Vengeful Wife, Bad Mother, Evil Stepmother, and Scheming Goddess

            Since the gods and goddesses in Greek (and Roman) mythology are related and have incestuous
relationships, who should be shown more respect in a marriage?  For example, should Hera, the elder sister

of Zeus, or Zeus, husband of Hera, be deemed supreme?  These two gods defy and challenge each other

numerous times.  Hera shows her social dominance over Zeus when she rejects his advances, on the grounds

that they are siblings.  Zeus then displays his physical dominance over Hera by raping her.  The question of

procreative dominance is constantly fought over between the two.  Their challenges are best demonstrated

with the creation of Athena, goddess of wisdom and Hephaestus, god of craftsmanship.  However, the

question of who is the better parent is obvious by observing the way these gods treat their children.  Similarly,

examining how these gods treat those who worship them confirms that Zeus is the better parent figure and

protector to his worshippers at Troy, as well as his children, like Athena, Herakles, and Dionysus.  In both

cases, Zeus always tries to save and protect them, unlike Hera, who is always dangerous and destructive.

            Hera is Zeus' seventh and last wife.  When Hera refuses Zeus' love, he insidiously takes advantage ofHera and Zeus at Mt. Olympus Hera's maternal side by disguising himself as an injured cuckoo (Slater, 131).  While Hera is holding the “injured cuckoo” to her bosom, Zeus cleverly transforms himself back into his true identity and is then able to force himself on her.  This may be one of the few notably good qualities of Hera that was ever shown: her protective nurturing of the bird.  Despite Zeus' marital status with Hera, he seems to show no respect for matrimony in general.  He defies Hera not only by poorly fulfilling the proper role of her husband, but also by disrespecting her role as the goddess of matrimony.  While Hera exemplifies the good wife and remains faithful to her husband, Zeus on the other hand, has affairs with various goddesses and mortals alike.  However, in the role of parenthood and as generative creator, Zeus proves to be the superior reproductive agent, as well as protective father when one compares Hera's role in procreation and responsibility as mother.

            Parthenogenic birth, without the aid of another to produce a healthy child, demonstrates the gods' power.  Philip E. Slater states, "To have Zeus best Hera in this contest [of parthenogenesis] suggests the intensity of the fear of feminine superiority" (130).  The parthenogenic births of gods and goddesses like Athena, from Zeus, and Hephaestus, from Hera, further reflect their creator's image (an extended image of themselves) and demonstrate their reproductive capabilities.  However, Zeus' successful parthenogenic creation of Athena demonstrates his procreative superiority to Hera.  The "contest" starts with Athena's parthenogenesis.  Hera, offended and dishonored, implores Zeus, "How did you dare give birth to grey-eyed Athena alone?  Couldn't I have born her?  And even so she would have been called yours" (Shelmerdine, 80).  As a result, according to Hesiod's Theogony, "Hera, who was angry and at odds with her husband, without love's union bore famous Hephaistos" (Caldwell, 79).

            Hephaestus is the result of "parental strife" and Hera’s "narcissistic attitude" (Slater, 197).  Hera creates Hephaestus out of anger and believes that she can produce a healthy god without a partner, too.  Slater best describes Hephaestus, in The Glory of Hera, as "an extension of Hera, a demonstration of her parity with Zeus, who bore Athena.  But at the same time he is weak, ugly, and crippled, a living testimony to her organic and generative inferiority.  He is both an expression of and an injury to Hera's maternal vanity"(198).  The question of how Hephaestus becomes crippled may be the result of parenting.  One general assumption is that he is born crippled.  In the Iliad, however, Hephaestus becomes crippled when Zeus "caught me by the foot and flung me from the heavenly threshold" (Butler, 20) after Hephaestus tries to save Hera from her abusive husband.  Hephaestus, by intervening and willing to endanger himself to save his mother, shows he is a good son to Hera.  However, according to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, Hera is at fault for Hephaestus' condition: "he has grown to be a weak one among all the gods, my child, Hephaistos, with his crooked legs, whom I bore myself.  Taking him up in my hands I cast him and threw him into the wide sea" (Shelmerdine, 79).  Hera, displeased and spiteful, “rejected her son the instant he was born" (Slater, 197).  This condescending "dark side" of Hera becomes increasingly focused on and emphasized as the legends continue.

