Hera: The Queen of the Gods
Hera, called Juno by the Romans, is best remembered as the wife of Zeus. Outside of this role, it seems as though there are few stories about her at all.
Her identity as Zeus’s wife was central to the Greeks, as well, but that didn’t mean they thought of Hera as mild-mannered!
The queen of Olympus was known for her jealousy, spite, and schemes. Although she was worshipped as a faithful wife and regal queen, the stories of Hera are filled with her attempts to get back at her husband and his mistresses.
Hera was one of the six children of the Titan king Chronus and his consort, Rhea. Like most of her siblings, she was swallowed by her father at birth to avoid the chance of any of his children growing strong enough to challenge him.
Only Zeus was spared this fate when his mother tricked Chronus into swallowing a rock instead. When he grew to adulthood he returned to end his father’s tyrannical rule.
One of his first actions was to free his brothers, Hades and Poseidon, and sisters, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia, from their father’s stomach. His brothers joined him in the fight, while most sources say his sisters were fostered by sympathetic Titans or nymphs.
When the Titanomachy, the great war between the Titans and the younger gods, had ended, Zeus and his peers were victorious. They established their seat of power at Mount Olympus.
Zeus married the Titaness Metis, who had helped him trick his father and free his siblings. The marriage did not last, however.
Like his father, Zeus received a prophesy that Metis would have a son that would someday overthrow his rule. Rather than swallow his children, though, he swallowed his wife in the form of a fly.
With his first wife gone, Zeus found himself eager for another. He had seduced many goddesses but did not wish to marry any of them.Hera had grown into a beautiful maiden, and Zeus decided that his sister would make the ideal queen. Click To Tweet
According to later stories, Hera was not as receptive to her brother’s overtures as he would have liked. The techniques he had used to woo other goddesses did nothing to win Hera over.
Hera was a protective goddess, and Zeus knew she had great empathy for animals and children. He used this to win her over.
Zeus transformed himself into a cuckoo and summoned a thunderstorm. He sat outside of Hera’s window, pretending that as a small bird he had been injured in the storm.
As expected, Hera was sympathetic to the bird and brought it in to nurse back to health. She held Zeus close to herself to warm the cuckoo.
Now close to Hera, Zeus revealed himself. Hera agreed to marry him.
The marriage of Hera and Zeus was a cause for celebration on Mount Olympus. She became their new queen, and the object of nearly as much reverence and respect as her husband.
The wedding was such a special event that Hera received grand gifts from even Gaia, the earth, herself. She was granted ownership of the golden apples that granted immortality to anyone who ate them.
The apples were placed in a garden in the farthest reaches of the world, guarded by the Hesperides, a group of nymphs, and the dragon Lacon. They would play an important role in one of Hera’s later stories.
Some ancient writers said that Hera and Zeus had three-hundred years of newlywed bliss. Others said that the birth of Athena, the child of Metis who was born from Zeus’s head after he swallowed her mother, brought more immediate conflict.
As a result of Athena’s birth, Hera created a son on her own that she hoped would rival Zeus’s motherless offspring. Hephaestus, however, was disfigured and no match for the glorious birth of Athena.
She had other children with Zeus, however. Nearly all the stories agree that Ares, the god of war, and Hebe, the goddess of youth, were born from their marriage.
Other writers gave the couple additional offspring. These included Eileithyia (the goddess of childbirth), Enyo (a goddess of war), and Eris (the goddess of discord).
It was, perhaps, appropriate that the goddess of discord was a child of Hera and Zeus. Despite their early happiness, the marriage proved to be a troubled one.
Zeus was infamously unfaithful, having dozens of affairs with both goddesses and mortals. Hera developed a reputation for jealousy and spite.
As a result, many of the stories involving Hera center on her reactions to Zeus’s affairs and illegitimate children.
One example of the lengths Hera went to in order to punish the women who attracted Zeus’s attention is the story of Io.
Io was a mortal woman, the daughter of a king and a nymph. She served as a priestess of Hera in the city of Argos.
Zeus noticed the lovely maiden in his wife’s service and vowed to make her his mistress. According to at least one account, Io rejected his advances until her father threw her out of his house on the advice of an oracle.
Hera was always watchful for her husband’s indiscretions, so one day she took notice when she saw a lone thundercloud on the horizon. She hurried to the site to see what her husband was up to.
Zeus saw Hera coming and turned Io into a white cow to disguise her.
Hera wasn’t completely taken in by the trick, though. She pretended to take a liking to the heifer and asked Zeus if he would give it to her as a gift.
Zeus could not refuse without confirming Hera’s suspicions. He had no choice but to hand Io over to his wife.
Hera took the cow to her temple and set a guardian to watch over it. She called Argus, a great giant who was loyal to her, to be her watchman.
Argus took his task seriously and never let Io out of his sight. He was so watchful that later myths gave him the surname Panoptes, All-Seeing, and said he had one hundred eyes.
