You might expect that the Greek goddess of youth would be hugely famous. After all, youth is widely celebrated and enjoyed across our culture. But Hebe, the goddess of youth, is not as well remembered as many of her relatives. So who was she and how did she fit into Greek myth?
Hebe was the goddess not just of youth but of eternal youth, that elusive dream to which so many people aspire. Her name literally meant “young maturity” or “bloom of youth”. It was believed that she had the power to make the old young again.
Hebe was also the goddess of wedding ceremonies. She was often portrayed attending them with other goddesses, adding an extra layer of blessing to the occasion.
Hebe was often associated with her mother Hera. Some worshippers may have regarded her as an aspect of Hera, who she was worshipped alongside. One of the main centres for her cult was at the sacred grove at Phlious and Sicyon, where she was known as Ganymeda and Dia. She also had an altar near to one to Heracles at Cynosarges.
In Rome, Hebe was known as Juventas. A temple to her existed on the capitol from early in Rome’s history, and she was said to have opposed the building of a temple to Jupiter there. After the Romans defeated the Carthaginian Hasdrubal Barca in 207 BC, they built another temple in her honour in celebration.
Hebe was the daughter of Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods, and his wife Hera. This made her the full sister of Ares, god of war, and Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth and midwifery. She was also half-sister to many other gods, mortals, and magical creatures, thanks to Zeus’s many affairs.
Hebe was clearly not the favourite within the family, as she became an attendant to some of her family members. She was responsible for preparing Hera’s chariot, ensuring that it was ready for use. She also bathed and dressed Ares.
The most prestigious duty Hebe fulfilled was as cup-bearer, serving drinks of nectar and ambrosia to the other gods. This was a high-ranking position in historical courts, as the cup-bearer was trusted around the high table.
After Zeus abducted the Trojan prince Ganymede, that prince replaced Hebe in the role of cup-bearer. But when the Trojan war broke out, she took up her cup again, as Ganymede was too upset to continue his work.
As the goddess of youth and weddings, it was natural that Hebe often appeared alongside Aphrodite, the goddess of love. As with so many other gods, she acted as Aphrodite’s attendant rather than an equal.
One unusual version of Hebe’s story gives her a very different origin. In this, Hera is still her mother, but Zeus is not her father. Instead, Hera became pregnant by eating lettuce while dining with Apollo, the prophetic sun god. Hebe was born from this strange pregnancy.
Hebe and Heracles
Hebe’s mother, Hera, had a long-running feud with Heracles, a divine hero and one of Zeus’s many illegitimate offspring. But Heracles fought for the gods against the giants, as well as fulfilling a series of legendary tasks to prove his worth. He was rewarded for this with immortality and Hebe’s hand in marriage.
Hebe and Heracles had two sons, Alexiares and Anicetus. These minor gods became protectors of Olympus, alongside their father.
It’s sad that Hebe was overshadowed in her marriage as well as in her family life. With so much attention on her family, we know relatively little about her.
One story we do have relates to Heracles’s nephew Iolas, who had helped Hebe’s husband during his labours. Iolas wanted to fight Eurysthes, a king and Hera’s champion. Hebe made Iolas young again, so that he could fight Eurysthes. This caused consternation among the gods, who argued about whether such a powerful gift should have been given to a mortal.
Representations of Hebe
Like Nike, Hebe was sometimes portrayed with wings in ancient images. But whereas Nike usually kept her human form, Hebe was also shown as a phoenix or an eagle, offering a cup to Zeus. This represented her ability to give eternal youth, as ancient Greeks believed that both the eagle and the phoenix could rejuvenate themselves when they grew old.
Though she drew little attention from classical artists, Hebe became a popular subject for painters from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries. Many wealthy and powerful women were painted dressed as her, so that their own youth could be eternally preserved. One of the reasons for this was the ease of dressing them up as the goddess – all that was needed was a flowing white robe, some flowers in the hair, and a cup.
The artists who produced these paintings added dramatic touches, placing their Hebes among the clouds, accompanied by an eagle. Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun made one of her subjects sit with a real eagle, which became angry at being trapped indoors and terrified the young woman.
In the 19th century, there was also a trend for sculptures of Hebe. The eagle was less common in these, though some artists rose to the challenge. In America, Hebe statues became popular as a shape for fountains, for which they were produced in cast stone – a concrete imitation of carved stone.
Hebe’s youth may have been eternal, but her fame is not. Since the early 20th century, she has returned to obscurity – one of the lesser known figures of Greek myth, once again overshadowed by the family she served.