Hera, Ancient Greek goddess of… feminism?

The Greek goddess Hera was the patroness of marriage, status, and social power, and as I hope to demonstrate here, a goddess appropriate to feminism too. By analyzing the character of a goddess we follow the late psychologist James Hillman’s suggestion that “Mythology is psychology in ancient dress,” – ie. it gives us insight into human nature, and more specifically into the nature of feminism.

No other goddess in the Greek pantheon comes close to capturing the activities we associate with feminism – not the warlike independence of the Amazons, not the esteemed motherhood of Demeter, and not the allure of Aphrodite. These are merely peripheral topics taken up by a feminism that is concerned with securing multiple varieties of power, and Hera is the goddess I’m going to finger for that role.

Marriage

Hera was first and foremost a goddess of marriage, or rather the goddess of marriage. Under her sign marriage tamed men to great advantage of the Greek State – and the State in turn extended honors to her cult. In parts of Greece men could not be recognized as citizens until the day of their marriage, thus enticing men to marry and providing a means for Greek cities to continue reproducing the citizen-estate – not to mention securing a ready supply of laborers, taxes and military personnel to boot. James Hillman writes,

Marriage belongs to the state; it belongs to society, to the community. Zeus and Hera are social stability; they are the state in a way, so we can be married by a Justice of the Peace at City Hall, because marriage is also secular. We recognize that by having both church weddings and legal weddings. Our tax code, our inheritance laws acknowledge that a fundamental structure of the organization of society is marriage. Therefore some can claim it has nothing in particular to do with the persons who are engaged; it hasn’t anything to do with God; it hasn’t anything to do with symbolic representations. It is a fundamental structure of society belonging to the polis or the city or the community.1

While the marriage of Hera and Zeus is mythological, life in this instance had a way of imitating art. In the marriage month (Gamelion ) the mythical marriage of Hera and Zeus was reenacted and celebrated with public festivities, a time when many couples would get married in imitation of the divine couple. On these occasions prayers and offerings were given to Hera, and the bride would pledge fidelity to extending Hera’s dominion on earth. One can only surmise that the riches, status, and influence of the divine couple became a model to which each couple would hope to aspire.

Another facet of Hera’s cult was the focus on buildings, and her temples were usually the biggest and most lavish in all Greece. Women would carve small houses, or make them out of clay and give as offerings to the Goddess. Remarking on this practice, Hillman states that our modern obsession with houses and real estate, one of the bedrocks of our economy, may also arise from a Hera-like sentiment;

If you think back to all the times you play house as a child, or had a dollhouse, or made little houses out of cartons and boxes, this is an archetypal move going on. We forget that the house is not just something made by an architect and sold you by a developer… What one does for the house, to the house, with the house, is taking care of Hera. Housekeeping is a Hera activity. Our culture recognizes this. Think of the enormous quantity of house magazines: House and Garden, House Beautiful, Home Decorating, Architectural Digest, World of Interiors, the home section of newspapers, home improvement on TV, supposedly a best-selling TV show or one of the most watched, “This Old House.”

“I know a woman who decorates people’s houses. You pick out the furniture and the fabrics –
then she’ll lay out the paintings you should have, what repros you should have on the wall, and the bric-a-brac and what colors the walls should be and so on. She told me that in every one of the cases that she works with (of married couples), the woman picks out everything in the house and the entire house belongs to her except for the husband’s desk and his playroom and maybe the garage. He has his little area and the rest of the house is hers. He makes no decisions about what color the upholstery should be or the kinds of window shades.

“Often when you go to people’s houses the wife shows off the house while the husbands talk shop. “Come, let me show you my house; I want to show you the house.” She’s showing a part of her Hera nature.

“There are these old sayings (whether you go with the gender of them or not): a woman likes a man who can do things around the house, and she hates it that she always has to pick up after him and he leaves things in a mess. By desecrating the house that way, he insults Hera. And a man likes a woman who’s a good housekeeper. These are Hera statements. Another one: She loves the house more than me. And the jokes: A man is making love to a whore and she says, “You’re the greatest;” and when he’s making love to his mistress, she says, “I love you so much.” But when he’s making love to his wife, she says: “I wonder what color we should paint the ceiling.” Now, that is a nasty gender joke, but it isn’t! She really loves the house. That’s crucial and shouldn’t be treated as just a kind of obsession. Her obsession with the house equals his obsession with sex.1

In a telling newspaper cartoon some years ago, two women were conversing. The first said she was getting a divorce, to which her friend replied it must be an awful thing to go through. “Not really” the woman replied, “it’s actually a dream come true; I get the house, the furniture, the artworks and the kids. I’ve been planning this divorce since I was a little girl!” In this cruel cartoon we get a sense that the husband was merely a backdrop to securing the larger vision of a house, renovations, furnishings and the children. But especially the house.

