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The Religion of Hera in Ancient Greece
The Goddess Hera
While a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, I took a history course (Classics 381) and did my major paper on Hera. I have always enjoyed Greek mythology and reading the stories of the gods and goddesses. This paper earned me an A+, the only one I ever got on a paper. This paper is about 20 years old so new discoveries since that time may render some of this information inaccurate but this is the paper in its original state. Enjoy!
The Religion of Hera
Religions have always served to give meaning and purpose to the lives of the faithful followers. The ancient Greeks were not exempted from the desire for the comfort that religion offered. There were numerous cults for the different gods and goddesses that the Greeks worshipped. They often built elaborate temples for the appropriate deity and held various rituals and ceremonies so as to please the god or goddess. One goddess worshipped by the Greeks was Hera, most often considered the goddess of marriage and the consort of Zeus. There were sanctuaries for Hera at Paestum and Samos in what is now southern Italy, at Olympia and Argos in the Peloponnese, and on the island of Euboea. Hera was considered "the most highly revered deity of Magna Graecia" (von Matt 45). Nevertheless, her role as goddess was a bit confusing. She has been thought to have been the goddess of the moon, the air, the earth, and flocks and herds, but she was "pre-eminently the goddess of marriage and childbirth" (Guthrie 67). The people who worshipped her prayed for successful marriages and for healthy children, especially sons.
Altars played an important role in the rituals. They were considered the "nucleus and centerpoint of the oldest Hera cults" (Kerenyi 169). According to "an eminent expert on the architecture of ancient temples, ... 'The altar is the beginning of the sanctuary'" (Kerenyi 116-117). The altars used for burnt offerings generally had one side open where the priest stood and windguards on the other three sides to prevent the scattering of the ashes (Kerenyi 150). Altars for the gods were often present before temples were built for them.
The Moon Goddess
Or Goddess of the Underworld?
Hera was often considered the moon goddess. The waxing and waning of the moon had an impact on the rituals of her cults. The marriage ceremony at Argos was performed after the new moon. This apparently symbolized the newly regained virginity of Hera in preparation for her annual marriage to Zeus. W.K.C. Guthrie stated that "since the moon is supposed to influence the life of women, it is natural for a goddess of women to take on certain lunar characteristics" (67). Women's menstrual periods were supposed to follow the cycles of the moon. The time of the new moon signified the hiding away of women during the time of their periods. Hera herself had "set a divine example for the periodicity of mortal women" by hiding herself away in the lygos bushes (Kerenyi 163).
Hera was depicted several times with a pomegranate in her hand. This was representative of Hera's connection with the underworld in that the presence of the pomegranate "plainly characterizes the goddess as a second Persephone" (Kerenyi 125). At the Sele estuary, a depiction of the underworld was present in one of the metopes of the temple. This was the only known depiction of the underworld on any cuIt temple. At Paestum , Hera's cult had "trenches designed for sacrifices to the gods of the underworld" in addition to the altar used for sacrifices to Hera (Kerenyi 171).
Hera and Zeus
Zeus was considered by most people to be both Hera's brother and husband. This was the only circumstance in which this dual relationship was allowed. The followers of Hera and Zeus could not enter into such an arrangement. There were several different myths pertaining to the circumstances of the marriage of Hera and Zeus. One such myth put Hera on a mountain caught in a thunderstorm of Zeus's design. Zeus transformed himself into a cuckoo which Hera sheltered from the storm. At this point, Zeus made himself known to Hera and she became his wife (Kerenyi 123). In a different myth, Hera had gone into hiding. Zeus "led around the 'false Hera' in the wedding procession" and Hera became jealous. She rushed out of her hiding place only to learn she had been tricked. Nevertheless, she replaced the "false Hera" and became the bride herself (Kerenyi 145). Yet another myth had Hera and Zeus eloping. There were many variations to the particulars of the actual wedding, but there was not much doubt that it occurred.
The devotion of the followers of Hera and her role as the goddess of marriage were demonstrated at her shrine at Paestum. The remains of Paestum showed the presence of twelve temples built for Hera. Ten of these had been torn down and the stone used elsewhere (Rutledge). The two temples that remained were the "Basilica" and the "Temple of Poseidon" (von Matt 45). Another shrine found here was the Hypogeum. It was a small building that had apparently been buried by the people who built it. Inside it were jars of honey, some containers that might have held wine, and a bed (Kerenyi 178). The Hypogeum probably served as a marriage chamber for the gods and goddesses (Rutledge). It was representative of the great marriage between Hera and Zeus.
The Cult at Paestum
The cult at Paestum, along with most of the other cults of Hera, performed a marriage ceremony as part of their rituals. At the center of the ritual was a "statue clothed as a bride" which represented Hera (Kerenyi 165). The ritual also involved a bed which served as the marriage bed, but "for Zeus ... no substitute was possible" (Kerenyi 179). They were able to use a physical substitution for Hera but Zeus was expected to be there in his spiritual form. The purpose for the marriage ceremony was "the belief in a union of two great spirits of fertility which was re-enacted in ritual to ensure the abundance of the crops" (Guthrie 68).
The faithful who came to Paestum brought gifts for the goddess. Around the foundations of the temples were found over a million objects with "Hera" inscribed on them (Rutledge). These objects were generally sculptures of the goddess. Many terra-cotta busts of the goddess were also found. They had "lily decorations on their heads and ...(served as) incense stands" (van Matt 46). Much could be learned about the Hera cults from the remains of Paestum. According to Leonard von Matt,Paestum was "one of the best preserved of ancient cities in Magna Graecia" (69).
