Hera, Queen of the Olympians






Hera was the daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea and was born either on the island of Samos or at Argos. These two islands became the chief seats of her worship in ancient Greece, but she was brought up in Arcadia by Temenus, son of Pelasgus, or, according to Homer, by the Titans Oceanus and Tethys. The Seasons were her nurses, which is a way of saying that Hera was a goddess of the calendar year.

She was Zeus’ sister and equal to him in one thing alone: that she could bestow the gift of prophecy on anyone she pleased. Following the Olympians' overthrow of their father Cronus, who used to swallow his children as they were born, she became his wife. But she didn't do so willingly, and in fact she rejected his advances when he courted her at Cnossus in Crete, or on Mount Thornax, since renamed Mount Cuckoo.

Zeus finally resorted to trickery in order to win her over, and transformed himself into a sad-looking and bedraggled cuckoo, soaked from a sudden thunderstorm. Hera did not see through his disguise, took pity on this poor creature and held it in her bosom to warm it. Resuming his true shape, Zeus then used the opportunity to ravish her and in shame she agreed to marry him.

The wedding feast was a huge and momentous bash and all the gods brought wonderful gifts for the new couple. In particular, Gaea (Mother Earth) gave Hera a tree with golden apples, which she placed in her orchard on Mount Atlas. There the maidens called the Hesperides and the dragon named Ladon guarded the golden apples, until the great hero Heracles came by and stole three of them to fulfill one of his labors.

Following the wedding party Hera and Zeus spent their honeymoon on the island of Samos and it lasted three hundred years. To them were born the gods Ares, Hephaestus and Hebe, even though some say that Ares and his twin sister Eris (Strife) were conceived when Hera touched a flower (perhaps the may-blossom), and Hebe when Hera touched a lettuce. Some claim that Ilithyia (or Eileithyia), goddess of childbirth, was her child by Zeus.

Even Hephaestus was said to be her son alone, created when she got angry at Zeus for giving birth alone to Athena from his head. In disgust at the sickly and ugly child she had birthed, Hera flung Hephaestus from Olympus, and he fell for a whole day until he landed in the sea, where the surf carried him to the island of Lemnos.

When Hephaestus grew up and was convinced to return to Mount Olympus and to regain his rightful place among the gods, he crafted a mechanical chair with arms that folded and imprisoned the sitter. Thus trapping his mother, he made her swear an unbreakable oath by the River Styx that indeed she alone gave birth to him, and that he had no father. However, while some claim that Zeus was Hephaestus' father, others hold that he was Hera's son by Talos, the nephew of the inventor Daedalus.

Hera's name is usually taken to be a Greek word for 'lady', or perhaps it derives from the pre-Hellenic Herwa (Protectress). She was given the nickname "cow-faced" (in some translations "ox-eyed") which has stuck with her through the ages, but the Queen of the Olympians was very beautiful. In fact she was one of the three contestants in the Judgment of Paris, which was held to identify the most beautiful goddess, and which led to the Trojan War. (Paris chose Aphrodite after she promised him the hand of gorgeous Helen, forever incurring Hera and Athena's wrath.)

But her personality was not as attractive, for she was frequently petty, cruel and vindictive, and in myths is most often shown administering some sort of revenge on one of Zeus’ lovers or his illegitimate children. Despite the important role Hera played in religious circles, her mythological role is usually that of jealous wife and shrew. In only one myth is she shown as a noble and gracious protector of heroes and inspirer of heroic deeds, and that was when she assisted Jason and the Argonauts in their Quest of the Golden Fleece.

Not that you could blame her - Zeus was anything but a faithful husband, so Hera in her turn was not a loyal wife. In fact, when he was young, Zeus drove his wife so mad with his antics that she convinced the other gods to join in a revolt against her husband. Her part was to drug Zeus until he was unconscious, and she did so successfully. The scheming gods then took away the King of the Olympians' fearsome thunderbolts and bound the sleeping Zeus with rawhide thongs to a couch, taking care to tie 100 strong knots so that he could not move.

They had not, however, planned what to do next and began to quarrel over who would take Zeus’ place. Their leader awoke and threatened his wife and the other mutineers with certain death unless they immediately released him, but they had placed his thunderbolts out of reach and just laughed at him.

