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Subjugating Hera: A Chthonic Goddess of Fertility and Formidable Heroine

Angry. Vengeful. Cunning. Cruel. Jealous. All of these descriptors bring to mind the Homeric presentation of the ancient Greek goddess Hera, wife of Zeus. From the 8th century BC we find an intentional remythologicalization of an ancient Goddess by the greatest epic poet of all time, Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer’s Iliad helped to create a more “codified Panhellenic pantheon” that has come to dominate our perception of Greek mythology (Lynch 2012). In his epic we find goddess Hera, Queen of the gods and wife of Zeus, portrayed as a jealous and quarrelsome wife replete with violent outbursts and vengeful schemes. But is there more to Hera than what has been presented and widely accepted for hundreds of years? Why have we blindly accepted Homer’s representation without further interrogation? Who was Hera really and where did she come from?

Climbing back through the history of time we find great representations and venerations of Hera on the island of Samos near ancient Asia Minor, or modern day Turkey. 

Prior to her subsummation into the Olympian pantheon, and predating her betrothal to Zeus, Hera was an ancient chthonic fertility goddess and protectress for the people of Samos. Archaeological evidence reveals that Hera was introduced to the island by settlers from mainland Greece at the end of the Bronze age replacing an existing venerated Bronze age goddess. On the island of Samos, Hera’s temple, the Heraion of Samos, was one of the earliest monumental Greek temples dating back to the 8th century BC. The temple was renowned for its colossal size and impressive architectural elements. 

Herodotus, often dubbed the “Father of History,” and a prominent Greek historian, provides a cursory account of this temple, noting that it was “the largest temple ever seen” (Herodotus 3.60). 

The size of the temple attests to the regional popularity of Hera’s cult spanning from Samos to Egypt, Asia Minor, and Babylon. Recovered artifacts and animal remains from Hera’s temple show offerings from Egypt, Cyprus, Phoenicia, and Babylon. What was her role and how was she worshipped prior to her incorporation into the patriarchal Olympian pantheon?

At Samos, she was revered as an earth based goddess, a fertility goddess, protector of women, and goddess of marriage and childbirth. Women sought her blessings for fertility, marital harmony, and protection. The goddess served as a role model for women, embodying qualities such as strength, dignity, and resilience.

Hera was celebrated during the Samian Heraia, a festival dedicated to Hera. It offered a rare platform for women’s public participation in rituals and athletic competitions, highlighting their importance in Samian society. The Samaian Heraia attracted visitors and traders from across the Greek world. During the Heraia grand processions featured the statue of Hera carried on a chariot, accompanied by priests, priestesses, athletes, musicians, and dancers. Offerings of fruits, flowers, and honey cakes were made. Hymns, prayers, and chants praised Hera, singing her praises and expressing devotion.

Hera was celebrated during the religious ritual known as the Tonaia, which connects her to the lygos tree (O’Brien 1993). The Tonaia, or the “Roping” ritual, was performed on an annual basis at Hera’s temple and included communal feasting, musical events, and athletic competitions (Lynch 2012, O’Brien 1993:56).During this rituals, her worshippers removed Hera’s cult image (the wooden plank) and binded it to her sacred tree. The symbolism and purpose of this ritual remain open to interpretation, possibly signifying dedication to her chthonic (earthly) aspects. Some scholars believe that this ritual was a fertility ritual.

The Samian Heraia also included athletic competitions for young women, which included running, wrestling, and other athletic pursuits; all of which celebrated female strength and dedication to the goddess.

Hera was further celebrated as an independent goddess at Argos on mainland Greece. At Argos she held a complex and multifaceted role, interwoven with the city’s history, societal beliefs, and everyday life. At Argos, Hera symbolized marital fidelity, blessings upon childbirth, and protection for women. Her cult focused on these roles, and offerings like fruits, animals, and wool reflected themes of abundance and prosperity. Similar to Samos, Hera’s chthonic roots linked her to the earth’s life-giving forces.

