Hera is the wife of Zeus, the Queen of Olympus, and the Olympian goddess of marriage. As such, she is also the deity most associated with family and the welfare of women and children. Her marriage, however, was an unhappy one, since Zeus had numerous affairs. Jealous and vengeful, Hera made sure to give each of his consorts some hard time.
Based on the number of cults, Hera was a very ancient goddess, possibly predating even Zeus. In fact, it’s assumed that we don’t even know her original name. “Hera” is actually a title, which is usually translated as “Lady” or “Mistress.” Hera’s Roman counterpart was Juno, the goddess who gave her name to the month of June, even today, the most popular time for weddings.
Portrayal and Symbolism
Hera was usually portrayed alongside Zeus, as a fully clothed matronly woman of solemn beauty, wearing a cylindrical crown called polos or a wreath and a veil. Sometimes she carries a scepter capped with a pomegranate and a cuckoo – the former a symbol of fertility, the latter a token of the way she was wooed by Zeus. She is also often accompanied by a peacock, one of her sacred animals.
Homer often refers to Hera as “cow-eyed” and “white-armed” – which are her most famous epithets. She is also sometimes called “a virgin,” since it was believed that every year she bathed in a spring to renew her virginity.
Being born after Hestia and Demeter, Hera is the youngest of Cronus’ and Rhea’s three daughters and their third child overall; Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus – in that order – are her younger brothers. However, since just like each of her siblings but Zeus, she was swallowed by her father at birth and later disgorged to be born again, she is sometimes referred to as Cronus’ and Rhea’s oldest daughter. Reasonably, since the Titan had to empty his stomach of his children in the order opposite of the one in which he ate them.
The Archetypal Married Couple: Hera and Zeus
As the guardian of marriage and the spouse of the King of Gods and Men, Hera didn’t have much choice but to be a faithful wife. Even though she was beautiful, not many men – and not one god – dared to lay hands on her. Endymion tried once, but Zeus condemned him to eternal sleep. Ixion fared even worse: Zeus fooled him into making love with a cloud fashioned in Hera’s image, and then ordered Hermes to bind him to a perpetually turning wheel of fire.
Hera, a Vengeful Wife
The Wooing of Hera
Zeus tricked Hera into marriage. Knowing full well that the goddess loved animals, he transformed himself into a distressed cuckoo and reverted to his original form only when Hera took the poor creature to her breast to warm it. Ashamed for being taken advantage of, Hera agreed to a marriage.
Hera Challenges Zeus
However, it didn’t turn out to be a happy one. Zeus was brutish and cruel to everybody. Incapable of bearing this, Hera plotted a revenge plan with Poseidon, Athena and possibly few other gods. She drugged Zeus, and they bound him on his bed, while stealing his thunderbolt. Thetis, however, summoned Briareus and he managed to quickly untie Zeus, who was, subsequently, merciless to the main schemer: he hung Hera from the sky with golden chains.
Hera and Semele
For example, she tricked Semele into forcing her lover – which she knew was Zeus – to reveal himself before her in all his glory. Since humans can’t look upon at gods without incinerating, Semele perished into thin air.
Hera and Callisto
Later, she turned Callisto into a bear, after the latter gave birth to Zeus’ child Arcas. After some time, just as Arcas was about to unwittingly kill his mother, Zeus placed Callisto and her son in the sky as the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Big and the Little Bear.
Hera and the Delaying of Births
Hera kept her daughter Eileithyia from attending the birth of Apollo, postponing it by nine days and nights. More famously, she did the same with Heracles; in this case, the delay caused Heracles the throne of Argolid.
Hera and Io
Arguably, Io was the one who endured the most. First Zeus transformed her into a cow so that he can hide her from Hera. Then, Hera sent Argus Panoptes to watch over her, and Zeus – Hermes to kill him. After that, Hera transformed Argus’ ghost into a gadfly which bothered Io in her bovine form all the way to Egypt. Finally, Zeus impregnated her there with Epaphus.
Hera, the Vain Goddess
Just like most of the other Greek goddesses, when it came to her beauty, Hera was easily offended.
Once, Orion’s wife Side (“pomegranate”) boasted that she was as beautiful as Hera, so the goddess sent her to the Underworld. When Laomedon’s daughter Antigone did the same, Hera turned her into a stork. Finally, after Paris chose Aphrodite instead of her, she became a sworn enemy of Troy.
Check out “The Homeric Hymn to Hera”: it is merely five verses long. If you wish, you can find out more about Io in the second half of Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound” and the First Book of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”