Faithful Hera was the goddess of women, family and marriage. The wife of mighty Zeus, she served as queen of the Olympian deities. Known as “ox-eyed,” “golden-sandaled,” and “white-armed,” Hera was also the patron of Argos in the Peloponnese; it was here that her worship in the ancient world was the most vibrant.

The Campana Hera, in the Louvre, Paris, France. This is a second century CE Roman copy of a Hellenistic original.Public Domain

Hera was bold, clever, and powerful, yet it was for her less flattering characteristics that she was best known. Above all else, Hera was a jealous and vengeful goddess who struggled with her husband's many infidelities and raged (often fruitlessly) against his many lovers mortal and divine. In the end, her constant anger and consistent inability to exact the revenge she sought spoke powerfully to the place and perception of women in ancient Greece.

Etymology

The name “Hera” came directly from the contemporary Greek word Hēra, meaning “protectress.” The more remote derivation—gleaned from analysis of Linear B, the script used to write Mycenaean Greek (the oldest known form of the Greek language)—suggested that “Hera” comes from words meaning “of the year” or “of the season” (similar to the ancient Greek word hôrê, or “season”). It was further speculated that this Mycenaean root evolved from the still older Proto Indo-European root for the word “lady” or “mistress.” This shift from “mistress of the seasons” to “protectress” signified the evolution of the deity from Mycenaean times (ca. 1500) to Classical city-states (ca. 500 BC).

Family

Hera was the daughter of Cronus and Rhea, Titans who in early times overthrew the primordial deities Uranus and Gaia and established themselves as the rulers of the universe. In total, Hera had five divine siblings; her sisters were Hestia and Demeter, and her brothers were Hades, Poseidon and Zeus. One of her earliest experiences was being swallowed by her father Cronus, who was terrified of a prophecy proclaiming that his children would overthrow him (as he had done to his own father). Eventually Zeus, the last of Cronus and Rhea's children, rescued Hera and the others. Together, they formed the Olympian pantheon to rule over the realms of gods and men.1

The Temple of Hera in Sicily, mid-sixth century BCE. The site was formally known as Temple E of Selinus.Public Domain

Some time later, Hera married Zeus; such brother-sister marriages were common among the ruling classes in ancient societies, and this reality was reflected in their mythologies as well. While the siblings' marriage was not always a happy one, Hera's efforts ensured that it endured through even its most difficult times. Together they had several children, including Eileithyia, the goddess of maternity and childbirth, Ares, god of war, and Hebe, goddess of youth.

Mythology

Despite her mythic standing as the paragon of motherhood, Hera did at times have difficult relationships with her offspring. Such was the case with one of her children—Hephaestus, god of metallurgy and craftsmanship, whom she had without Zeus. Hera conceived Hephaestus independently, without a male partner (“immaculately,” as it would be known in Christendom). She did this in a fit of jealous rage, as she was upset with Zeus over the similarly unusual and fantastic birth of Athena. Zeus, of course, had many lovers before (and after) Hera. One was the Titan Metis, with whom he conceived children. When Metis was pregnant, however, Zeus received a prophecy that foretold of his downfall. In order to prevent this prophecy from coming to fruition, Zeus decided to eat Metis, much in the way that Cronus had eaten Zeus' siblings. This did little to stop the birth of Metis' child, however, as Athena eventually burst out of Zeus' forehead. Despite this unusual circumstance, Hera took umbrage with the birth of a child her husband had by another woman. Thus, Hera resolved to have a child of her own without the involvement of Zeus or any other deities.

Unfortunately, Hephaestus was not a particularly good-looking god, and his garish appearance led to Hera throwing him off of Mt. Olympus. He eventually landed on the island of Lemnos, though he was seriously wounded by the fall. Henceforth, Hephaestus was known as the “lame” or “club-footed” god, and was often depicted as such in artistic representations. Though he was disabled, Hephaestus was still very intelligent and found a way to enact some measure of revenge upon his mother. On Lemnos, Hephaestus created an impregnable bronze workshop where he made many of his most famous inventions, including a clever trap for Hera. This trap consisted of a throne with invisible chains strapped around it; when Hera sat upon this throne, she suddenly became bound both to it and to Hephaestus’ will. In order for Hera to secure her release, Hephaestus demanded that she arrange for him to marry Aphrodite, the most beautiful of goddesses. Hera acquiesced, though she never forgave Hephaestus for this treachery.

