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 the city of Argos in the Peloponnese; it was here that her worship in the ancient world was the most vibrant.
Hera was bold, clever, and powerful, yet she was best known for her less flattering characteristics. Above all else, Hera was a jealous and vengeful goddess who struggled with her husband's infidelities and raged (often fruitlessly) against his many lovers, both mortal and divine. In the end, her constant anger and inability to exact revenge spoke powerfully to the place and perception of women in ancient Greece.
The name “Hera” is directly linked to 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)—suggests that “Hera” comes from words meaning “of the year” or “of the season” (similar to the ancient Greek word hôrê, or “season”).
Scholars have 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” signifies the evolution of the deity from Mycenaean times (ca. 1500 BCE) to the classical period of city-states (ca. 500 BCE).
[HEER-uh, HER-uh] /ˈhɛrə, ˈhɪərə/
In ancient Greece, Hera was called either Ἥρη (Hērē) or Ἥρα (Hēra). Hera’s Roman equivalent was Juno.
Titles and Epithets
As a goddess of all aspects and stages of female life in ancient Greece, Hera could be invoked under a variety of epithets, many of them contradictory. Hera was thus simultaneously the “maiden” (Pais), “bride” (Nympheuomenē), “wife” (Teleia), and “widow” (Chēra).
In her capacity as queen of the gods, Hera was often addressed as Basileia (“queen”).
Hera also possessed epithets that referred to her beauty, including Leukōlenos (“white-armed”) and Boōpis (“cow-eyed” or “cow-faced”).
Hera was revered as a goddess of women, marriage, and motherhood, but also as a protector of cities and young men. As the wife of Zeus, she was the queen of the Olympian gods.
In her iconography, Hera was generally represented wearing a peplos (a sleeveless dress or robe) and himation (a cloak). Her himation was usually pulled over her head like a veil. She was also shown wearing a crown (pōlos or stephanē) and carrying a scepter, libation bowl (phialē), or pomegranate. Hera was often depicted in Hierogamy (“sacred marriage”) scenes together with her husband/brother Zeus.
In early Greece, Hera was occasionally represented aniconically (that is, without an image). In Argos, for example, she was represented as a pillar, and on the island of Samos as a plank.
From the earliest period of Greek history, Hera was associated with cattle—hence her Homeric epithet “cow-eyed.” In this way, Hera is comparable to the Egyptian Hathor, a cow-faced goddess of motherhood. Hera was also associated from early on with the cuckoo bird. In myth it was said that Zeus had seduced Hera in the form of a cuckoo. A cuckoo sat on top of Hera’s scepter in many of her cult images.
From the Hellenistic period on, it was common to depict Hera riding a chariot drawn by peacocks (though this imagery only appeared after the eastern conquests of Alexander the Great, since peacocks were unknown in Greece before then).
Hera was the daughter of Cronus and Rhea, Titans who overthrew the primordial deities Uranus and Gaia and established themselves as the rulers of the universe. In total, Hera had five divine siblings among the Olympians: her sisters were Hestia and Demeter, and her brothers were Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus.
One of Hera’s 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.
Hera was among the younger children of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. At the time of her birth, Cronus ruled the cosmos. But upon hearing a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him, Cronus decided to swallow each of them as soon as they were born, including Hera. Only Zeus was able to escape.
When Zeus was fully grown, he tricked his father into regurgitating his siblings: Hestia, Demeter, Poseidon, Hades, and Hera. Together, the siblings revolted against Cronus and the Titans. After a ten-year war, they were finally victorious. With Zeus as their king, they became the Olympian gods (so called because they lived atop Mount Olympus).
Marriage and Children
After his prior marriages to Metis and Themis had ended, Zeus set his sights on his beautiful sister Hera. But Hera did not immediately give in. Eventually, Zeus managed to seduce her by transforming himself into a cuckoo and coming to her window on a rainy night. When she saw the shivering bird, Hera took pity on it and took it into her bosom. When Zeus revealed himself, Hera finally agreed to marry him.
Together with Zeus, Hera had several children, including Ares, Eileithyia, and Hebe. Interestingly, these were never regarded as the most important or accomplished of Zeus’ children. His offspring by other goddesses or women, such as Apollo and Artemis (his children by Leto), Dionysus (his son by Semele), or even Heracles (his son by Alcmene) were much more prominent among the gods.
