Hera, Queen of the Gods, Was Both Wife and Sister of Zeus

By: Michelle Konstantinovsky  | 

Hera
A sculpture of the head of Hera, dating from 420-400 B.C.E., found at the Heraion of Argos, an ancient temple in Greece. Sergei Fadeichev/TASS/Getty Images

Behind every Greek god, there is a Greek goddess (or seven, if you're counting all of Zeus' wives). But Hera stands out among the crowd as the Queen of the Gods, and despite her husband/brother's (remember, this is Greek mythology) reputation for getting around, she holds the crown as the supreme goddess of marriage, women, the sky and the stars, and she's usually the one depicted by Zeus' side rocking a wreath and veil.

"As the wife (and sister) of Zeus, she is a powerful queen whose strong feelings and opinions often are opposed to her husband's," says Richard P. Martin, Antony and Isabelle Raubitschek professor in classics at Stanford University. "Proud, jealous and quick to take action when she feels spurned, she can be a danger to gods and mortals who get in her way."

But according to Martin, Hera also has a softer side. "On the other hand, she is fiercely protective of the institution of marriage, and also the one who watched over women in childbirth," he says. "In some places, she was even identified with the goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia."

Born to Kronus and Rhea, Hera gained a reputation as the only "really married goddess among the Olympians," and she had three children with Zeus: Ares, the god of war, Heba, the goddess of youth and Hephaestus, the god of metallurgy. She also gave birth to one son all on her own (again — that's Greek mythology for you). Learn more about that particular story and more in the following three Hera facts:

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1. Hera's Husband Was Super Unfaithful, but She Stayed by His Side

"She got angry and often got back at him but she did not leave — for whatever reason," Martin says. "If we apply some common modern ideas, we could, I suppose, suspect her of not wanting to abandon the good things — queenship and so on — that went along with being the wife of Zeus. Or maybe we would say that as an abused wife, she was terrified and unable to flee — something that happens."

Martin does, however, offer a warning about strongly siding with either theory. "It is important not to psychologize ancient myths," he says. "First, gods were not humans; by definition, they acted differently and sometimes enigmatically. Second, in actual Greek social terms, it was pretty much unimaginable that a wife would divorce or leave her husband's house — she and children would have no status or protection otherwise. But third — to my mind, the main reason — as goddess of marriage, Hera plays a symbolic role. Her very essence is to embody a bond that endures, socially, no matter how it is strained by people's behavior. It is like Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, being unable to leave the house — symbolically, she has to stay put."

hera
Detail of Zeus and Hera, in the Greek Doric temple E at Selinus in Sicily, Italy. Temple E is also known as the Temple of Hera because an inscription found on a votive stela indicates that it was dedicated to her.
DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

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2. She Threw Her Son Off Mount Olympus, Allegedly

"Well, as with most myths, there are alternative versions," Martin says. "One of the more common stories features a sort of tit-for-tat quarrel between Zeus and his wife — it looks like he started it. Hearing that a child of one of his many love interests would one day overthrow him, Zeus proceeded to swallow the minor goddess Mêtis ('cunning intelligence'), but as she was already pregnant, the child still had to come out — and it did so, out of Zeus' own head. That child was the goddess Athena."

According to Martin, this whole sequence of events did nothing but enrage Hera, who sought vengeance by bearing her own child, named Hephaestus, parthenogenetically, i.e., without any help from a male. "But when she saw the baby was lame, she rejected him and threw him off Mount Olympus," Martin says. "In real life — horrible to say — some ancient Greeks did in fact leave babies to die if they were considered physically defective. Sometimes they would be picked up by passers-by in the place they were exposed and then were raised by foster-parents."

Hephaestus managed to survive the long fall and landed on an island in the Aegean Sea where he was cared for and he eventually managed to become a master metal-worker. "To get back at his mother, he made a golden throne and sent it to her as a gift," Martin says. "But the chair had hidden bonds that sprang into action when Hera sat down, so she was held fast, unable to move. All the gods begged Hephaestus to let her go, but he refused until the god of wine, Dionysus, got him drunk and brought him to Olympus to undo the trick chair."

The ruins of the temple of Hera
The ruins of the temple of Hera in Sicily, Italy.
Riccardo Lombardo/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

But as Martin alluded to, there is more than one version of the Hephaestus myth. "The other story is that it was in fact Zeus who threw Hephaestus off the mountain, and that due to this fall, he got injured and became lame in the first place," Martin says. "The plot in this alternative version was that Zeus had suspended Hera in chains, dangling her from Mt. Olympus (another weird touch — she's always being tied up somehow). He did that because she was harassing his own son, Heracles (born out of wedlock)." When Hera's own son, Hephaestus, came to her rescue, Zeus was incensed and ejected him from the mountain. "This one is sort of a mirror image of the first," Martin says. "Clearly, the stories got spun depending on whether the husband or wife divinity was being made to look bad."

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3. She Fought With Zeus Over His Love Affair With ... a Cow

"Once there was a priestess of Hera from central Greece whose name was Io," Martin says. "Zeus, as was his way with many mortal women, desired her, but he knew Hera would be angry, so he hid his lover Io by changing her into a white cow." Hera had an inkling that something strange was going on between her husband and the bovine, so she made a sneaky move. "She innocently asked that this beautiful cow be given to her as a present, then she assigned a creature with 100 eyes (Argos) to keep watch over the animal."

As with most scenarios in their marriage, Zeus and Hera began a stand-off. "The same old tit-for-tat, spy-vs.-spy action ensued," Martin says. "Zeus sent Hermes to kill Argos and free the cow; Hera sent a gadfly to keep stinging the cow, so that Io ended up wandering all over the world — she eventually swam across the Bosporus (which is why it got the name, which means 'the cow-crossing' or, if you like, 'ox-ford'). Meanwhile, Hera felt bad for the all-seeing helper Argos and placed his 100 eyes in the tail of her favorite bird — the peacock," Martin says.

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