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.

Based on the number of her cults alone, Hera was considered a very ancient goddess, predating even Zeus himself. A theory by Swiss antiquarian Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815 – 1887) in the mid-nineteenth century tells us about the possibility that Hera was originally the goddess from the matriarchal tradition which presumably inhabited Greece before the Hellenes. By this view, then, Hera’s resistance to the conquests of Zeus is reframed as Hera’s “jealousy” which became the main theme of literary anecdotes that undercut her ancient cult.

02 2020 Grecia photo Paolo Villa FO199990 (Olimpia parco archeologico - Tempio di Era colonna di ordine dorico, nel fondo il Philippeion di ordine ionico - - Temple of Era column doric order, behind Philippeion ionic order).jpg
Remains of the Temple of Hera, Olympia archaeological park 

The ancients also offer several interpretations of the real significance of Hera. Some regarded her as the personification of the atmosphere, Euripides regarded her as the queen of heaven or the goddess of the stars and Plutarch regarded her as the goddess of the moon. The statue of Hera by Polycletus represents Hera as a majestic mature woman at a mature age with a grave expression commanding reverence. According to Plutarch, Hera’s name was allegorical, symbolizing aer (“air”). Plato provided more than one suggestions such as aer (“air”) and erate (“beloved”) as Zeus is said to have married her for love. 

Although Hera was worshipped the goddess of marriage and the wife of Zeus, we can see the extent of Hera’s importance in the early archaic period by the large temple projects undertaken in her honor. Constructed in the 8th century BC temples of Hera in the two main centres of her cult, the Heraion of Samos and the Heraion of Argos in the Argolis, were the earliest monumental Greek temples. Representing the maiden, mother and the crone aspect of the Great Goddess, a tradition existed in Stymphalia in Arcadia of a triple shrine to Hera pais (“the girl”), teleia (“the woman”) and chere (“widowed”). The temple of Hera in Hermione near Argos was to Hera the Virgin and at the spring of Kanathos, Hera annually renewed her virginity. 

Two figurines indicating Hera as a protectress of children and one pregnant figurine has been found among the archaeological findings in Argos. Another kind of terracotta figurines dating from the 7th century BC depict a seated goddess wearing a headdress. These figurines may have depicted Hera herself as Hera is frequently described as crowned, golden and seated on a throne. There were also numerous baths at the sanctuary which may have served as a healing centre for women.

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View from the Heraion of Argos into the Inachos plain, Argolis, Greece

Hera’s titles at Sparta suggest a very wide domination. She was called Argeia (“of Argos”), Hypercheiria (“whose hand is above”) and Aphrodite, making her the goddess of sovereignty, protection and fertility. The festival of Hera in Argos included an armed procession and a legend recorded by Dictys of Crete says that it was at the Heraion where Agamemnon was chosen to lead the Argives against Troy.

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Ceremony for the lighting of the flame for the 2004 Summer Olympics

One of Hera’s major festivals was celebrated at the major cult site at Olympia, home of the games and involved women and girls of various ages. The festival is connected to the myth of Hippodameia, whose father would only marry her to someone who could beat him in a chariot race. When someone finally found a way of defeating her father’s divine horses, Hippodameia began the celebration of the Herea as a sign of her gratefulness to Hera, the goddess of marriage. The Herean Games, which consisted of various rituals and offerings to Hera and foot-races for girls, was traditionally organized by a college of sixteen women.

The celebration of the Heraea at Olympia was the most renowned athletic festival in which women could compete to gain honor as an athlete. Pausanias described a game at Heraea as follows: “the games consist of foot-races for maidens. These women are not all of the same age. The first to run are the youngest; after them come the next in age, and the last to run are the oldest of the maidens. To the winning maidens they give crowns of olive and a portion of the cow sacrificed to Hera.”

Close-Up Photo of Gold Wedding Rings

The Daidala in Platania and the Athenian hieros gamos (“sacred marriage”) celebrated Hera Teleia, which comes from the Greek telos (“fulfilment”). Those who were married were called teleioi, which suggests that marriage was a fulfilment.  Marriages blessed by Hera were expected to be fruitful. For the ancient Greek women, marriage was a major transition as they moved from their family home to that of strangers. They then understandably hoped that these strangers would show them  goodwill as their life and wellbeing would be placed in the hands of their husband’s household. As the only married and monogamous goddess of the Olympians, Hera was considered to be a good choice of patroness.

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Michel Martin Drolling – The Law Descends to the Earth, 1827

So how did this fabulous goddess end up with an up-start cheater like Zeus? Hera is the daughter of the youngest Titan Cronus and his sister-wife, Rhea. Knowing that he was fated to be overthrown by one of his children, Cronus swallowed all of his newborn children whole until Rhea tricked him into swallowing a stone instead of her youngest child, Zeus. Zeus grew up in secret and later tricked his father into regurgitating, thus freeing, his siblings which include Hera. Later, Zeus led his siblings in a revolt against the Titans, banished them, and divided the dominion over the world with his brothers Poseidon and Hades.

Zeus fell in love with Hera, but she refused his first proposal of marriage. Zeus then preyed on her empathy for animals. He created a thunderstorm and transformed himself into a little cuckoo. As a cuckoo, Zeus then pretended to be in distress. Pitying the bird, Hera held it to her breast to warm its little body. Zeus then transformed back into himself and raped Hera. Ashamed of being exploited, Hera then agreed to marriage with Zeus.

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James Barry, “Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida”

After her marriage to Zeus, Hera was treated by the Olympian gods with the same reverence as her husband. Homer even claims that Zeus himself listened to her counsels, and communicated his secrets to her rather than to other gods. However, she was far inferior to Zeus and must obey him unconditionally. Therefore, as Zeus’ wife,  Hera is not the queen of gods and men, but simply the wife of the supreme god.

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Andrea Appiani , “The Olympus” 

Hera’s relationship with her husband was not a happy one. Unable to bear Zeus brutishness and cruelty, Hera, helped by Poseidon and Athena, stole Zeus’ thunder and put him in chains. In retaliation, Zeus threatened her, beat her, chained her hands and hung her up in the clouds with two anvils suspended from her feet. To negotiate her release, Hera swore to never rebel against her husband again. Therefore, despite her frequent depictions of being a shrewish wife, Hera was more often frightened by her husband’s threats, and gave way when he was angry enough, preferring to resort to cunning and intrigues towards Zeus’ lovers and their children who were less violent as she is unable to gain any advantage in her marriage any other way.  

Newlyweds Holding Hands

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