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Unravelling the Roots of Hera, the Wrathful Goddess of Marriage

Unravelling the Roots of Hera, the Wrathful Goddess of Marriage

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Hera, also known by her Latin title as Juno, is best known in Western culture as the wife of Zeus, king of the gods. While technically subordinate to him, Hera is never a submissive figure, in fact in the opening of Virgil’s Aeneid, he calls her Iunonis iram meaning wrathful Juno. In the stories and legends surrounding her, she exerts considerable power and influence often - as is the case with many mortal marriages - in defiance of her husband’s wishes. As anyone knowledgeable about Greek mythology can attest to, she exhibits a powerful presence permeating both the heavenly and earthly realms.

One feature about Hera that is less known amongst students of Greco-Roman lore is the extensive history of interpretation about her. It is a history that begins prior to and extends beyond the Hellenistic era. Indeed, Hera may have had origins not in the Mediterranean but in Mesopotamia, and when Roman Christianity succeeded in eliminating most of the ancient pagan pantheon, she survived and continued to thrive albeit in an altered form. This article will provide a brief overview of this interpretive history looking at her ancient Near Eastern counterparts as well as her continued, post-classical, presence.

Hera, goddess of marriage, had a volatile relationship with Zeus, king of the Greek pantheon. (Public domain)

Hera, goddess of marriage, had a volatile relationship with Zeus, king of the Greek pantheon. ( Public domain )

The Hera of Greco-Roman Mythology

Like Tiberius in Roman history, Hera was an unwilling participant in her ascension to royal power. As the youngest of the Olympians, she was saved by her brother Zeus when he rescued his siblings from their father Kronos (Latin: Saturnus). Later, Zeus tricked her into marrying him some say by taking the form of a cuckoo, and in that way she became queen of the gods. Though Hera was eventually venerated as the patron goddess of marriage, her own relationship with Zeus was volatile due to the latter’s frequent infidelities. Ironically, while the king of the gods was notorious for his sexual exploits, Hera was frequently described by ancient Greek and Roman authors as a married “virgin” though in accounts by both Homer and Virgil she has frequent sex with her husband.

While Zeus continued to engage in affairs with other, usually mortal, women, his adultery was often balanced out by Hera’s cunning and spiteful tendencies behind the scenes. Unable to punish the most powerful being in the cosmos, Hera often took out her frustrations against Zeus on the only group of people she was able to harm: Zeus’ human lovers and their demi-god children. A notable example of this is seen in the birth story of Dionysus where Hera tricks Zeus into accidentally incinerating Semele, Dionysus’ mother, facilitating the need for Zeus to incubate the fetus of the god until it matured to birth.

The most notable instance of Hera’s wrath towards Zeus’ human lovers is seen in the myth of Hercules, though here Hera’s attention is directed more towards the demi-god himself. Hera taunts Hercules throughout his life and is directly responsible for the demi-god’s fit of madness that leads to Hercules’ murdering his own children and going into exile afterwards. It is this horrendous act, brought on by the influence of Hera, that also leads Hercules to seek redemption by means of completing twelve great labors for king Eurystheus.

Yet Hera is not entirely capricious in Greco-Roman tradition and was far more loved than feared by her human subjects. Even in the Hercules story, the demi-god himself brings offerings and sacrifices to Hera. Her love for particular nations and persons is evident most notably in Virgil’s Aeneid where she is the patron goddess for the North African Carthaginians who, as Virgil notes, possess her very chariot in their city. At the same time, her love for Carthage comes at the expense of the Trojans whom Hera persecutes and pursues throughout the Aeneid in a vain attempt to prevent the fulfillment of a divine prophecy. This prophecy states that Troy’s descendants (i.e. the Romans) will one day overthrow and destroy Carthage.

According to Greek mythology, Hera’s wrath knew no bounds when it came to her husband’s infidelities. She is known for her persecution of Heracles (Hercules), Zeus’ favorite illegitimate son, known as the Labors of Hercules. (Public domain)

According to Greek mythology, Hera’s wrath knew no bounds when it came to her husband’s infidelities. She is known for her persecution of Heracles (Hercules), Zeus’ favorite illegitimate son, known as the Labors of Hercules. ( Public domain )

The Hera of Ancient Near Eastern Tradition

Though most popularly associated with the Greco-Roman pantheon, it is possible that Hera’s origins were pre-Hellenic. The goddess seems to have been inspired, and indeed has many parallels to, older deities such as Astarte (Mesopotamian: Ishtar). Like Zeus with Hera, Astarte’s loyalty to her consort El is contrasted with the Near Eastern god’s cohabitations with both earthly and divine women (e.g. Anath). Furthermore, Hera appears to have inherited several of the titles of her Near Eastern counterparts most notably that of the “queen of heaven” (Greek: stratia tou ouranou , Latin: regina caeli ) as she is called by Homer.