The Cults at Samos and Olympia
The cult at Samos had a ritual "in which the image of Hera was taken from its temple secretly, and hidden near the shore" (Guthrie 68). This was supposed to represent the mythical flight of Hera. When the statue was found in the estuary, it was "appeased with purifications and sacrificial cakes, and brought back to its pedestal" (Kerenyi 152).
The cult at Samos had a separate ritual that involved the bound statue of Hera. Before her wedding ceremony, the statue had to be tied up, then untied and given the bridal bath (Kerenyi 164). There was little information obtained about the part of the ceremony that involved the actual representation of the wedding . Most likely it was similar to the rituals of the other Hera cults.
The Samian cult had a myth that Hera was born under a lygos tree. Because of this, the lygos had a special meaning to this cult. They had a lygos tree by Hera's altar and they had lygos shrubs carved into a "sacred precinct. .. for Hera" (Kerenyi 154).
At Olympia in the Peloponnese, the first temple built and dedicated was for Hera even though the religion of Zeus was dominant in this area. One explanation for this was that the idea of "the temple as a gift to the deity" arrived with the cult of Hera (Kerenyi 134). The cult at Olympia reportedly had a bed in the temple with which they also performed the ritual of the sacred marriage.
Kerenyi reported that "girls' races (were held) every four years" at Olympia (134). The girls ran in three age groups which represented the three phases of the moon. The winners of these races were thought to be most like the goddess. The prizes included an olive wreath and a part of the sacrificial cow (Kerenyi 135). Hera was said to show herself to men as a white cow so a share of the sacrificial cow would bring the winners especially close to the goddess.
The Cults of Argos and Euboea
The Heraion of Argos "was for centuries the sanctuary of the whole country" (Kerenyi 115). Hera was worshipped here as "the goddess of the yoke" and "sacred herds of cows were kept at the Heraion" (Guthrie 70). The cult here had a sense of mysticism about it in that "a part of the rites and the myths attached to them were not accessible to everyone" (Kerenyi 118). This cult engaged in the bathing of their statue of Hera in the spring Kanathos annually so that Hera could regain her virginity before the celebration of her marriage to Zeus. There was some degree of antagonism between Hera's cult here and her cult at Samos. These were at one time the sites of the two great sanctuaries to Hera. Samos had most likely acquired the cult from Argos by the Argonauts bringing a statue of Hera to Samos as a missionary gesture (Kerenyi 152) .
The island of Euboea possessed a Hera cult. It has been said that "at the feast of the Heraia the whole island was more or less an entire cult stage" (Kerenyi 140). The cult on Euboea also had a ceremony representing the marriage of Hera and Zeus. Kerenyi's extensive description of the ritual is given here in summary. This elaborate ceremony began with the selection of the tree from which the statue of Hera would be made. This was done by placing pieces of meat out for the ravens. The cult members would watch which tree the appropriate bird sat in after eating the meat. This was the tree that was used for the statue of Hera. Along with this statue were fourteen other statues probably representing nymphs escorting the bride to the wedding. The next phase of the ceremony was the bridal bath. The statues were taken to the Aspos River where the bath most likely occurred. The procession then went to Mount Kithairon with the statues on carts drawn by cows. On the top of the mountain stood an altar built to resemble a house. The people performed sacrifices then burned the altar and all of the statues (142-146). It was at this time that Zeus became present in the ceremony and "at him blazed out the mighty sacrificial fire of the bridal chamber" (Kerenyi 146).
Devotion to Hera
Although Hera was one of the more prevalent goddesses worshipped, most places with a shrine for Hera also had shrines for other gods or goddesses. Paestum had a shrine for Athena amongst all the temples for Hera. At many of the Hera cult sites, Zeus was worshipped along with his consort. Kerenyi reported that "only the sacred precinct at the Sele estuary was ruled by her alone"(168). This was her one area of worship independent of all other deities.
Hera being the goddess of marriage and childbirth gave her a place of dominance in the Greek pantheon. Most people were concerned with procreation so the worship of Hera was particularly important. Her worship was not an idle pastime as was demonstrated by the time and money put into all the temples dedicated to her. Hera's association with Zeus played a major part in her worship. Being the consort of the mighty Zeus also gave her a high status among the gods and goddesses. Her followers recognized this relationship by their elaborate wedding ceremonies held annually to celebrate the holy marriage.
The cults at Paestum, Samos, Olympia, Argos, and Euboea were not the whole of the religion of Hera. Her worship was believed to have begun in Argos and from there to have spread to Samos then into the other areas where she was worshipped. She was not always worshipped solely as the goddess of marriage and childbirth. She has also been worshipped as the moon goddess, goddess of the yoke, and the earth goddess. Whatever role she played to her followers, she apparently satisfied their expectations of her. This was displayed by the spread of her religion and the devotion of her faithful. The religion of Hera supplied the meaning and purpose to the lives of her followers that they desired from their religion. Their rituals and ceremonies served as their offerings to Hera for all she had given to them. By pleasing the goddess, the people could remain confident of her continued presence in their future.
Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
Guthrie, W. K. C. The Greeks and Their Gods. Boston: Beacon Press, 1950.
Kerenyi, C. Zeus and Hera. Princeton U Press, 1975.
Rutledge. Class lecture on Paestum. Classics 381. U of Tennessee, Knoxville. 9 Sept. 1991.
von Matt, Leonard. Magna Graecia. Genova: Stringa Editore, 1961 .