Hera, the Greek Goddess of Women and Marriage, is known for her extremely jealous nature. But, she also stands for long-lasting matrimony and fidelity. This SpiritualRay article features some interesting myths and facts about the Greek goddess Hera.
Echo, a mountain nymph, was given a task to distract Hera’s attention away from Zeus by flattering the goddess repeatedly. When Hera realized this, she cursed Echo to only repeat the words of others from then on. Hence the term, ‘Echo’.
Hera (Roman: Juno) was the queen of the Olympian gods and goddesses in ancient Greek mythology. She was the sister and wife of Zeus, the King of the Olympians, who had tricked her into marriage. Otherwise a beautiful and solemn woman, Hera is known for her vengeful nature and her long-lasting jealousies for the numerous lovers and consorts of her philanderer husband. Added to this, Hera is also often depicted to be scheming against Heracles, who was one of her many stepsons.
Owing to the fact that Hera was always loyal to Zeus, and in an ongoing tug-of-war with all the other women who were seduced by him, some scholars have postulated that the goddess’ cult might have taken root in some pre-Hellenic matriarchal culture, and the tradition may have then, assimilated within the Greek pantheon. In Greek mythology, Hera is the Goddess of Women and Marriage. But, she is also the Goddess of the Skies and Starry Heavens, owing to Zeus’ association with the two.
Myths About Hera
Much like the other Greek gods and goddesses, several myths are centered around Hera, which tell us not only about her role as a goddess, but also about her relationships with other beings.
Birth of Hera
In Greek mythology, Hera is the daughter of Titans, Cronus and Rhea. Cronus was told by his parents, Ouranos (Sky) and Gaia (Earth), that his rule will be usurped by one of his own sons, who will then assume power as the King of Gods. Worried by this prediction, Cronus swallowed all his children, the moment they were born. Agitated by this behavior of her husband, Rhea hid her youngest son, Zeus, from Cronus. Zeus quickly grew up into a strong, young man, and then, in order to rescue his siblings from his father, he asked Metis, the Titaness of wisdom and deep thought and his first wife, to make a potion that would make Cronus vomit his children out of his stomach. He then tricked Cronus into drinking the potion, and thus, rescued his siblings, viz. Hestia (Goddess of Hearth), Demeter (Goddess of Harvest), Hera, Hades (God of Death), and Poseidon (God of the Sea). This myth has been mentioned by the 7thcentury BCE Greek poet Hesiod, in his treatise, the Theogony.
Contrary to this widely accepted myth with respect to the birth of Hera, an 8th century BCE Greek poet, Homer, mentions that she was not born to Cronus and Rhea at all. This claim is supported by the 2nd century CE Greek geographer Pausanias who, in his travelogue, Description of Greece, has written that Hera was born on the island of Samos (in the Eastern Aegean Sea) under a willow, the very site on which, the Heraion of Samos was later erected. However, Pausanias does not mention the names of Hera’s parents.
Marriage to Zeus
As a maiden, Hera was the most beautiful of all the goddesses. Zeus was instantly infatuated by her beauty, and according to a 1st century CE Roman poet, Statius, gave treacherous kisses to Hera. But Hera very innocently ignored him as, for her, Zeus was still her younger brother. However, Pausanias mentions an incident where Zeus transformed himself into a cuckoo and perched on Hera’s scepter. As Hera looked at the beautiful bird, she immediately started petting it and held it close to her breast. Taking advantage of the situation, Zeus immediately reappeared in his original form, and even before Hera could realize what had happened, he raped her. Later, in order to cover up all the shame and embarrassment, she unwillingly married Zeus.
Nevertheless, Hera did not forgive Zeus for his disgraceful act. Legends tell us that she had once convinced the gods to revolt against Zeus, which they did. Hera drugged Zeus during this time, and tied him to a couch so tightly, that he could not move. Zeus was rescued by Briareus, one of the Hekatonkheires (giants with 100 arms and 50 heads). Once Zeus was free, the revolt ended, as no God had the power to face Zeus’ thunderbolt. He then punished Hera by hanging her to the sky with chains made of gold. However, she was released the next morning on a condition that she would never again rebel against Zeus, to which she had to agree in the absence of any other choice.
Zeus and Hera bore three children, viz. Ares (God of Violence and Bloodshed), Hebe (Goddess of Youth), and Eileithyia (Goddess of Childbirth).
Birth of Hephaestus and Typhon
Another version of the myth tells us that Athena’s birth had angered Hera so much that she invoked the powers of the Heaven and the Earth, and all the Titans, living underneath the Earth, and prayed for a son who would be much stronger and powerful than Zeus, all the other gods, and mortal beings. Her prayers were heard, and she soon bore an evil-looking monster, Typhon, who neither resembled the gods nor the mortals. On realizing that she could not take the evil-looking child to Mount Olympus, she gave him to Drakaina, a female dragon, who then became Typhon’s foster mother.
Wrath of Hera
Despite the fact that Hera did not quite wish to marry Zeus in the beginning, later sources portray her as a loving and a loyal wife, who expected the same of her husband. However, owing to the several love affairs of Zeus, she was constantly engaged in strife with all the other woman, who were loved by Zeus.
