Hera can tell you: being queen isn’t what it is chalked up to be. One day, life is great – Mount Olympus is literally Heaven on Earth; mortals across the world worship you as a great goddess; the other deities fear and revere you – then, the next day, you find out your husband has taken yet another lover, who is (of course) expecting.
Not even the ambrosia of Heaven could ease Hera’s indignation, and she frequently took out her frustrations with her husband on the women with whom he had relationships, and sometimes their children, as is the case with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility.
While some scholars in academia tend to view Hera through a black-and-white lens, the depth of her character is more than good and evil. Singularly, her prominence in the ancient world is enough to argue her unique position as a devout patron, a punitive goddess, and a cruel but fiercely loyal wife.
Who is Hera?
Hera is the wife of Zeus and Queen of the gods. She was feared for her jealous and vengeful nature, while simultaneously celebrated for her zealous protection over marriages and childbirth.
The primary cult center of Hera was in Argos, a fertile region in the Peloponnese, where the great temple of Hera, the Heraion of Argos, was established in the 8th century BCE. Besides being the primary city goddess in Argos, Hera was also worshiped fervently on the Greek island of Samos by her dedicated cult.
As Hera is known far and wide as a beautiful goddess, popular accounts by famed poets of the era describe the Queen of Heaven as “cow-eyed” and “white-armed” – both of which are epithets of hers (Hera Boṓpis and Hera Leukṓlenos, respectively). Furthermore, the goddess of marriage was well-known to wear a polos, a high cylindrical crown worn by many other goddesses of the region. More often than not, the polos was viewed as matronly – it not only related Hera back to her mother, Rhea, but also to the Phrygian Mother of the Gods, Cybele.
In the Parthenon frieze at the Parthenon in Athens, Hera is seen as a woman lifting her veil towards Zeus, regarding him in a wifely manner.
The Queen’s Epithets
Hera had several epithets, though the most expressive are found in cult worship of Hera as a triad of aspects focusing on womanhood:
Hera Pais refers to the epithet used in worship of Hera as a child. In this instance, she is a young girl and worshiped as the virginal daughter of Cronus and Rhea; a temple dedicated to this aspect of Hera had been found in Hermione, a port city in the Argolis region.
Hera Teleia is the reference to Hera as a woman and wife. This development occurs after her marriage to Zeus, following the Titanomachy. She is dutiful, with Hera the Wife being the most common variation of the goddess that is depicted in mythos.
Hera Chḗrē is the less regularly revered aspect of Hera. Referring to Hera as “widowed” or “separated,” the goddess is worshiped in the form of an elderly woman, who by some means lost her husband and youthful gaiety with time.
Symbols of Hera
Naturally, Hera has quite an array of symbols that she has been identified with. While some of them follow a famous myth or two of hers, others are simply motifs that can be traced to other Indo-European goddesses of her time.
The symbols of Hera were used during cult worship, as identifiers in art, and in marking a shrine.
Ever guessed why peacock feathers have an “eye” at the end? Initially made from Hera’s sorrow at the death of her loyal watchman and companion, the creation of the peacock was Hera’s final way to express her gratitude.
As a result, the peacock feather became a symbol of the goddess’ all-knowing wisdom, and a stark warning to some: she saw all.
Boy…I wonder if Zeus knew.
The cow is another recurring symbol amongst goddesses throughout Indo-European religions, though the wide-eyed creature has been specifically connected to Hera time and time again. Following ancient Greek beauty standards, having large, dark eyes (like that of a cow) was an exceedingly desirable physical trait.
Traditionally, cows are symbols of fertility and motherhood, and in Hera’s case, the cow is a symbolic compliment to Zeus’ bull.
The cuckoo as a symbol of Hera reflects back to the myths surrounding Zeus’ attempts to woo the goddess. In most renditions, Zeus transformed into an injured cuckoo to gain Hera’s sympathy before he made a move on her.
Otherwise, the cuckoo can be more widely associated with the return of spring, or with just foolish nonsense.
