Faithful Hera was goddess of women, family and marriage, the husband of mighty of Zeus, and the queen of the Olympian deities. Known as the “ox-eyed,” the “golden-sandaled,” and the “white-armed,” Hera was also the patron of Argos in the Peloponnese, where the worship of the goddess in the ancient world was most vibrant.
Hera was many things—bold and clever and powerful—yet it was for less flattering characteristics that she was best known, and is now best remembered. Hera was above all things a jealous and vengeful goddess, who struggled always with the infidelities of Zeus, and who raged, although usually fruitlessly, against her husband and his many lovers, mortal and divine. In the end, both her constant anger and her consistent inability to exact the revenge she sought speak powerfully to the place and perception of women in ancient Greece.
The name “Hera” came most immediately from the contemporary Greek word Hēra, which meant simply “protectress.” The more remote derivation—gleaned from analysis of Linear B, the script used to write Mycenaean Greek, the most ancient known form of the Greek language—suggests that “Hera” comes from words meaning “of the year” or “of the season” (similar to the ancient Greek word hôrê, or “season”).
It is further speculated that this Mycenaean root evolved from the even older Proto Indo-European root for the word “lady” or “mistress.” This shift in meaning from “mistress of the seasons” to “protectress” signifies the evolution of the deity from Mycenaean times (ca. 1500) to Classical city-states (ca. 500 BC).
Hera was the daughter of Kronos and Rhea, the Titans who in the early times overthrew the primordial deities Ouranos and Gaia as the rulers of the universe. Hera had five divine brothers and sisters—the sisters/goddesses, Hestia and Demeter, and the brothers, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus.
Among her earliest memories was being swallowed by her father Kronos, who was terrified by a prophecy proclaiming that his children would attempt to overthrow him as he had done his father. Eventually the mighty Zeus, the last of the children of Kronos and Rhea, rescued Hera and the others and together they formed the dynasty of sorts that ruled the gods and mortals.1
Hera later married Zeus (such brother-sister marriages were common among the ruling classes of the ancient societies and so they were in their mythologies). Their marriage wasn't always what you would call a happy one, but it lasted. Together they had Eileithyia, the goddess of maternity and childbirth, Ares, god of war, and Hebe, goddess of youth.
Despite her mythic standing as the paragon of motherhood, Hera at times had difficult relationships with her offspring. Such was the case with her other child—a male named Hephaestos, the god of metallurgy and craftsmanship, whom she had without Zeus. Indeed Hera conceived Hephaestos independently, without a male partner (”immaculately,” as it would be known in Christendom).
As was common with Hera, she was in jealous rage with Zeus, this time 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. But when Metis was pregnant, Zeus received a prophecy that foretold his downfall (yes, this sort of thing happened often among the gods)—and, yes, Zeus decided to eat Metis in order to prevent his downfall.
It didn't work out quite like he planned, since Athena eventually burst out of his forehead anyway, but Hera still took exception to the birth(-ish) of her husband's child with another woman. And so Hera resolved to have a child of her own without Zeus... or anyone else.
Unfortunately, Hephaestos was not a particularly good-looking god, and as a result Hera threw him off Mt. Olympus (yes, she did this sort of thing often). He landed on the island of Lemnos and was seriously wounded by the fall. He was known as the “lame” god, or the “club-footed” god, and was often depicted as such in artistic representations.
But he earned some measure of revenge. On Lemnos, Hephaestos created an impregnable bronze workshop, where he made many of his most famous inventions, including a clever trap for Hera. It was a throne with invisible chains strapped around it, and when Hera sat in this throne she was bound to it... and at least momentarily to Hephaestos' will. In order to secure her release, Hephaestos demanded that Hera arrange for him to marry Aphrodite, the most beautiful of the goddesses.
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. Hera did not know it at the time but when Zeus wedded Hera, Leto was already pregnant. When Hera discovered the pregnancy, she flew into a violent rage and pushed Leto from the top of Mt. Olympus. And she swore to unleash her fury on any land, any people, who offered succor to the beleaguered Leto, who was now forced to wander Earth.
Hera also summoned a dragon named Python to hunt down Leto, who managed with Zeus' help to escape to the barren island of Delos, whose inhabitants it seems had nothing to lose and thus nothing to fear from Hera. Slighted but not deterred, Hera resorted to one final plot. As Leto went into the throes of labor, Hera detained her daughter, Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, extending the agonies of childbirth for nine whole months. Finally, Leto gave birth to Apollo and Artemis, the archer deities, who slayed Python and protected their mother from Hera's wrath.
Another common story had Hera seeking revenge against Io. One of Hera's own priestesses and formerly the 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 Zeus, who was well practiced at sneaking around on his wife, transformed the young lady into a heifer and set among the herds.
