Jealousy is usually considered a negative trait. To be jealous without cause is cautioned against and a jealous spouse is seen as a terrible person.
In Greek mythology, however, Hera had good reason to be jealous. Her feelings were not unfounded, but based on her husband’s numerous affairs.
Unfortunately for the women in these stories and their children, Hera could rarely take her frustrations out on the king of the gods himself. Instead, Zeus’s mistresses and offspring bore the blame for his actions.
Stories of Hera’s punishments of Zeus’s mistresses and their children are almost as numerous as those of Zeus’s affairs. These are some of the most notable stories of how Hera showed her jealousy in Greek mythology.
One of the most famous stories of Hera’s jealousy was her constant harassment of Heracles.
When his mother, Alcmene, went into labor, Zeus declared that the next child born of his line would become a great king. Hera interfered with the help of her daughter, the goddess of childbirth Eileithyia.
She caused Alcmene’s labor to be painfully prolonged so Zeus’s child would not be the next one born. Instead, she caused a more distant descendant to prematurely give birth to a son called Eurystheus.
Eurystheus would therefore become a king when he was grown while Alcmene’s son would not.
Alcmene gave birth to twins, with one boy being the son of Zeus and the other the entirely mortal child of the man she married. Hera did not know which boy was which, so she attempted to kill them both.
She sent two large serpents into the boys’ crib when they were only a few months old. One was discovered to be Zeus’s son when he grabbed the snakes and strangled them while his human brother cried.
The baby was named Heracles, “Glory of Hera,” in an attempt to pacify his stepmother’s wrath. This was fruitless, however, and she would continue to torment him for the rest of his life.
When Heracles was grown, Hera inflicted madness on him. In a frenzy, he killed his own wife and children.
When his sanity was restored, Heracles visited an oracle to find out how he could atone for his sin. The seer commanded him to enter into the service of his cousin, King Eurystheus, for ten years.
What Heracles did not know was that both the oracle and the king were in Hera’s service. Eurystheus and Hera would spend the next decade sending Heracles on increasingly difficult and dangerous tasks.
The twelve labors of Heracles were devised by Hera to be so impossible that the hero could not possibly survive them. To make them more difficult, she sometimes directly interfered.
When he negotiated with Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, for her belt, for example, Hera spread a rumor among the warrior women that he meant to attack and kill their queen. According to some sources, many of the monsters he fought had been created by Hera just to destroy him.
In the end, however, none of Hera’s trials were too great for her renowned stepson. When Heracles eventually died, due to the schemes of a centaur rather than the queen of Olympus, he was made a god and seemed to have no further trouble from his father’s wife.
Hera was able to torment Heracles for decades because he had been born mortal. Some of her stepchildren, however, were spared the worst of her anger.
Instead, Hera took her jealousy out on their mothers. One example of this was the story of the birth of Apollo and Artemis.
When Hera learned that Leto was pregnant by Zeus, she was furious. She made all the lands of the earth vow that Leto would not be able to give birth on solid ground.
Leto wandered the world looking for a place that would accept her and her children. She eventually found the floating island of Delos, which provided a safe haven because it was unmoored from the ocean floor so it was not technically solid ground.
Hera further interfered by once again using the powers of her daughter to control labor. She distracted Eileithyia on Olympus so the goddess of childbirth would not know that Leto needed her assistance.
When a young priestess named Semele became pregnant with Zeus’s child she made the mistake of celebrating the fact that she would give birth to a god. This drew the attention of Hera, who this time used deceit to punish her husband’s mistress.
She disguised herself as an old woman and offered advice and sympathy to the girl. She told Semele that she feared her lover had tricked her, and the only way to know for sure if it was really Zeus was to see him in his true divine glory.
Semele asked Zeus to reveal himself, but he resisted. He had promised to give her anything she wanted, however, so he could not refuse the request without breaking his word.
Zeus tried to limit how much of his divine form Semele saw, but it was still too much for a mortal to safely witness. Semele was almost instantly burned to death because she saw the god’s full divinity.
Zeus acted quickly enough to save the baby she carried, however. According to Greek mythology, he sewed Dionysus into his own thigh until he had grown enough to be safely born.
Dionysus’s own godhood was never fully accepted by the people he encountered in his early myths. Hera may have felt free to continue harassing him because he was not immediately recognized as an Olympian.
Semele’s sister Ino and her husband fostered the godling alongside their own young sons. Hera cursed them with madness.
Semele leapt off a cliff with her youngest son as her husband killed her oldest child and himself. She was spared by the sea gods, who made her and her infant into ocean nymphs.
