by Rohase Piercy
“I sing of golden-throned Hera, whom Rhea bore.
Queen of the Immortals is she, surpassing all in beauty”
Thus begins the Homeric Hymn to Hera, Queen of the Olympian Gods and protectress of women throughout every stage of life;1and yet not only do we know relatively little about her cult in Ancient Greece, but she is often overlooked by modern Pagans, being far surpassed in popularity amongst reconstructuralists by Aphrodite, Artemis and Athena. The reason for this is neatly encapsulated in the second stanza of the hymn: “She is sister and wife of loud-thundering Zeus”.
Feminist scholars have pointed out that Hera’s alliance to the patriarchal Thunder-God – a husband who by most accounts forced himself upon her, taking refuge in her bosom in the shape of a frightened cuckoo before revealing his true form2 has done her no favours, subjugating her to the male deity and distancing her from her origins as an aspect of the all-powerful Mother Goddess. Whilst acknowledging the truth of this, I do not think it is the whole story, nor do I think it necessary to take Hera out of the Olympian context in order to connect with her as a modern Pagan woman. This is the Goddess who describes herself as ‘The Eldest Daughter of Time’ (Chronos), and whose mother’s name, Rhea, means ‘flow’, or ‘course’. Of all deities, she should be able to adapt and thrive in any age and context, patriarchal or otherwise.
Let us set to one side for the moment all those tales of Hera’s jealousy over her husband’s infidelities, her repeated attempts to consolidate her status as Goddess of Marriage by visiting revenge upon Zeus’ paramours and persecuting his illegitimate children. For what it’s worth, such tales of domestic strife diminish both parties equally, reducing the heroic God of Thunder who liberates the Immortals from the belly of Time to an ageing roué in the throes of a mid-life crisis, driven to deception by his wife’s constant nagging.
Consider instead the beautiful Orphic Hymn to Hera, as translated by Apostolos Athanassakis:3
“You are ensconced in darksome hollows, and airy is your form,
O Hera, Queen of All, blessed consort of Zeus.
You send soft breezes to mortals, such as nourish the soul.
O Mother of the Rains, you nurture the winds and give birth to all.
Without you there is neither life nor growth,
And mixed as you are in the air we venerate,
You partake of all, and of all you are Queen and Mistress.
You toss and turn in the rushing wind.
O Blessed Goddess, Many-Named Queen of All,
May you come with kindness and joy on your lovely face.”
There is no hint of subjugation here! Hera is depicted as the ‘personification of the atmosphere’, the very air we breathe - more necessary to our lives than Aphrodite (continuity of the species), Demeter (agriculture) or Athena (wisdom and skill). Like the Great Goddess Inanna of Sumer, also called ‘Mistress of the Rains’, who ‘stirs up the seas and troubles the hills’, Hera tosses and turns in the rushing wind: like Astarte of Phoenicia, ‘Lady of the Womb’, she gives birth to all; like Ishtar of Babylon who ‘holds the fate of everything in her hand’, she is Queen and Mistress of All.
If we look back to the earliest traces of Hera’s cult in Archaic Greece, we find evidence of what Walter Burkert calls an earlier, aniconic representation of the Goddess, confirming her link to her Bronze Age predecessors. Like the Canaanite Asherah, whose eponymous sacred ‘tree’ or pole was at one time housed in the Temple at Jerusalem, Hera was worshipped on Samos, her birthplace, in the form of a carved wooden plank – a cult image possibly dating back to the Mycenaean age. In Argos, where her original temple dates back to the 8th Century BCE, she was venerated in the form of a pillar, similar to the ‘sacred cone’ or betyl of Phoenician Astarte.
Let us look at Hera’s ancestry in more detail, beginning with her mother, Rhea. Like her Phrygian counterpart Cybele, Rhea is an aspect of the Mother-Of-All Things, whose worship dates back to Palaeolithic times. Like Cybele also, she is often depicted in the company of lions, a symbol of her great antiquity, referring back to the Age of Leo some 10,000 years BCE. The Great Mother had no spouse; she was deemed to produce offspring independently – as, it has been suggested, were all women in what was arguably a matrifocal age. She was however allocated a consort in due course - a younger male, who was variously seen as her son and lover. This is the dying-and-rising vegetation/corn god, whose annual demise and renewal was celebrated throughout the ancient Near East and around the Mediterranean. He is Cybele’s Attis, Inanna’s Dumuzi, Ishtar and Astarte’s Tammuz; and he surfaces in Ancient Greece as Aphrodite’s Adonis. By the Bronze Age, both he and his Mother have become part of a pantheon of Deities, prominent amongst whom is the Sky-God El or Anu, and his equally powerful offspring, usually referred to by the general epithet ‘Baal’ – ‘the Lord’. This vigorous and bellicose Weather-God is worshipped as the equal of the Goddess, and a ‘dual cult’ celebrating the male and female Deities as a married pair develops alongside that of the dying-and-rising consort.
