How did the pre-Hellenic queen of the gods devolve into a jealous shrew?
|You've probably met Hera (known to the Romans as Juno) before, perhaps on your own or in a high school classical mythology unit. You probably know her as the nagging, shrewish wife of Zeus (Jupiter), the king of the gods and great lord of Olympus. But did you know that back in the mists of the ancient world, Hera was a Great Mother figure of the eastern Mediterranean region, a sky goddess beloved by millions in her own right as Queen of the Heavens? The jump from sovereign female to screeching grudge-holder takes some imagination to visualize, but over a few centuries Hera was so demoted. How, why, and what of the Hera that came before the arrival of Zeus?
Restoring Hera to her rightful place as a Great Mother Goddess is not a work of feminist revisionist history. Clues from the ancient world reveal the true Hera. The ruins of Hera's temple at Olympia remain beautiful and elegant, reflecting a love for a magnificent and inspirational goddess. The signs of Hera as she is portrayed in literature are lacking. Where is the ruthless and envious character that gives Zeus nothing but grief in Hellenic lore?
Maybe you have heard about Io, the beautiful woman in Hellenic lore that Zeus happened to notice as he was searching the world for a new romantic conquest. In return for the great honor of Zeus' lust, Io stood helpless as Zeus changed her into a heifer. This way, so Zeus believed, the king of the Olympians could deny the charge of infidelity leveled at him by his spiteful and jealous wife, Hera. As wise as she was angry, Hera demanded that Zeus give her the heifer as a token of his affections. Zeus could do nothing to protect the animal that had been the woman who had been his lover. At first Hera kept the heifer tied up in her own sanctuary. Later, Hera sent the notorious gadfly to continuously bite and irritate Io.
This tale isn't favorable for the innocent Io, but it is even more damaging to the character of Hera. She is best known as the wife of Zeus (or Juno to the Roman Jupiter), but when Hera is unveiled she becomes a great and ancient mother goddess, much beloved by her people.
The story of Io is a good example of how the tribes dedicated to the Sky Father grafted their own lore onto the pre-existing religious structures that existed wherever they invaded. On the Island of Argos the people worshipped Hera. "Hera" is not a name but a title, meaning "Our Lady." The Argives saw Hera as "cow-eyed," which culturally indicated her close association with the moon and making rain. Io was an Argive priestess-princess who led the people in public dances intended to ask for rain.
But this is not the version that has survived to modern times. Because the indigenous devotion to Hera remained strong, the tribes of Zeus joined the two deities in a marriage of convenience. The result was the jealous and wrathful Hera of the Hellenic age.
Hera never wanted anything to do with Zeus. She certainly never wanted to marry him. However, Zeus desired the majestic sky goddess with all that he was. He knew that Hera had a special fondness for a certain bird, the cuckoo, and he knew he could count on her compassionate nature. With this in mind, Zeus transformed himself into a disheveled cuckoo and flew into Hera's lap for sympathy. The kind Hera took pity on the bird. Her shock knew no boundaries when she suddenly found herself being raped by Zeus. Humiliated, Hera needed to restore her honor by marrying Zeus. This tale is likely a metaphor for the way in which Hera's people were conquered by the tribes of Zeus. Hera's later angry behavior towards her husband indicates the indignation of her people.
Let's look at Hera as she originally was, a beneficent sky mother holding her own among celestial powers. As mentioned before, "Hera" was a title and not a proper name. What Hera's original name was is lost to history. Hera reigned in beauty as queen of the earth and the heavens and human beings. She was kind to all, but favored women and female sexuality.
Hera began as a triple goddess. In her maiden form she was Pais, childless and free from responsibilities. She symbolized blossoming youth. Her middle form was called Teleia and presented her as a mother in the prime of life. In her third form she grew into Chera, the crone who has passed through motherhood to return to herself.
We might think the original Olympics were ancient. But the Heraea was an old festival that predated the Olympic games. These were athletics for women held in Hera's honor. Women of Argos would gather to compete in foot races. The competitors were divided into three age groups to mirror Hera's triple nature. Winners were given the great honor of leaving statuettes of themselves in Hera's main shrine.
This is almost the converse of the Olympic games. At Olympia, not only were women forbidden from competing, women could not even be spectators. In fact, any woman who tried to transgress these hard rules would be slaughtered. It can be deduced that the importance of the divine feminine had been greatly diminished by the time of the arrival of the ancient Olympics.
Another celebration observed Hera as the sovereign over death and rebirth. A statue of Hera would be carried down to the water to be cleansed in a symbolic renewal. Hera was both autumn and spring, death and life, and to worship her was to continue the eternal cycle.
Hera was by no means the only goddess so demoted. This trend can be found in Europe as well as on other continents. In many cases, such as the instances of Lilith and Tiamat, the goddess was simply demonized. She who was not demonized might have been turned into a monster like the Gorgon. In the Celtic world goddesses were assimilated into Christianity as new saints.