▶ One of the most famous myths with respect to Hera’s behavior with the other women, is the tale of Leto, the daughter of the Titans Coeusand Phoebe, is very popular. When Hera learned that Leto was about to give birth to Zeus’ child, she refused to give her a place on terra firma to do so. She ordered all the lands and islands to ban Leto from setting foot on them. Overcome by pity for Leto, Poseidon showed her a way to the floating island of Delos, which was not connected to the land in any way. It was on the island of Delos, that Leto gave birth to two second-generation Olympian deities, Apollo (God of the Sun, Healing, and Music), and his twin, Artemis (Goddess of Virginity, Wilderness, and Hunting).
▶ Another famous tale of Hera’s wrath pertains to the birth of Dionysus(God of Wine and Merrymaking). Dionysus’ mother was the mortal princess of Thebes, Semele. When Hera learned about Semele’s pregnancy, she disguised herself as the princess’ nurse and asked her to force Zeus to appear before her in his true form. However, Semele could not withstand the radiance of Zeus and died instantly. But, Zeus managed to save Dionysus from Hera’s anger. Another version of the same myth tells us that Dionysus was originally born to Demeter, and not Semele. However, Hera, out of her jealousy, sent one of her Titans to rip the baby apart, which was promptly obeyed. But Zeus, rescued the baby’s heart and gave it to Semele to consume, so that it impregnated her, and Dionysus was born from her womb. Thus, Dionysus is also the ‘twice-born” deity of Greek mythology.
▶ Io, the priestess of Hera’s sanctuary in Argos, was seduced by Zeus to become his mistress. When Hera came to know about this affair, she decided to catch both of them red-handed, which she almost did, but Zeus transformed Io into a heifer, at the last moment. However, Hera was too intelligent to be fooled, and she asked Zeus to gift her the heifer, which he had to. Hera then ordered Argus Panoptes, a hundred-eyed giant, to keep an eye on Io, so that she could be kept away from Zeus. But later, Hermes (God of Travelers, Herdsmen, and Thieves), on Zeus’ orders, slew the giant and rescued Io from his clutches.
▶ Lamia, the queen of Libya, was loved by Zeus, who had fathered several children from her. Hera killed all her children, and turned Lamia into a dreadful monster. Hera also cursed Lamia that she would never be able to close her eyes, so that she can always see her children getting slain. Owing to her lament, Zeus blessed her with an ability to remove her eyes from their sockets and put them back in place again. According to legends, Lamia, as a monster, was envious of other mothers, and ate up their children.
▶ Alcmene, the princess of Tiryns and Mycenae, was another love of Zeus, who had to face the hatred of Hera. When Alcmene was pregnant with Heracles, Hera tied her legs together to prevent her from giving birth. However, Alcmene’s servant informed Hera that she had already delivered the baby, thus foiling all her plans. Enraged by this, Hera turned the servant into an animal.
Hera’s Hatred for Heracles
Heracles (Roman: Hercules), the Greek hero, who successfully undertook several, seemingly impossible feats, and always emerged victorious, was a mortal son of Zeus from Alcmene. Owing to this, Hera hated him immensely. There are several legends shedding light on the various attempts of Hera to kill Heracles.
▶ When Heracles was an infant, Hera sent two dreadful snakes to kill him. However, Heracles managed to overpower and kill them, while lying in his bed.
▶ When he grew up, Hera ordered Heracles to complete the 12 labors ofKing Eurystheus at Mycenae. These were 12 tasks, impossible to complete for a normal human being. However, Heracles emerged victorious every time. However, Hera made every possible attempt to make each and every task more and more difficult for the hero.
▶ Another myth tells us how Hera drove Heracles mad. The 2nd century CE Greek mythographer, Pseudo-Apollodorus, in his treatise, theBibliotheca, has narrated the incident very vividly. He mentions that in his madness, Heracles killed his entire family―his wife and his three children.
▶ One of the myths involving Hera and Heracles is associated with the origin of the Milky Way. According to this myth, Zeus once tricked Hera into nursing Heracles; however, on realizing who the child was, Hera immediately pulled him off her breast. The Greek creation myth tells us that the Milky Way is actually the spurt of milk that was smeared across the sky.
The point to be noted is, that Hera and Heracles do not always seem to stand opposite one another. We have mythological instances, wherein, they also tend to get along well with each other. In this regard, Pseudo-Apollodorus also mentions an instance where, in the battle between Gods and Giants, a giant named Porphyrion got infatuated with Hera, and attempted to rape her. At this point, it was Heracles who killed him with his arrow. Moreover, Homer, in his epic, the Odyssey, also mentions that Heracles later married Hera’s daughter, Hebe, with Hera’s consent.
Other Myths Associated with Hera
There are several other myths in ancient Greek and Roman mythology which feature Hera as one of the vital characters.