Hera also drove Dionysus mad, according to some accounts. He wandered the world in a daze until being cured by Rhea so he could take his place on Olympus.
Remarkably, this was not the only time Hera had harassed him.
Some stories told of a different Dionysus who had been one of Zeus’s first children. To reconcile these myths, some people said that the god of wine was the reincarnation of the first Dionysus.
The first Dionysus was the son of Persephone, who was a powerful enough goddess that Hera could not attack her. But her jealousy was aroused when Zeus placed the child on his throne and named him his heir in place of Hera’s son, Ares.
Hera turned the Titans against Dionysus and they tore him to pieces. Zeus used the small piece of his heart that was left to create a new Dionysus that was born to Semele.
One of Zeus’s famous mistresses was a priestess of Hera.
He attempted to hide Io by turning her into a white cow. He knew that if Hera discovered he had taken another human woman as his mistress she would be furious.
Hera was not tricked by the ruse, however, and asked Zeus to give her the cow as a gift. He could not refuse without arousing suspicion, so Io was handed over to Hera.
Hera knew that there was more to the cow than she could see, so she had it placed within her temple. Argos, the hundred-eyed giant, kept watch over her.
Zeus knew enough of his wife’s wrath that he would not risk freeing Io himself. Instead, he sent Hermes to rescue the priestess.
Hermes killed Argus after lulling him to sleep with a magical song and led the cow out of Hera’s temple. When she awoke the next morning to find her loyal guard dead and the cow gone, Hera sent a gadfly to chase after Io.
Io spent several years constantly running from both the gadfly and Zeus’s relentless pursuit. Eventually, she came across Prometheus who told her that she would be turned back into a human if she would consent to be the god’s mistress.
Io supposedly settled in Egypt and her descendants became the first kings there. Hera agreed to dismiss the gadfly when Zeus promised to leave Io alone forever.
Hera tormented many of Zeus’s mistresses. She punished others in a different way, however.
Many women and minor goddesses were changed into other forms by Hera. Her jealousy caused her to take away their human forms to keep Zeus away from them.
Lamia, for example, was one of the most ferocious monsters in Greek mythology. She reportedly stalked and ate any unattended child she found nearby.
According to legend, she had once been the beautiful mother of several of Zeus’s children. When Hera found them, she killed Lamia’s children and cursed her to never sleep so she was driven insane and eventually became a monster.
Callisto was a beautiful young nymph who, as an attendant of Artemis, had taken a vow of chastity. Zeus forced her to violate this oath, however.
In some versions of the story, Zeus turned Callisto into a bear to hide her from his wife as he had Io. Others claimed that Hera cursed her with the form when she learned that Callisto had given birth to Zeus’s son.
Early stories said that Hera convinced Artemis to kill the bear because Callisto had violated her oath. Later writers were more sympathetic to Callisto as a victim, however, and had her son narrowly avoid killing her on a hunt before both were transformed to the Bear Bear and Little Bear constellations.
Hera’s jealousy was so well-known that many of Zeus’s mistresses hid from her.
Maia, the mother of Hermes, was so isolated in her mountain cave that Hera did not know she had born a child until her son was taken to Olympus. Zeus hid Elara below ground so Hera would not see her and her child.
Some of Zeus’s mistresses even abandoned their children rather than risk Hera’s wrath. A nymph named Othreis’s son was saved by Zeus after his mother left him on a mountainside out of fear of Hera.
Hera’s anger was not only directed at Zeus’s lovers, but also at those who aided them.
According to Ovid, Echo was the nymph who helped Zeus hide his many affairs by warning him if Hera was close. He had made her invisible so his wife would not see her keeping watch.
When Hera learned of this, she took Echo’s voice as well. The formless nymph could only repeat the last words she had heard so she could not help Zeus again.
The stories of Hera’s jealousy made her the antagonist for many of Greek mythology’s well-known gods and heroes. Despite this, she was a well-loved and respected member of the pantheon.
Her role was as the goddess of marriage and, despite being a god of law, Zeus was never faithful to his marriage vows. Many of the gods and heroes of Greek mythology were his illegitimate children.
It was natural for Hera to be the enemy of these offspring and their mothers. When a story needed an antagonist, Hera was the most obvious deity to hold a grudge.
Her antagonism in stories like those of Heracles gave Hera a reputation for jealousy and a terrible temper. Existing stories expanded and more were written that showed her as hostile to more of Zeus’s lovers and their children.
Hera’s main role in Greek mythology was not as a jealous wife, but as a devoted one. Her role as the antagonist in many well-known myths arose from her relationship to Zeus and the role he played as the father of gods and heroes.