An Unhappy Divine Marriage

Aerial Photo of Man and Woman Lying on Grass Field

Marriage is a beautiful thing. However, even the most optimistic among us will agree that marriages are challenging and takes a lot of work to maintain. It is so challenging that it takes two people to maintain a working marriage – the two people are, of course, the husband and wife who want to make it work. Some marriages maybe downright difficult, miserable and even unsalvageable at times.  Even Hera, the ancient Greek goddess who were actually in charge of family and marriage, had marital problems as she constantly battle the many infidelities of Zeus, her philandering husband. Strangely, Hera often took swift and cruel revenge not on her husband but on his conquests and the resulting children. It is somewhat of a precursor of our many more modern stories of infidelities where, when a husband cheats on his wife, it is the other woman who tends to bear the brunt of the blame. Or, if we are feeling rather generous, we like to say “it takes two people” to make cheating happen.

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Bust of Hera, c. 420 AD

Hera turned her own priestess Io into a cow, she tricked Semele into asking Zeus to reveal himself in all his godly splendour – the sight of which immediately destroyed Semele. Hera also turned Callisto into a bear to be hunted by Artemis. But perhaps there was no other woman who angered Hera as much as Alcmene. When Alcmene was pregnant with Zeus’ child, Hera tried to prevent the birth from occurring by having Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth and midwifery, tie Alcmene’s legs in knots. Her attempt was foiled and Heracles was born.

To add insult to injury, an account of the origin of the Milky Way says that Zeus  tricked Hera into nursing the infant Heracles. Upon discovering who it was that she was nursing, Hera pulled Heracles from her breast, and a spurt of her milk formed the smear across the sky which can be seen to this day. While Heracles was still an infant, Hera sent two snakes to kill him in his cot. Baby Heracles throttled the snakes with his bare hands and was found by his nurse playing with their limp bodies as if they were toys. Hera’s hatred towards Heracles continued into Heracles’ adulthood as Hera drove him to madness which led him to murder his own family.

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“Juno, Jupiter and Io” by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout

This aspect of her personality does not present her in the best light. It is at times quite difficult to reconcile the widespread worship of Hera in ancient Greece with the character that we have come to recognize – that of a scheming, vicious and jealous wife. But, Hera is one of the very few deities who remained faithful to her partner. Apart from being the symbol of fidelity and monogamy, Hera was also the queen of the ancient Greek gods as well as the heavens.

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