Despite her standing as the paragon of motherhood, Hera sometimes had difficult relationships with her offspring. Such was the case with Hephaestus, god of metallurgy and craftsmanship. Hera was often said to have conceived Hephaestus independently, without a male partner (“immaculately,” as it is known in Christianity). She did this in a fit of jealous rage, as she was upset with Zeus over the similarly unusual and fantastic birth of Athena.
Athena was conceived through Zeus’ union with the Titan Metis. While 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 swallow Metis, much in the way that Cronus had swallowed 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 was sometimes connected to his (literal) fall from Mount Olympus. Though Hephaestus eventually rejoined the Olympians, he was severely wounded from his fall. Henceforth, Hephaestus was known as the “lame” or “club-footed” god, and was often depicted as such in artistic representations.
In some traditions, Hephaestus sought to enact revenge upon his mother, who was responsible for his fall from heaven. He thus built a clever trap for Hera, which consisted of a throne with invisible chains strapped around it; when Hera sat upon this throne, she suddenly became bound to it. She was eventually freed through the intervention of the new god Dionysus, who plied Hephaestus with wine and brought him back to Olympus. After releasing Hera, Hephaestus became the god of fire and the forge.
Struggles with Zeus
Like her husband, Zeus, Hera had a strong and stubborn personality. Because of this, the couple often clashed. In one myth, Hera convinced several other gods to revolt against Zeus. While the king of the Olympians was asleep, Hera and her allies stole his thunderbolts and bound him tightly. However, Zeus was saved by a sea goddess named Thetis (the mother of Achilles) and Briareus, a hundred-handed giant (Hecatoncheir). Once free, Zeus punished the gods—especially Hera—and made them swear never to challenge him again.
On another occasion, Hera angered Zeus by trying to destroy his illegitimate son Heracles. As punishment, Zeus tied two anvils to her feet and hung her from Olympus.
A Woman Spurned: Three Tales of Hera’s Vengeance
Though Hera never again dared to challenge Zeus directly, she often did everything she could to destroy his lovers and illegitimate children. One of Zeus’ lovers was Leto, a Titan and the daughter of Coeus and Phoebe. When Hera discovered Leto was pregnant with her husband’s child, she flew into a violent rage and pushed Leto from the top of Mount Olympus. Furthermore, she swore to unleash her fury upon any land and any people that helped 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 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 Mount 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. Hera’s anguish at the loss of Argus was so great that she 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 Heracles reveals the depths of her vengefulness toward Zeus’ lovers and their offspring. Heracles was born of a union between Zeus and the mortal Alcmene, the wife of Amphitryon. Even before Heracles was born, Hera began plotting against him, sending her daughter Eileithyia to extend Alcmene’s labor so that the child would lose his claim to the throne of Mycenae.
Once Heracles was born, Hera sent a pair of snakes to kill the young boy. He 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, Heracles was driven mad by Hera. In his rage, he murdered his own children.
Crushed by the weight of this terrible deed, Heracles sought advice from the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle ordered him into the service of Hera’s crony and his enemy, Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, who in turn set Heracles on a quest to accomplish a series of impossible tasks—the Labors of Heracles.
In the end, Heracles persisted through his many trials, thus foiling each of Hera's plots against him. After he died and became a god, Heracles was finally reconciled with Hera, who gave him her daughter Hebe to be his bride.
The Trojan War
Hera played a key role in the origins of the Trojan War. The stories surrounding this most famous of Greek conflicts differ slightly, but most begin 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 their looks once and for all.
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.
Not one to forgive easily, Hera nursed a bitter resentment toward Paris and the Trojans due to the contest's unfavorable results. Over the course of the long conflict, Hera lent her considerable might to the Achaeans, the broad coalition of Greeks that included the aggrieved King Menelaus, in their fight against the Trojans.
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. Describing the goddess’s entry into battle, Homer wrote that “Hera swiftly touched the horses with the lash, and self-bidden groaned upon their hinges the gates of heaven.”
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. After ten years of fighting, Troy was sacked by the Greeks.
But though Hera’s side had won, she could not take credit for the victory. Her attempts to turn the tide of the Trojan War were ultimately abortive and unsuccessful.