Taming Men

Hera was nicknamed ‘The Tamer.’ She tamed horses, men and heroes and in some places was recognized as the tamer of the seasons, of nature, and even the universe itself.

Her goal was to limit wildness and freedom by placing all creatures in her service. Her tools-for-taming were the entrapment of men and women in marriage, the use of her own sexuality as an enticement for conformity, shaming, and aggressive punishment of any rebellious behaviours. Even her lordly husband Zeus did not escape her control: “Hera’s cruel rage tamed him.”2

Hera was worshipped as ‘Goddess of the yoke,’ an enslaving device symbolizing her desire to create utilities of beasts and men. She yoked obedient men to wives, and yoked heroes to an inevitable death through their performance of labours that bring betterment to women and society.

In the Iliad Hera is said to tame heroes through death, not marriage. Death through service to others was considered -and is still considered- something appropriate for males and for their own good. In The Myth of Male Power Warren Farrell recounts a Greek story which illustrates the fact:

The Hero As Slave:


Once upon a time, a mother who wanted to see the beautiful statue of Hera had no oxes or horses to carry her there. But she did have two sons. And the sons wanted more than anything to make their mother’s wish come true. They volunteered to yoke themselves to a cart and take her over the mountains in the scorching heat to the faraway village of Argos, the home of the statue of Hera (the wife of Zeus). Upon their arrival in Argos, the sons were cheered and statues (that can be found to this day) were built in their honor. Their mother prayed that Hera give her sons the best gift in her power. Hera did that. The boys died. The traditional interpretation? The best thing that can happen to a man is to die at the height of his glory and power. Yet had this been a myth of two daughters who had substituted themselves for oxen to carry their father somewhere, would we have interpreted the daughters’ deaths as proof that the best thing that can happen to a woman is to die at the height of her glory and power? The statues and cheers can be seen as bribes for the sons to value their lives less than their mother’s request to view a statue. The fact that the statue was of Hera, the queen of the Olympian gods and protector of married women is symbolic. The sons’ sacrifice symbolized the mandate for men to become strong enough to serve the needs of mothers and marriage, and to be willing to call it glory if they died in the process. Which is why the name Hercules means “for the glory of Hera”.3

Sexual manipulation was another of Hera’s strategems to gain what she wanted. In one popular tale, for instance, she asked if she could borrow Aphrodite’s magic girdle to help her woo the King of the gods. By borrowing Aphrodite’s natural charms (the girdle) Hera imitated the goddess of love and sex and thereby seduced Zeus. As we read in Homer’s Iliad, the magical girdle of Aphrodite had the power to create subservience in the target;

Hera was divided in purpose as to how she could beguile the brain in Zeus of the aigis. And to her mind this thing appeared to be the best counsel, to array herself in loveliness, and go down to Ida, and perhaps he might be taken with desire to lie in love with her next her skin, and she might be able to drift an innocent warm sleep across his eyelids, and seal his crafty perceptions…

Now, when she had clothed her body in all this loveliness, she went out from the chamber, and called aside Aphrodite to come away from the rest of the gods, and spoke a word to her: ‘Would you do something for me, dear child… Give me loveliness and desirability, graces with which you overwhelm mortal men, and all the immortals…

Then in turn Aphrodite the laughing (philomeides) answered her: ‘I cannot, and I must not deny this thing that you ask for, you, who lies in the arms of Zeus, since he is our greatest.’ She spoke, and from her breasts unbound the elaborate, pattern-pierced zone (himas), and on it are figured all beguilement (philotes), and loveliness is figured upon it, and passion of sex (himeros) is there, and the whispered endearment (oaristos) that steals the heart away even from the thoughtful. She put this in Hera’s hands, and called her by name and spoke to her: ‘Take this zone, and hide it away in the fold of your bosom. It is elaborate, all things are figured therein. And I think whatever is your heart’s desire shall not go unaccomplished.’ So she spoke, and the ox-eyed lady Hera smiled on her and smiling hid the zone away in the fold of her bosom.4

Hera employed sexual manipulativeness as an artifice to purchase the power and influence she so desperately craved. Today we would call this behavior “Love bombing,” which has the ability to tame a man to schemes he might otherwise have never dreamed of following.