In art, Hera was known to wear a few different articles, depending on the message the artist was attempting to convey. When wearing the golden diadem, it is a symbol of Hera’s royal authority of the other gods of Mount Olympus.
In Hera’s case, the royal sceptre represents her power as queen. After all, Hera rules over the Heavens with her husband, and besides her personal diadem, the scepter is a vital symbol of her power and influence.
As for the white lily flower, Hera is associated with the flora because of the myth surrounding her nursing infant Heracles, who nursed so vigorously that Hera had to pull him off her breast. The breast milk that was released after the fact not only made the Milky Way, but the droplets that fell to Earth became lilies.
Hera in Greek Mythology
Although some of the most famous tales in Greek mythology revolve around the actions of men, Hera cements herself as a significant figure in a notable few. Whether seeking revenge on women for her husband’s betrayals, or aiding unlikely heroes in their endeavors, Hera was beloved and revered for her role as a queen, wife, mother, and guardian across the Greek world.
During the Titanomachy
As the eldest daughter of Cronus and Rhea, Hera met the unfortunate fate of being consumed by her father at birth. With her other siblings, she waited and grew in their father’s abdomen while their youngest brother, Zeus, was raised on Mount Ida in Crete.
After Zeus freed the other young gods from Cronus’ stomach, the Titan War began. The war, also known as the Titanomachy, lasted ten bloody years and ended with victory being claimed by the Olympian gods and goddesses.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much detail into the role Cronus and Rhea’s three daughters played during the events of the Titanomachy. While it is widely accepted that Poseidon, water god and god of the sea, Hades, and Zeus all fought, the other half of the siblings are scarcely mentioned.
Looking to literature, the Greek poet Homer claimed that Hera was sent to live with the Titans Oceanus and Tethys to calm her temper during the war and learn restraint. The belief that Hera was removed from the war is the most common interpretation.
In comparison, the Egyptian-Greek poet Nonnus of Panopolis suggests that Hera partook in the battles and directly aided Zeus.
While the exact role Hera played in the Titanomachy remains unknown, there are some things that can be said about the goddess from both tellings.
One is that Hera has had a history of flying off the handle, which makes her vindictive streak unsurprising. Another is that she had unwavering loyalty to the Olympian cause, and to Zeus in particular – whether or not she held any romantic interest in him, she was said to be able to hold remarkable grudges: supporting the young, formidable Zeus would be a not-so-subtle way to get revenge on their glutenous father.
Hera as the Wife of Zeus
It has to be said: Hera is incredibly loyal. Despite her husband’s serial infidelity, Hera did not waver as the goddess of marriage; she never betrayed Zeus, and there are no records of her having affairs.
That being said, the two deities didn’t have a sunshine and rainbows relationship – honestly, it was entirely toxic most of the time. They competed over power and influence over the Heavens and Earth, including the rule of Mount Olympus. Once, Hera had even staged a coup to overthrow Zeus with Poseidon and Athena, which left the queen suspended from the sky by golden chains with iron anvils weighing down her ankles as punishment for her defiance – Zeus had ordered the other Greek gods to pledge their allegiance to him, or have Hera continue to suffer.
Now, no one wanted to anger the Queen of the Gods. That statement absolutely extends to Zeus, whose romantic trysts had been foiled repeatedly by his jealous wife. Multiple myths point to Zeus whisking away a lover, or disguising himself during a rendezvous, to avoid Hera’s wrath.
In some popular mythology, Hera actually gave birth to Hephaestus on her own, after she grew angry about Zeus bearing the wise and capable Athena. She prayed to Gaia to grant her a child that is stronger than Zeus himself, and ended up giving birth to the ugly god of the forge.
Hera in Famous Myths
As far as roles go, Hera has been cast as both protagonist and antagonist in a plethora of different ancient Greek myths and legends. More often than not, Hera is depicted as an aggressive force which the women involved with Zeus have to face the reckoning of. In less familiar tales, Hera is seen as a helpful, empathetic goddess.
A few of the myths that involve the cow-faced Queen of Heaven are noted below, including the events of the Iliad.