The animal emblem of ‘Baal’ is the Bull – for by now we have reached the Age of Taurus, and that constellation’s appearance upon the horizon would coincide with the beginning of the astrological year at the Vernal Equinox. Meet Zeus, the Bull of Heaven who delights in thunder; Zeus, who in bull form abducts the nymph Europa from Phoenicia and swims with her across the sea to Crete, island of the Minotaur and the famous bull-leaping ritual! Bull and Cow Deities come to prominence during this time. Sumerian Inanna describes herself as a ‘Splendid Wild Cow’, and indeed the Aurochs would still have been roaming the mountains whilst their domesticated cousins grazed the pastures of the plains. Meanwhile the lovely Goddess Hathor emerges in Egypt, ‘The Great Cow Who Protects Her Calf’, variously depicted in cow and human form. She is a Goddess of women and motherhood, of song and dance, of joy and celebration, associated with the plentiful flow both of water (symbolised by the Nile) and milk (symbolised by the Milky Way). Meet Hera, Queen of Women and spouse of the Bull of Heaven! Hera’s epithet ‘Boopis’, Cow-eyed, confirms her link to the Taurean Age, and her milk, spraying from her breast as she turned from suckling her stepson Dionysus, forms the Milky Way in the heavens and causes the lily to flower on earth. Not for worlds would I seek to disrespect laughter-loving Aphrodite, with whom Hathor is more usually associated - those who do so proceed at their peril - but surely it is queenly Hera upon whom the mantle of the Celestial Cow-Mother falls.
Lucian of Samosata, writing in the second century CE, describes the Hittite Goddess Atargatis (whom the Romans dubbed the ‘Dea Syria’) as ‘The Assyrian Hera’. “She is undoubtedly Hera”, he says, “but she has something of the attributes of Athena and Aphrodite, of Selene and Rhea, of Artemis and of Nemesis and of the Fates”. A composite Goddess indeed! Crowned and enthroned in her temple at Hieropolis, flanked by lions and served by eunuch priests, Atargatis might at first appear to have most in common with Cybele; but no – at her side, bearded, and ‘enthroned upon Bulls’, sits ‘Zeus’ in the form of her consort Baal-Hadad. As John Garstang points out in his 1912 introduction to Lucian’s ‘De Dea Syria’: “Had the shrine been that of the Great Mother alone, the God would not have been accorded an equal prominence near the common altar; he would have been an ‘Attis’, not a ‘Zeus’”. This then is a dual cult celebrating the male and female aspects of the Divine as a married pair, as was the case with Zeus and Hera – though lion-throned Atargatis takes precedence over her bull-throned consort, whose image must not be carried from the temple in advance of hers.
In the Phoenician colony of Carthage, the Goddess Tanit (the ‘Carthaginian Astarte’) was equated by Greek visitors to the city with Hera Lacinia, Goddess of Childbirth, and consequently by the Romans with Juno Lucina, ‘Bringer into the Light’. As ‘Pene Baal’ – Face of Baal – Tanit presided over a dual cult with her consort Baal-Hammon. When the great Carthaginian General Hannibal wanted to carry off as plunder a solid gold column from the Temple of Juno Lucina in Crotonia, he was visited by the angry Goddess in a dream. Recognising her as his own native Tanit, he hastened to make amends for his impiety by having the gold shavings he had already taken melted down and cast into a golden cow, to be placed upon the pillar in honour of the Goddess.
Such is the ancestry and evolution of Hera, Queen of the Immortals. By the time of her emergence in Archaic Greece, we are well into the Iron Age – the sword is master, and the fiery and bellicose constellation of Aries rules the Vernal Equinox. Although Hera’s image in the temple of the dual cult at Olympia is much older than that of her consort Zeus, it is he who is given precedence; and while restless Inanna causes ‘the riverbanks (to) overflow with the flood waters of (her) heart’, while Ishtar ‘wreaks destruction upon the fierce’ and ‘blazes against the enemy’, while Hathor transforms into the Lion Goddess Sekhmet to punish disrespectful humanity, Hera must content herself with nagging her errant husband and tormenting his lovers and children! Is it any wonder that she ‘tosses and turns’ within the strictures of patriarchal culture?