            Throughout classical mythology, the mother-and-son bond between Hera and Hephaestus proves to be a complex love-hate relationship.  At first, Hera disapproves of her son and even banishes him from Olympus when she "cast him and threw him" (Shelmerdine, 79) out because he is ugly and crippled.  He projects a bad image of her.  She later accepts him once he becomes a "skilled craftsman under Thetis' care" (Slater 198).  It is as if Hephaestus has to prove himself worthy of Hera's love, attention and acceptance: "now that he reflects glory upon her, she reinstates him on Olympus and their relationship becomes friendly" (Slater, 1Juno in the House of Olympus98).  The parthenogenic birth of Hephaestus is seen as an extended version of Hera herself.  When she is unable to flaunt Hephaestus due to his misshapen appearance, she disowns him until he produces something, mainly weapons and armor that she can show off to the other gods.  These tools and objects are a substitute for "maternal display," (Slater, 199) a role that Hera feels Hephaestus, himself, cannot fulfill.  Hephaestus' views and behavior toward his mother are equally complicated.  In one story, Hephaestus imprisons Hera on a golden throne, "a device which binds and immobilizes is a fitting mode of revenge for a son crippled and bound by his mother's ambivalence"(Slater, 200).  This episode clearly shows Hephaestus’ bitterness toward his mother.  While he thanks Thetis for saving him when Hera neglects him, he is still attached to Hera and concerned for her well-being.  In the Iliad, Zeus hangs Hera by her wrists and anvils by her feet to punish her for plotting against him, and among all the gods, only Hephaestus attempts to rescue her.  When he fails to save his mother, Zeus then tosses Hephaestus by the foot out of Olympus for disobeying his order to leave Hera alone.  Later, Hephaestus tries to calm and consoles his mother after a dispute between Zeus and Hera occurred; "Surely a mischievous matter will this be, bearable...Patience, mother of mine, and endure, though deeply agrieved, Lest I behold thee, dear as thou art, right under my eyes here beaten"(Smith and Miller, 27).  Despite Hera’s mistreatment of Hephaestus, he continually displays his affection and concern for her.

            In contrast with Hephaestus, Ares, a son of Hera and Zeus, is favored by Hera because he "seems to represent everything that Hephaestus is not allowed to be” (Slater, 202).  Even though the gods dislike Ares, Hera takes some pride in Ares' status as god of war.  However, according to Slater's The Glory of Hera, again the inferiority of female generative creation is revealed after Athena's second victory against Ares in battle.  Athena "gloats over Ares...to suggest that it was his mother's curse that actually brought him low" (Slater, 203).  Because Athena is born solely from Zeus and Ares is the product of both Hera and Zeus, Athena implies that Hera's role in Ares' creation has made him inferior to Athena, the "pure" creation of all-powerful Zeus.

              The parthenogenesis of Athena illustrates the procreative dominance and superiority of gods to goddesses and men to women.  The idea that one god exclusively created Athena implies that what she represents cannot be found in women since females did not take part in Athena’s creation.  The god’s creation of this goddess, with no aid of a partner, shows that many of the societies were obviously patriarchal.  Furthermore, Athena is a wholesome and powerful goddess, which implies that gods (referring to men) are successful in producing healthy and productive offspring without females.  Since the goddess is created, to perfection, without the participation of females implies that women played no role in the creation of wisdom or any significant role at all.  Hera, in retaliation against these allegations of feminine inferiority, bore Hephaestus.  However, he turned out to be more of an embarrassment than asset to her.  While Zeus was able to ostentatiously present Athena to the world, Hera was ashamed and hide Hephaestus.  Athena was depicted as a blooming goddess of wisdom, while Hephaestus was lame and a god of craftsmanship.  Because of Hera’s “unsuccessful” creation of a healthy and prominent god, like Athena, shows the society’s belief of women’s inferiority.  As a result, it was believed that women needed and were dependent on men and not vice-versa for the creation of a healthy child.

