Marriage and childbirth were among the most important parts of Greek life. It’s fitting then that one of the most important gods in the pantheon, Hera, was also the goddess of these things. So why was she also the antagonist in so many legends?
The Solemn Goddess of Womanhood
Hera was the queen of the gods as well as the goddess of marriage, women, the sky and the stars. She is usually depicted as a beautiful and majestic woman, wearing the robes common in antiquity and a polos, a high crown representing her station. She is sometimes pictured in a throne or bearing a lotus-tipped sceptre, symbols of her royal authority.
Images of Hera often surround her with other symbols. Cows, lions, cuckoos, hawks, and peacocks all make an appearance as animals sacred to her. She sometimes holds a pomegranate, a symbol of fertility and death.
The original meaning of Hera’s name is uncertain. It may relate to a number of Greek words, including those for hero, beloved, air, and even season, the last referring to the seasonal nature of fertility. The origins of her cult are older than recorded Greek history, and she may have been the subject of one of the first enclosed temples in Greece. In reality as well as in the myths, she was one of the first Greek gods.
Hera and Zeus
Hera was one of the children of Kronos, the mad Titan and original chief god. As his children were born, Kronos swallowed them to thwart a prophecy saying they would overthrow him. One of those children, Zeus, escaped being swallowed, freed his siblings, and led a revolt that brought Kronos down.
Having taken over as head of the gods, Zeus established a new pantheon based at Mount Olympus. His brothers and sisters were among the gods there, including Hera. She became his wife, and together they had three children – Hebe, Ares, and Eileithyia.
Zeus was repeatedly unfaithful to Hera and she spent much of her time dealing with this. She tried to interrupt his trysts, harassed his lovers and illegitimate children, and even planned to overthrow him alongside Athena and Poseidon. It was bitterness at her husband’s behaviour that turned the Olympian matron into a figure of vengeance.
Hera’s anger at Zeus led her to have a child without him. Hephaestus was born without a father, brought into being when Hera slapped the ground. He was deformed and ugly, so Hera sent him away from Mount Olympus. A master craftsman, he eventually returned with a fabulous throne which trapped Hera when she sat on it. She was only released when she promised him Aphrodite’s hand in marriage.
Meddling in Human Affairs
Hera’s jealousy and anger repeatedly led her to interfere in the affairs of humanity.
The most famous example was her feud with Heracles, the half-human son of Zeus. Angry at Zeus’s infidelity, Hera set out to punish his son. She tried to delay the boy’s birth, then sent snakes to kill him, which the infant strangled with his bare hands. When he became an adult, she drove him mad, leading him to murder his own family. This eventually led to him undertaking twelve labours, strange and difficult tasks including fighting monsters and cleaning huge stables. Each time, she found a way to make the task more difficult. Each time, he managed it anyway. Some accounts say that they were eventually reconciled, and Heracles married Hera’s daughter Hebe.
On another occasion, Hera learned that Leto was pregnant by Zeus. She cursed the mother-to-be, declaring that she would not be able to give birth on land or an island. Poseidon took pity on Leto and took her to the floating island of Delos, where she gave birth to the gods Artemis and Apollo.
When Hera found out that Zeus was having an affair with Io, he tried to save his lover by disguising her as a cow. Hera saw through the disguise and asked to be given the cow. Zeus could not refuse without raising suspicion, so gave in. Hera tied the Io up and set her servant Argus, who had a hundred eyes, to guard the captive.
Fearing for Io’s life, Zeus sent Hermes to kill Argus by lulling all the eyes into a permanent sleep. Hera, upset at Argus’s death, set his eyes in the feathers of the peacock, preserving the image of her loyal servant. Io went on to wander the world before settling in Egypt, well away from Zeus.
Hera played a part in the vast destruction of the Trojan War. Prior to the war, the Trojan Prince Paris picked Aphrodite as the fairest goddess, over Hera and Athena. Hera therefore turned against the Trojans. She encouraged other gods including Poseidon, Hephaestus, and Athena to interfere on the Greek side. When Zeus tried to ban such interventions, she sent him into a deep sleep so that she could continue her schemes.
Eileithyia and Childbirth
Though most of Hera’s stories are about vengeance and violence, these were not the aspects for which she was worshipped. She was the matron goddess, presiding over weddings, women, and birth.
Hera was not the only goddess associated with weddings and motherhood. Her daughter Hebe, the goddess of youth, was often with her in attending to wedding ceremonies.
Her other daughter, Eileithyia, was the goddess of childbirth and midwifery. The two goddesses were associated with each other in their role of looking after women, and they may have been combined in some areas of worship. In the legends, Eileithyia postponed the birth of Heracles at Hera’s request.
Like all the Greek gods, Hera was celebrated in statues and other decorations in ancient times. The Heraean Games, an equivalent of the Olympics for female athletes, were dedicated to her.
In the early modern period, she appeared alongside other Greek gods in a variety of dramatic oil paintings. Many of these showed her part in the Judgement of Paris, as she and two other goddesses competed to be declared the fairest.
Hera may have become a bitter figure of vengeance, but she was first and foremost a proud woman and mother.