In certain Near Eastern religious traditions, the veneration of the queen of heaven was far more popular than that of the (usually male) deity officially sanctioned and approved of by the clergy.  One sees this most notably in ancient Israelite religion where the queen of heaven, in this case Asherah (the Hebrew equivalent of Astarte) is worshipped to the disapproval and condemnation of the biblical prophet Jeremiah. Towards the beginning of his oracles, the 7 th century seer makes the following observation about his Judean peers:

Ha-nasim lasot baseq la’asot kavvanim limleket ha-samayim

The women kneed the dough to make cakes to the queen of heaven

(Jeremiah 7:18)

As in Greek mythology, while the highest god in the pantheon (in this case, Yahweh) was male the most popular deity among the common people was the high god’s female consort. In unorthodox Israelite religion, in contrast to the type of religion presented in the Old Testament, the Hebrew God was married with a wife. Not only the gender but the specific attributes of the gods may account for this. Both El and Yahweh (whom the biblical authors later merge and identify as one and the same) were seen as transcendent deities. Like Zeus, they dwelt high in the heavens and had little interaction with humankind. Hera, and her Near Eastern precursors, were likely seen as more motherly, nurturing deities who took an active concern in the affairs of mortals and especially women in their domestic and reproductive needs.

The goddess Hera appears to have been inspired by older deities such as the Near Eastern goddess Astarte. (Amfeli / CC BY 4.0)

The goddess Hera appears to have been inspired by older deities such as the Near Eastern goddess Astarte. (Amfeli / CC BY 4.0 )

Hera in the Latter Roman Empire

If Hera precedes many of her Greco-Roman counterparts in having Near Eastern precursors, she would also outlive many of them as Rome started to reject and abandon their old gods. In the late 4 th century, when Christianity had come to dominate Roman society and culture, the last pagan emperor, Julian, who is kindly referred to by his Christian opponents as “the apostate,” turned to Hera in a last ditch effort to revive the Greco-Roman faith. Recognizing that the Christians drew many converts and followers to their religion through the use of hymns, Julian attempted to emulate this feature in his own religious renaissance composing a hymn to the mother of the gods.

Though identified as Attis, a Cybele goddess, Julian uses terminology and associations such as “mother of the gods” and “the one who provides fertility” which Roman listeners would have identified as attributes of Hera. For example, later in the hymn, Julian notes that this “mother” has existed with Zeus for all time suggesting an implicit allusion to Hera and highlighting Hera’s attribute as creating life through birth.

Who then is the mother of the gods? She is indeed the fountain of the intellectual and demiurgic gods who govern the apparent series of things: or certainly a deity producing things, and at the same time subsisting with the mighty Jupiter; a goddess mighty, after one mighty, and conjoined with the mighty demiurgus of the world. She is the mistress of all life, and the cause of all generation, who most easily confers perfection on her productions, and generates and fabricates things without passion, in conjunction with the father of the universe.

Though Julian’s reform efforts ultimately failed, much of the terminology and language associated with Hera was in fact retained in Roman and later medieval Christian liturgy not in reference, obviously, to Hera herself but adapted to suit a monotheistic context. The queen of heaven, in Roman Catholic tradition, was no longer Hera of the Greco-Roman pantheon but the mother of Jesus Christ, the blessed Virgin Mary . The title, queen of heaven, appears in numerous Marian antiphons such as Ave Regina Caeloum:

Ave, Regina caelorum, / Greetings, Queen of Heaven
Ave, Domina Angelorum / Greetings, Lady of the Angels
Salve, radix, salve, porta / Welcome, O root.  Welcome, O gate
Ex qua mundo lux est orta / From which the light has arisen into the world.

As many classicists are fond of saying, the Greek gods never really died out. Rather they morphed into different things. For Christian Rome, they eventually became the various demons mentioned in the Bible. For the thinkers responsible for the European Renaissance, they became personifications of the best of human attributes and abilities. That no god can ever really die is certainly true of Hera who continues to fascinate and indeed exist in the Western mind. We find her in modern novels such as Madeline Miller’s Circe and in movies and shows such as Clash of the Titans and Troy: Fall of a City . As long as us mortals continue to be plagued with our worldly problems and concerns, whether these be our romantic relationships or ability to procreate, so will Queen Hera, in one form or another, continue to grace us with her presence as well.

Top image: The origins of the goddess Hera extend beyond the Mediterranean and the Greek pantheon. Source: Public domain

By Adam Oliver Stokes

References

Christ, H. I. 2002. Myths and Folklore . Amsco College Publications.

Evslin, B. 2012. Hercules. New York: Open Road.

Frankfort, H. 1978. Kingship and Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature . Phoenix: Oriental University.

Kennelly, B. and Rotondi, R. 2017. Queen of Heaven: Mary’s Battle for Souls . Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press.

Miller, M. 2020. Circe. New York: Back Bay Books.

Murdoch, A. 2008. The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World . Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Namm, D. 2011. Greek Myths . New York: Sterling Children’s Books.

Pritchard, J. 1969. Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament . Princeton: Princeton UP.

Ranck, S. A. 2006. Cakes for the Queen of Heaven: An Exploration of Women’s Power, Past, Present and Future . iUniverse.

