Thursday, March 8, 2012

Give a Girl a Break

The Peacock Complaining to Juno, Gustave Moreau
As every Greek myth will tell you ad nauseam, Zeus's wife Hera is one jealous meanie. She's territorial to the point of obsession, with a nasty vengeful streak and a vivid imagination. The queen of the gods is, to put it bluntly, a cow.

All of which is true. As gods go, she's one of the worst to cross. (Only Artemis really equals her in terms of vicious retribution. The men, in contrast to either woman, are sissies who can't deal out pain.) But the classic portrait of her is rather one-sided. She deserves far more of a break than she gets.

Why, you ask? Well, let's start off with some early childhood trauma. The girl was swallowed whole and alive by her father at the moment of her birth. And stayed alive, in his stomach, until her littlest brother was ballsy enough to fight back. That right there should win our sympathy.

Oh, and that littlest brother? With a woman already on his arm (Metis, mother of Athena and all-around badass herself), Zeus decided to sleep with his older sisters. Demeter said yes, which is how we get Persephone; Hestia just snorted and went back to her fire; Hera flat-out
Hera and Zeus, Jun-Pierre Shiozawa
refused him. Zeus, selfish even then, would not let this stand. His solution? He made a thunderstorm, turned himself into a bird, and flew to Hera for shelter. Moved by pity, she cuddled the bird close, when all of a sudden - whoops! It's Zeus, and it looks like he just moved you both into Rapetown-on-Incest.

Who else thinks that the subsequent wedding of Zeus and Hera must have been the most awkward event ever?

Right now, we've got a plucky young goddess who survived life inside Dad's belly, only to be claimed as spoils by her liberator. At this point, Hera does one of two things. Either she decides that she might as well make good on what she's got, or she decides to spend her whole life avenging herself on the bastard brother who dealt her this crappy hand. It depends on your interpretation, really, but it's understandable either way. She can be admirable for doing her best, or she can be tragic in the same way as Macbeth. Whichever you prefer, it makes her a far more interesting character than a cardboard villainess.

Hera Imprisons Io, Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire
I can never make up my mind about her choice there. When you consider the outright torture she perpetrates on Zeus's other conquests - keeping Io a cow, inciting Semele to arrange her own death, screwing up Heracles's entire life with vindictive abandon - it's easy to think that this is a woman consumed by vengeance, with no pity or sympathy left in her. But then you run into her relationship with her son Hephaestus, who backed her in a fight with Zeus at incredible bodily cost to himself. And her patronage of Jason is downright tender during the quest for the Golden Fleece, and lasts all the way until he throws Medea over. (And come on, Jason - did you really think Hera, of all goddesses, would support a cheater?)

And then there's the hilarious, but also touching, scene in the Iliad where Hera seduces Zeus to distract him from the fighting so Poseidon can help the Greeks. His opening gambit is to recite a list of women he's slept with, something usually guaranteed to send Hera into a rage. But
Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida,
James Barry
then he tells her that of all of those women, none of them - not even Hera herself, way back when he pulled the wet-bird trick - was as beautiful and enticing as she is now. And then he makes a move that even I get a little swoony over: he takes her to Mount Ida and wraps them both in a golden cloud through which no one can see their lovemaking. Granted, Hera's motivated here by resentment at Zeus for not allowing the gods to interfere with Troy; granted, Zeus does not start out as the smoothest of operators. But it's bizarrely sweet, after all these tales where you assume it's a hellish marriage of a philanderer and a shrew, to see that Zeus at least has strong feelings for his wife, and that she is well aware of them. Later, when Zeus wakes up and sees Poseidon running rampant, he blames Hera; she swears her innocence by their marriage bed, a vow she says she would never make falsely. Despite their horrible beginning, there's something there that's important to them both.

Juno Ludovisi, artist unknown
And if Hera does care for Zeus, in spite of it all, it explains why she pursues his mistresses with such rabid hatred. She might not like the fact that she cares about her lousy husband, which means she might find it difficult to admit to his face. For a woman whose adult life was inexorably shaped by trauma, the kind of abuse Hera inflicts on her "rivals" might be the psychologically safest way for her to express love.

It doesn't make it right, and I still feel awful for poor innocents like Semele. But it does make more of Hera than she usually gets. And she gets so little that there's got to be some parts of the story missing.


  1. idk, i think it's a little unfair to say being eaten by her father justifies her later behavior, since all her other siblings got eaten too.

    but i always kind of liked Hera anyway. She's badass.

    1. She certainly does go off the deep end a lot more than the others, who got the same treatment. So I think you're right, it doesn't necessarily justify what she does. But it does create some sympathy for her that never really gets discussed. She's problematic enough that I don't know if you could ever really justify some of the horrible things she does. I just like to consider them in the context of her nicer moments and her early (semi-hellish) existence.

      The Olympians are all problematic. Athena's my favorite, but I can't make any excuses for her bad sportsmanship with Arachne. And we won't even go into my issues with Zeus. Not here, anyway. ;)

    2. I mean, with Arachne, was it bad sportsmanship? Yeah, ok, sure. But seriously. Who in their right mind tries to one up a god? That's just stupid. You are ASKING to be turned into a spider. Or worse. Speaking of Fate, that's just tempting it.

      A lot of Hera's myths always stuck me as intended for comic relief, like men were telling jokes about angry wives.

    3. There's no one playing fair or smart in the Arachne story. Yes, Arachne's a moron, but technically she did win the weaving contest. *And* used it to tell the truth about the randy and undignified Olympians. Stupid, but gutsy. Athena's the goddess of wisdom; she created the rules of fair play, she should probably abide by them. Everyone's a mess in that story. Sigh.

      I think you're dead right about the intent behind the Hera stories. She certainly pops up when anyone needs a shrew character, and she always delivers. I'm definitely not looking at her myths through the eyes of the time. They just always made me a bit uncomfortable, as a female and as a feminist, that the freaking queen of the gods got sidelined so easily as the stock bitch. When she turned up as Jason's patron goddess, I always went a bit on edge: "Watch it, Jason, she's going to lose it any second now... Well, maybe now... Look, it's Hera, she can't just want to be nice for niceness's sake!" So yes, I'm going very revisionist on poor Hera.

  2. Even the Greeks thought their gods were messed up. I mean, Socrates rejected them because they were terrible role models.

    But they do have some *great* stories.

    1. Socrates, as a rule of thumb, is generally right. :) And yes, they have the BEST stories. But oh lord. Totally messed up. Fascinating for what they reveal about human preoccupations, but totally messed up.