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Redeeming the Maligned Hera

As a younger man, I confess, I never really enjoyed the stories of Hera, the Queen of Olympus. Frankly, she tended to come across of as a bit of an annoying killjoy wife to the cool, fun, and adventurous Zeus. Where Zeus appeared to have a zest for life (and definitely enjoyed the life he was living), Hera often was the cruel and boring old woman who ruined the fun. Typically in rather violent, cruel, and vindictive ways. Think, perhaps, of Lady Crawley from Downton Abbey, or the typical portrayal of Queen Victoria.

 

It has only been recently that I have begun to reassess the often maligned Hera. Contrary to my previous thoughts, I'm beginning to wonder if the stories of Hera are much more accurate assessments of the failures of Zeus than the cruelty and pettiness of his wife. I am gratified to have listened to Mythos by Stephen Fry where he suggests what I am in the process of discovering: that Hera ought to be reassessed in our cultural psyche.

 

But first, some context.

 

Hera: The Goddess

Who is this Hera? In Greek lore, she is the wife of Zeus and the Goddess of Marriage and Family (in contrast with the older Goddess, Aphrodite, whose domain is erotic love - creating an unusual dichotomous tension between marriage and sexual passion that is often portrayed in books, TV and movies even today, despite the plethora of statistics to the contrary). But, whilst she is married to Zeus, she is also his older sister. 

 

Before the era of the gods, there existed the beings who birthed the gods: the Titans. These beings were, themselves, the offspring of the sky, Uranos, and the earth, Gaia, whose presence ended the reign of chaos and began the universe as we know it. From this relationship the Titans were born. There were 12 children, six male and six female (though other sources attest to a further 6 children distinct from the Titans). In due course, these gods paired up and mated, bringing about many, many children. The story of the Titans can be found in Hesiod's Theogony.

 

Two of these Titanic children were the male Cronos and his sister Rhea. Rhea was in love with Cronos, but they were not yet together as husband and wife. Uranos, the sky-father, behaved so poorly towards her that he eventually caused Gaia to enlist Cronos in a cruel attempt to depose him. Gaia crafted an adamantine sickle, gave it to Cronos, and bade him wait while she seduced his father. Thus distracted, Cronos was free to enact their blood-curdling plan. This he did with malevolent, violent, glee, gelding him mid-coitus. During the throws of pain and anger, Uranos cursed Cronos, saying that his child will eventually overthrow him just as he, himself, had been overthrown. 

 

Exulting in his victory over his father and his ascension to the throne as King of the Titans, Cronos married Rhea and they celebrated Rhea's being with child. But niggling in the ear of Cronos was the very clear curse of his now-eunuch father: Your own child will overthrow you. And so, as the day of Rhea's delivery drew near Cronos hatched a plan. As his first-born child burst from the womb of his wife Cronos bent down, and, with one swift motion took the child into his hand, opened his mouth, and dropped it straight down his gullet.

 

This pattern continued for five births. He swallowed Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and, finally, Poseidon. By the time Rhea was pregnant with Zeus she had grown to hate her paranoid, child-eating husband and she, herself, hatched a plan with Uranos and Gaia. Having fled to Crete in order to hide from Cronos during her pregnancy, she invited him to the birth whereupon the situation progressed as usual. She gave birth, Cronos snatched, opened, gulped, and left. This time, however, Rhea had tricked her vile husband and instead of swallowing Zeus, Cronos had been fed a large, cloth-swaddled rock. Failing to chew his food really does have consequences.

 

Consequently, satisfied, Cronos meandered off to keep tabs on his siblings as only a paranoid ruler can do. Meanwhile, Rhea gave birth for real and hid her youngest boy, Zeus, away from the vengeful eyes of Cronos. Zeus grew up and trained himself until eventually he declared war on his father just as Uranos had prophesied. He caused Cronos to vomit up his siblings who had survived and thrived inside his massive belly, and they, in turn, joined Zeus in a war against the Titans. The details of this cosmic conflict can be found in the Titanomachy (and I will do a post on that in the future). Zeus released other opponents of Cronos who helped in the fight, either as warriors in the conflict or by providing weaponry, the most notable of which was Zeus' infamous thunderbolt.

 

In due course, the Titans were overthrown. Cronos was cursed by Zeus to count to infinity while other Titans received punishments of varying harshness. Atlas was bade to hold up the sky, for example, and became the Atlas Mountains, while others were merely subjected to imprisonment in Tartarus. Zeus elected Mount Olympus as the home of the gods and set about giving orders and areas of control to his siblings. The era of the Titans had ended; the era of the Gods of Greece had arrived. And Zeus was the undisputed King of the Gods. 

 

Hera, his elder sister, whom he had rescued from the belly of Cronos, was determined to marry him. Of all the sisters, she was considered the wisest and noblest. Her intention was to rule heaven as an able queen, oversee the cosmos with her victorious husband, until time itself ran out. (Incidentally, Time itself is none other than Cronos, whose punishment from Zeus was to count infinity, thereby creating the concept of 'time' by his counting.)

 

It should be noted, of course, that there are differing accounts of the marriage. The account I have here, which I prefer, is not the only option. An alternative story is that Zeus pursued Hera who initially rejected his advances until he tricked and raped her, whereupon, because of her humiliation, she consented to marry him. I am not as fond of this version of the story because it demeans Hera's integrity and imperious countenance. 

 

Eventually, Hera became pregnant and a wedding ceremony was organized. Zeus and Hera would be wed, and in a rather exciting twist, along with Aphrodite and Ares. Love and War. (The Greeks were never one to miss a good plot device, however, and they had Aphrodite marry Hera and Zeus's ugly and lame first child, Hephaestus. But that's a story for another time.)

 

And so it was that Hera became the Queen of Heaven and wife of Zeus.

