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The Goddess Hera’s Place in Ancient Greek Mythology

Hera greek mythology
The “Hera Campana,” a second century AD Roman copy of an ancient Greek original. Hera was one of the most important goddesses in ancient Greek mythology. Credit: Public Domain

The goddess Hera, who loomed large in Ancient Greek mythology, was not only the wife and sister of Zeus, the King of the gods. She was also a powerful deity in her own right.

Hera, known as Juno in Roman mythology, was the goddess of women, marriage, family, and childbirth. She is widely seen as the motherly figure of Greek mythology, but she was also known for her fearsome temper.

She is infamous for flying into jealous rages against her husband Zeus’s many lovers and his children by them.

Hera, as the mother goddess and queen of the Olympians, may have roots in ancient, pre-mythological mother and earth goddesses that are common around the world.

Hera in Greek mythology

In ancient Greek art, Hera is typically depicted as a beautiful, serious woman who is often seated on a throne. She is often surrounded by the animals that are sacred to her, such as the cow, lion, and peacock. Often, she holds a pomegranate, a symbol of fertility, in one hand.

The peacock only became a symbol of the goddess after Alexander’s conquests in the East, however, as it is not native to Greece and was unknown to the Greeks prior to that time.

According to Greek mythology, she was the youngest daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, and sister to Zeus. Famously, Cronus believed he was fated to be overthrown by one of his children, so he swallowed them all whole.

Rhea, distraught, decided to put an end to Cronus’s consumption of their children by tricking him to swallow a stone instead of Zeus. Zeus was raised in secret, and eventually tricked his father into vomiting up all of his siblings.

Fulfilling his father’s fear, Zeus then overthrew Cronus with his brothers Poseidon and Hades and banished the Titans.

According to Greek mythology, Zeus charmed Hera by transforming himself into a cuckoo bird and resting in her lap, which is why Hera is often depicted holding a scepter that features the bird on top.

Despite their marriage, Zeus often cheated on Hera both with other goddesses and with mortal women. These relationships produced countless children upon which Hera unleashed her rage.

The goddess’ infamous wrath

The most famous subject of her wrath was her stepson, Heracles, whose name translates to “Glory of Hera.”

He was the child of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene, whom Zeus tricked by disguising himself as her husband Amphitryon, who was off at war. Surprisingly, the real Amphitryon did in fact return home early from war the same night, and Alcmene became pregnant with twins with each boy having a different father.

Hera, aware of her husband’s infidelity, made him swear that any descendant of Perseus born the night that Heracles was due would become a powerful king. Heracles was himself a descendant of Perseus, so Hera tricked Zeus into thinking she meant him when she was really thinking of another baby named Eurystheus.

Once Zeus agreed to her request, Hera rushed to Alcmene and delayed the birth of her children. She then caused Eurystheus to be born prematurely.

After already facing the goddesses’ wrath, Alcmene was afraid of ever encountering her again, so she exposed the baby Heracles in the wilderness. However, he was taken to Hera, who did not recognize him, by Athena, who protected heroes.

Hera nursed the child out of pity, but he suckled so hard that Hera had to push him away. This caused her breast milk to spray across the universe, creating the Milky Way. Heracles gained great power from drinking the divine breast milk.

Athena then brought him back to his parents. Only a few months later, Hera sent two giant snakes to his bedchamber in an attempt to kill the infant. According to mythology, Heracles was not afraid of the creatures, and simply grabbed one in each hand and strangled it, thinking they were mere toys.

The seer Tiresias heard the story and claimed that Heracles would grow up to defeat many powerful monsters in his life.

Hera’s wrath plagued Heracles all his life and even caused him to go mad and kill his family. By extension, it also sent him on his famous Twelve Labors. Throughout each labor, Hera tried her hardest to make them as difficult as possible for the hero, which included sending the Amazons to battle him and crabs to bite his ankles to distract him.

Hera’s hatred for her husband’s children did not stop at Heracles. In fact, it even scorched two famous Olympians, Apollo and Artemis, as well.

When Hera learned that Leto’s unborn twins were fathered by Zeus, she forbid the nature deities from allowing the woman to give birth on either the mainland or any island.

Poseidon took pity on the poor woman and helped her reach the island of Delos, which is said to have floated around the Mediterranean sea, unlike a real island, so she could give birth there.

After Apollo and Artemis were born, Zeus anchored the island in place. Located just off the island of Mykonos, it was an important site for the cult of Apollo.

One of the most brutal stories involving Hera’s anger is that of Semele and Dionysus.

Semele, daughter of Cadmus, the king of Thebes, was in love with Zeus, and soon became pregnant with his child.

When Hera learned of this, she disguised herself as Semele’s trusted nurse and began to try to convince the young woman that the man she had been seeing wasn’t really Zeus. In order to be sure, she said, you should have him show himself in his true form.

Semele was convinced, and the next time she met with Zeus, she asked him to reveal his true form. Zeus was compelled to do so when commanded after taking an oath.

Zeus then revealed his true form, which was nothing less than a mass of energy, thunder, and lightning, which destroyed Semele. Zeus then took the unborn child, Dionysus, and attached him to his own thigh until he was mature.

Hera’s rage could even extend to those who simply defied her and had no relationship with Zeus.

Famously, Hera and Zeus asked Tiresias to settle a quarrel that only he could answer.

Tiresias, a priest of Zeus, was born a man, but, when he was young, he encountered snakes mating and hit them with a stick. Just after hitting the snakes, Tiresias was transformed into a woman.

He then became a priestess of Hera, got married, and had children. After living as a woman for seven years, he encountered two snakes mating on his path once again, hit them, and became a man again.

Zeus and Hera were fighting about the topic of sex, particularly whether men or women enjoy it more. Hera argued that men experience more pleasure while Zeus claimed women did so. Unable to settle the dispute, they asked Tiresias, the only person who had experienced it from both sides, to weigh in.

Tiresias agreed with Zeus. Hera, so enraged that she lost the fight, struck Tiresias blind on the spot. Zeus took pity on the man but could not reverse what Hera had done to him. Instead, he gave him the gift of prophesy.

Hera, one of the most important goddesses in Greek mythology

The great mother goddess was extremely important to the Greeks, and it is believed that she may have been the first deity to whom the Greeks dedicated a roofed sanctuary.

The site was built in Samos around 800 BC, but it was later replaced by the Heraion, which is one of the largest of all Greek temples.

Archaeological evidence at the site proves that people from across the Mediterranean came and made offerings at the site. Pilgrims likely came from Armenia, Babylon, Iran, Assyria, and Egypt during the eighth and seventh centuries BC to leave offerings for Hera.

There were temples dedicated to the powerful goddess across mainland Greece, as well, notably in Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae, cities that Hera states are the three she “loves best” in Homer’s Iliad.

There were also temples dedicated to Hera in Olympia, Corinth, Tiryns, Perachora, and on Delos, the sacred island of Apollo.

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