In the Olympian pantheon of classical Greek Mythology, Hera was the wife and sister of Zeus. She presided as goddess of marriage, the patriarchal bond of her own subordination.
Hera is portrayed as being majestic and solemn, often enthroned and crowned with the polos, the high cylindrical crown worn by several of the Great Goddesses. In her hand she may bear the pomegranate, emblem of fertile blood and death and a substitute for the narcotic capsule of the opium poppy (Ruck and Staples 1994). "Nevertheless, there are memories of an earlier, aniconic representation, as a pillar in Argos and as a plank in Samos" (Burkert 1985 p.131).
In Roman mythology, the consort of Zeus (Jupiter) was Juno.
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Etymology and Pre-History
Unlike some Greek gods, such as Zeus and Poseidon, Hera's name is not analyzable as a Greek or Indo-European word. She therefore seems to be a survival of a pre-Greek "great goddess" figure—perhaps one of the powerful female divinities of the Minoan pantheon, or of some unidentified pre-Greek ("Pelasgian") people.
Hera's importance in the early archaic period is attested by the large building projects undertaken in her honor. The temples of Hera at Samos and in the Argolid were the very earliest monumental Greek temples constructed, in the 8th century BC.
At Olympia, her seated cult figure was older than the warrior figure of Zeus that accompanied it. Homer expressed her relationship with Zeus delicately in The Iliad, in which she declares to Zeus, "I am Cronus' eldest daughter, and am honourable not on this ground only, but also because I am your wife, and you are king over the gods."
Though Zeus is often called Zeus Heraios ("Zeus, consort of Hera"), Homer's treatment of Hera is less than respectful, and in late anecdotal versions of the myths (see below) she appeared to spend most of her time plotting revenge on the nymphs to her Consort, for Hera upheld all the old right rules of Hellene society.
Hera was especially worshipped, as "Argive Hera", at her sanctuary that stood between the former Mycenaean city-states of Argos and Mycenae, where the festivals in her honor called Heraia were celebrated. "The three cities I love best," the ox-eyed Queen of Heaven declares (Iliad, book iv) "are Argos, Sparta and Mycenae of the broad streets." Her other main center of cult was on Samos. There were also temples to Hera in Olympia, Corinth, Tiryns, Perachora and the sacred island of Delos. In Magna Graecia, the temple long called the Temple of Poseidon among the group at Paestum was identified in the 1950s as a second temple there of Hera.
Greek altars of Classical times were always under the open sky. Hera may have been the first to whom an enclosed roofed temple sanctuary was dedicated, at Samos about 800 BCE. (It was replaced later by the Heraion, one of the largest Greek temples anywhere.) Earlier sanctuaries, whose dedication is less secure, were of the Mycenaean type called "house sanctuaries". Samos excavations have revealed votive offerings, many of them late 8th and 7th century, which reveal that Hera at Samos was not merely a local Greek goddess of the Aegean: the museum there contains figures of gods and suppliants and other votive offerings from Armenia, Babylon, Iran, Assyria, Egypt, testimony to the reputation which this sanctuary of Hera enjoyed and to the large influx of pilgrims— and a general reminder to us that Greek myths did not evolve in a cultural vacuum (Burkert 1998).
In Euboea the festival of the Great Daedala, sacred to Hera, was celebrated on a sixty-year cycle.
In Hellenistic imagery, Hera's wagon was pulled by peacocks, birds not known to Greeks before the conquests of Alexander: Alexander's tutor, Aristotle, refers to its as "the Persian bird." The peacock motif was revived in the Renaissance iconography that unified Hera and Juno, and which European painters have kept familiar to us (Seznec 1953). A bird that had been associated with Hera on an archaic level, where most of the Aegean goddesses were associated with "their" bird, was the cuckoo which appears in mythic fragments concerning the first wooing of a virginal Hera by Zeus.
Her archaic association was primarily with cattle, as a Cow Goddess, who was especially venerated in "cattle-rich" Euboea. Her familiar Homeric epithet boôpis, is always translated "cow-eyed", for, like the Greeks of Classical times, we reject its other natural translation "cow-faced" or at least "of cow aspect". A cow-headed Hera, like a Minotaur would make a dark demon of fear. But on Cyprus, very early archaeological sites contain bull skulls that have been adapted for use as masks.
