Hera

Major cults of Hera were not evenly spread over the Greek world, but instead were characteristic of certain regions and peoples. The Dorians of the northeast Peloponnese (Argos, Korinth, Tiryns) and the Peloponnesians who colonized southern Italy honored her the most. A famous Ionian seat of her worship was the island of Samos. Her cult enjoyed its greatest prosperity during the Archaic period, when Argos and Samos were at the height of their power. Hera’s origins are generally thought to lie in a powerful prehellenic goddess (or goddesses) whose cult was adopted by the Mycenaean Greeks. Her name has been connected with the word hora, season, indicating fertility and ripeness for marriage, and appears on Linear B tablets from Pylos (in connection with Zeus) and Thebes. The same etymology makes Hera a feminine form of heros, and this background may help to elucidate the goddess’ complex ties to heroes, Herakles above all, and the genesis of the Greek concept of the mythic and cultic hero.

Greek poetry and myth tell us of a goddess who vehemently opposes her husband’s extramarital affairs and attempts to punish her rivals and their offspring. She is a scheming and vengeful deity, who plots against the Trojans when she loses the beauty contest judged by Paris, but she also has favorites such as the hero Jason, whom she aids in his quest for the Golden Fleece. She is not a tender mother, but Homer describes her sexual union with Zeus as a source of fecund power (Il. 14.347–49): “under them the divine earth grew newly-sprouted grass, dewy clover, crocuses, and hyacinths, thick and soft.” In some of her cults, Hera is likewise viewed primarily as a bride or wife, and her status as Zeus’ consort is central for worshipers. But in her most famous cults (Argos and Samos) Hera is a powerful city goddess who fosters economic and military success. In these cases her relationship to Zeus is not a crucial factor, and the literary portrait of a jealous, scheming wife seems far removed from the cultic experience of an awe-inspiring deity who brings success in battle, multiplies the herds of cattle, frees the enslaved, and protects the young for her chosen people.