Tripp, E. 2007. The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology: An Alphabetical Guide . New York: Plume.

Vidal, G. Julian. New York: Vintage, 2003

Wright, W. C. [Trans]. 1923. Julian, Volume III-Loeb Classical Library, no. 157 . Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Comments

Hi All,

This must be what De ja Vue feels like I could of thought mentioning Hera earlier through Five Olympian goddesses. My intriguing experience with Ethnic Studies involving Ethno-Notions in entertainment with Hercules Legendary Journey's; 1995,!

I won't repeat that experience however, this article mentioned clergy Roman Catholicism an Monotheism so I figured touch a little on that subject. Before Roman Catholicism an yes Protestant Reformation way in Asia Minor The Holy Spirit is actually Woman.

It seems Catholicism an Protestant focused on The Greco-Roman stories an as usual the Men only focused on said Trinity of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades.

Apparently The Parish Priest and Pastor's forgot Jesus in Revelation mentioning He has The Keys of Hades. While certainly a delightful Topic for my self I would like to take a moment and share a story it would sound as though it comes from Bizarro World an Alternate Universe to that of Super-Man's more balanced World.

Okay, I may encounter groans from Ancient Origins audience I've brought this Subject up in two or more occasions but trust me this Topic applies to the subject of Hera. An on a side note, I believe, I've said all that's needed to be said of Hera with the Five Olympian goddesses.

On to the story.

Once upon a Time say In the Time of Jared two hundred Angel's known as Watchers left their abode from a 3rd Heaven; led by the Captain of The Watchers Shemyaza an met on a Mountain which bears witness to their Crimes.

While watching the coming and going of Man these Angel's noticed The Daughters of Man (most scholars interpret Daughters of Man's bloodline to be that of Cain's), that they were beautiful interesting they fell in love with the women's natural beauty.

Shemyaza and the other 199 made an oath to break All of God's Commandments and Rule; they then married Human Women, I got the impression these Angel's didn't keep one wife according to Enoch the 200 Watchers picked out the Women they chose too Marry.

These goodly Angel Consists did incredible things crafted jewelry for their wives to wear and lastly taught their wives Heaven's Secret's that would enable Wives and daughters to appear as though they were divine in nature.

These Angels became father's too of the Nephilims and Rephalims an a host of other Mysterious Beings said by Enoch to grow 3000 feet in height, there's a real possibility some other beings identified as Grigori got in on all of the hot action going on with these Angel's and their wives.

As for myself would not want too Meet these odd beings ever.

Now The Ancient of Days, The Holy One, and The Elect One, renders a powerful Judgement against these 200 Watchers, I mean one angel in particular Azazel God orders The Archangel Raphael to bind Him particularly.

Subsequently these Evil-Angels are all bound with chains which Apostle Peter mentions in his Epistle into Real Tartarus apparently it does exist, where they remain till judgement Day and then they'll be executed in The Lake of Fire apart of Tartarus.

Oh that's right The Epistle of Jude makes known a little more of their Fate in eternal darkness bound by endless chains think of Scrooges friend and partner in economic crimes coming to him Christmas Eve in chain's.

The fates of the children and their wives okay, the children themselves were rendered into Demon's and Evil-Spirits, an were often constantly at War with each other think of the mythical stories which I now believe in accordance to The Bible did take place to which the gods wasted against each other like Titanomany.

The wives who because their Angel husbands assistance they were foreseen as divine God had Them all changed into Sirens an get this They Can't Sing all Sirens can do is Sigh that's it.

Go forward in History after The Great Deluge an Tower of Babel (The Flood), languages changing resulted in the Women who lived before The Flood gaining New Name's and being associated as goddesses including Hera.

Here is what I'm thinking since Globally in The Ancient World; there is an concise knowledge of Beings identified as gods & goddesses I believe Nations and Tribes of today each Pantheon Family was they themselves a different Clan altogether.

This is why we have The Arawak, Aztecs, Incans, Mayans deities, then The Indigenous Peoples here in the America's their Spiritual Beliefs, Africa & Asia, Europe & Eastern Europe all Pantheons said to exist in everybodies language that means the goddesses like Hera who in my truth were in fact Human Women that married Angels who were of these Watchers.

I get all this about Hera from The Biblical Books of Enoch; In the days of Jared (who happened to be Enoch's father an was 800 years old).

From me sharing all of this I'm sure my Ethno-Notions if Hera portrayed on the hit Hercules the legendary Journey's was a lot easier to make sense of but, both happily and apprehensively a young student told me that Enoch was like a bad acid trip but, was so good It Had to be true.

I don't think for a moment that I have ever heard a Biblical Account described as A Bad Acid Trip that it had to be True before also I wouldn't know about that being an 80s kid growing up with Just Say No drug campaign kicked off in my City-State, Oakland, California an reluctantly accepting D.A.R.E (I viewed D.A.R.E as a rival to Just Say No).

Alright so here is my take on Hera an so until next time, Everyone, Goodbye!

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