A Woman Spurned—Three Tales of Hera’s Vengeance

Zeus had many wives and lovers before Hera. One was Leto, a Titan and the daughter of Coeus and Phoebe. Though Hera did not know it at the time, Leto was already pregnant by the time she and Zeus were wed. When Hera discovered this pregnancy, she flew into a violent rage and pushed Leto from the top of Mt. Olympus. Furthermore, she swore to unleash her fury upon any land and any people that offered succor to the beleaguered Leto, who was now forced to wander the Earth. With Zeus’ help, Leto eventually managed to escape to the barren island of Delos, whose inhabitants had nothing to lose and thus nothing to fear from Hera. In response, Hera summoned a dragon named Python to hunt down Leto. Once she had located the Titan, Hera resorted to one final plot. As Leto went into the throes of labor, Hera detained her daughter Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, and prevented her from assisting with Leto's labor. Hera's cruel act extended the agonies of childbirth out to nine whole months. At long last, Leto gave birth to Apollo and Artemis—the archer deities. The twins quickly proceeded to slay Python and shield their mother from Hera’s wrath.

Another common story saw Hera seeking revenge against Io. One of Hera’s own priestesses and the former princess of Argus, young Io captured the attention of Zeus, who came down from Mt. Olympus to ravish the maiden. When Hera caught wind of the affair, she sought out Io, but was unable to find her. Zeus, who was by now well-practiced at sneaking around on his wife, had transformed the young lady into a heifer and set her loose amongst the herds. Not to be outdone, Hera sought out Argus, a creature with a hundred eyes, to spy on the herd and locate Io. Her plan was only thwarted when Hermes came along. On Zeus' orders, he lulled Argus to sleep with his music and killed him. So great was her anguish at the loss of Argus that Hera set his eyes into the tail feathers of the peacock so that some memory of him would always remain. She also continued to torment Io, sending an enormous fly to pester the heifer.

Hera’s obsession with killing Hercules ably captured the lengths and depths of her vengefulness toward Zeus’ extramarital lovers and their offspring. Hercules was born of a union between Zeus and the mortal Alcmene, the wife of Amphitryon. When Alcmene went into labor with the offspring of the god, Zeus prophesied that the child would become a great hero and leader. Hera was appalled that Zeus would prophesy such a thing about one of his lover's children. In response, she appealed to her daughter Eileithyia to delay Hercules' birth, leaving Alcmene in the agonies of childbirth for seven months.2

Once Hercules was born, Hera sent a pair of snakes to kill the young boy. Hercules strangled them, however, and played with them like toys in his nursery. Much later in his life, after he had married Megara, princess of Thebes, and conceived many children with her, Hercules was driven mad by Hera. In his rage, he murdered his own children. Crushed by the weight of this terrible deed, Hercules sought advice from the Oracle at Delphi, who (unbeknownst to Hercules) was in the service of Hera. The Oracle ordered Hercules into the service of his enemy, Eurystheus, king of Tiryns, who in turn set Hercules on a quest to accomplish a series of impossible tasks—the Labors of Hercules. Most of these labors involved slaying horrible beasts, such as the Nemean Lion and Ladon dragon, that Hera herself had unleashed on the world. In the end, Hercules persisted through his many trials, thus foiling yet another of Hera's plots against him.

The Trojan War

Hera played a key role in the start of the Trojan War. The stories surrounding the beginning of this most famous of Greek conflicts differ slightly, but most start with an eventful beauty contest. To settle a feud between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite over who was the most beautiful, Zeus commissioned Paris, prince of Troy, to judge them in a beauty contest. Eager to settle the matter, the goddesses appeared before him unclothed. Despite this, Paris refused to choose a winner. The goddesses then resorted to bribes—Hera promised political power while Athena promised wisdom and glory; it was Aphrodite, however, who offered Paris the most beautiful mortal woman alive. Paris chose the latter gift, which happened to be Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. In fulfillment of her promise, Aphrodite had Helen abducted and brought to Troy, providing the spark for the famous conflict to come.

