166-167.
- Ruck and Staples, 1994.
- Ovid, sacred-texts.com Metamorphosis. Retrieved April 23, 2007.
- Kerenyi, 134.
- Powell, 401.
- Kerenyi (1959), p 131.
- Apollodorus 2.5.2, 2.5.7.
- Rose, 169.
- Powell, 165-167.
- Powell, 183.
- Rose, 147-148.
- Bulfinch, Mythology: The Age of Fable.
- McCauley, Herodotus Book One: Clio 31, Sacred Texts. Retrieved May 10, 2008.
- Apollodorus 3.6.7.
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