 

Hera: The Grumpiness

So, if her plan has indeed gone to plan, why is it that she is presented as mean, jealous, and above all, bitterly angry?

 

Well, the answer is rather simple: Zeus. Zeus, for being the Ruler of the Cosmos, had a very infantile self-control. He was a devoted servant of the wiles of Aphrodite. In a word, he was obsessed with sex. His appetite for sexual adventure was voracious. Gods, Goddesses, nymphs, humans, animals. You name it, Zeus has probably tried to seduce it.

 

This impetuous, childish obsession is beneath a God, never mind the King of the Gods. Hera, the imperious Hera, watches her adulterous, conniving, and addicted husband with a mixture of love and hate. She loves him, and loves being his queen. But, oh how she does hate his adolescent behaviour.

 

Fry retells a compelling version of Zeus' flagrant disregard for the dignity of his wife and the position he held as king. Obsessed with Metis, a Titaness, Zeus left his own wedding to seduce her. After their coupling, Metis tricked him into eating her, thereby not giving Hera any hint of their absence. After all, Zeus returned to the wedding feast alone. However, some time later, Zeus developed a piercing headache that no ointment could cure. Only after having his head split open did the pain subside. And, when the divine blood was cleaned away, a child was visible: Athena, the Goddess of Athens as well as military strategy (the intelligent counterpart to Ares, the God of War and Battle), rumbling his infidelity. Such was Zeus' proclivity that he committed adultery on his own wedding day!

 

With this in mind, we see the actual character of Zeus (and the humanity behind his creation). Zeus was caught in adulterous relationships with many beings throughout the world, resulting in a pantheon of bastard offspring. All of whom were despised by Hera. These were living, breathing, evidences of her husband's weaknesses and stood as lasting humiliations towards her marriage. What irony that the Goddess of Marriage should have such an unhappy one herself.

 

This explains her rather vicious behaviour. It doesn't excuse it, perhaps, but it certainly explains it. Whether it is killing them, or subjecting them to humiliating tasks, or causing them to wish they hadn't been born because of her intense cruelty, Hera certainly caused Zeus and his ladies as much trauma as he caused her. It ought to be remembered, of course, that Zeus often raped, or tricked, the people he slept with into these dalliances which makes Hera's behaviour all the more unkind. These beautiful young women were damned if they didn't (for who wants to arouse the wrath of Zeus) and damned if they did (whether they were aware it was Zeus or not).

 

This reveals the rather capricious nature of the Greek pantheon. There is a word for their behaviour: phthonos. This word captures the violent jealousy of Hera. It is a jealousy that leads to vicious reaction. But, and this is critical, it is a provoked jealousy. Hera is provoked to her behaviour because of Zeus and his infidelitous behaviour. He lies, schemes, betrays, and humiliates Hera, who, in a remarkable display of courage and strength, responds with all the weapons in her own arsenal.

 

Hera: The Grandeur

And this is why I believe we ought to respect Hera more than we do. She is by no means an innocent actor in the Greek myths. Her behaviour is indefensible on numerous occasions. Her jealous rages were so savage, so aggressive, so ferocious that even Zeus feared her frenzied outbursts. 

 

Yet, nevertheless, there is a growing admiration for this Queen of Olympus. To be sure, I don't think I would like to meet her (consider Paris's unfortunate meeting with Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena, and the resultant Trojan War, for example). But, of all the Gods and Goddesses of ancient Greece, I rather think that Hera, alone, truly understands the duty and position of her authority. She had an idea of queenship that, though was never borne out, was nevertheless the right one. A stoic, imperious, leading monarch rather than the philandering, floundering leadership of Zeus.

 

I rather compare her, today, to that maternal aloofness of Her Majesty, the Queen of England. A sturdy, restrained hand that quells the unease of the nation in a season of trial and hardship. Cold? Yes. Implacable? Yes. Rigid, disaffected, and perhaps an image of a bygone era? Possibly. Yet, in a remarkably wondrous reality, comforting. Her imperiousness, her imperviousness, standing head and shoulders above the rest of the actors on the stage of Olympus.

 

For all the faults, anger, rages, jealousy, I increasingly like to think of Hera as the Goddess who would be most worthy of respect. Zeus, with all his failures, is little more than a good illustration of the old adage, 'Absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, Hermes, Poseidon, Hades, and so on, all are expressions of humanity's worst failures, rarely tinged with any good or righteous virtue. And, to be sure, Hera certainly has the 'jealous, nagging wife' epithet for a reason. And yet.

 

Yet, I can't quite shake the feeling that Hera, alone, has the potential to stand slightly, just ever so slightly, beyond and above the cacophonous racket of the toddler's playpen that is Mount Olympus. There is something deeply alluring about her confidence, her courage, and her charisma that makes her the perfect fit for the mischievous Zeus. Granted, I would have preferred Zeus to have married Metis, whose wisdom would have been a greater help to him. Yet, despite that, Hera has the qualities that suffice to make her a sufficiently useful helper and queen to rule alongside him.

 

And so, I am in the process of reconsidering Hera. She will never be the sexiest Goddess, nor the bravest, nor even the most fun. But. Sometimes, as Fry notes, the party has to be stopped, and the fun has to be curtailed. After all, these are the Gods of Greece, not the town drunks (though seldom can we tell the difference). I think, if I were an Ancient Greek, it's fair to presume that I'd choose a day hanging out with Poseidon, or a date with Aphrodite, or a game of Risk with Athena, over an afternoon with Hera. I rather suspect, however, that I'd much rather Hera be in charge of my country and my fortunes.

 

Because, for all her flaws, she has a gravity and seriousness about her that could be trusted. So long as Zeus didn't take a fancy to you. In which case, hell hath no fury...