The Leto Incident
The Titaness Leto was described as a hidden beauty that unfortunately gained the attention of the King of Olympus. When Hera discovered the resulting pregnancy, she forbade Leto from giving birth on any terra firma – or, any solid land connected to the earth. According to the Bibliotheca, a first century AD collection of Greek legends, Leto was “hunted by Hera over the whole earth.”
Eventually, Leto found the island of Delos – which was disconnected from the sea floor, therefore not being terra firma – where she was able to give birth to Artemis and Apollo after four strenuous days.
Again, Hera’s vengeful nature is highlighted in this particular Greek tale. Even Leto, known to be an incredibly gentle-natured goddess, was unable to escape punishment by the goddess of marriage. More than anything, the message is that when Hera unleashed the full extent of her anger, not even the most well-intentioned of individuals were spared.
The Curse of Io
So, Zeus fell in love again. Even worse, he fell in love with a priestess of Hera at the Greek goddess’ cult center in the Peloponnese, Argos. The audacity!
To hide his new love from his wife, Zeus transformed the young Io into a cow.
Hera saw through the ruse easily, and requested the cow as a gift. None the wiser, Zeus gave the transformed Io to Hera, who then ordered her giant, hundred-eyed servant, Argus (Argos) to watch over her. Exasperated, Zeus ordered Hermes to slay Argus so he could take Io back. Hermes scarcely rejects, and kills Argus in his sleep so that Zeus could get the young woman out of the grasps of his vindictive queen.
As can be expected, Hera becomes reasonably upset. She was betrayed twice by her husband, and now the Greek goddess is set into mourning the loss of a trusted friend. Upon seeking revenge for the death of her loyal giant, Hera sent a biting gadfly to pester Io and force her to wander without rest – yes, still as a cow.
Why didn’t Zeus change her back into a human after the slaying of Argus…? Who knows.
After much wandering and pain, Io found peace in Egypt, where Zeus finally changed her back into a human. Hera is believed to have left her alone after that.
Hera in the Iliad
In the Iliad and the accumulated events of the Trojan War, Hera was one of three goddesses – along with Athena and Aphrodite – who fought over the Golden Apple of Discord. Originally a wedding gift, the Golden Apple was thrown by the goddess of chaos, Eris, which created a dispute about who would be considered the most beautiful goddess.
Now, if you are at all familiar with Greek myths, then you know that Olympian gods hold the worst grudges. They will literally brood for eons over a slight that was completely accidental.
As you could imagine, the Greek gods and goddesses collectively refused to decide between the three, and Zeus – quick-thinking as ever – deflected the final decision to a human: Paris, the Prince of Troy.
With the goddesses vying for the title, each bribed Paris. Hera promised the young prince power and wealth, Athena offered skill and wisdom, but he ultimately opted for Aphrodite’s vow of giving him the most beautiful woman in the world as a wife.
The decision to not select Hera as the most beautiful goddess led to the queen’s support of the Greeks during the Trojan War, which was the direct consequence of Paris wooing the beautiful (and very much already married) Helen, Queen of Sparta.
The Myth of Heracles
Born from the union of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene, Heracles (then named Alcides) was left to die by his mother to avoid Hera’s wrath. As the patron of Greek heroes, the goddess Athena took him to Olympus and presented him to Hera.
As the tale goes, the queen took pity on infant Heracles, and unaware of his identity, nursed him: the apparent reason that the demi-god received superhuman abilities. Afterwards, the goddess of wisdom and war returned the empowered baby to his parents, who then raised him. It would be later that Alcides became known as Heracles – meaning “Hera’s Glory” – in an attempt to soothe the enraged goddess after she found out his parentage.
Upon discovering the truth, Hera sent snakes to kill Heracles and his mortal twin, Iphicles: a death evaded by the 8-month old demi-god’s fearlessness, ingenuity, and strength.
Years later, Hera induced a madness that drove Zeus’ illegitimate son to kill his wife and children. The punishment for his crime became known as his 12 Labours, exacted on him by his enemy, Eurystheus, King of the Tiryns. After he was redeemed, Hera incited another madness that caused Heracles to kill his best friend, Iphitus.
