Who was Hera in Greek Mythology?
Hera, in Greek mythology, is the daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea and was the goddess of women, marriage, family and childbirth; however, her addition to the Greek pantheon was not an easy or straightforward matter, as the ceaseless conflicts between her and her husband Zeus readily bear witness.
Her fits of jealousy and quarrelsomeness often led to disaster for gods, heroes and men, when she relentlessly persecuted Zeus’ mistresses and their children. Hera means “lady” and was undoubtedly the title of a powerful mother goddess whom the Greeks inherited from the earlier inhabitants of Argos, which was a major city in the Peloponnese.
As one of the original 6 Olympians, Hera was the daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. The four main domains of Hera include Women, Childbirth, Family, and most ironically, Marriage. Because it is rather strange that the goddess of marriage would spend such a large portion of time seeking revenge against the many lovers and illegitimate children of her husband, but you’ll soon learn that jealousy and the desire for vengeance were two of Hera’s defining characteristics.
Being married to Zeus certainly would have come with its challenges, but it also meant that Hera ruled Olympus as the Queen of gods.
You often see her portrayed as a beautiful woman wearing a crown with a Lotus tip sceptre sitting on her throne, accompanied by a variety of her favourite sacred animals, which include the Peacock, the lion, the hawk and the cuckoo bird.
Compared to her sisters Demeter and Hestia, Hera plays a very large part in Greek mythology, not just in terms of her cult and worship but also in the dozens of stories she appeared in.
The Marriage of Zeus and Hera
Let’s start with how Zeus and Hera became husband and wife; Or what is commonly referred to as the seduction of Hera.
When Zeus first proposed marriage, Hara declined his offer. But as we know with Zeus, persistence is key. He then decided to use Hera’s love and empathy for animals to his advantage.
Zeus conjured up a terrible storm and transformed himself into a cuckoo bird. When Hera came across the tiny, frightened bird, she embraced it and kept it warm. Zeus then transformed back to himself and revealed this was all part of his plan to convince her to marry him.
For whatever reason, this worked, and the first Olympian wedding would take place. The wedding itself was a large and prestigious event, with gifts being showered upon Hera from all across the land.
Her grandmother, Gaia, gave her an entire garden filled with golden apples, which would be looked after by the Hesperides and guarded by the Serpent Ladon.
Many of the Greek islands and states claim that the wedding took place on their land as hosting such a prestigious event could only bring good fortune. It also became a tradition for those native to these lands to honour this day every year with a sacrifice.
The Children of Hera
As with most deities, there is always an interest in their children, and Hera had numerous children, with Zeus being the father of most with some rather weird exceptions.
The most well-known of these children who needs very little introduction is Ares, the God of War and the resident hothead of Olympus.
Like Ares, you have Enyo, a goddess of war who would be seen by the side of Ares whenever a city was sacked or destroyed. According to Homer, Ares and Enyo were very similar, if not the same being. However, Hesiod disagrees, believing Ares was instead the daughter of Nyx.
Hephaestus certainly falls into the weird category. Jealous of Zeus giving birth to Athena without her, Hera tried to do the same. Hephaestus, however, wasn’t the perfect specimen that Athena was. Hera found herself repulsed by his deformities, and so when he was born, poor baby Hephaestus was heated off Mount Olympus and left to fend for himself.
Some accounts suggest this may have happened again with the goddess of youth, Hebe. Most commonly described as the daughter of Hera and Zeus, there are some rare versions where she was born after Hera consumed a magical piece of lettuce.
Some other children worthy of mention include the goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia and the personification of Liberty, Eleutheria.
Hera and Jason and the Argonauts
One of the first stories I remember Hera being mentioned in the Argonautica is Jason and the Argonauts.
Here, she appears to Jason in disguise to set in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece and the attempt to reclaim his kingdom.
However, Hera’s motivation in this story is not just to help Jason because it’s the right thing to do. It’s more, so revenge or justice against King Peleus as the king had murdered his grandmother in one of Hera’s temples.
Jason and Peleus were destined to cross paths eventually, and so Hera sped up this process and convinced Jason and Medea to kill the king, who stood in their way.
Hera and Heracles — The Despise against Heracles
One of the most well-known stories of Hera involved in Greek mythology is the most iconic hero, Heracles—whose name ironically means the glory of Hera.
Despite his name, Hera despised Heracles, which probably had more to do with Zeus than Heracles himself. When Zeus heard of Alcmene’s pregnancy, he announced to all the gods that a child of Zeus would be born on this particular date, who would rule all those around him. Hera had Zeus swear an oath of this claim, and so began her hatred of Heracles.
When that day finally came, she visited Sthenelus of Mycenae, the son of Perseus, whose wife was due to have a child in two months. But as the goddess of childbirth, she made the birth happen on that day.
She then visited Alcmene and delayed the birth of Heracles, meaning Zeus’s oath would be honoured, and the prophecy he made would refer to Eurystheus, the great-grandson of Zeus, as opposed to Heracles.
Whilst Heracles was still a baby, Hera sent two snakes into the boy’s bed-chamber to kill him while he was sleeping. To her surprise, Heracles was found the next morning, joyfully waving around the two snakes he had strangled.
When Heracles came of age and started his own family, Hera drove him into a state of madness where he murdered his family. To redeem himself, he would have to complete his labours, coincidentally chosen by Hera and King Eurystheus.