Though the bulk of Hera’s mythology centered on her power struggles with Zeus, there were other minor myths in which she played a part. For example, Hera helped Jason throughout his quest for the Golden Fleece. She was also the patron of other heroes, including Achilles.
In one story, Zeus honored the mortal Ixion, king of a northern Greek tribe called the Lapiths, by hosting him on Mount Olympus. While there, Ixion fell in love with Hera and attempted to seduce her. But his plan backfired when the gods discovered his desire. Zeus fashioned a replica of Hera from the clouds and presented it to Ixion, who proceeded to have his way with what he thought was Hera. From this union were born the half-horse, half-human Centaurs. For his insolence, Ixion suffered a terrible punishment: he was tied to a fiery wheel that spun endlessly for all eternity.
In another strange myth, Hera and Zeus got into an argument about which sex, male or female, experienced more pleasure during intercourse. To settle the question, they turned to Tiresias, who had lived as both a man and a woman. When Tiresias confirmed that it was females who experienced more pleasure, the furious and humiliated Hera struck him blind.
Hera and the Greeks
The common threads of Hera’s myths reveal much about the place and perception of women in the deeply misogynistic culture of the ancient Greeks. Hera's 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, Io, Alcmene, Heracles, and others indicate that there were limitations to the justice that women could expect to achieve. The fact that Hera’s vengeance focused more on women than on Zeus also gives us some sense of whom the Greeks blamed in such affairs.
Similarly, Hera’s 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) say a great deal about the perception of female powerlessness in Greek society.
Hera’s temples were some of the oldest and most impressive of the ancient Greek world. The Heraeum of the island of Samos, the earliest roofed temple built by the Greeks, dates from around 800 BCE. This temple was destroyed and rebuilt on an even grander scale in the sixth century BCE.
Another important temple of Hera, also called a Heraeum, was in Argos. This was likewise a very ancient structure, built during the seventh century BCE. Hera had other major temples nearby in the Argolid and the Peloponnese, where her worship was especially prominent. This included cities such as Sparta, Corinth, and Tiryns. Thus, Hera says in the Iliad (an eighth-century BCE epic): “Verily have I three cities that are far dearest in my sight, Argos and Sparta and broad-wayed Mycenae.”
Hera had another famous temple in Olympia, where the Olympic Games were held every four years. She also had a temple on the sacred island of Delos.
Many temples were dedicated to Hera outside of the Greek peninsula and Aegean islands. In Paestum in southern Italy, there was a temple complex of three monumental temples, two of which were Hera’s. The nearby cities of Metapontum and Croton also had temples of Hera, as did some Sicilian cities such as Selinus.
Most of Hera’s temples were located outside of the settled area of the city. This was likely due to Hera’s role as the protector of the city as well as certain cult practices.
Hera’s festivals were usually called Heraia. The Heraia at Argos, one of Hera’s major cult centers, involved a sacrificial procession outside of the city. In the procession, the priestess of Hera rode in an ox cart while young men carried the “Shield of Hera.” At the end of the procession, there was a “hecatomb,” or sacrifice of one hundred bulls (because of this, the Argive Heraia was sometimes called the “Hecatombaia”).
Heraia festivals were also celebrated in other cities, such as Elis, Corinth, and Samos.
On the island of Samos, a site considered sacred to Hera (the Samians believed that Hera was born on their island), there was a festival of Hera called the Toneia. This festival involved a kind of scavenger hunt in which participants searched for the cult image of Hera. When it was found, it was washed clean and dressed in new clothes.
Another important festival of Hera was the Great Daedala in Euboea. This was a marriage ritual that honored Hera as goddess of marriage. During the ritual, wooden dolls were dressed up as brides and burned on a pyre.
In contrast to better-known figures such as Zeus and Heracles, Hera has not figured prominently in popular culture. In the Disney animated film Hercules (1997), Hera is a background character. In an interesting twist on the original story, however, she plays the loving mother of Hercules who is terribly distraught when the infant is made mortal and forced to live among the humans. In the drama series Helen of Troy (2003), Hera is depicted in the famous Judgment of Paris scene.
Overall, Hera is not a well-developed character in popular representations, which may reflect some lingering confusion about her personality. She was a figure who embodied the image of a faithful mother and wife even while seeking to viciously punish those who crossed her.