A Study of Hera:


Goddess Profile and Cult Worship

            Mythology is a valuable gateway to learning the views of a society at a particular time.  Although myths were merely stories passed down from generation to generation usually to serve an etiological purpose, myths evolved from traditions from specific regions into religions.  By studying mythology, we can link and make parallels between the roles of the gods and goddesses to the attributes of men and women of a particular culture or society.  For example, the myths about the virgin birth (or parthenogenesis) of Athena, goddess of wisdom, and of Aphrodite, goddess of love, illustrate the procreative dominance and superiority of gods to goddesses and men to women.  The idea that one god exclusively creating these goddesses implies that what these goddesses represent cannot be found in women since females did not take part in their creation.  The gods’ creation of these important goddesses, with no or minimal aid of a partner, shows that this was obviously a patriarchal society.  Since these goddesses were created, to perfection, without the help of a woman implies that women play an inferior in procreation and no role in the creation of wisdom, love, or any significant role at all.  Myths like these do not only act as a lens for us today into ancient culture and belief, but they also acted as a religion for the people.  One powerful goddess who was frequently worshipped, regarding  issues of procreation and marriage, in Tiryns, Olympia and Argos was Hera.

According to the “Homeric Hymns,” “I sing of golden-throned Hera whom Rhea bore. Queen of the immortals is she, surpassing all in beauty: she is the sister and the wife of loud-thundering Zeus, the glorious one whom all the blessed throughout high Olympus reverence and honor even as Zeus who delights in thunder” (Shelmerdine, 148).  This line portrays Hera as the wife (and sister) of Zeus, the great king of gods.  ThougHera by Franklinh Zeus is king of the gods, Hera has a longer history of worship.  Her “first temple in Olympia was dedicated, much earlier than the one to Zeus” (Kerényi, 134) demonstrates the greater importance of Hera’s role as a goddess of marriage and fertility among the people rather than Zeus’s role as king of the gods.  Because her temple was created earlier than Zeus’ suggests that the Olympians regarded Hera as a very influential goddess in their society.  Even though Zeus is assumed to be the most powerful among the gods, Hera is the one who is more frequently and widely worshipped among the people.  This observation, drawn from the literary and historical research, fully portrays the values and virtues of the community.  By prioritizing Hera, goddess of marriage and fertility, over Zeus, god of the heaven, reveals the society’s passionate belief and values on the importance of marriage and procreation.  Additionally, the creation of Hera’s temple before Zeus’s further supports the belief that the worshipping of Hera was before the worship of Zeus.

In mythology, Hera is married to Zeus, where she gains the title as queen of the heavens.  With her position, she further assumes the role as the goddess of gamos; which means (and includes) marriage, “preparation for female adulthood…pregnancy… and childbearing” (Blundell and Williamson, 15).  In some votive offerings in Heraion sanctuaries, the goddess bears a pomegranate in her hand.  The pomegranate fruit symbolizes fertility for agriculture as well as for women because the fruit contained an abundance of seeds.  Hera’s symbolism to fertility also explained why she was sometimes considered a goddess of agriculture.  There were various names and roles given to Hera, however she was principally known as the goddess of marriage, and secondly well known as the goddess of fertility.

Despite the many different minor roles assigned to Hera, there were three “stages” (names given) to her during her immortal life: “Pais,” “Teleia,” and “Chera.”  “Pais” referred to when she was a virgin, before she married Zeus.  “Teleia” referred to Hera as a married woman, after she married Zeus.  The final name given to Hera is “Chera,” which meant “widow.”  This name identified her when she and Zeus separated (since gods cannot die).  These labels were imitated for young women and classified their position in society.  However, instead of adopting a new name for them, the young women would adopt a new label of status, a classification, of which category of female (or at what period of their life) they were in, excluding divorce.

