Hera, the eldest daughter of Cronus and Rhea, was born at Samos, or, according to some accounts, at Argos, and was reared by the sea-divinities Oceanus and Tethys, who were models of conjugal fidelity. She was the principal wife of Zeus, and, as queen of heaven, participated in the honours paid to him, but her dominion only extended over the air (the lower aërial regions). Hera appears to be the sublime embodiment of strict matronly virtue, and is on that account the protectress of purity and married women. Faultless herself in her fidelity as a wife, she is essentially the type of the sanctity of the marriage tie, and holds in abhorrence any violation of its obligations. So strongly was she imbued with this hatred of any immorality, that, finding herself so often called upon to punish the failings of both gods and men in this respect, she became jealous, harsh, and vindictive. Her exalted position as the wife of the supreme deity, combined with her extreme beauty, caused her to become exceedingly vain, and she consequently resented with great severity any infringement on her rights as queen of heaven, or any apparent slight on her personal appearance.
The following story will signally illustrate how ready she was to resent any slight offered to her.
At the marriage of the sea-nymph Thetis with a mortal called Peleus, all the gods and goddesses were present, except Eris (the goddess of Discord). Indignant at not being invited, she determined to cause dissension in the assembly, and for this purpose threw into the midst of the guests a golden apple with the inscription on it "For the Fairest." Now, as all the goddesses were extremely beautiful, each claimed the apple; but at length, the rest having relinquished their pretensions, the number of candidates was reduced to three, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, who agreed to appeal to Paris for a settlement of this delicate question, he being noted for the wisdom he had displayed in his judgment upon several occasions. Paris was the son of Priam, king of Troy, who, ignorant of his noble birth, was at this time feeding his flocks on Mount Ida, in Phrygia. Hermes, as messenger of the gods, conducted the three rival beauties to the young shepherd, and with breathless anxiety they awaited his decision. Each fair candidate endeavoured to secure his favour by the most tempting offers. Hera promised him extensive dominions; Athena, martial fame and glory; and Aphrodite, the loveliest woman in the world. But whether he really considered Aphrodite the fairest of the three, or preferred a beautiful wife to fame and power, we cannot tell; all we know is that to her he awarded the golden apple, and she became ever after universally acknowledged as the goddess of beauty. Hera, having fully expected that Paris would give her the preference, was so indignant that she never forgave him, and not only persecuted him, but all the family of Priam, whose dreadful sufferings and misfortunes during the Trojan war were attributed to her influence. In fact, she carried her animosity to such an extent that it was often the cause of domestic disagreements between herself and Zeus, who espoused the cause of the Trojans.
Among the many stories of these frequent quarrels there is one connected with Heracles, the favourite son of Zeus, which is as follows:—Hera having raised a storm at sea in order to drive him out of his course, Zeus became so angry that he hung her in the clouds by a golden chain, and attached heavy anvils to her feet. Her son Hephaestus tried to release his mother from her humiliating position, for which Zeus threw him out of heaven, and his leg was broken by the fall.
Hera, being deeply offended with Zeus, determined to separate herself from him for ever, and she accordingly left him and took up her abode in Eubœa. Surprised and grieved at this unlooked-for desertion, Zeus resolved to leave no means untried to win her back again. In this emergency he consulted Cithaeron, king of Platea, who was famed for his great wisdom and subtlety. Cithaeron advised him to dress up an image in bridal attire and place it in a chariot, announcing that this was Platea, his future wife. The artifice succeeded. Hera, incensed at the idea of a rival, flew to meet the procession in great anger, and seizing the supposed bride, she furiously attacked her and dragged off her nuptial attire. Her delight on discovering the deception was so great that a reconciliation took place, and, committing the image to the flames, with joyful laughter she seated herself in its place and returned to Olympus.
Hera was the mother of Ares (Mars), Hephaestus, Hebe, and Eileithyia. Ares was the god of War; Hephaestus, of Fire; Hebe, of Youth; and Eileithyia presided over the birth of mortals.
Hera dearly loved Greece, and indeed always watched over and protected Greek interests, her beloved and favourite cities being Argos, Samos, Sparta, and Mycenæ.
Her principal temples were at Argos and Samos. From a remote period she was greatly venerated at Olympia, and her temple there, which stood in the Altis or sacred grove, was five hundred years older than that of Zeus on the same spot. Some interesting excavations which are now going on there have brought to light the remains of the ancient edifice, which contains among other treasures of antiquity several beautiful statues, the work of the famous sculptors of ancient Greece. At first this temple was built of wood, then of stone, and the one lately discovered was formed of conglomerate of shells.
In the Altis races were run by young maidens in honour of Hera, and the fleetest of foot received in token of her victory an olive-wreath and a piece of the flesh of the sacrifices. These races, like the Olympic Games, were celebrated at intervals of four years, and were called Heræ. A beautiful robe, woven by sixteen women chosen from the sixteen cities of Elis, was always offered to Hera on these occasions, and choral songs and sacred dances formed part of the ceremonies.
Hera is usually represented seated on a throne, holding a pomegranate in one hand and a sceptre surmounted by a cuckoo in the other. She appears as a calm, dignified matron of majestic beauty, robed in a tunic and mantle, her forehead is broad and intellectual, her eyes large and fully opened, and her arms dazzlingly white and finely moulded.
The finest statue of this divinity was that by Polycletus at Argos.
Her attributes are the diadem, veil, sceptre, and peacock.
The first day of every month a ewe-lamb and sow were sacrificed to Hera. The hawk, goose, and more particularly the peacock were sacred to her. Flocks of these beautiful birds generally surround her throne and draw her chariot, Iris, the Rainbow, being seated behind her.
Her favourite flowers were the dittany, poppy, and lily.