Binding Hera’s rage

When Hera didn’t get her desired measure of power, when her status didn’t reach high enough, or worse, when she lost status or power, things went very badly for the world around her. Epithets of spitefulness, jealousy, vengefulness, vindictiveness, cruelty and rage belong to the scorned goddess, and from a reading of the myths it seems she felt scorned much of the time.

We turn for example to the priestess Medea who murdered her children as revenge against her husband’s transgressions. Her husband, Jason of Argonauts fame, decided to leave her after the marriage went stale. He found a new bride and Medea devised to make them suffer for their happiness. Much like the goddess Hera to whom Medea was priestess, she carried out a scorched-earth policy in the face of frustrated power urges, saying;

Sorry, kids, but your dad's a douche

Sorry, kids, but your dad’s a douche

I will send them with gifts in their hands, carrying them unto the bride a robe of finest woof and a chaplet of gold. And if these ornaments she take and put them on, miserably shall she die, and likewise everyone who touches her; with such fell poisons will I smear my gifts. And here I quit this theme; but I shudder at the deed I must do next; for I will slay the children I have borne… and when I have utterly confounded Jason’s house I will leave the land, escaping punishment for my dear children’s murder, after my most unholy deed… so help me God, Never shall he see again alive the children I bore to him, nor from his new bride shall he beget issue, for she must die a hideous death, slain by my drugs. Let no one deem me a poor weak woman who sits with folded hands, but of another mould, dangerous to foes and well-disposed to friends.5

After killing Jason’s bride with a poison-smeared robe, murdering her own children, and then setting fire to the palace, Medea fled to Athens where she married the mighty King Aegeus, thereby securing a place of notoriety in the mythological scheme of Greece.

Mythologist Karl Kerenyi asks, “What should we make of it that Medea, a barbaric representative of the Hera world, and her gloomy cult, found acceptance in the sacred precinct of Zeus’ spouse?”6 Kerenyi was struck by the fact that Hera remained associated with Medea’s barbarism and surrounded her with the sanctity of her own world. Our thoughts on this question might extend to a similar comparison of moderate feminism and how it remains associated with radical feminism’s relational and cultural terrorism.

The Greeks understood better than we moderns, however, that impulses of the psychopathic mind needed to be restrained by a civil society.

To that end the Greeks developed a religious ritual that involved winding a rope tightly around a statue or effigy of the Goddess Hera, particularly during what they imagined to be her ‘unfulfilled’ moments. That hog-tying symbolized containment of destructive energies resulting from loss of status or power. Participants understood the binding was of the proverbial ‘woman scorned,’ a ritual teaching how to deal with such behavior in the lives of mortals.

In contrast to her fulfilled behavior within marriage, when the Queen of Heaven lost her marital station and status, she would tear the social fabric into black confetti. Hera then became monstrous or in some stories started giving birth to monstrous creatures who did her bidding. Jungian psychologist Murray Stein talks to this monstrous side of the goddess;

This compounding of evil upon evil is an image of Hera in her Iuno inferna aspect and energized by a full-blown animus rage and destruction, running amuck through the world, devouring whomever she can lay her hands on. Hera is in this development a veritable epidemic of pathology.

The ancient cults of Hera showed great foresight and wisdom in “binding” her image during the dangerous periods of her cycle. This was prophylactic against the potentiation of the she-dragon. But what could they have done to prevent this potentiation in the face of the Typhaonian spirit energizing it? Hera’s reaction to her experience with Zeus bursts all fetters, for without a full experience of the Teleia [fulfillment] aspect of the cycle the bindings on the infernal aspect of it cannot possibly hold. Thus we find in the Homeric and classical image of her a Hera Unbound, whose boundlessness knows no limit to destruction. The rhythm inherent in the archetype has been disturbed, and we get a sort of symphony whose rhythm is one long downbeat. The restoration of Hera Teleia is an individual and cultural historical project that is still being worked on in our time.7

Feminism

The comparisons of Hera and Medea with feminism are unmistakable. The male shaming, intimidation, manipulation, and power-seeking are all there – as are the destructiveness and scorched-earth policy accompanying frustrated goals.