            Zeus proves to be the superior reproductive god as well as the better parent because, in most cases, he never really treats any of his children the way Hera treats Hephaestus.  In some versions, Hera frequently seems to play the role of bad mother or evil stepmother.  Hera not only goes after the women that Zeus hasHera an affair with but also their children.  In response, Zeus tries to protect all of his illegitimate children from Hera's wrath.  In these scenarios, even Zeus is afraid to confront Hera with his trail of illegitimate children, so he either hides them or changes them into animals.

            With Zeus' reputation as a roaming womanizer, no maiden is safe.  This warning includes mortal women as well.  Herakles is the result of a union between Zeus and Alcmena, a mortal woman.  Angered and disgusted, Hera sends two serpents to Herakles' cradle to kill him, but Herakles is able to kill them even though he is only an infant.  As he grows older, Herakles is driven mad by Hera, which ultimately leads to the deaths of his wife and his two children.  However, he, himself, survives (Slater, 341).  Here, Hera is depicted as the "evil stepmother" out to get her husband’s son, and she does.  In the Iliad, Hera sends storms across the sea where Herakles is sailing, tossing mammoth currents and wild winds, but Zeus, who brings him back unharmed to Argos, saves him (Butler, 226).

            In another series of tales, Zeus courts Semele, another mortal woman, which leads to the birth of

Dionysus.  One difference between Herakles and Dionysus is how they were born.  Herakles is born to a

mortal woman, Alcmena, whereas Dionysus is born from a god, Zeus.  Semele, after being tricked by Hera,

asks to see Zeus in all his lightning glory.  Zeus, having promised and now unable to deny any request she

makes, agrees.  Due to Zeus' immense power and light that no mortal is able to withstand, Semele dies

instantly but only after Zeus is able to safely seize and sew the six-month-old baby into his thigh.  Once

Dionysus is born, he is sent off and raised by nymphs and disguised as a female to protect him from Hera.

             Slater comments, "transvestism is one way of attempting to achieve freedom from feminine

domination” (288).  Representing the subconscious fear of feminine superiority, transvestism offered a way for

men to further prove that they could act in feminine roles just as well as real women. This act of

cross-dressing could be interpreted as the replacement of women.  Because Zeus proves his reproductive

superiority to Hera and that he is a better protective parent than Hera, the transvestism further supports the

concept of male superiority.  Male characters are able to play the roles of both birth-giving mother and

protective father.  This implies that women are replaceable.

            Hera helps those who help her or promote her impressive and powerful reputation.  This is best expressed by Slater, who states, "once they [worshippers] had accomplished her purposes she seemed to have no further use for them" (Slater, 204).  Hera’s function as a guiding figure for Achilles in the Iliad proves Slater's statement.  The main reason Hera helps Achilles is because of her own personal opposition to ParisHera, Athena and Iris of Troy.  After tossing the apple of discord, Eris, the goddess of discord, claims that it belongs to only the fairest goddess.  Zeus, not wanting to be responsible for any trouble or subject to vengeance, appoints Paris to judge the issue.  Hera bribes Paris with power.  Athena bribes Paris with wisdom.  Aphrodite bribes Paris with the most beautiful woman.  Won over with Aphrodite’s bribe and beauty, Paris claims Aphrodite the most beautiful.  As a result, Hera wants to destroy Troy for Paris’ decision.  As petty as it may seem, Hera is known to be very easily offended, and her offenders usually suffer broad consequences, like Paris of Troy.