Labours they thought would finally kill Heracles, but they were wrong. Heracles would eventually die, but it wasn’t at the hands of Hera. He would then also become a permanent resident on Olympus. So, I guess you could say Heracles had the last laugh.
Hera’s role in the Trojan War
Hera also played a large role in the events that led to the Trojan War. This story begins with the nymph Thetis, more commonly known as the mother of Achilles.
Thetis was to marry King Pelias, a union advised by Zeus. All the gods and goddesses were to attend this wedding, and each brings a gift. The only deity to be declined entry was Eris, the goddess of discord and strife.
When Hermes turned her away as Zeus ordered, she was furious. She had brought with her a golden apple with the inscription “To the fairest”.
After being denied entry, she threw the apple into the room where the ceremony was taking place. Athena, Aphrodite and Hera, all looked down at the apple and claimed it belonged to them, and so began the dispute as to which of the three goddesses was the most beautiful.
As there is no agreement in sight, they took this dispute to Zeus, who wisely decided he wanted no part in any of this. Instead, he passed the buck to the Trojan Prince Paris.
All three goddesses appeared before Paris undressed and asked him to be the judge of this beauty contest. Paris, however, was unable to decide, and so the three took to bribing him instead.
Athena offered him all the wisdom and fame he desired. Hera offered him political power, and Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful mortal woman as his bride. Paris eventually chose Aphrodite, and the woman promised to him was Helen of Troy, who already happened to be married to the king of Sparta.
Needless to say, Athena and Hera were less than pleased with Paris’s decision, and his eventual abduction of Helen would lead to the Great Trojan War.
Many small actions led to this war, but it’s fair to see that Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite all played a significant role.
The Story of Tiresias
The last story I will leave you with is the rather puzzling case of Tiresias—a prophet and priest of Zeus.
One day, Tiresias came across two snakes mating. He, then, for whatever reason, took a stick and began to beat the snakes away. For this, he was transformed into a woman, and so he was now a priestess of Hera. The next time she came across snakes mating, Tiresias trampled all over them and was transformed back into a man.
During an argument between Zeus and Hara about who had the most pleasure during sex, Tiresias found himself in the middle.
Hera was adamant that it was men, and Zeus that it was women. They used Tiresias as the decider because he had experienced it from both sides.
Tiresias sided with Zeus. Hera, not liking this answer, then blinded him. Zeus, unable to undo his wife’s actions, gave Tiresias the gift of prophecy to make up for his loss of sight.
The Jealousy of Hera on the Many Lovers of Zeus
Now we move on to the segment I like to call “Every time Hera caught Zeus with his hands in the cookie jar and then preceded to blame said Cookie Jar”.
We are, of course, referring to the many affairs of Zeus that Hera was at least aware of.
The Story of Io
The Story of Io falls into the weird category. In this story, Hera was sure she would catch Zeus in the act, this time with a woman named Io. Zeus, however, knew Hera was suspicious, and before she appeared, he transformed Io into a cow to hide his new mistress.
Hera, not falling for this trick, insisted that Zeus gave her this cow as a gift. She then instructed the 100 eyed giant Argus Panoptes to stand guard. Whenever he would fall asleep, half of his eyes would remain there open, ensuring no one could sneak past him.
Zeus, not wanting to intervene himself to avoid suspicion, had Hermes free Io on his behalf. Hermes sent all 100 of Argos’s eyes into a deep slumber before slaying him and setting Io free.
Hera took Argos’s eyes and placed them on her favourite animal, the Peacock, to honour his service. The ancient Greeks also used this story as a way to explain the eye pattern found on Peacocks.
The Story of Leto
When she found out about Leto being pregnant with Artemis and Apollo, she made sure that she couldn’t give birth as long as Leto was on the mainland. The goddess of childbirth and her daughter, Eileithyia, was forbidden from offering assistance.
Poseidon guided Leto to the island of Delos, away from the eyes of Hera. The other deities distracted Hera with a beautiful necklace, long enough for Eileithyia to slip away and ensure both Artemis and Apollo were born.
The Birth of Dionysus
Dionysus is another Olympian who was almost never born because of Hera.
When she discovered a woman named Semele was pregnant with the child of Zeus, she disguised herself as Semele’s nurse and convinced her that unless Zeus showed her his true appearance, he did not love her.
Semele had Zeus swear an oath, and when he did eventually show himself, she burst into flames and died. Zeus then had the unborn child sewn into his thigh. This child was, of course, Dionysus.
The portrayal of Hera’s overall character is slightly odd. For the goddess of marriage, family, childbirth and women, you’d expect a stable, caring and forgiving nature. At times, this may be the case with Hera, but there are plenty of occasions where she is the exact opposite.
With Athena, it makes sense because you have conflicting accounts of the Greek and Roman poets. But with Hera, the same can’t be said.
An interesting explanation that I came across, which is pretty much just an unproven theory, is that Hera could predate the Hellenes to a period in ancient Greece that was much more matriarchal.
When the shift to a more patriarchal society happened, Hera’s attempts to challenge Zeus’s rule or authority was seen in a much more comical manner, hence the over-the-top jealousy and the acceptance that Zeus will do whatever he wants to do this.
Most scholars reject this theory because of a lack of evidence. However, the answer is simple; being married to Zeus is probably enough to drive anyone insane.
Image Sources: Scebiqu.