Not to be outdone, Hera sought out Argus, a creature with a hundred eyes to spy on the herd and locate Io. But along came Hermes, who lulled Argus to sleep with his music and then killed him. So great was her anguish at the loss of Argos that Hera set his eyes into tail of the peacock, as the story goes, so that some memory of him would always remain. She also continued her efforts to torment Io, sending an enormous fly to pester the heifer.
Hera's obsession with killing Heracles ably captures the lengths and depths of her vengefulness toward Zeus' extramarital lovers and their offspring. Heracles 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 be a great hero and leader. Hera would have none of this, so she appealed again to her daughter, Eileithyia, to delay the birth, leaving Alcmene in the agonies of childbirth for seven months.2
Once born, Hera sent a pair of snakes to kill the young boy, but Heracles strangled them and played with them like toys in his nursery. Later in life, after he had married Megara, the princess of Thebes, and conceived many children with her, Heracles was driven mad by Hera, and in his rage he murdered his own children.
Crushed by the deed, Heracles sought advice from the Oracle at Delphi, who it turns out was already in the service of Hera. He ordered Heracles into the service of his enemy, Eurystheus, king of Tiryns, who in turn set Heracles on a series of tasks—the Labours of Heracles. Most of these labours involved slaying horrible beasts, such as the Nemean Lion and Ladon dragon, which Hera herself had unleashed on the world. In the end, Heracles persisted through his many trials, foiling plot after plot devised by the cunning Hera.
The Trojan War
Hera played a conspicuous role in the start of the Trojan War. The stories about the beginning of this most famous of conflicts in Greek history differ slightly, but most start with an eventful beauty contest. To settle a feud among Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite about who was the most beautiful—the winner was to receive a golden apple inscribed with the words “to the fairest”—Zeus commissioned Paris, prince of Troy, to decide.
Eager to settle the matter, the goddesses appeared before him unclothed, but he refused to choose. The goddesses then resorted to bribes—Hera promised political power, Athena wisdom and glory, but it was Aphrodite 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 fulfilment of her promise, Aphrodite had Helen abducted and brought to Troy, sparking the conflict.
Never one to forgive easily, Hera nursed a bitter resentment toward Paris and the Trojans. Over the course of the long conflict, Hera consistently lent her considerable might to the Achaeans, the broad coalition of Greeks, including the aggrieved King Menelaus, who fought against the Trojans.
She recruited Athena to take sides in the conflict, plotted against Ares (who defended the Trojans), she inspired Achilles and the other Greeks with her charms, and she fought herself in open combat: “Hera lashed the horses on, and the gates of heaven bellowed as they flew open,” reads the Iliad.3 Most cunningly, Hera attempted to deceive Zeus, who forbade the gods from interfering in the conflict.
First she seduced the king of the gods, luring him into bed, then she persuaded Hypnos, the embodiment of sleep itself, to keep Zeus fast asleep so that she could meddle in the war. Ultimately, though Hera's side won the conflict, her attempts to turn the tide of the Trojan War were abortive and unsuccessful.
Hera and the Greeks
The common threads of the stories of Hera say much at about the place and perception of women in the deeply misogynistic culture of the ancient Greeks.4 Her faithfulness to Zeus, despite his many sexual improprieties, suggests that women were expected and encouraged to remain steadfast even when their husbands were not.
Her futile attempts to exact revenge on Leto, on Io, on Alcmene, on Heracles, and others, indicate that there were limitations to the type of justice that women could expect to achieve (even if that justice was perhaps a bit harsh at times!).
That her vengeance focused on the women, not as frequently on Zeus, also gives some sense of whom the Greeks thought to be to blame in such affairs. And finally her unsuccessful efforts to sway the course of the Trojan War—tellingly, it was the crafty male Odysseus who conceived the Trojan horse that ended the conflict—say much about the perception of female powerlessness.
In contrast to better known figures, such as Zeus and Heracles (Hercules, usually), Hera does not figure prominently in popular culture. In the Disney animated film Hercules (1997), Hera is a background character—although, in an interesting twist on the original story, she plays the loving mother of Hercules, who is terribly distraught when the infant is made mortal and forced to live among them.
In other incarnations, such as the dramatic series Helen of Troy (2003), Hera is depicted in the famous judgment of Paris scene. Hera then is not a well developed character in popular representations, and this may reflect the confusion about Hera herself—a figure who at once embodied the image of the faithful mother and wife, and yet viciously sought to punish those who crossed her.
“Hera,” Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/hera. For the deeper history, Joan V. O'Brien, The Transformation of Hera (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993), 113-118: [https://books.google.com/books?id=a77yKM26GfYC&pg=PA113) ↩
There are a few versions of this story, see Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Book II: 921-929, including 929a to 929t. http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm. ↩
Homer, Iliad, translated by Samuel Butler, Book V. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2199/2199-h/2199-h.htm. In contrast to her prominent place in the Iliad, Hera is scarcely mentioned at all in the Odyssey. ↩
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. ↩