During the ancient times, divorce was virtually nonexistent and uncommon.  Karl Kerényi applied this concept of detachment to Hera’s divorce as a “separation from Zeus would have meant an intolerable Statue Head of Herasituation for the goddess.  For she would have become nothing but the powerless half of a whole needed by her and not by Zeus” (114).  However, Kerényi then counters his assessment by arguing that a “figure as dependent as this could not have been the object of a cult” (114).  Kerényi argues that this excessive dependency on Zeus contradicts the fact that Hera is a well-known and worshipped goddess with cults and sanctuaries: if Hera were such a dependent and pathetic goddess, why would there be cults, sanctuaries and countless worshippers?  This might suggest that Hera was once considered a powerful goddess in practice and in mythology, but eventually her role and character deteriorated and reshaped in mythology, with the rise of patriarchy.  Because women were expected to be dependent on men in a society, it may be that the society reconstructed Hera’s image to fit their customs.  Therefore, we are forced to conclude that there may have been some manipulation of the images of Hera throughout the years.  With the increasing image manipulation of Hera, the earlier and original depictions of Hera may have been lost as well as her role in society as goddess of marriage.

Joan V. O’Brien notes, “Marriage in Greek society, as in others, was of central importance to society as a whole.  Wedding ceremonies were…an essentially female concern, with the focus almost entirely upon the bride and the female experience of marriage”(Blundell and Williamson, 13). However, according to marriage contracts, the men (fathers, uncles, brothers) of the bride would choose whom she would marry.  Even though marriage, in this sense, was not a decision made by young women, Hera was a role model for all married women because she was known as the queen of the heavens (after marrying Zeus).  The “female experience of marriage” refers to the actual ceremony and the final stage for the rite of passage for a girl to become a full and completed Greek woman.  Marriage was the only significant change of status for females.  Women only matured to adulthood once they married, otherwise, they would still be considered a “child.”  Marriage was seen as a rite of passage for women and served as a transition from childhood to adulthood, not age.

This transition for women is also evident in the diction the Greeks used to label the types of women.  The Greek word for woman “gyne” was coincidentally the same word for wife and was used simultaneously for mother.  This illustHera Bathingrates that women’s only role in the society was to become a “woman” – a wife and mother.  However, if the married woman were not a mother, then she would not be called “gyne” but “nymphe.”  This proves that there is an obvious distinction between the “completed” married woman and the “incomplete” married woman (Blundell and Williamson, 13-14).  Since this is the main, or only, role women played in society (becoming a wife and mother), Hera became the dominant goddess worshipped among women.  Because of Hera’s goddess profile as the bringer of fertility and of matrimony, she was the ideal woman whom the young girls strived to emulate.

One of the common rituals to mark the transition from “parthenos,” an unmarried girl, to a “gyne” is the change of appearance or of her attire:  “The significance of changed appearance in initiation rites is stressed by the evidence from the sanctuaries of Arteruis at Brauron and Mounichia in Attica where maidens were initiated rite was marked by a change of their outer appearance” (Baumbach, 56-57).  This ritual was supported in a myth regarding Proitos’ daughters.  After they left their father’s home and were banished from their homeland by Hera, there were many different interpretations as to what happened to them before they returned and married, which was the only way to return to society and civilization in Tiryns.  The only reason why they were able to return to Tiryns was because they were willing to get married.

In essence, marriage symbolized civilization.  If the girls refused to marry, they would be considered uncivilized and like uncivilized beings, they would reside in the wilderness.  According to Statius, a scholiast, the daughters were changed into cows.  However, in Heisod’s version, they were “afflicted by the loss of hair and a whitening skin disease” (Baumbach, 57).  This may explain the masks and robes the maidens and children wore during the Hieros Gamos and the votive gorgon mask offerings found in a sanctuary in the Tiryns’ Heraion.  In Perachora, other rituals that marked the transition from “parthenos” to “gyne” were the sacrificing of the woman’s toys and clothing from her childhood and offering these items as votive offering for Heraion sanctuaries.