▶ Gerana, the Queen of the Pygmies, was very proud of her beauty, and boasted that she was even more beautiful than Hera. Hera was extremely annoyed by this, and turned her into a crane. She further cursed Gerana, that her bird descendants would wage an eternal war against the pygmies.
▶ The story of the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad tells us that Hera assisted the Greeks against the Trojans. She even killed her own son, Ares, who was fighting from the Trojan side.
▶ Hera also appears in the popular myth, The Judgment of Paris, where Zeus asked the Trojan Prince, Paris, to decide which goddess was the fairest among Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Hera tried to bribe Paris by giving him control of the whole of Asia and Europe; however, it was Aphrodite, who eventually won the contest. Enraged by this, Hera and Athena encouraged Paris to abduct Helen of Troy, which was apparently one of the main causes of the Trojan War.
Facts About Hera
▶ As a matron goddess, the importance that Hera had in ancient Greek religion was immense. Archaeological sources tell us that, she was the first goddess among the Olympian pantheon, to have a completely enclosed and roofed shrine dedicated to her by the ancient Greeks. This was built at Samos, around 800 BCE.
▶ This considerably small sanctuary at Samos was later replaced by theHeraion (the temple of Hera). By far, the Heraion of Samos is the largest free-standing Greek temple ever discovered.
▶ The excavations at the Heraion of Samos uncovered evidence of a lot of votive offerings, made by pilgrims to the goddess.
▶ A closer scrutiny of these votive objects suggests, that a lot of them did not belong to the Aegean, the region in which the sanctuary was located. On the contrary, these seem to have come from distant regions, such as Armenia, Babylon, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Assyria. It can be inferred that Hera’s cult far transcended the Aegean region, as pilgrims from faraway places gathered to worship her at Samos.
▶ Large temples dedicated to Hera were also built at Olympia and Campania, two major Graeco-Roman cities.
▶ Apart from Samos, the Heraion of Argos was another major sanctuary of the goddess on the Greek mainland. Here, she was worshiped as Hera Argeia (Hera of Argos), and Heraia, festivals in the honor of Hera, were celebrated. One of the major highlights of Heraia was the women’s athletic contest.
▶ Other temples dedicated to the goddess include, the ones at Corinth, Tiryns, Perachora, and Delos. Also, in the ancient region of Greater Greece,Magna Graecia, two shrines of Hera belonging to a period between 550 BCE and 450 BCE have been discovered.
▶ Interestingly enough, Hera was worshiped in three distinct avatars throughout ancient Greece, especially in Arcadia―the maiden, the mother, and the crone. In her three avatars, she presided over all the issues related to women, and bestowed them with a happy and prosperous life.
What is most striking about the cult of Hera is the fact that, it seems to be much older than that of Zeus. In the temple at Olympia, of the two cult figures, one is of Hera, seated on a throne, and the other of Zeus, geared up as a warrior. The statue of Hera was much older than that of Zeus. This indicates that Zeus’ statue was later installed in the temple, that was formerly dedicated only to Hera. However, owing to the fact that Zeus became the most important deity with the rise of the Olympians, it can be inferred that Hera may have had archaic Greek origins.
Several epithets have been associated with Hera, owing to her importance in the various stages in the lives of women. She was worshiped in different forms in different regions.
▶ For the Spartans, she was Aigophágos, the ‘Goat-Eater’. In Sparta, goats were sacrificed to the goddess.
▶ For the Corinthians, she was Akráia, the one who resides on a height, and/or Bounáia, the one who sits on a mound. Her temple at Corinthia was located on a hill, overlooking the city.
▶ In the ancient Greek district of Elis, Hera was worshiped as Ammonia, perhaps due to her association with the oracular aspect of Zeus, which was identified with the Egyptian deity, Amun.
▶ At Argos, she enjoyed the status of a local deity, and was worshiped asArgéia, literally meaning ‘of Argos’.
▶ As the Queen of the Gods, she was the Basíleia.
▶ Homer describes her as Boṓpis, ‘cow-eyed’ or ‘cow-faced’. He also calls her Leukṓlenos, ‘white-armed’.
▶ With respect to the three different forms that she takes, she is calledPais (virgin), Teléia (maiden, also the Goddess of Marriage), and Chḗrē(crone).
Depictions in Art
▶ Hera is often depicted either in a standing position, or seated on a throne. Her most common attributes are polos―the cylindrical crown that she wears, a lotus staff that she holds in her left hand, cuckoo―a symbol of her marriage to Zeus, and a pomegranate―a symbol of fertility.
▶ Hellenistic representations depict her seated in a chariot that is pulled by peacocks. Peacock was unknown to the Hellenes before the conquests of Alexander. In the later period, peacock became one of the most common symbols of Hera.
▶ Other birds associated with Hera include a crane and a hawk. The cow and lion also seem to be sacred to her.
Despite numerous myths telling us about the jealous and vengeful nature of Hera, we simply cannot deny the fact that she definitely symbolizes the importance of fidelity in marriage. In spite of the promiscuous attitude of Zeus, Hera always remained loyal to him, a quality that makes her a deity presiding over marriages and their smooth functioning.