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Zeus and Hera

The king and queen of the gods were supposed to be the model of a perfect marriage, but the stories of Zeus and Hera show that their relationship was anything but divine!

According to most sources, Zeus did not originally intend to marry his sister, Hera.

He first married the Titaness Metis, but turned her into a fly and swallowed her when he learned that her son would eventually overthrow him. He then courted Thetis, but abandoned the idea of marrying that Titaness when a similar prediction was made.

For her part, Hera was not initially open to the marriage either. Zeus turned himself into a wounded bird to get close to Hera and only after earning her trust in that way was he able to make her his wife.

Some writers claimed that the couple enjoyed a few centuries of harmony and happiness together. This was not to last, however, as the pairing of a womanizing god and a jealous goddess inevitably led to conflict and unhappiness.

You might expect the king of the gods and his queen to be the epitome of a happy, or at least amicable, couple. The marriage of Zeus and Hera, however, was known more for their arguments than their joy.

The Marriage of Zeus and Hera

While some claimed that the couple were initially happy, other sources implied that Hera was prone to jealousy early in their relationship.

When Zeus had swallowed Metis, he hadn’t known that she was already pregnant with his daughter. Athena was born out of her father’s head and was generally described as not having a mother in any real sense.

According to some legends, Hera was jealous that her husband had produced such a powerful goddess without her. In return she created Hephaestus without him, but was foiled when the child was born lame and deformed.

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The trend of Hera being jealous and spiteful toward her husband’s children continued throughout their reign.

Zeus was known for taking many mistresses. He fathered some gods, but more of his children were mortals who grew into great heroes, kings, and queens.

Hera was almost always depicted as being jealous of these children, to the point that she was driven to vindictiveness. Her feelings were probably exacerbated by the fact that Zeus seemed to prefer these human children over her own son, Ares.

Hera often took her anger out on the women Zeus had slept with. For example, she turned the Libyan queen Lamia into a monster when she learned that Zeus had fathered children with her.

Sometimes, her anger could be deadly. Semele, the human mother of Dionysus, was tricked by Hera into seeing Zeus in his full glory. No human could survive such an event, and Semele was burned alive.

Women who were pursued by Zeus learned to avoid Hera as well. Io, who had been turned into a cow by Zeus to hide her from his wife, spent years wandering the earth to avoid both Zeus’s advances and Hera’s punishment.

This attitude was not reserved just for mortal women. Her fellow goddesses could feel her wrath, as well.

When Leto went into labor with Apollo and Artemis, Hera prevented the goddess of childbirth from attending to her. Without Eileithya’s help, Leto’s labor was slow and painful.

Her most famous anger was directed not at one of Zeus’s mistresses, but at his son. In the legends of Heracles, his stepmother is featured as his constant antagonist.

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Hera tried to kill him as an infant, but when Heracles survived and grew into a strong young man she redoubled her efforts. She drove him made so that he killed his own family, then orchestrated the twelve labors that would earn him absolution.

Even during his decade of servitude, Hera interfered to make the labors of Heracles more difficult and dangerous. For example when Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, was ready to help the hero Hera spread a rumor that caused the warrior women to attack him instead.

The disputes between Hera and Zeus were not limited to his extramarital affairs. In the Iliad, Hera conspired to make Zeus sleep so the gods could be free of his command to stay out of the battles of men.

In another instance, she even plotted with Poseidon to remove her husband from power. They were unsuccessful, and it was many years before Zeus forgave them for the attempt.

Despite their many problems, the two were never enemies. When Ixion planned to assault the goddess, her husband not only prevented the attack but gave Ixion a harsh punishment in Hades for the crime of attempting to violate his wife.

My Modern Interpretation

Despite their contentious marriage and her flights of jealousy, Hera was known as the goddess of marriage.

Her fury toward her husband’s indiscretions can be attributed to this domain. She ruled over the proper arrangements of marriage, and her husband’s many affairs were a direct affront not only to their marriage, but also to her role as a goddess.

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Greek culture commonly accepted, however, that men often cheated on their wives. Women were bound by the laws of monogamy, but their husbands often took mistresses.

In this view of marriage, Hera really did embody the role of a Greek wife. While Zeus had dozens, if not hundreds, of children, Hera was always faithful.

Unlike Aphrodite, for example, she had no affairs during her marriage and had taken no lovers before it. Aside from the avowed virgins, she was one of the only goddesses to never have a child outside of her marriage.

In this way, the relationship between Zeus and Hera did represent an ideal, albeit one that seems horrible to modern readers.

For his part, Zeus was unfaithful but was rarely seen treating Hera with particularly cruelty. He was as well-known for his short temper as she was, but he rarely displayed this trait with his wife.

In only one story did Zeus punish Hera for her actions – when she plotted to overthrow him. This rarely-repeated story appears to be a later myth, however, and most stories show him as a protective and peaceable, albeit unfaithful, husband.

Zeus and Hera as king and queen of Olympus were not expected to have a loving relationship. Theirs was, like most rulers, a marriage of political necessity.

Thus, they represented the ideal for the nobles of Greece, who lived much different lives than the common people. While the lower classes could marry for love, the wealthy formed unions to strengthen their power and looked to Hera and Zeus as an example of a couple that married for political reasons but enjoyed a certain measure of comfort in their relationship.

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Still, the Greeks seemed to realize that their goddess of marriage did not have a perfect union. It would, ironically, be her most hated stepchild who finally fit the ideal.

While Hera was famously jealous, her divine stepchildren rarely attracted particular ire. Regardless of their origins, once they were welcomed into Olympus Dionysus, Hermes, Apollo, and Artemis were her peers and above her petty attacks.

In his mortal life, Hera’s attacks on Heracles had been relentless. When his mortal life ended and he became a god, however, she ended her campaign against him.

Heracles married Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera and the goddess of youth. He became Hera’s son-in-law and an official member of his father’s household.

Heracles had followed his father’s tendencies in life and had many affairs, but he was said to have settled down in a happy marriage with Hebe. Zeus and Hera’s children were able to exemplify the happy, stable relationship their father and mother had never been able to represent.

In Summary

Zeus and Hera were not each other’s first choice in partners. Zeus married one Titaness and courted another before marrying Hera to ensure that their son would not be powerful enough to overthrow him.

Hera resisted the marriage at first, but eventually gave into her brother’s proposal. While they were said to have enjoyed a brief period of peace and happiness, this quickly gave way to conflict.

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Zeus was notoriously unfaithful to his wife, while Hera was known for her extreme jealousy. Many of his mistresses and their children fell afoul of Hera’s terrible temper.

Most famously, she served as the antagonist in the legends of her stepson Heracles. She attempted many times to cause his death or just make his life difficult, even driving him insane and forcing him to kill his own family.

Hera occasionally worked against her husband, as well. In one story, which appears to have not been widespread, she even plotted to overthrow her husband.

The marriage of Zeus and Hera was tumultuous even though they were supposed to represent the ideal king and queen. As the goddess of marriage, Hera’s own relationship seemed unhappy and contentious.

There was a degree of idealism in how the couple was shown, however. Hera was appropriately faithful, and Zeus was both protective of his wife and remarkably even-tempered with her.

In this way Zeus and Hera represented not an average marriage, but the type of politically-motivated relationships entered into by human kings and queens. Without deep love or an expectation of fidelity on the husband’s part, the rulers who looked up to them hoped to emulate their relatively peaceful cohabitation.

Eventually, a more perfect Olympian marriage would be exemplified by Heracles and Hera’s own daughter, Hebe. Late in their history, the Greeks adapted their mythology to include a more loving and faithful couple in the household of their king.

 

My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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