Iris approaching Athena and Hera, Jacques Reattu, late eighteenth century. The painting depicts Hera and Athena on a chariot riding into battle. Acting at the behest of Zeus, Iris is warning them not to intercede, lest they anger the king of the gods.Minneapolis Institute of Art home / Public Domain

Not one to forgive easily, Hera nursed a bitter resentment of Paris and the Trojans due to the contest's unfavorable results. Over the course of the long conflict, Hera consistently lent her considerable might to the Achaeans, the broad coalition of Greeks that included the aggrieved King Menelaus, in their fight against the Trojans. Also not one for subtlety, Hera also recruited Athena to her side, plotted against Ares (who was defending the Trojans), inspired Achilles and the other Greeks with her charms, and even fought in open combat, as rendered in the Iliad: “Hera lashed the horses on, and the gates of heaven bellowed as they flew open.”3

In perhaps her most cunning move, Hera attempted to deceive Zeus, who forbade the gods from interfering in the conflict. She first seduced him and lured him into bed, then persuaded Hypnos, the embodiment of sleep itself, to keep Zeus asleep so that she could meddle in the war. Though Hera’s side won the conflict, their victory was not of her doing. Her attempts to turn the tide of the Trojan War were ultimately abortive and unsuccessful.

Hera and the Greeks

The common threads of these stories of Hera said much at about the place and perception of women in the deeply misogynistic culture of the ancient Greeks.4 Hera's faithfulness to Zeus, despite his many sexual improprieties, suggested that women were expected and encouraged to remain steadfast even when their husbands were not. Her futile attempts to exact revenge on Leto, Io, Alcmene, Hercules, and others indicated that there were limitations to the justice that women could expect to achieve, even if that justice was harsh at times.

That her vengeance focused on women more so than on Zeus also gave some sense of whom the Greeks thought was to blame in such affairs. Finally, her unsuccessful efforts to sway the course of the Trojan War—tellingly, it was the crafty male Odysseus who conceived of the Trojan horse that ended the conflict—said much about the perception of female powerlessness in Greek society.

Pop Culture

In contrast to better known figures such as Zeus and Hercules, Hera did not figure prominently in popular culture. In the Disney animated film Hercules (1997), Hera was a background character—in an interesting twist on the original story, however, she played the loving mother of Hercules who was terribly distraught when the infant is made mortal and forced to live amongst the humans.

In the drama series Helen of Troy (2003), Hera was depicted in the famous judgment of Paris scene. Overall, Hera was not a well developed character in popular representations, and this may have reflected some confusion about Hera herself. She was a figure who embodied the image of a faithful mother and wife even while seeking to viciously punish those who crossed her.

References

Bibliography

  1. “Hera.” Online Etymology Dictionary. www.etymonline.com/word/hera.

  2. Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm.

  3. Homer. Iliad. Translated by Samuel Butler. Project Gutenberg. Last modified February 15, 2013. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2199/2199-h/2199-h.htm.

  4. O’Brien, Joan V. The Transformation of Hera. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993. https://books.google.com/books?id=a77yKM26GfYC&pg=PA113.

Footnotes

  1. “Hera,” Online Etymology Dictionary. For the deeper history, see O’Brien, The Transformation of Hera, 113-118. 

  2. There are a few versions of this story, see Hesiod, Theogony, 2.921–929, including 929a to 929t. 

  3. Homer, Iliad, Book V. In contrast to her prominent place in the Iliad, Hera is scarcely mentioned at all in the Odyssey. 

  4. A very cogent introduction to Greek misogyny is presented in the BBC documentary, The Ascent of Women, episode 1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0vRzb1hS-E. See in particular part starting at 39:45.