Zeus had to free Io, both for her own sake and so his infidelity would not be discovered. He asked Hermes to use his speed and cunning to help.
Hermes went to the temple at night, so that he could be sure Hera wouldn’t see him. He disguised himself as a shepherd to avoid suspicion.
He used spells and charms to put the giant to sleep, then killed him by hitting him in the head with a stone. Zeus freed Io, still in the form of a heifer, and took her away.
When Hera discovered her guard dead and the cow gone, her suspicions were confirmed. She sent a gadfly to torment the cow continuously.
Io was nearly driven mad by the fly’s stings and began wandering the world in an attempt to outrun it. Some sources said she was also attempting to outrun Zeus, whose advances she was still hoping to avoid.Hera eventually escaped across the sea to Egypt. It is called the Ionian Sea to this day in honor of her legend. Click To Tweet
Io married the king of that land after giving birth to Zeus’s son, Epaphus. The Greeks believed that he founded the city of Memphis and the sacred Apis Bull was in honor of his mother.
Epaphus, through his daughter Libya, became an ancestor to many important figures in Greek mythology. These would include more children of Zeus, including the one that was arguably the most hated by his stepmother.
Through the ages, Hera became known for persecuting her husband’s other children. In no myth is this displayed as well as in the legends of Heracles.
The great-grandson, and half-brother, of Zeus’s famous son Perseus, Heracles was tormented by Hera from the day he was born.
His mother, Alcmene, had been married when Zeus tricked her into having an affair with him. When she gave birth to twins, one was the son of her human husband while the other was the son of Zeus.
Hera had no way of knowing which of the babies was Zeus’s son. When the boys were in their cradle together, she sent a serpent to kill them.
Iphicles began crying, but his twin brother grabbed the snake and strangled it. Heracles had proven which of the infants was a child of Zeus.
He was named after his stepmother in the hopes of softening her anger against him, but it was no use.
When Heracles was grown, he married Princess Megara of Thebes. Hera saw an opportunity to destroy the man’s life and drove him mad, causing him to kill his wife and children.
Horrified by what he had done, Heracles consulted an oracle. Unbeknownst to him, the oracle was in the service of his stepmother.
He was entrusted to serve King Eurystheus, his cousin, for a period of ten years. He would do whatever the king asked of him to earn redemption.
The king, of course, was also loyal to Hera. Together, they devised a series of nearly impossible tasks in the hopes of destroying the hero.
In every one of the twelve labors of Heracles, his stepmother tried to thwart his efforts.
For example, when he was sent to kidnap the cattle of the giant Geryon, Hera sent a fly to bite them so they would run away and be harder to catch.
When he sent to fetch the belt of Hippolyte, the queen of the Amazons, he initially met with little resistance. Hera, however, intervened.
[Herakles] was met by Hippolyte who wanted to know why he had come. She promised him the belt, but Hera in the guise of an Amazon woman went through the crowd saying that the new arrivals were kidnapping the queen. The women thereupon armed themselves and rode down to the ships on horses. When Herakles saw that they were armed, he smelled a trap, so he killed Hippolyte and took the belt.
-Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 101 (trans. Aldrich)
In spite of all the difficulties Hera and Eurystheus caused him, Heracles was able to complete his labors. The king, however, declared two of them nullified by the fact that the hero had received assistance.
In one last attempt to cause the death of Zeus’s son, Hera devised two additional tasks that no man could hope to accomplish. One of these involved finding a way past her own guards, Lacon and the Hesperides, to steal one of the golden apples she had been given by Gaia for her wedding.
In both this and the kidnapping of Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld, Heracles still prevailed. Hera and Eurystheus were forced to admit defeat.
When Heracles ascended to godhood, Hera seemed to have softened toward him. Many accounts said that he eventually married her daughter, Hebe.
Io and Heracles were far from the only people to be threatened by Hera’s infamous jealous streak. Many of Zeus’s lovers and children were the targets of Hera’s ire. They included:
- Leto – When the mother of Apollo and Artemis was pregnant, Hera tried to prevent her from being able to give birth. She later sent the giant Tityos to attack her as well.
- Semele – The mother of Dionysus, she was killed because of one of Hera’s schemes. She tricked the girl into seeing Zeus in his true, divine form, and Semele was burned to death by lightning.
- Dionysus – After he had grown, Hera struck the younger god with madness. He wandered the world in a frenzy until he was cured.
- Lamia – Hera turned this queen of Libya into a monster and killed her children when Zeus fell in love with her. Lamia obsessed over her dead children and hunted human children so others would feel her pain.
- Aegina – When Hera found out that Aegina was carrying Zeus’s child, she sent a serpent to poison the drinking water and kill anyone close to her.
- Callisto – When she gave birth to a child by Zeus, Hera turned her into a bear. She was nearly killed by her own son when Zeus saved her by transforming her into the constellation Ursa Major.