The Heraion of Samos

In Argos, Hera held a unique position as a protector of the city itself. The imposing Heraion of Argos, one of the largest sanctuaries in ancient mainland Greece, stood as a testament to her local prominence. She served as a guardian deity, watching over the city’s well-being and ensuring its prosperity.

The Argive rulers of Argos often aligned themselves with Hera, using her cult to legitimize their power and ensure civic stability. Hera’s worship fostered a sense of community, especially among women. Participation in rituals, offerings, and processions strengthened social bonds and provided a space for shared experiences. Hera’s image and mythology permeated Argive culture, appearing on pottery, coins, and sculptures. References to her were woven into poetry, plays, and local narratives, solidifying her place as a central figure in Argive identity.

Goddess Hera

At Argos, Hera was celebrated every four years during the Argive Heraia, a major festival in her honor. It was one of the most important festivals in all of Greece, second only to the Panhellenic Games like the Olympics. The Argive Heraia was similar to the Samian Heraia with the grand procession, sacrifices, offerings, games, feasts and celebrations, and hymns and praises to the goddess Hera.

Hera was widely celebrated and her image was printed on coins circulated amongst the people and traders from other regions.

Coins of Hera

Hera’s temple at Olympia, Greece predates the ionic temple of Zeus. The Heraia at Olympia was a smaller festival compared to those in Argos and Samos, but it still featured sacrifices, processions, and offering to the goddess. Hera’s worship wasn’t confined to Greece. Temples dedicated to her stood in Magna Graeca (southern Italy), notably in Paestum.

How else was Hera celebrated in ancient Greek society?

While Hera was primarily worshipped through public rituals and ceremonies, there are hints of possible mystery cults surrounding her in ancient Greece. These mystery cults include the Lemnian mysteries. Although details remain shrouded in secrecy, evidence suggests a cult on the island of Lemnos focused on Hera’s chthonic aspects, possibly involving ecstatic rituals and symbolic death and rebirth.

Our knowledge of the Lemnian mysteries comes primarily from scattered references in ancient Greek and Roman literature. Aristotle mentions the women who participated in the Lemnian mysteries were forbidden from using the Athenian Acropolis. Plutarch, a Greek biographer and essayist from Chaironeia, Greece, briefly mentions the mysteries in his work, “Questiones Convivales,” associating them with fertility rites and ecstatic experiences. Aelian, a Roman writer and compiler of miscellaneous information, describes sacrifices and specific rituals involving drums and torches within the Lemnian sacred space. Ovid, a Roman poet known for his epic poems “Metamorphoses” and “Amores,” briefly alluded to the mysteries in his poem, “Metamorphoses,” connecting them to Hera’s anger and the women of Lemnos’ rejection of men.

The Lemnian Mysteries were female-centered. Unlike many ancient cults, the Lemnian Mysteries were exclusive to women, suggesting a sacred space for female ritual practices and empowerment. While details are unclear, the mysteries likely focused on specific aspects of Hera and her association with the Earth and her reproductive power. Scholars mention drums and torches during the ritual implying trance like experiences during the ceremonies. While we have limited information for this ritual we know that it showcases the existence if female-centered rituals and cults in ancient Greece, which challenges the perception of male dominance in religious practices.

So, how do we make the leap from Hera, the Fertility Goddess and Protectress, to Hera the jealous and vengeful and Olympic goddess?

It has been argued that Indo-European invaders from the North descended upon the Greek mainland and brought with them a goal of conquering not just the land and people, but also their religious belief system. The Indo-European invaders were patriarchal with man being worshiped in positions of leadership and power. Because of this invasion the existing cults were subdued and the invaders replaced existing goddess or matriarchal cults with patriarchal cults, with the god Zeus at the head. When Hera was conquered, she was changed from a fertile, earth-based, loving, caring, and motherly goddess, to a wrathful, cruel, unkind, and jealous Queen.