It’s no surprise that a Google search for Hera + feminist returns over 80,000 results, and Medea + feminist over 100,000, and the number of feminist orgs, initiatives and editorials paints its own picture; The Hera Women’s Cancer Foundation; Hera Entrepreneurs Against Trafficking; Hera Hub: female-focused co working space and entrepreneurship; The Hera Herald; Hera Society; Hera Health, Empowerment and Rights for Women; Hera Communications: Empowerment, Enrichment, Enlightenment; Women’s Club Hera (etc.).

Along with Hera, Medea is universally recognized as a feminist heroine. As an example of feminist websites promoting her we read, “There is, however, one other role that we twenty-first-century audiences are able to recognize in Medea: that of the feminist pioneer. And the fact that this precursor of the suffragettes is a mythic character dramatized nearly 2,500 years ago by a man is quite astonishing.”8

The Wikipedia entry for Medea reads, “Medea is widely read as a proto-feminist text to the extent that it sympathetically explores the disadvantages of being a woman in a patriarchal society,” – to which characterization is implied (by feminists) that we dare not read her as anything but a hapless victim, as one Jungian analyst Cheryl Fuller was to discover.

Fuller, a feminist, gives a revealing account of what happened when she attempted to shine a light on the dark side of Medea, and by extension of women. She writes;

Eight years ago as I searched for a dissertation advisor, I ran into a wall with the feminist scholars on the faculty of my university. As soon as I explained that I wanted to write about Medea came the assumption: of course, they said, you will be looking at the patriarchy as the issue in her behavior. And when I replied that indeed I was not going to be looking in that direction, but rather at Medea herself and at the meaning intrinsic to her acts and her story, interest in my work evaporated and they declined to serve on my committee. Though long a feminist myself, I had been absent from developments in academic feminism. It had escaped my attention that there were “right” ways and “wrong” ways to study women, both real and mythological, and clearly considering Medea as anything other than a victim of the patriarchy was the “wrong” way.

I persisted, found an advisor who could accept my apparently heretical viewpoint and happily explored the character of Medea and developed a description of a Medea complex. But the resistance to considering that Medea could be anything other than a hapless victim of the patriarchy continued to intrigue me and set me to wondering about the meaning of excluding this dark and troubling aspect of her, and by extension all of us, from our understanding of what it is to be human and more specifically a woman. It is this wondering which is the subject of my paper.9

In summary, the traditional binding of Hera has failed and her destructive energies are loosed upon the world – to devastating effect. Her bindings began to unravel in the Middle Ages with the advent of an indiscriminate chivalry that saw men worshiping women as pure and infallable vessels, while failing to recognize and bind their destructive potentials with reasonable forms of social constraint.

While we continue on our current path the scorched earth policy too will continue… compliments of a vengeful, and power-craving Hera.

References:

[1] James Hillman, ‘Hera, Goddess of Marriage’ in Mythic Figures (2007)
[2] Joan O’Brien, ‘The Tamer of Heroes and Horses,’ Chapter 6E in The Transformation of Hera, (1993)
[3] Warren Farrell, The Myth of Male Power, Simon and Schuster, (1993)
[4] Richard Lattimore, Trans. The Iliad of Homer (1951)
[5] Medea By Euripides (431 B.C.E), Translated by E. P. Coleridge (1891)
[6] Karl Kerenyi, Goddesses of Sun and Moon (1979)
[7] Murray Stein, Hera: Bound and Unbound, in Spring: an annual of Archetypal Psychology (1977)
[8] Medea: Everywoman, Many Women (website)
[9] Cheryl Fuller, Medea, Feminism and the Shadow (2009)

Author’s note: Part of the Taming section was previously published in the article How to tame men.

One thought on “Hera, Ancient Greek goddess of… feminism?

  1. E. Coppinger

    Your material is worth serious study;
    a deeper insight; feminism is not about manipulation The true power of woman comes when she is fully aware of her gifts and when she takes possession of them with full self confidence. E. Coppinger.

    Reply

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