Hera: The Cranky, Cuckolded Queen of the Greek Gods
Hera goddess of marriage and Queen of Olympus were among the most maligned characters in Greek mythology. There are countless stories of the tempestuous relationship between Zeus and Hera, and most of those stories portray Hera as the evil character that must be defeated. Still, people tend to forget that she had good reason for her jealous rages. The well-known phrase, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” could easily have been created for her.
Who Is Hera in Greek Mythology?
Even before Hera’s marriage, she was considered the Queen of the Olympic pantheon. Though her mother Rhea was considered the great Mother Goddess, Hera was also associated with this epithet. Classic religions tended to place the Mother Goddess in the highest role.
Hera was viewed as the protector of women. She presided over marriage ceremonies, the marriage bed, childbirth, and child-rearing. She also represented the vengeance of a wife, exacting punishment on husbands for various offenses.
Despite her unflattering myths, Hera enjoyed a great deal of worship. Some of the earliest temples found in the Mediterranean were dedicated to Hera. Her main cult center was the city of Samos, and her temple there dates to 800 BCE. One shrine in Stymphalia traditionally worshipped Hera in three forms: Hera Pais the Virgin, Hera Teleia the Woman, and Hera Chere the Widow. This may be one of the earliest forms of the Triple Goddess often worshipped in the European region.
The Romans knew Hera as Juno. In this form, she was more concerned with marriage and family than with jealousy and revenge. The month of June became the most auspicious month for weddings because Hera/Juno would grant the couple long life and happiness.
What Is Hera Known For?
Unfortunately, the most recognized fact about Hera was her attitude. In the most popular stories, it seems that Hera husband, Zeus, was plagued by a grumpy wife who continually needed to be appeased. However, it was almost always Zeus’ infidelities that caused her anger in the first place. Why then does he not receive more of the blame?
Throughout history, adultery in a female was ridiculed within patriarchal societies, while male infidelity was expected, tolerated, and sometimes condoned. Only since the age of television has the cheating husband received public shaming with any regularity. Ancient Greece was a profoundly misogynistic culture, evidenced by the countless affairs recorded about their male gods. Dalliances made for a memorable story, whether the woman was willing or not.
In this way, Hera’s attitude reflected the feelings of the mistreated wife and also her inability to punish the husband directly for his misdeeds. The acts of revenge she perpetrated on the women involved in Zeus’ affairs didn’t always fulfill her objective. This result showed that at the time, the amount of justice wives could expect was woefully limited.
What Is Hera’s Symbol?
Hera was usually depicted in a decidedly “royal” manner, sitting on a throne and carrying a scepter. She wore the polos, a high cylindrical crown favored by the great goddesses, or sometimes a jeweled headband called a diadem. Hera appearance is disputed by scholars; she was said to be quite beautiful, but some of her epithets seem to contradict that fact.
Hera rode on a chariot pulled by peacocks when traveling, a bird not known by the Greeks until Aristotle. The myth of Hera and Io suggests that Hera herself gave the peacock its unique plumage. See the full story later in this article.
Other animals sacred to Hera were the cuckoo, the cow, the lion, and the panther. As for plants, Hera was associated with the pomegranate and the lily.
– How Was Hera Born?
Hera was one of the six original Olympian gods, the third child of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, and their youngest daughter. Some sources differ and suggest she was instead the eldest of the six. Hera birth was part of the formative story that established Greek mythology.
Cronus the Titan was the ruler of the world in the era called the Golden Age. However, there existed a prophecy that his children would overthrow him, just like he betrayed and defeated his own father, Uranus. As the years passed, Cronus became obsessed with the prophecy, driving him to madness.
When Rhea brought Cronos their first five children after they were born, Cronos swallowed them whole. Hera was the third child to suffer this fate. Finally, Rhea fled to Crete to secretly bear her sixth child, Zeus. She disguised a stone and gave it to Cronus to eat instead. Once grown, Zeus returned to Mount Othrys disguised as Cronus’ cupbearer, and he slipped a drug into Cronus’ wine. Cronus became immediately sick and vomited up Hera and the other four siblings.
The ten-year battle that followed was called the War of the Titans, or the Titanomachy. During this time, Hera lived with the Titans Oceanus and Tethys, who remained neutral during the war. Eventually, Zeus and the Olympians won, and Hera siblings drew straws to determine where they would rule. Zeus straw won him the skies, Hades received the underworld, and Poseidon was granted the seas. Hera’s role as goddess of motherhood cemented her own role as the queen of the Olympian gods.