- Echo – Hera took away the nymph’s ability to speak for herself not because she was one of the god’s lovers, but because she had used her lovely words to distract Hera while Zeus was with other women.
Hera’s anger could be a terrible thing. Even Zeus, who was typically portrayed as fearless, took pains to cover his tracks and resort to tricks to avoid drawing her ire.
Those toward whom Hera directed her anger often suffered greatly, although they were typically rescued by Zeus in the end. Often, however, others who became embroiled in her schemes suffered as well.
Of course, not all of the stories involving Hera were about her husband’s affairs.
In one instance, Zeus even saved her.
When he brought the mortal Ixion to Olympus, the wicked man began to lust after Hera. When Zeus learned that his guest planned to assault his wife, he couldn’t believe it.
He made a woman in Hera’s image out of clouds who was later called Nephele. Ixion brutally attacked the clone, confirming his bad intentions.
He had Ixion strapped to a flaming wheel to spin around the heavens for all eternity as punishment.
She was not always wrathful, of course. She was the patroness of Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece and helped the Argonauts survive on more than one occasion.
Of course, she made one demand of them. Heracles had been sailing with the crew and she insisted that Jason abandon the hero to continue receiving her help.
One of the most famous tales in which Hera appears is that of the Trojan War. In fact, she was involved in the war from the very beginning.
Eris, the goddess of spite, had not been invited to the wedding of the Titaness Thetis. In retaliation, she sent a golden apple to Olympus addressed to “the fairest.”
Hera was one of three goddesses who made the assumption that the apple was intended for them. Along with Athena and Aphrodite, she petitioned Zeus to determine the rightful owner.
Choosing between them was impossible for the king of the gods, especially since his own wife and daughter were vying for the title. He left the choice to a mortal man, Paris the prince of Troy.
Each goddess offered Paris a bribe to choose them as the fairest. Hera’s offer was political power and kingship over all of Asia.
Paris earned her enmity, however, when he chose Aphrodite and the love of the most beautiful woman on earth. To make matters worse, that woman, Helen of Sparta, was also a daughter of Zeus.
Hera sided with the Greeks during the war, against Paris and Helen. She even plotted against her own son, Ares, for siding with Aphrodite and the Trojans.
Zeus forbade the gods from interfering directly in human battles, however. Hera and her enemies worked together to overrule their king’s decree.
With the help of Aphrodite’s love spells, Hera distracted Zeus from the battles raging on earth. She charmed him into a deep sleep so she and the other gods could aid and hinder the humans as they wished.
This was not the only time that Hera had crossed her husband.
In one obscure story, she even planned, along with Athena and Poseidon, a full coup against her husband. The three bound Zeus to challenge his rule and were only stopped when he was freed by Thetis.
As a punishment, Zeus in turn had his wife bound. She was saved by her son, Hephaestus, who risked expulsion from Olympus to free her.
Despite her vengeful stories, Hera had a strong following in ancient Greece.
As the queen of the gods, she inspired as much reverence and respect as her husband.
Just as importantly, she was actually considered a model for the ideal wife.
Hera was the only major goddess of Olympus who was actually married.
Others had either an assortment of love affairs or were sworn virgins. Aphrodite had married and divorced after many affairs, and Persephone spent only a few months of the year with her husband.
Her marriage to Zeus may have been tumultuous, but the Greeks saw many virtues in it. Regardless of how often he strayed, Hera remained loyal and faithful to him.
Even her well-known wrath had its benefits. It served as a reminder of the problems that could arise from infidelity and oath-breaking.
Hera was, therefore, the patroness and protectress of married women. In a society in which men had less of an expectation of fidelity than their wives, she was an emblem of the often neglected women of Greece.
She was so revered that her temples from the 8th century BC are the earliest examples of monumental architecture on the Greek peninsula.
The temple at Samos is believed to be the first fully-enclosed sanctuary in the Greek world. Her temple at Olympia, of which her husband was the patron, is actually older than that of Zeus himself.
Hera was widely worshipped throughout the Greek world as a model for marriage, motherhood, and royal power.
It’s easy to see Hera as the epitome of a bad wife, not a great one. Her jealousy caused pain and suffering for many.
Of course, some might sympathize with Zeus’s wife. Her husband’s constant lies and affairs justify some amount of jealousy and anger.
So why did the Greeks hold Hera and Zeus up as a model of marriage?
It could be because different people could interpret the myths in their own way.
In a patriarchal society like ancient Greece, many women found themselves in Hera’s position. The stories of her vengeance against her unfaithful husband and his mistresses no doubt resonated with women who didn’t have the power to punish the people in their own lives in the same way.
Man, meanwhile, could have seen virtue in Hera’s forgiveness and loyalty. No matter how many times Zeus strayed, Hera remained faithful to him.
Everyone, however, could see a bit of reality reflected in the stories of Zeus and his wife. Marriage was not always perfect and happy, just like today, but no matter how Zeus and Hera worked against each other they always reconciled in the end.