The story of Heracles shows Hera’s rage on full display. She torments the man throughout all stages of his life, from late-infancy into maturity, causing him unimaginable torment for the actions of his father. Outside of this, the story also makes it known that the queen’s grudges don’t last into eternity, as Hera eventually allows the hero to marry her daughter, Hebe.
Whence Came the Golden Fleece
Hera ends up playing on the hero’s side in the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Though, her aid is not without her own personal reasons. She had a vendetta against Pelias, King of Iolcus, who had slain his grandmother in a temple that worshiped the goddess of marriage, and she favored Jason’s noble cause to save his mother with the Golden Fleece of legend and regain his rightful throne. Also, Jason already had a blessing lined up for him when he aided Hera – then disguised as an elderly woman – in crossing a flooded river.
For Hera, aiding Jason was the perfect way to exact revenge on King Pelias without directly dirtying her hands.
Is Hera Good or Evil?
As a goddess, Hera is complex. She isn’t necessarily good, but she isn’t evil either.
One of the most compelling things about all the gods of the Greek religion is their intricacies and realistic flaws. They’re vain, jealous, (occasionally) spiteful, and make poor decisions; on another hand, they fall in love, can be kind, selfless, and humorous.
There is no exact mold to fit all the gods into. And, just because they are literally divine beings doesn’t mean they can’t do foolish, very human-like things.
Hera is known to be jealous and possessive – character traits that, although toxic, are reflected in many people today.
A Hymn for Hera
Given her significance in the society of ancient Greece, there is no surprise that the goddess of marriage would be venerated in many literature of the time. The most famous of this literature dates back to the 7th century BCE.
“To Hera” is a Homeric hymn that was translated by Hugh Gerard Evelyn-White (1884-1924) – an established classicist, egyptologist, and archeologist known for his translations of various ancient Greek works.
Now, a Homeric hymn isn’t really written by the famous poet of the Greek world, Homer. In fact, the known collection of 33 hymns are anonymous, and are only known as being “Homeric” because of their shared use of the epic meter that is also found in Iliad and Odyssey.
Hymn 12 is dedicated to Hera:
“I sing of golden-throned Hera whom Rhea bare. Queen of the Immortals is she, surpassing all in beauty: she is the sister and the wife of loud-thundering Zeus – the glorious one whom all the blessed throughout high Olympus – reverence and honor even as Zeus who delights in thunder.”
From the hymn, it can be garnered that Hera was one of the most revered of the Greek gods. Her rule in Heaven is highlighted by the mention of the golden throne and her influential relationships with Zeus; here, Hera is acknowledged as a sovereign in her own right, by both divine lineage and by her own ultimate grace.
Earlier in the hymns, Hera also makes an appearance in Hymn 5 dedicated to Aphrodite as “the grandest far in beauty among the deathless goddesses.”
Hera and the Roman Juno
The Romans identified the Greek goddess Hera with their own goddess of marriage, Juno. Worshiped throughout the Roman Empire as the protector of Roman women and noble wife to Jupiter (the Roman equivalent to Zeus), Juno was oftentimes presented to be both militaristic and matronly.
As with many Roman gods, there are Greek gods and goddesses that they can be compared to. This is the case with many other Indo-European religions of the time, with a large number sharing common motifs in their legends while adding their own society’s unique commentaries and structure.
However, note that the similarities between Hera and Juno are more intrinsically linked, and surpasses their shared aspects with other religions of the time. Specifically, the adoption (and adaptation) of Greek culture came about during the Roman Empire’s expansion in Greece around 30 BCE. By roughly 146 BCE, most of the Greek city-states were under Rome’s direct rule. The unification of Greek and Roman cultures came about from occupation.
Interestingly, there was not a full societal collapse in Greece, as would happen in most areas under occupation. In fact, the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) helped spread Hellenism, or Greek culture, to other regions outside of the Mediterranean, the primary reason why so much of Greek history and mythology remains so relevant today.