The Goddess Hera in Greek Mythology
There is a popular phrase which states that “behind every great man, there is a great woman.” This sentiment can even be found in Greek mythology. For, whilst Zeus might have been the supreme ruler of the Olympian gods, his wife, the goddess Hera, was by his side.
Hera was Queen of Mount Olympus and would take up a matriarchal role, becoming the Greek goddess of women and marriage.
The mythology of Hera would fill several books, and although ancient writers would often write contradictory things about the goddess, some basic stories of Hera can be established.
Statue of Hera at the Louvre
The Story of Hera's Birth
Hera was the daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, and was therefore an older sister of Zeus. Cronus was at the time, the supreme ruler of the cosmos, but was fearful of his position, as a prophecy had proclaimed that one of his own children would overthrow him.
To circumvent the prophecy, when Rhea gave birth to a child, Cronus would take the child and swallow it whole, imprisoning it within his stomach. Hera was therefore imprisoned, alongside Hestia, Demeter, Hades and Poseidon. Zeus would have suffered the same fate, but Rhea substituted a stone for her son, and so Zeus was secreted away to Crete to grow up.
Hera, and her other siblings, would eventually be released by Zeus, when Cronus was tricked into drinking a potion, which caused the Titan to regurgitate them.
The three brothers were then said to have taken up arms against the Titans, but Hera was said to have been passed into the care of Oceanus and Thetys, and there she was said to have grown into maturity.
The Role of Hera in Greek Mythology
In popular Greek mythology, Hera is seen as the Queen of Mount Olympus, a role that she assumed after the Titans had been deposed, and upon her marriage to Zeus. Hera would be Zeus’ third wife, with the supreme god transforming himself into a cuckoo to seduce her.
As a wedding present, Gaia would present Hera with a garden in which grew the Golden Apples.
Hera would act as counsel to Zeus, offering advice and guiding him on occasion; although she was less powerful than him so could not overstep certain boundaries. On one occasion Hera, Athena and Poseidon sought to imprison Zeus, although the plot was prevented when Thetis called forth the Hecatonchire Briaros to act as the god’s bodyguard.
Hera would then be worshipped as a goddess of women, birth and marriage; and a story is told of Hera having a virginity restored each year, when she bathed in the Canathus well or spring.
Temple of Hera at Paestum
The Worship of Hera in Ancient Greece
The worship of Hera was certainly widespread throughout Ancient Greece, with notable temples present at Corinth, Delos, Olympia, Paestum, Perachora, Sparta and Tiryns. There was also a temple at Samos, the Heraion, which was one of the largest Greek temples ever constructed.
Many towns in Ancient Greece, including Argos and Mycenae, would worship Hera as their town’s goddess; and Heraia, public celebrations of the goddess would also occur.
As well as widespread, the worship of Hera was also older than the worship of Zeus, and the oldest places of worship in Greece were all dedicated to the goddess. The coming of the Hellenes people though saw a male dominated pantheon replace many of the former important female deities.
The Children of Hera
Despite being the matriarchal figure, Hera was not actually spoken of as parent to many children, unlike her husband. A general consensus from ancient sources sees Hera as mother to three children by Zeus; Ares (God of War), Eileithyia (Goddess of Childbirth) and Hebe (Goddess of Youth).
More famously, Hera also gave birth to Hephaestus, although this time, Zeus was not involved. Hera was said to have been angry about Zeus bringing forth Athena. In retribution Hera slapped her hand on the ground, and so the goddess gave birth to a son, Hephaestus.
Hephaestus though, was born a cripple, and aghast at his ugliness, Hera threw him from Mount Olympus. Hephaestus would have his revenge, for he designed, and made, a magical throne, which ensnared Hera; and Hephaestus only deigned to release his mother when Aphrodite was given to the metalworking god as a wife.
Hera and Heracles
The Vengeance of Hera
Today, Hera is often perceived as a vindictive woman, dealing harshly with the lovers and illegitimate offspring of her husband; although this of course does make her a wronged woman as well.