            In Book 21 of the Iliad, Achilles' first tutelary god is Zeus, but Achilles denounces Zeus and "adopts a Hera-like rage.  Like a consuming fire, he combats Trojan river gods and their offspring, exhibiting a new level of violence" (O’Brien, 85).  However, later on in Book 21 of the Iliad, Achilles prays to Zeus (after he renounces him) and asks Zeus for help (Smith and Miller, 445).  Zeus does not, and Hera helps Achilles instead, on the grounds that she wants to see Troy destroyed by Achilles.  Joan O’Brien provides a psychological reason why Hera helps him: "Achilles' mutilation of corpses is inconsistent with the restraint to…Zeus'...suggesting that Zeus does not support Achilles in his demonic rages...although the hero boasts of his lineage from Zeus, his acts suggest the omophagia of Hera and...of her divine sons, Ares and Hephaistos" (85).  This implies that matching Achilles’ excessively destructive nature to Zeus would contradict Zeus’ profile as a rational benefactor.  However, Achilles’ “demonic rages” accurately fit those characteristics of Hera and her sons, Ares and Hephaestus, rather than of Zeus and his children.  In this way, women are viewed as demonic and evil to such an extreme that men cannot possibly match their wickedness.  Because Zeus, an all-powerful god, is not as well known for his wickedness as Hera, this point further demonstrates the misogynist scrutiny of women: the idea that men are not as evil or malevolent as women.

            In the Iliad, Zeus threatens to destroy one of Hera’s favorite cities after she destroys his prized Troy.  In response, Hera says, "Verily, three are the ones far dearest to me of all cities:  Argos and Sparta and Junowide-wayed Mycenae -- three cities Achaean.  These thou mayest lay waste, whensoe'er thy heart finds them hateful.  Them will I never protect; unto thee will I never refuse them"(Smith and Miller, 76).  Hera directly offers her favorite cities for Zeus to destroy, as if she is sacrificing these cities to Zeus.  She seems to be indifferent and unattached to her favorite cities, whereas Zeus appears to have sincere compassion for his favorite city.  She also adds that if he has some resentment towards them, then she will not stand in the way of protecting them for something that they may deserve.  There may be two different interpretations of her retort: she is a poor protector and is indifferent for the well-being of her favorite cities, or Hera simply wants to avoid further conflict Zeus, if she objects to his demands.  The former view, however, seems to match her personality more appropriately than the latter, which may be supported as well by her mistreatment of her son, Hephaestus.

In classical mythology and literature, Hera, it seems, rarely plays the role of a sympathetic, caring, and mothering figure.  In the few myths where she does fulfill the role of good mother, these characteristics are hardly emphasized enough to make a significant change her general depiction of a goddess with a malevolent personality.  One would assume that Hera as the goddess of marriage and queen of the heavens would be a caring and nurturing character, when in fact she is depicted as monstrous and almost grotesque.  The few moments when she does display a sort of motherly affection or adoration, there is some mischievous and insidious motive for her acting in such a manner: “Hera’s attitude toward her favorites…was almost a kiss of death” (Slater, 204).  For example, Hera’s interest and concern for Achilles is primarily because she plans on using him to defeat Troy.

Why is Hera depicted as such a selfish, hateful, and malicious goddess?  Other goddesses like Aphrodite and Athena, are powerful as well, however are controlled by male gods because they are born Hera by Stantonmotherless.  This implies that powerful women, if not checked or subordinated by man, will only lead to chaos.  Even though Hera is ultimately "owned" by Zeus, she constantly defies his power over her and as a result is portrayed as monster.  As a mother figure, Hera is even distorted to "fit" her character more appropriately.[1]  The disowning of Hephaestus serves as a perfect precedence for her treatment of Achilles.  The rising hero successfully achieves Hera’s bidding and it ironically causes his downfall once he has fulfilled her purpose.  Similarly, with Hephaestus, Hera disowns him because he is crippled and even abuses him but reclaims him once he is able to offer successful representations of her power through his work.  Hera is the selfish and scheming wife who only worries about her reputation and happiness and will sacrifice anyone to achieve her personal goals.  Apparently being a queen of the heavens is not synonymous with being queen of mercy (like Virgin Mary), but rather the queen of wickedness.



[1] Historically, it would not be logical for Hera to be worshipped widely if she was depicted as a horrific monster.  Evidently, the image of Hera has changed through time and society.  Hera is viewed as a benefactor in Roman mythology (named Juno).