The Goddess Hera
“I sing of golden-throned Hera, Queen of the Immortals.” Thus begins an ancient hymn to Hera, wife of Zeus and Queen of the Greek gods.
The Goddess of marriage, women, and childbirth in the Olympian pantheon doesn’t have the best reputation. She is the “nagging, jealous woman” who always tried to avenge her husband’s infidelities. But this says less about the Goddess herself than it says about how ancient Greeks viewed married women and infidelity.
Let’s get to know the Queen of the Heavens a bit better, shall we?
The origins of Hera
Hera was worshipped in Greece way before people started speaking Greek there. She was the first deity to whom the people of that area ever dedicated a temple; she was worshipped all the way from Iran to Egypt. She’s often conflated with the Egyptian Goddess of fertility and agriculture, Hathor, and with Demeter, the Earth Goddess.
Hera’s name probably comes from an older form of the word for “Lady” (Kera) but adapted to mean “Lady of the year” or “Lady of the season.” Some historians think it’s an anagram for the word for “air,” as Hera was considered the Queen of the Skies, or the Heavens.
Just as Freya, the Lady of the Old Norse pantheon, played a much more important part in the past before her role was diminished to not antagonize Odin, so did Hera. Prior to her marriage to Zeus, Hera was considered a manifestation of the Great Earth Goddess in all her three aspects: Maiden, Mother, and Crone.
But that was too much power for one Goddess in a patriarchal society, so Hera became the wife of the Supreme God, Zeus.
Hera’s role in the Olympian pantheon
Hera was the daughter of Kronos and Rhea and one of Zeus’ six siblings. When Zeus saved them from being consumed by their father, Kronos, he decided to marry Hera. There are several different myths woven into how Hera was not eager to submit her power and become “just the wife.” In the end, Zeus had to trick her into consenting to marry him by transforming into a defenseless bird (as Hera was well known for her love of animals, birds in particular). At the beginning of their marriage, Hera tried to dethrone Zeus with the help of other gods — but she failed and was punished for it.
These stories depict the struggle between the older, matriarchal society who worshipped a Great Goddess and the newer, patriarchal one with a male God presiding over a pantheon. The Goddess may have “lost,” but she was not subdued. In Hera’s case, this is evident in all the myths about Hera’s temper and how even Zeus himself was afraid of her at times. In time, all this was translated to “the jealous wife” Hera, who tortured and punished Zeus’ many mistresses as she was unable to take her wrath out on him directly.
She and Zeus had four children together: Ares, the God of war, Eileithyia, the Goddess of childbirth, Hebe, the Goddess of eternal youth, and Heris, the Goddess of discord. Hephaestus, the God of the forge, was thought to be Hera’s son conceived without Zeus — hence his legendary ugliness.
Hera became the Goddess of marriage and family, but she also presided over women in general, as well as childbirth. Hera’s older spheres of influence over the stars, the atmosphere, and the seasons are mentioned more rarely, but they’re not entirely forgotten.
Hera in myth and legends
Hera is the only deity in the Greek pantheon that stayed married for all her known life. She’s also the only one where every legend casts her as the villain of the story (coincidence?). Legends say Hera sided against the Trojans during the war because Paris didn’t choose her as the most beautiful of the Goddesses. She tried to kill Artemis and Apollo at birth because they were born from one of Zeus’ mistresses, Leda. She transformed Zeus’ mistresses into animals and hunted down their offspring.
You may have heard about Hera’s rivalry with Hercules, the illegitimate son of Zeus and ancient Greece’s greatest hero. According to legend, Hera actively tried to delay Hercules’ birth by refusing her daughter Eileithyia, who facilitated childbirth, to go to his mother’s side. She then tried to kill Hercules by sending two snakes to attack him in his cradle. When he was a grownup, Hera went as far as driving Hercules so insane he killed his own kids and then arranged for him to undertake the 12 labors that made him famous.
However, what most people don’t know is that, when Hercules died, Hera welcomed him on her side in Olympus. In fact, the Greek name for Hercules (Herakles) means “Hera’s might.” Some sources believe that all the obstacles she put in his path were a way to test his worth so that she could use him as her immortal warrior.
Hera and magical associations
Hera loved animals. Birds, especially the cuckoo (and later on the peacock), were considered her familiars, as well as cows and cattle. Her statues portray her as a beautiful, mature woman wearing a crown and holding a pomegranate to symbolize fertility and rebirth. Lilies and lotuses were considered her sacred plants.
Even more than Aphrodite, Hera is the matron deity of marriage. Her marriage to Zeus is thought to be a blueprint for Hieros Gamos (Sacred Marriage) that in the Wiccan tradition takes part between the Goddess and the God in Beltane. In the Roman pantheon, Hera became Juno, who later gave her name to the month of June when weddings traditionally took place. Although not as well-worshipped as other Goddesses, Hera is actually the best deity to invoke when you wish to protect and bless a marriage, the birth of a child, or strengthen your family.
Some non-Wiccan witches like to invoke Hera to bring revenge or punishment to unfaithful or abusive spouses. But such practices are not for those of us who follow the Wiccan Rede.