– Hera and Zeus: A Match Made in…Heaven?
Though Hera was known as the Greek goddess of marriage, her own union with Zeus was not ideal. From the very beginning, their union was replete with trickery, infidelity, and jealous rages. She might have fared better had she been the goddess of marriage counseling.
Hera was Zeus’ third wife, after Metis, an Oceanid, and Themis, Titan goddess of justice. She likely knew of his promiscuous reputation, for she initially refused his offer of marriage. Zeus was not one to give up where sex was concerned.
Knowing her generous compassion for animals, he turned into a cuckoo and limped around outside her window, seeming to be in great distress. True to her nature, Hera saw the bird and scooped it up, bringing it into her chamber to give it warmth and care. Zeus transformed back into his male form and raped her, and she became pregnant. She agreed to wed him out of shame.
– Hera’s One Rebellion Against Zeus
Hera was inclined to be faithful, but few humans or gods still tried to make advances toward her, so they would not face Zeus’ wrath. Still, Hera did not appreciate Zeus’ selfish nature. She schemed with Poseidon, Athena, and a few others, to overthrow this ineffectual ruler.
After drugging Zeus into senselessness, they tied him to his bed and stole his thunderbolt. The nymph Thetis stepped in and called Briareus to untie Zeus swiftly. Knowing who was to blame for the revolt, Zeus hung Hera in the sky using golden chains. To be released, he made her promise never to rebel against him again. This reason is why she revenged herself on Zeus’ lovers, rather than punishing him directly.
– Hera’s Children
Despite her turbulent marriage, Hera had a handful of children, most of whom were fathered by Zeus. Here is the complete list of Hera’s children, according to most sources.
- Ares, god of war
- Enyo, goddess of war
- Eris, goddess of discord
- Hebe, goddess of youth
- Angelos, goddess of the underworld
- Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth
- Eleutheria, goddess of liberty
- Arge, a nymph
- Hephaestus, god of fire and the forge
The story of Hera and the birth of Hephaestus is an interesting and somewhat dark one. Naturally disgruntled by Zeus’ illegitimate children by other women, she was especially offended when he created the goddess Athena through parthenogenesis, not requiring sexual union at all. Hera wanted to have a child the same way and prove that she didn’t need Zeus either.
Through the same process, she created Hephaestus, but he was ugly, misshaped, and lame. In disgust, she threw him from Mount Olympus, and he fell crashing to the earth. Of course, their relationship was strained, and Hephaestus even fashioned a special throne that trapped Hera and held her fast when she sat upon it. To escape, Hera promised her son that he could have the beautiful Aphrodite as his wife.
– Hera and Leto and the Births of Apollo and Artemis
The Titaness Leto was likely the first object of Hera’s jealous rage. Not long after Hera’s marriage, she discovered that Leto was already pregnant by Zeus. Hera lashed out in jealousy and decreed that Leto could not give birth anywhere on terra firma.
Leto searched worldwide and finally found refuge on the detached island of Ortygia, which was later known as Delos. It was believed that the island was actually Leto’s sister, who threw herself into the sea to escape Zeus’ advances. Though Leto had found a place to give birth, her troubles weren’t over. Hera daughter, Eileithyia, was the goddess of childbirth, and her mother prevented her from attending as Leto’s midwife. Leto’s labor lasted for nine days, and then Artemis was born. She served as her mother’s midwife, and a day later, Apollo entered the world.
– Hera and Io and the Adornment of the Peacock
Ever watchful for a sign of Zeus’ infidelity, Hera saw a single thundercloud hovering over a small area. She raced down to earth to catch him in the act. However, Zeus saw her coming, and he quickly turned his new lover into a snow-white cow to hide her from Hera’s wrath. One could wonder how Io felt about this unique situation.
However, Hera was not fooled, and she asked Zeus to give her the cow as a present. Zeus couldn’t refuse without giving himself away. Hera tied her new cow to a tree and called for her loyal servant Argus, who was ferociously strong and had a hundred eyes all over his body. She told him to watch over the beautiful heifer and keep Zeus away from her. Since Argus never closed more than half of his eyes at once, Zeus was temporarily foiled.