Additionally, the rise of the written epic tradition in ancient Greece helped to created the Panhellenic pantheon that subsumed the existing fertility goddess, Hera (Lynch 2012). In Homer’s Iliad, we find Queen Hera, with violent outbursts, jealous wrath, and consistently quarrelsome. In this poem, Hera experiences debasement and a loss of power. This depiction is in complete and astonishing contrast with the Hera worshiped at Argos and Samos. In mythological stories of Hera , and in the Homeric hymns, and her husband, Zeus, we find multiple instances of Zeus trying to control, demote, and subdue Hera and thwart her actions. Some scholars interpret these mythological stories as representations of power struggles between beliefs of the existing population and the beliefs of the invaders.

The Indo-European invaders brought a cultural shift that reconceptualized power in the ancient world. In the Greek mainland and abroad, there was a decrease in matrilineal powers (and Earth-based powers) and female authority and an increase in male authority and patriarchy (and Sky-based powers) (Lynch 2012). The Indo-European invaders favored the sky god, Zeus as ruler of the heavens, which superseded the existing chthonic deities, such as Hera. And during the Olympian period, Hera’s powers as a native fertility goddess are split up and distributed amongst other goddesses such as Demeter and Persephone.

Hera’s main powers during the Olympian period derive from her role as Zeus’ wife rather than from her individual powers of fertility and civic protectress. While in the modern world, we attribute Hera’s anger towards Zeus because of his constant philandering, others argue that it’s actually due to her refusal to submit to Zeus’ terms of the merging of two cultures (Baring and Cashford 313).

It is clear in the archaeological record that the worship of Hera shifts after the invasion.

Originally in the island of Samos, Hera’s was worshipped as a fertility goddess and her worshipers consistently offered her pomegranates, (sometimes clay and ivory pomegranates) which reflected her connection to fertility, and her imagery consistently depicted her holding pomegranates.

However, there is a sharp decline in pomegranates in Hera’s sanctuary on Samos around 600 BC. This reflects a change in her worshipper’s perception of Hera at this time. According the Lynch (2012:25) “scholars suspect that as Panhellenic images of Hera grew….the need for fertility offerings like the pomegranate diminished.” Rather as her powers were divided amongst other goddesses, the pomegranate became associated with Persephone instead. It is also at this time that Zeus makes his first appearance on the island of Samos (late 7th century BC) and elsewhere where Hera held prominence.

What is Hera’s Enduring Legacy?

Hera, the goddess of women, marriage, fertility, and childbirth in Greek mythology, holds a complex and enduring legacy that stretches far beyond her portrayal in Homer’s Iliad. While the vengeful and jealous Hera in the Iliad may be the most well-known version, this doesn’t fully represent her legacy. In different regions and throughout history, she was revered for various positive qualities:

  • Fertility and abundance: As an agricultural goddess, she ensured harvests and prosperity.

  • Marriage and fidelity: She symbolized the sanctity of marriage and family life.

  • Women’s power and leadership: Throughout Greece, she held authority and respect, seen as a powerful female figure.

  • Protection and guidance: In cities like Argos and Samos, she was worshipped as a protector and benefactor.

Hera’s origin story has been re-written since the Panhellenic Olympian stories have taken prominence and shaped her identity. Though later interpretations often focused on her jealous side, Hera’s true essence goes beyond this stereotype. She embodies the multifaceted nature of the divine feminine, encompassing fertility, power, protection, motherhood, love, bith, womanhood, and the complexities of relationships. Understanding her diverse cults and ancient contexts reveals a goddess deeply woven into the fabric of ancient Greek society, leaving a lasting legacy in mythology and cultural understanding.

Works Cited

  1. Baring, Anne, and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

  2. Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.

  3. Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

  4. Guthrie, W.K.C. The Greeks and Their Gods. Boston: Beacon Press , 1950.

  5. Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. A.D. Godley. 4 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.

  6. Hesiod. Theogony. Trans. Glenn W. Most. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

  7. Homer. The Homeric Hymns. Trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Ed. T.E. Page. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950.

  8. Homer. Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 1990.

  9. Lynch, Katherine. The Domestication of Hera. Thesis. Dept. of Classics, Colorado College. May 2012.

  10. O’Brien, Joan. The Transformation of Hera: A Study of Ritual, Hero, and the Goddess in the Iliad. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1993.

  11. Pedley, John. Sanctuaries and the Sacred in the Ancient Greek World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


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