Greek Goddesses: Hera, Her History and Significance

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<u>Greek Goddesses: Hera, Her History and Significance</u>

Although often overshadowed by her philandering husband, the worship of the Greek goddess Hera was just as widespread as his and the representation in art reflects the high esteem. It is my intention to look at the history and significance of Hera through literary and archaeological evidence.

The first mention of Hera in literature is within Homer’s ‘Iliad’, where she is a significant motivating force. Although scholars often dismiss her as a minor figure, her mood swings explained away as characteristic of the radical inconsistencies to be found in most Homeric deities (O’Brien, p.105). But Hera’s significance is far more complex and vital to the epic than such a notion implies.

Within the Iliad, Hera symbolises the “lust for vengeance” and “rage”, one of the two different views of divine justice put forward by Homer. She is the brutal notion of ‘the end justifies the means’. Indeed, we can see this when she is made to barter for the welfare of her own people, the Argives, in order to crush Troy. Her behaviour towards the Argives is extremely noteworthy since she was in Homer’s time, and almost certainly earlier, the principal deity of the Argolid.

We also see her duel aspects when the duel between Paris and Menelaos begin. Hera’s rage is pictured as ‘a bitter milk overflowing from her breast’. This goddess of childbirth, at times associated with the bitter birth-pangs of the Eileithyia (the goddess of birth), becomes here a goddess of bitter bile in the psychological sense.

Since the goddess is mentioned in the Iliad, which was written in the 9th century BCE, it is certain that her cult and worship originated much earlier on. This is due to the fact that Homer used references, names, locations and deities that were familiar to his audience, in order that they may understand the underlying message within the poem.

As the wife of Zeus, the king of the gods, Hera was the queen. She was the patroness of marriage and married women, punishing adultery severely and rewarding chastity and devotion. From the many surviving myths and legends from ancient Greece, we know that Zeus was cruel and disloyal to his wife – the countless mistresses and offspring testify to this – he nonetheless honoured his family. In this, Zeus and Hera reflected Greek society. The ancient Greek man esteemed family honour, but the male social elite had no problem reconciling this with extramarital sex involving both women and younger men. So here, the couple symbolises the strength of marriage within ancient Greek marriage.

Hera has always been associated with marriage; however, there have been examples of when she did not always fulfil this role. We can see this in the ‘Bacchylides’, where Hera ‘yokes’ the Proitids. However, instead of yoking the girls into marriage, she sends them into madness after being insulted by their father. Paradoxically, the goddess of marriage sends the girls into the wild, into the realm of her opposite, the relentless virgin Artemis. And no less ironically the virgin Artemis, with the permission of Hera, liberates the girls from their frenzy, to be by implication ready for marriage. For Hera herself has two images, one virgin, and the other as a married woman. In fact Hera and Artemis are balancing goddesses of marriage (Seaford, p.120). Both goddesses represents two stages of female life, blending the point of a transition fundamental to the stability of the civilised community; the transfer of girls into the wives of citizens.

The importance of Hera and her temple indicates the importance of her cult at Tiryns where her temple was built in the main ‘megaron’ of the Mycenaean palace. The cult here was established in the mid-8th century BCE, a date secured on the basis of a votive deposit found. After the subjugation of Tiryns by Argos in the 460’s BCE, the Argives relocated the famous Tirynthian image of Herat to the Heraion, the great shrine of Hera six miles from Tiryns and five miles from Argos, which had been a common cult centre for the two towns.

After the conquest and decline of Tiryns, the Heraion was no doubt dominated by Argos. At the Heraia, the great festival of Hera, her priestess was taken on a cart towed by white cattle from Argos to the Heraion, which was also escorted by young men in arms. The description of the cult of Hera by Seneca’s Argive maidens, which more or less positively preserves information of the Heraia, “combines the themes of freedom from the yoke, sacrifice, marriage, and the whiteness of the cattle” (Seaford, p.122). The procession to Hera’s temple therefore symbolises the first step towards marriage.

Hera is the goddess of marriage, but also the great civic deity of the Argive polis. At the religious level, we can say that ceremonies such as the Argive Heraia and the Attic Brauroni, communicate the communal assimilation of true born girls as ‘brides-to-be’ for citizens, and thus fashion a emblematic component of the procedure by which the polis guarantees its enduring identity through constant reproduction.

The portrait of Hera in mythology is one of a wronged woman, bitter due to the infidelities of her husband and the numerous offspring that came about from these unions. In reality, the ancient Greeks saw this goddess as the necessary element in their everyday life; without her, there would be no continual of Greek wives and legitimate citizens and thus, the end of civilized Greek society.


O’Brien, Joan (1990) Homer’s Savage Hera, The Classical Journal, The Classical Association of the Middle West and South Inc.

Seaford, Richard (1988) The Eleventh Ode of Bacchylides: Hera, Artemis and the Absence of Dionysos, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies.

Wright, James C. (1982) The Old Temple Terrace at the Argive Heraeum and the Early Cult of Hera in the Argive, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies.


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