By Zeus’ command, Hermes killed Argus by lulling all of his eyes into eternal sleep, and Io fled. Furious, Hera sent a gadfly to sting Io repeatedly as she wandered the earth. Eventually, Io made it to Egypt, and the Egyptians worshipped the snow-white heifer by the name of Isis. Hera relented and agreed to allow Io to live freely in Egypt, as long as Zeus never looked at her again.
Ovid records that Hera took the hundred eyes of her loyal servant and placed them in the peacock’s tail feathers.
– Hera and Dionysus, the Twice Born
Originally, Dionysus was the son of Zeus by either Dionysus or Persephone. Hera sent some of her friends among the Titans to rip the infant god apart. Sources differ, but either Zeus, Athena, Rhea, or Demeter saved the child’s heart. Thinking quickly, Zeus brought the heart to Semele, a Theban princess and another of his lovers. Semele swallowed the heart and became pregnant, giving Dionysus a second gestation.
Hera, like her husband, didn’t give up easily. She disguised herself as Semele’s nurse and persuaded the girl that she should ask to see Zeus’ true form. The moment Zeus was revealed, the sight killed her. Zeus saved the fetus, who finished his gestation sewn into Zeus’ thigh. When Dionysus was brought into the world again, he was called the Twice Born.
– Hera and Heracles
Since Heracles was the child of Zeus and his lover Alcmene, Hera hated him since before his birth. Once as a trick, Zeus set the infant Heracles at Hera’s breast while she was asleep. When she awoke and saw who was suckling, she thrust the baby away suddenly. Her milk was still flowing, and it sprayed the sky, forming the Milky Way.
Hera also sent two serpents to kill the infant Heracles in his crib. He was delighted and used them as playthings, and his nurse found him later, clutching the dead serpents in his fists.
When Heracles was an adult, it was Hera that drove him insane, in which state he murdered his wife and children. The famous Twelve Labors of Heracles was his punishment for that heinous deed. While Heracles performed the incredible feats set for him by King Eurystheus, Hera continually created obstacles to try and prevent his success.
– Hera’s Role in the Trojan War
Hera didn’t begin the Trojan War, but one story involving Hera set the stage for all that was to come. There was a disagreement on Olympus between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite as to which of them was the most beautiful. Whether for family peace or his own amusement, Zeus declared that Paris, prince of Troy, would judge the contest.
The goddesses wished for a quick result to the contest and so appeared unclothed before the surprised Paris. Wisely, he refused to choose a winner, declaring them all beautiful. However, they insisted on a verdict, and they offered bribes to Paris to gain his vote. Hera promised him political power and prestige; Athena offered him wisdom and glory. However, Aphrodite’s bribe won her the contest, for she promised Paris the most beautiful woman alive as his bride.
Unfortunately, this paragon of beauty was Helen, wife of King Menelaus. True to her word, Aphrodite had Helen abducted and brought to Troy to be with Paris.This act was the seed of the conflict between Greece and Troy, and soon, battle lines were drawn.
When the war began, Hera sided with the Greeks because of Paris’ vote. She convinced Athena to side with her, and they plotted against the Trojans and encouraged the Greeks throughout the long conflict. She conspired with Hypnos, the personification of sleep, to keep Zeus dreaming for a time so she could meddle more freely in the war. Eventually, the Greeks did win, but it was not Hera’s doing.
Hera was one of the earliest Greek gods to have a dedicated sanctuary or temple, so the Greeks appreciated her for much more than her shrewish reputation. Here are some quick facts to remember about this goddess.
- Hera was one of the six original Olympian gods.
- She was the daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea and one of the children that Cronus swallowed whole.
- She was raised by the Titans Oceanus and Tethys, who remained neutral during the Titanomachy.
- She was the goddess of women, marriage, childbirth, and family.
- Her symbols included the polos crown, the pomegranate, the cow, the lotus, and the panther.
- She rode in a chariot drawn by peacocks.
- She was Zeus’ third wife, and she often took revenge on the women when Zeus cheated on her.
- Her children were Ares, Enyo, Eris, Hebe, Angelos, and Hephaestus. Hephaestus created herself without a man’s involvement.
- She had temples all over Greece, but the best known was in Salmos.
- Her Roman equivalent was Juno. Her name is preserved in the month of June, which is a popular month for weddings.
Hera family life certainly left something to be desired. However, her wifely suffering and jealous revenge provided Greek mythology with many of its most intriguing myths.