The pomegranate, an ancient emblem of the Great Goddess, remained an emblem of Hera: many of the votive pomegranates and poppy capsules recovered at Samos are made of ivory, which survives burial better than the wooden ones that must have been more common. Like all goddesses, Hera may be displayed wearing a diadem and be veiled.
Hera and children
Hera presides over the right arrangements of the marriage and is the archetype of the union in the marriage bed, but she is not notable as a mother. The legitimate offspring of her union with Zeus is Ares. Hera was jealous of Zeus' giving birth to Athena without recourse her (actually with Metis), so she gave birth to Hephaestus without him. (An alternate version discounts this and says Zeus and Hera were both parents of Hephaestus) Zeus and/or Hera herself were then disgusted with Hephaestus' ugliness and threw him from Olympus. As another alternative version, Hera gave birth to all of the children usually accredited to her and Zeus together, alone by beating her hand on the Earth, a solemnizing action for the Greeks, or by eating lettuce.
Hephaestus gained revenge against Hera for rejecting him by making her a magical throne which, when she sat on it, didn't allow her to leave it. The other gods begged Hephaestus to return to Olympus to let her go but he repeatedly refused. Dionysus got him drunk and took him back to Olympus on the back of a mule. Hephaestus released Hera after being given Aphrodite as his wife.
Hera the nemesis of Heracles
Hera was the enemy of Heracles, the hero who, more than even Perseus, Cadmus or Theseus, introduced the Olympian ways in Greece (Ruck and Staples 1994). When Alcmene was pregnant with Heracles, Hera tried to prevent the birth from occurring. She was foiled by Galanthis, her servant, who told Hera that she had already delivered the baby. Hera turned her into a weasel.
While Heracles was still an infant, Hera sent two serpents, to kill him as he lay in his cot, the mythographers interpreted the event. Heracles throttled a single snake in each hand and was found by his nurse playing with their limp bodies as if they were child's toys. The anecdote is built upon a representation of the hero gripping a serpent in each hand, precisely as the familiar Minoan snake-handling goddesses had once done.
One account of the origin of the Milky Way is that Zeus had tricked Hera into nursing the infant Heracles: discovering who he was, she had pulled him from her breast, and a spurt of her milk formed the smear across the sky that can be seen to this day.
The Twelve Labors
Hera assigned Heracles to labor for King Eurystheus at Mycenae. She attempted to make almost each of Heracles' twelve labors more difficult.
When he fought the Lernaean Hydra, she sent a crab to bite at his feet in the hopes of distracting him.
Eurystheus wanted to sacrifice Cretan Bull to Hera, who hated Heracles. She refused the sacrifice because it reflected glory on Heracles. The bull was released and wandered to Marathon, becoming known as the Marathonian Bull.
To annoy Heracles after he took the cattle of Geryon, Hera sent a gadfly to bite the cattle, irritate them and scatter them. Hera then sent a flood which raised the water level of a river so much Heracles could not ford the river with the cattle. He piled stones into the river to make the water shallower. When he finally reached the court of Eurystheus, the cattle were sacrificed to Hera.
For a time, a nymph named Echo had the job of distracting Hera from Zeus' affairs by incessantly talking. When Hera discovered the deception, she cursed Echo to only speak the words of others (hence our modern word "echo").
Leto and Artemis/Apollo
When Hera discovered that Leto was pregnant and that Hera's husband, Zeus, was the father, she banned Leto from giving birth on "terra-firma", or the mainland, or any island at sea. She found the floating island of Delos, which was neither mainland nor a real island and gave birth there. The island was surrounded by swans. As a gesture of gratitude, Delos was secured with four pillars. The island later became sacred to Apollo. Alternatively, Hera kidnapped Ilithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to prevent Leto from going into labor. The other gods forced Hera to let her go. Either way, Artemis was born first and then assisted with the birth of Apollo. Another version states that Artemis was born one day before Apollo, on the island of Ortygia and that she helped Leto cross the sea to Delos the next day to give birth to Apollo.
Hera also figures in the myth of Callisto and Arcas.
