I have to say, the number of submissions from folks saying, "Ooh! Ooh! Can you talk about this awesome mythological lady next week?!" has been pretty awesome. The ladies often get lost in the background behind the rippling muscles of your Thors and Horuses, so I'm glad you guys are enjoying hearing about them as much as we are! Today's request says: Could you talk about Hera for your 'Awesome Women in Mythology' day? She gets such a bad rap...
Indeed, Hera does get a bad rap. To be entirely fair, that's because she curses and murders a lot of people who are helpless to resist her, and we can all probably agree that this is not a morally acceptable course of action. However, this is not particularly unique to her among the Greek gods, who are sort of a giant and constant drunken frat party hurling curses and lethal weapons in every direction at all hours of the day, and where other gods get their transgressions handwaved away, Hera's are focused on to the point where she is cast as a fully evil and irredeemable villain in a lot of modern media (such as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, for example). A good deal of this is because Hera's smitings are in direct response to her husband Zeus' infidelities, which feels indefensible to those of us who have modern morals and are not okay with the idea of murdering someone your spouse cheated on you with, but a lot of it is also due simply to the fact that Hera is a woman, and therefore is judged more harshly for her actions against other gods and mortals than many of the male gods are. Sure, we know it's incredibly unacceptable for Apollo to kill a bunch of people for insulting his mom or for Hephaestus to try to rape his sister or for Ares to go on a spree that leaves thousands dead in his wake, but we tend to consider that "more" acceptable than Hera's retaliatory acts against her husband's paramours, simply because we have a cultural narrative that says that violence and revenge are more appropriate from men than from women. And that's not something new, either - the ancient Greek writers recording stories about Hera get on her case for her actions in a way they don't for masculine gods, and often the moral of the tale when Hera confronts Zeus turns out to be "wives should not throw a fit about things their husbands do because that isn't their place."
But let's back the train up a little bit and talk about who Hera is in the first place, and all the ways she is a queenly power in the Greek world second to none other.
Hera is the queen among the gods, and seriously, this is not in question. She is the most powerful female of the pantheon and wields authority that only Zeus is above; she doesn't necessarily do a lot of creation of laws and laying down the smack on other members of the pantheon, which might tread on Zeus' toes were she to do it without checking with him first, but the gods know that they cannot challenge her directly and that incurring her wrath is courting total disaster. She is the only other deity besides Zeus and his forbear Ouranos whose domain is the sky itself, representing that she shares in that power with him and is an equal authority over the heavens, and she is the preeminent deity presiding over the family, which was an extremely important convention in ancient Greek life and the source of most of her imagery and power. We've talked about ladies who are political powerhouses because of their cunning, their savvy and their ability to confuse others, but Hera doesn't do any of those things; she rules because she is a ruler, and her authority is unquestionable.
Hera is the goddess of marriage, and by extension childbirth, family and the tight bonds of relationships and filial loyalty. This is an extremely important role; it is family that provided most ancient Greeks with their closest and most important supporters and followers, that allowed a person's legacy to continue onward through their children and that allowed different people to ally themselves through marriage and thereby become even stronger. In addition to being the patron of all wives and mothers, who strove to emulate her familial loyalty and love, Hera was also the deity that must be called upon to bless a marriage and allow it to be fruitful and successful. Without her, no marriage could succeed, and she was lavishly worshiped during engagements and weddings.
But what does Hera actually do, in Greek myth? Her stories - aside from her constant attempts to prevent Zeus' extramarital affairs, which are normally related as part of stories about Zeus himself - are not retold as often as those of other gods, but they're no less awesome, nor do they paint her as anything but a picture of an intensely badass lady-queen.
The ones that stick for most people are her campaigns against Zeus' other lovers and illegitimate children, which are the source of her villainization in later centuries, and those require a little context. Hera does indeed make a point of smiting, destroying or terrorizing any other woman Zeus has a relationship with or children that come from those relationships, but while anger is certainly part of her motivation, her reasons run deeper than that. For one thing, as goddess of marriage itself, having an unfaithful husband is a direct affront to her very core function as a goddess; it is her nature to promote family harmony and faithfulness, so Zeus' extracurricular activities are not only emotionally distressing but also a direct challenge to her divine power over the arena of marriage, one that she can't let pass by her unchallenged. Also, while it was certainly not okay for women to cheat on their spouses in ancient Greece, it was pretty widely accepted for men, even men not as important as Zeus the King of the Universe, and therefore Hera really can't do anything directly to him (a fact that various writers, especially Homer, like to point out whenever they think she's getting too upset over this tiny inconsequential case of serial infidelity).
So, while Hera can't kick Zeus' ass for cheating on her, she can punish the women who cheated with him, as well as their children (who, especially in the case of those that Zeus later brings to live on Olympus with him, threaten the position and power of Hera's own children and are a very direct danger to her family unit). So she does - often, thoroughly, and without mercy - in a variety of creative ways. When Zeus impregnated the Titan goddess Leto with Artemis and Apollo, Hera rendered her unable to give birth anywhere on earth so that she was in constant misery, and forbade any other deities of childbirth from going near her; she similarly prevented Alcmene from giving birth to Heracles, and once the child was was born sent giant serpents to kill him in his cradle; when Zeus' affair with Semele caught her attention, she convinced the girl to ask a boon of Zeus that she knew would kill her; and although Zeus attempted to hide his paramour Io from her by turning the woman into a cow, Hera was unimpressed by his attempts at subtlety and sent a gadfly that stung the creature mercifully all the way to Egypt and well away from Zeus. No matter who Zeus' lovers are or what kind of children they bear, they face instant and angry backlash from Hera; she cannot and does not allow them to flaunt their relationship with him or attempt to pass themselves off as legitimate family members.