But is the picture really that bleak? The Orphic Hymn demonstrates that there was much more to Hera in the Greek mind than the Homeric accounts would have us suppose. In her fascinating and ground-breaking book ‘Portrait of the Priestess’, Joan Breton Connelly argues that the lives of women in Ancient Greece, including as they did a variety of priestly functions, were not in fact as invisible and undervalued as the written accounts available to us appear to indicate. Pointing to the numerous dedicatory statues, the laudatory funeral inscriptions, the inscribed theatre seats and civil honours accorded to Greek women, as well as the visual clues about women’s activities contained within art and sculpture, Connelly posits that a combination of post-Christian assumptions about the separation of religious and mundane life, and second-wave feminist assumptions about the negative value placed upon women’s role in Ancient Greece, have skewed the picture. “The Greek pantheon”, she suggests, “acknowledged the complexities of what it means to be male and female, allowing for ambiguity and plurality …. to be female was to be a wild, untamed virgin huntress (Artemis), marriageable virgin and daughter (Persephone), passionate seductress (Aphrodite), wife (Hera), mother (Demeter), as well as wise ‘masculine’ warrior and craftsman (Athena)”. Monotheistic Christianity with its male-identified God was to change all that, outlawing woman’s priestly function and denying her the reflection of herself in the Divine. Now that is patriarchy - and we are living with its legacy today, when the attainment of female ‘equality’ depends upon a willingness to serve the economic above the nurturing role, and a career in banking or commerce is accorded far more respect than a career in midwifery or childcare.
Listen to the words of Hera to Zeus, as recorded by Homer in Book Four of the Iliad:
“I am a God, of the same race as you. I am Chronos’ eldest daughter, and in addition to my own birthright, I am also called your wife…. Let us therefore support one another’s wishes, you mine and I yours, and the other Gods will follow our example”.
Is that too much to ask as we enter the Aquarian Age? The ‘sister and wife of loud-thundering Zeus’ renews her virginity every year in the Argive spring of Canathos as a sign of her essential integrity and independence; Hera Teleia, perfected and fulfilled, remains Queen of Heaven in her own right, and a wonderful Goddess and role-model for women today.
‘O Blessed Goddess, Many-Named Queen of All,
May you come with kindness and joy on your lovely face!’
1. Hera’s titles include ‘Hera Pais’ (girl), ‘Hera Parthenia’ (maiden), ‘Hera Nympheumene’ (bride), ‘Hera Gamelia’ (married woman), ‘Hera Aphrodite’ (sexual woman), ‘Hera Teleia’ (perfected, fulfilled), and ‘Hera Chera’ (solitary or widow). (return)
2. I say ‘most accounts’ because the reference in the Iliad (Bk 14) to Zeus and Hera’s early courtship, ‘when they first made love together, lying on a couch without their parents knowledge’, seems to imply a more consensual youthful alliance. (return)
3. This translation surely comes closer to the original spirit of the Hymn than Thomas Taylor’s eighteenth century version, which favours sentiment and rhyme over accuracy! (return)
THE HOMERIC HYMNS (C7th – C 4th BCE) – trans. H G Evelyn-White, Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle, Homerica, New York: G P Putnam & Sons, 1922.
THE ORPHIC HYMNS (C3rd BCE - C2nd CE) – trans. Apostolos N Athanassakis, The Orphic Hymns, Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1977.
Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, trans. John Raffan, Blackwell.
Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess – Women & Ritual in Ancient Greece, Princeton University Press, 2007.
William W Hallo & JJA Van Dijk, The Exaltation of Inanna, Yale University Press, 1968
HOMER, The Iliad.
S H Hooke, Babylonian and Assyrian Religion, University of Oklahoma Press, 1963
Lucian of Samosata, De Dea Syria, Ed. Herbert A Strong & John Garstang, 1913, republished by Forgotten Books 2007.
Pausanius, Description of Greece, trans. A R Shillitto, G Bell & Sons, 1886.
Ferris J Stephens (trans.) Akkadian Hymns To Ishtar
Rohase is an eclectic Pagan with a special interest in the Deities of the Ancient Near East and the Classical era. She still lives in Brighton with her husband Leslie, and she has two grown-up daughters, Morgana and Pip.