Hebe: The Greek Goddess of Youth
The Greek gods were known to be not only immortal, but also ageless. They owed this to the youngest among them, the goddess Hebe.
Hebe was the daughter of Hera and Zeus and in many ways exemplified the duties of a young, unmarried woman of the upper classes. But her great power was to restore and extend youth.
In her humble job as the cup bearer at the feasts of the gods, she delivered the ambrosia that kept her fellow gods young and beautiful.
Hebe’s role as a young girl would not last forever, though. She transitioned into the role of a married woman and the divine wife of Heracles, and with that change in circumstance came a change in duties.
Believe it or not, the goddess often depicted as a handmaiden had one of the most important jobs on Olympus!
Hebe was the youngest of the Olympian gods and the daughter of Hera and Zeus.
Many myths describe her fulfilling the normal duties of an unmarried young woman in the Greek world. For example, she filled the bathtub for her older brother and helped her mother in and out of her chariot.As a maiden goddess, Hebe is often described in reference to the services she performed for older gods and goddesses. Click To Tweet
These domestic tasks were seen as more than necessary chores. They were meant to train high-ranking young women to someday run their own husband’s households.
Hebe served as Hera’s chief handmaiden, both performing services to help her and being a constant companion.
She was rarely far from her mother’s side, and Hera seemed to have doted on her youngest daughter. One story, for example, showed Hera holding a competition to determine which god could give the best gift to the infant Hebe in honor of her first week of life.
One of Hebe’s primary jobs as the youngest of the gods was to serve as their cup bearer.
This was an honorable role for a young person in Greek society. They were in service to their elders, but in a position that put them in the center of dinners and feasts.
Serving in this position was how the young learned the etiquette of feasts among the upper classes and were introduced to the politics and interpersonal relationships of their society.
Stories of the feasts of the gods often feature Hebe in her role as cup bearer, refilling glasses of ambrosia for her fellow gods and goddesses while they enjoyed their famous banquets.
When not serving her parents, Hebe was also connected to Aphrodite. She was the goddess’s messenger and herald at times, and at other times the two danced together like sisters.
Amid the frequent conflicts and intrigues of Mount Olympus, Hebe represented a different type of deity. Her role was domestic, and familiar to any young woman in the Greek world.
Like any good cup bearer or handmaiden in the houses of the nobility, she was always present but never at the center of the scandals and dramas of her elders.
The Orphic mystery cults had their own veneration of Hebe, however, that presented a very different story of her life.
While the standard mythology of Greece said that Hebe was the youngest daughter of Hera and Zeus, the secretive mystery cults appear to have believed that she was not the child of Zeus at all.
In an unusual story, they claimed that Hera conceived Hebe on her own while eating a piece of lettuce. Hebe was the result of parthenogenesis, not the marriage of Zeus and Hera.
This was not unheard of among the Olympians. Hephaestus was similarly the son of Hera alone, and Aphrodite had been born without a mother from the severed genitals of Uranus and the foamy surface of the sea.
The Orphic cults appear to have believed that many of Hera’s children were born this way. They believed that Ares was conceived when Hera traveled to a distant garden and touched an unknown flower.
While the mystery cults may have questioned the parentage of Hebe, it was generally agreed by mainstream Greek religion that Hebe was the daughter of Hera and Zeus.
Hebe’s time as the maiden cupbearer of the gods did not last forever, though.
While she was the youngest goddess of the Olympians, others had been added to the pantheon. A few especially honored humans, typically the children of gods themselves, were elevated to godhood and joined the ranks of Olympians.
One of these was Hebe’s half-brother, Heracles. His funeral pyre burned away the last traces of his human lineage and he was welcomed to Mount Olympus as a god in his own right.
Heracles became the guardian of the Olympian gates, and young Hebe became his wife.
That hero [Herakles] it was, Alkmene’s (Alcmena’s) mighty son, who came at last to high Olympos; he who, searching out all the far lands of earth and rock-walled stretches of the foaming seas, tempered the rough straits for the seamen’s sails. Now at the side of Zeus the Aigis-bearer he dwells, enjoying happiness most fair, of the immortal gods a friend held in high honour, lord of the golden halls, husband of Hebe, son-in-law of Hera.
-Pindar, Isthmian Ode 4. 73 ff
Heracles and Hebe were usually depicted as a happy couple who enjoyed their life together on Mount Olympus. In contrast to her parents, they represented an ideal of marriage that was peaceful and joyous.
They had two sons together, Alexiares and Anicetus. Little is known of these gods except their names, but it was recorded that Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth and Hebe’s sister, attended their births.