The Nereid Thetis saw the Olympians arguing over the leadership and knew that a civil war was about to break out on Olympus. She hurried in search of the hundred-handed Briareus, whom Zeus had freed from the prison of Tartarus, and snuck him into the palace. Still full of gratitude to Zeus, Briareus was more than happy to come to his master's help and, using every hand at once, was able to quickly untie the many knots. Before the quarrelsome gods knew what was happening, Zeus sprang from the couch and grabbed his thunderbolts. As the gods fell to their knees begging and pleading for mercy, he seized Hera and hung her from the sky with gold chains.

To further punish her, Zeus tied heavy anvils on her feet to weigh her down. In excruciating pain she moaned and groaned all night but none of the others dared to help her. For four days and nights she was suspended from the sky, but her loud weeping kept Zeus from falling asleep and finally he agreed to release her if she would swear to never again rebel against him. She had little choice but to agree.

While Hera never again rebelled, she was still vexed by his infidelities and often intrigued against Zeus's plans, managing to humiliate him on more than one occasion.

Hera was the goddess of marriage and protector of married women. Her sandals and chariot were made of pure gold, crafted by her son Hephaestus. He also designed her splendid throne, described here in fine fashion by Robert Graves, from his wonderful book, Greek Gods and Goddesses

"Queen Hera had an ivory throne, with three crystal steps leading up to it. Golden cuckoos and willow leaves decorated the back, and a full moon hung above it. Hera sat on a white cow skin, which she sometimes used for rain-making magic if Zeus could not be bothered to stop a drought...she was his Queen, and perpetually young and beautiful."

Some of the more famous victims of the wrath of Hera included the greatest Greek hero, Heracles (Hercules), whom she tormented relentlessly; Semele, mother of Dionysus, god of wine, as well as Dionysus himself and his parents, whom she caused to go mad; Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis; Lamia, all of whose seven children, save for Scylla, Hera killed in a fit of jealousy; Echo, who could no longer use her voice in punishment, except in foolish repetition of another's shout; the seer Teiresias, whom she blinded for saying that women enjoyed sex more than men; Io, who was changed into a cow and tormented by a gadfly sent by Hera; Callisto, who was turned by Hera into a bear, leading to her tragic death; and many, many more...

But Hera did help Hippodameia find happiness through marriage to Pelops; this began the Heraean Games, as Robert Graves tells us in The Greek Myths:

"In gratitude to Hera for facilitating her marriage with Pelops, Hippodameia summoned sixteen matrons, one from every city of Elis, to help her institute the Heraean Games. Every fourth year, ever since, the Sixteen  Matrons, their successors, have woven a robe for Hera and celebrated the Games; which consist of a single race between virgins of different ages, the competitors being handicapped according to their years, with the youngest placed in front. They run clad in tunics of less than knee length, their right breast bared, their hair flying free. Chloris, Niobe's only surviving daughter, was the first victrix in these games; the course of which has been fixed at five-sixths of the Olympic circuit. The prize is an olive wreath, and a share of the cow sacrificed to Hera; a victrix may also dedicate a statue of herself in her own name"

Despite her often-ridiculous mythological characterization, Hera's role in the religion of the day was great. She was venerated in every home and Ilithyia (or Eileithyia), who was the goddess of childbirth, was her daughter. Her worship was fervent and extensive, particularly at Samos and Argos, and her divine position as the goddess of women and marriage was accepted throughout most of Greece.

Keep in mind that Hera was actually the only married woman among the Olympians, for Aphrodite's 'marriage' to Hephaestus can hardly be called legitimate, because it was an arranged marriage with no commitment or loyalty.

In appearance, Hera is usually represented as a majestic woman of mature age, with a beautiful forehead, large and widely opened eyes, and with a grave and stern expression that commands reverence. Her hair was adorned with a crown or a diadem, with a veil frequently hanging down the back of her head, to characterize her as the bride of Zeus.

Her animal is the cow, the most motherly of animals, but not wanting to be thought of as plain-looking, she also adopted the lion as her symbol, and the peacock and the cuckoo as her birds.

Her other attributes are the veil, the diadem and the scepter. As a former Death-goddess, Hera was also shown holding a pomegranate. On Olympus, Hera had her very own messenger - the fleet-footed Iris, goddess of the rainbow.

Hera with a Pomegranate

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