(The one exception to this is actually Ganymede, Zeus' cupbearer and the most beautiful boy in the world, whom the king of the gods also kidnapped to be his lover; Hera is occasionally mentioned to be displeased about his presence, but she never takes action against him. Most likely, Hera isn't bothered about him because he's male; there was no such thing as marriage between two men in ancient Greek culture and he was hardly going to have any children to usurp her own family's place, and older men with younger boys as lovers was an accepted practice in various parts of Greece irrespective of marriage, even if she was personally irritated about Zeus sleeping with yet another person besides herself.)
People frequently remember Hera's crusades against Zeus' lovers, but less often talked about his her battleworthy awesomeness, which is pretty goddamned impressive to be so unremembered. Hera is not known as a warrior goddess, but her power is such that when the need arises she can bust out some combat moves that put the enemy to shame before going home and getting on with her more important family duties. During the Gigantomachy when the giants assaulted Olympus and the gods mobilized to defeat them, she sallied forth with her spear and struck down the giant Phoetus so that he could be defeated, presumably without losing even an iota of her queenly dignity.
And, of course, her spats with her step-daughter Artemis are legendary. During the Trojan war as told in the Iliad, Artemis dared to side with the city of Troy and oppose Hera, who supported the Greeks. Hera delivers a masterful trash-talk that is so good we have to share it directly with you:
"How have you had the daring, you shameless hussy, to stand up and face me? It will be hard for you to match your strength with mine even if you wear a bow, since Zeus has made you a lion among women, and given you leave to kill any at your pleasure. Better for you to hunt down the ravening beasts in the mountains and deer of the wilds, than try to fight in strength with your betters. But if you would learn what fighting is, come on. You will find out how much stronger I am when you try to match strength against me."
When Artemis tries to respond by shooting her, Hera grabs both of the younger goddess' wrists and boxes her ears with her own hands, after which Artemis is forced to flee in tears to complain to Zeus, who is basically like "I don't know what you want from me, it's not like I'm going to go fight her for you."
You would think Hera would not have to lay that smack down twice, but during the Indian War, Artemis again attempts to stand against her in battle, with similarly humiliating results. Hera has driven Dionysus to madness (for her aforementioned reasons of punishing the children of Zeus' affairs, as Dionysus is one) and Artemis attempts to cure him, but is scared away when Hera hurls a lightning bolt at her in warning. When Artemis then takes the side of the Indians and directly opposes Hera again, Hera wraps herself in a cloud that swallows up all of Artemis' arrows shot against it, leaving the goddess out of ammunition in short order, and then grabs a giant chunk of hail out of the sky and proceeds to beat the daylights out of Artemis with it, breaking Artemis' famous bow and generally making her feelings on the situation evident. (Poor Artemis doesn't seem to have much awareness of her siblings' better choices in these myths - in both wars, both Apollo and Dionysus perform graceful exits when Hera starts getting pissed off, but Artemis never seems to get the memo.)
So clearly Hera is not in the business of taking even the tiniest quantities of shit from anyone. In addition to all her literal awesomeness in those arenas, Hera is also finally the ultimate wife and mother among the gods; you might think that his frequent philandering means that Zeus is not actually very interested in his wife, but Greek sources constantly stress Hera's incredible beauty and the fact that Zeus is completely bonkers about her. When she refused to marry him in the early days of Olympus (she was concerned about incest, which Zeus apparently decided was not a real problem for him), Zeus could not forget her charms and eventually transformed himself into a cuckoo, living as her pet until he was able to turn back into himself and seduce her; much later, during the Trojan War, Hera has only to say the equivalent of, "Hey, Zeus, wanna go to bed?" and he immediately forgets all about monitoring this stupid war thing and leaves with her, allowing various sneaky shenanigans to go on behind his back while he isn't paying attention. And, of course, one of the most famous myths of Zeus and Hera is that of the time that, fed up with his womanizing, Hera simply left him and departed to go live on the island of Euboia with her foster-mother Tethys. Zeus was deeply distraught by her absence and asked Dionysus for advice about how to win her back, and the two constructed an elaborate ruse in which Zeus pretended to hold a wedding for himself and a new wife, which was in actuality just a dummy dressed in wedding finery. When Hera noticed the event and arrived in full righteous wrath to smite the interloper, she realized that Zeus had gone to great lengths because of his love for her, and agreed to remain with him again.
Actually, in spite of their obvious faults, Hera and Zeus were intended by ancient Greek writers to be one of the great love stories of their time, and to be examples, in good times, of the perfect qualities in wife and husband. And Hera, mistress of marriage and ultimate power over relationships who makes it possible for her own marriage to be emulated on earth, is both example and dispenser of the most coveted and joyous of marriages and households.
The ancient Greeks clearly thought her worth celebrating, so we don't have much excuse for not agreeing!