With his ascension to godhood, Hera ended her long-standing vendetta against her husband’s heroic son. The family lived peacefully and both Hebe and Heracles were often depicted standing at the sides of her mother and their father.
One of the biggest changes for Hebe was that she was no longer put in the position of a subservient unmarried girl.
The handsome youth Ganymede replaced her as cup bearer and other minor goddesses became her mother’s attendants.Hebe was still closely connected to her mother and often sat at her right hand, but with her marriage she had come closer to being Hera’s equal. Click To Tweet
The pair were also sometimes joined by another of Zeus’s children who became a deity. Helen, who gained infamy in the Trojan War, was often pictured sitting at Hera’s side along with her half-sister.
Like most divinities in the ancient world, Hebe is identifiable in art through the specific symbols associated with her.
Hebe’s symbols make reference to both her position as the goddess of youth and the roles she plays on Mount Olympus. Her chief attributes were:
- A wine cup and pitcher – These were references to her former position as the cup bearer of the gods and the youngest among them.
- An eagle – Also a symbol of her father, eagles were associated with immortality and renewal. Hebe is sometimes shown in the form of an eagle, flying alongside her father and offering him a cup.
- The fountain of youth – A popular motif in many cultures, the Greek fountain was the source of ambrosia, the drink of the gods and the source of their eternal vitality.
- Ivy – Ivy was associated with youth for its consistent greenery and the speed at which it grew.
Aside from her functions as a maiden and a wife, Hebe was primarily the goddess of youth.
Her role as a cup bearer referenced this in more than just the fact that the job was typically held by young children.Hebe served ambrosia, the drink of the gods. It was said to be the source of their youthfulness and vigour. Click To Tweet
In serving ambrosia to her fellow Olympians, Hebe was literally the source of their eternal youth.
In one of the few myths to feature Hebe in a prominent role, it is revealed that she also has the power to grant youth to humans.
Iolaus was a cousin of Heracles and assisted him in many of his labors during his mortal life. It was Iolaus who cauterized the Hydra’s regenerating heads so Heracles could defeat the monster.
The two were so close that Iolaus was the one to light the funeral pyre of Heracles as the hero was dying.
When Heracles became a god, however, Iolaus continued to age. He had made himself the guardian of Heracles’s mortal children and mother, Alcmene, on earth, but the task grew harder as he grew older.
The wicked king Eurystheus, who had devised the labors of Heracles, was still alive and was now attacking Athens where the children of Heracles had taken refuge.
Heracles asked his wife to intervene and restore youth to Iolaus so he could fight Eurystheus. In some versions of the death of Eurystheus, it is the magically rejuvenated Iolaus who deals the killing blow.
Hebe gave Iolaus the gift of youth, but wanted to promise to never use it on a human again. Themis, however, urged her to make no such promise.
The descendants of Heracles would face more trouble in the future, Themis prophesied, and they would need Iolaus to defend them. She urged Hebe to be ready to help Iolaus again for the sake of her stepchildren and their heirs.
Ovid claimed that the gods were upset with this prophesy. They did not object to Iolaus being restored to youth to protect the children of Heracles, but they were unhappy that Hebe was the only one of them with the power to give youth back to those who had aged.
Hebe was the only one who could bestow the gift of youth. Medea managed to restore Aeson to his prime, but the witch was only able to do so before altars to both Hebe and Hecate.
With her marriage to Heracles, Hebe also became the patron goddess of new brides.
She was one of the few goddesses to be married in her youth, without having affairs and trysts beforehand. While her mother Hera represented a settled wife, Hebe represented the hopefulness and apprehension of a new bride.
She often accompanied the other goddesses associated with marriage – Aphrodite, The Charites (Graces), Harmonia, and the Horae (Seasons).
Hebe was worshipped by young women who were either newly married or waiting to be. One of the most popular depictions of Hebe was seated between her parents, waiting for the arrival of Heracles and her wedding day.
In conclusion, Hebe was the youngest of the gods and her role on Mount Olympus often enforced that. She was given jobs typically held by the teenage daughters of the nobility, like assisting her mother in dressing or pouring the family’s drinks at feasts.
Despite this seemingly servile role, however, Hebe served an important function among the gods. The ambrosia she poured for them allowed them to remain eternally youthful and energetic.
With her marriage to Heracles, her role on Olympus evolved. She was no longer seen serving the other gods, but as a married woman was counted as an equal among them.
She and Heracles served as the reference for a happy, peaceful marriage. They and their family represented a cohesive family unite.
Hebe was the only god of Olympus with the ability to restore youth to both gods and men. She used this power rarely for humans, and in the one story that centers on this ability she did so only to help her husband.
Hebe was revered as a personification of youth, a model for young brides, and the ideal noble daughter of ancient Greece.