A follower of Artemis, Callisto took a vow to remain a virgin. But Zeus fell in love with her and disguised himself as Apollo in order to lure her into his embrace. Hera then turned Callisto into a bear out of revenge. Later, Callisto's son with Zeus, Arcas, nearly killed her in a hunt but Zeus placed them both in the sky as the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
An alternate version: One of Artemis' companions, Callisto lost her virginity to Zeus, who had come disguised as Artemis. Enraged, Artemis changed her into a bear. Callisto's son, Arcas, nearly killed his mother while hunting, but Zeus or Artemis stopped him and placed them both in the sky as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Another alternate version: Artemis killed Callisto in bear form, deliberately.
Hera was not pleased with the placement of Callisto and Arcas in the sky, so she asked her nurse, Tethys, to help. Tethys, a marine goddess, cursed the constellations to forever circle the sky and never drop below the horizon, hence explaining why they are circumpolar.
Dionysus was a son of Zeus by a mortal woman. A jealous Hera again attempted to kill the child, this time by sending Titan to rip Dionysus to pieces after luring the baby with toys. Though Zeus drove the Titans away with his thunderbolts but only after the Titans ate everything but the heart, which was saved, variously, by Athena, Rhea, or Demeter. Zeus used the heart to recreate Dionysus and implant him in the womb of Semele, hence he was again "the twice-born". Sometimes it was said that he gave Semele the heart to eat to impregnate her.
Hera almost caught Zeus with a mistress named Io, a fate avoided by Zeus turning Io into a beautiful white heifer. However, Hera was not completely fooled and demanded Zeus give her the heifer as a present.
Once Io was given to Hera, she placed her in the charge of Argus to keep her separated from Zeus. Zeus then commanded Hermes to kill Argus, which he did by lulling all one-hundred eyes to sleep. Hera sent a gadfly to sting Io as she wandered the earth.
Lamia was a queen of Libya, whom Zeus loved. Hera turned her into a monster (or she killed Lamia's children and the grief turned her into a monster) and murdered their children. Lamia was cursed with the inability to close her eyes so that she would always obsess over the image of her dead children. Zeus gave her the gift to be able to take her eyes out to rest, and then put them back in. Lamia was envious of other mothers and ate their children.
Other Stories Involving Hera
Cydippe, a priestess of Hera, was on her way to a festival in the goddess' honor. The oxen which was to pull her cart were overdue and her sons, Biton and Cleobis pulled the cart the entire way (45 stadia, 8 kilometers). Cydippe was impressed with their devotion to her and her goddess and asked Hera to give her children the best gift a god could give a person. Hera ordained that the brothers would die in their sleep.
As a young man, Tiresias found two snakes mating and hit them with a stick. He was then transformed into a woman. Seven years later, Tiresias did the same thing again and became a man again. A time later, Zeus and Hera asked him which sex, male or female, experienced more pleasure during intercourse. Zeus claimed it was women and vice versa. Tiresias sided with Zeus. Hera struck him blind. Since Zeus could not undo what she had done, he gave him the gift of prophecy.
At the marriage of Zeus and Hera, a nymph named Chelone was disrespectful (or refused to attend). Zeus condemned her to eternal silence.
The Trojan War
During the Trojan War, Diomedes fought with Hector and saw Ares fighting on the Trojans' side. Diomedes called for his soldiers to fall back slowly. Hera, Ares' mother, saw Ares' interference and asked Zeus, Ares' father, for permission to drive Ares away from the battlefield. Hera encouraged Diomedes to attack Ares and he threw his spear at the god. Athena drove the spear into Ares' body and he bellowed in pain and fled to Mt. Olympus, forcing the Trojans to fall back.
Hera hated Pelias for having murdered Sidero, his step-grandmother, in a temple to Hera. She later attempted to manipulate Jason and Medea to kill Pelias and succeeded.
In Thrace, as Ovid tells in Metamorphoses 6.87, Hera and Zeus turned King Haemus and Queen Rhodope into mountains, the Balkan (Haemus Mons) and Rhodope mountain chain respectively for their hubris in comparing themselves to the gods.
- Wikipedia. (2005). Hera (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hera). Retrieved on 02/25/2005.
- Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion 1985.
- Burkert, Walter, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, 1998
- Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths 1955
- Kerenyi, Carl, The Gods of the Greeks 1951 (paperback 1980)
- Ruck, Carl A.P., and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth 1994
- Seznec, Jean, The Survival of the Pagan Gods : Mythological Tradition in Renaissance Humanism and Art, 1953