The most famous instance of this has Hera persecuting Heracles for his entire life. When Hera learned that Alcmene was pregnant with her husband’s child, she attempted to prevent the pregnancy by tying Alcmene’s legs together.
Even though Heracles was named in the goddess’ honour, Heracles meaning “Hera-famous”, Hera tried to kill the hero on many occasions. The first occasion being when Heracles was still an infant, and two serpents were sent to kill him; the infant Heracles of course, throttled the two snakes. It was also Hera who sent Heracles mad, and initiated the 12 Labours, in the hope of killing her husband’s son.
Semele and Dionysus
Hera’s persecution of Dionysus was similar to that of Heracles; although in the case of Dionysus, the goddess managed to get revenge on Dionysus’ mother, Semele. Hera managed to trick the Theban princess Semele, into asking Zeus to reveal himself in his true form. No mortal good gaze on the true form of an Olympian god, and so Semele died, but Zeus completed the gestation period of Dionysus by sowing him into his own thigh.
Hera would also try to kill the newborn Dionysus, sending Titans to rip the baby apart, although of course Dionysus survived, but Hera would keep on trying to kill him.
Hera Discovering Zeus with Io
Hera and the Lovers of Zeus
Hera faced a constant battle trying to keep up with Zeus’ lovers, but when she did she tried to punish them and those who aided them.
Hera learned that the nymph Echo had been employed by Zeus to keep her distracted, whilst he was having extra-martial affairs. When the goddess discovered the ruse, Hera cursed Echo, so that the nymph would only be able to repeat the words of others.
Io was another mistress of Zeus, and Zeus had transformed Io into a heifer to disguise her from Hera. Hera was not so easily fooled, and when presented with the heifer, Hera left the cow in the charge of the hundred eyed giant Argus; meaning that Zeus could no longer get close to Io. Hermes would eventually kill Argus, and so Hera sent a gadfly to sting Io as the heifer wandered the earth, whilst the eyes of Argus, were placed by the goddess, onto the plumage of the peacock.
Hera also sent the Python to harass Leto, when the goddess discovered Leto was pregnant with Apollo and Artemis. Hera also forbade any part of the land to offer refuge to Leto. Leto eventually found sanctuary on the floating island of Delos, where she was able to give birth to Artemis, and then Apollo. Once born, Hera could not further persecute these children of Zeus, as they were made fellow Olympians by their father.
Zeus might not have been scared of his wife but he was certainly wary of her powers, but the story goes that Zeus did occasionally tie his wife up, with anvils tied to her feet, to keep her in line.
The Judgement of Paris
Hera Appears in Famous Tales
Hera is present in many of the most famous stories from Ancient Greece, and of course she is central to the story of the 12 Labours of Heracles, but the goddess was also prominent in other famous tales.
Hera was involved in the starting point of the Trojan War, as she was one of the three goddesses, alongside Athena and Aphrodite, who claimed the Golden Apple with the “fairest” written on it. The Judgement of Paris would eventually decide who was the most beautiful of all goddesses, and whilst Hera offered Paris, wealth, power and kingship, the Trojan prince would eventually choose Aphrodite.
The decision of Paris would of course anger Hera, and the goddess would be an enemy to Troy thereafter, and would side with the Achaean heroes and forces in the Trojan War.
In the generation before she helped the Achaean heroes, Hera had also assisted the Greek hero Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece. Hera would offer guidance to Jason and the Argonauts on their way to Colchis, and would also plot for Medea to fall in love with the hero, allowing Jason to complete his quest.
Hera is mostly famous for her vendettas but the goddess was also kind to those who gave her the proper respect. Cydippe was a priestess of Hera, who was devoted to the goddess. One day when there was a problem with the oxen required to pull the cart of Cydippe, her two sons, Biton and Cleobis, placed themselves in the yoke of the cart, and pulled it 8km so their mother could attend a festival for Hera.
Cydippe asked Hera for a reward for her sons, and Hera taken by the respect of the sons to their mother, and also for Cydippe’s devotion to the goddess, gave them the highest reward she could think of. The two brothers were allowed to die in their sleep at the festival where Hera was being worshipped, so that they would be remembered, alongside Hera, for all time.