Hieros Gamos was a festival and is literally translated “sacred marriage.”  These marriage rituals were seen as parallel to the “sacred marriage” of Hera and Zeus.  The god and goddess repreHera and Zeussented the positions that the newlywed couple should play.  Because Hera represented matrimony and fertility, her only concern in the marriage was to stay married and produce children.  She was the embodiment of duties a wife and a woman should fulfill: to marry and reproduce.  While Hera symbolized duties and responsibilities of a woman, Zeus, on the other hand, was free to do anything he desired, because he was the “king of the gods.”  This title seems to permit him to be at leisure and yet he was still considered the most superior to all, including Hera.  He had no limits and not even Hera could restrain him through marriage.  He represented men’s superiority and freedom to roam.

Another ritual, in preparation for the Hieros Gamos, was the “bathing of the maiden.”  In this case, “it marks the separation of the girl from the status of a parthenos; the pre-nuptial bath is the first step in the rites of passage connected with marriage,” (Kerényi , 126) which may be seen as a parallel to the bathing of Hera, the statue.  This ritual was performed to restore her virginity: “according to Pausanias[1], the water of the river Eleutherion, which ran in the vicinity of the Heraion, was used by the priestesses of the Heraion for purification as well as secret sacrifices” (Kerényi, 118).  This ritual bathing was significant because it illustrated a cleansing, or even a revival, for the women.  This particular Hieros Gamos illustrated the way in which those in Argos celebrated this religious festival.

<>                During the transitional period of the festival Hieros Gamos, a young woman carried a sacrificial

basket and was followed by other maidens who sang songs, honoring Hera.  All of the young unmarried Argive

women were included in this festival, which illustrates their roles as future brides-to-be.

The final stage, also known as the “rites of incorporation,” includes a “twig” sacrifice, which alludes more to a wedding bed than to an infant’s cradle because the creation of an infant is from the result of the former.  There are no further specific details describing the actual “twig” sacrifice because these rituals were confidential and mysterious.  However, this marks the completion of the festival as it would a completion of the purpose of a marriage.

There were a number of different ways of celebrating the Hieros Gamos, depending on where the ritual was being celebrated.  These differences could be due to their geographic location, which may influence how certain activities were carried out.  For example, those who did not live by Eleutherion River would probably not travel such a distance just to bathe.  Additionally, the manipulation of mythology to reinforce a society’s traditions causes the varying methods of how the Hieros Gamos festival was performed because of a society’s differing values and priority.

The worship of Hera helped shape these societies (such as Argos, a city in Peloponnesus where Hera is their paAthena's Birthtron goddess, Tyrins and Olympia) immensely by making marriage and childbearing an important priority.  Hera played the role of faithful wife while Zeus played the role of a wandering womanizer.  These stories may also be parallel to the exaggerations of how marriages were supposed to function in ancient Greece, especially in the roles of husband and wife.  In some cases, Hera is proven to be superior to Zeus in religion, however some of the myths contradict her superiority.  For example, after Zeus created a healthy Athena by himself, Hera tried to create a god by herself, too, named Hephaestus.  However, Hephaestus was not only hideous but also lame.  This illustrates Zeus’s dominance over Hera in childbearing and Hera’s dependence on Zeus to produce a “normal” and healthy child.

<>                Even though Hera is incompetent in creating a healthy offspring by herself, she served as an

assurance to women while they were in labor.  The midwives would chant or recite prayers to Hera for a

healthy delivery.  This practice helped when mothers were giving birth because it calmed and soothed the

mothers with the image that Hera was protecting and watching over them.  In this sense, Hera could be

considered a mother figure to all mothers.

Although there were a few diverse views concerning the portrayal of Hera, a common feature associated with Hera was as the protector of marriage.  Other storylines depicted Hera as a jealous, vengeful and evil goddess, which may be parallel to some of the misogynist views circulating in a particular patriarchial society.  Despite these views, Hera has still proven herself to be a positive, influential and dominant figure in ancient Greek households.

[1] Pausanias was known for writing Description of Greece and was a Greek geographer during the 2nd century AD.