Let’s Talk About Mythology #8: Don’t Mess With Hera

Hello, everyone! The United States has started 2021 off with a bang. I’m sure I could find a Greek myth to discuss that focuses on the folly of enabling the egotistical whims of a narcissistic leader, but I don’t want to focus on reality, I want to focus on fiction! Today we’ll be talking about Hera, Zeus’s wife and queen of the Greek gods, and her petty revenge story. Before there were Real Housewives throwing wine in each other’s faces, there was Hera chasing away girls with gadflies. I’m not sure what I prefer. Can you imagine a Real Housewives style show about the Greek gods? I’m copyrighting that idea right now.

Disney Hera cuddles you, Greek Hera sends a gadfly to sting you.

Once again, I’m using my favorite book of Greek Mythology, D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. I highly recommend this book for devoted fans of Greek mythology, as well as those who are just getting interested in the topic. Alright, let’s dive in!

Hera, the beautiful queen of Olympus, was a very jealous wife. Even Zeus, who was afraid of nothing, feared her temper.

It’s crazy to me that the guy whose favorite way of killing people is throwing lighting bolts at them would be scared of his wife, but he has a good reason. You see, as is the standard in Greek mythology, Hera and Zeus’s marriage was one born out of deceit, not love. Instead of taking Hera’s initial refusal of marriage as an answer, he turned himself into a bird, flew into her arms, and nestled there while she took pity on him, and then transformed into the enormous lightning man we all know and love. And just like that, marriage! What was Hera to do? Everyone knows that in polite society, a woman holding a bird is no longer a virgin.

As a child, this made perfect sense, but re-reading this as an adult made me realize that this children’s book might have been omitting some key facts. And, voila, a little bit of research into this has revealed to me that, no, he didn’t just transform from a bird into a man, he transformed from a bird into a man and then raped her. Also she was his sister. To repeat: Zeus tricked his sister into marrying him by pretending to be vulnerable and then raping her. It’s the love story of the century.

Understandably, Hera was pissed. Not only was she raped by her brother, but the reason she rejected him in the first place was because he had already had six other girlfriends before her, and clearly had no desire to stop impregnating random Greek women. To placate her justifiably “frightening: temper, Zeus did what all philandering ne’er do-well husbands do, and threw her an enormous blow-out wedding that apparently lasted 300 years. That would be grounds for divorce in my book, but these Greek gods do love to party. Luckily, Hera got some bomb-ass gifts for her troubles, including a tree bearing the golden apples of immortality, which she planted in a secret garden and left to be guarded by a hundred-headed dragon and three nymphs, just in case the dragon didn’t work out.

Zeus loved Hera dearly, but he was also fond of rocky Greece. He often snuck down to Earth in disguise to marry mortal girls. The more wives he had, the more children he would have, and all the better for Greece! All his children would inherit some of his greatness and become great heroes and rulers. But Hera in her jealous rage tormented his other wives and children, and even Zeus was powerless to stop her.

Hera, that bitch! It’s so selfish of her to be angry at her husband for constantly tricking and impregnating random Greek women when it’s for the good of all Greece! What are the Greek men supposed to do, have sex with their wives? That’s what Zeus is for! If she didn’t want to marry him, she should have said no! And if she did say no and was tricked and then raped and then forced into marriage because of the customs of the time, well, she needs to suck it up! And for all of the women out there that Zeus tricked and raped, how dare you expect Zeus to stop Hera from tormenting you? That is your fault, too!

Okay, get it guys? Hera is a jealous bitch, Zeus is just being a manly man with needs. We’re all on the same page now.

While technically as the goddess of marriage and childbirth, Hera should have a lot on her mind, she is too busy trying to keep up with her cheating husband’s crazy shenanigans to do much work. Unlike mortal men, Zeus has the ability to cheat on his wife in all forms of disguises, which really keeps Hera on her toes. What a fun game for her!

One day as Hera looked down on Earth, she spied a small dark thundercloud where no cloud should have been. She rushed down and darted into the cloud. Zeus was there as she expected, but with him was only a little snow-white cow. He had seen Hera coming and, to protect his newest bride Io from Hera’s wrath, had changed the girl into a cow.

I can’t imagine a more awkward scene than finding your husband engaged in amorous relations in a thundercloud with a cow. Once again, Zeus proves reluctant to do anything useful, and instead of whisking his new bride away to safety, lets Hera take her as a gift, lest he give his tryst away. Is he stupid, or does he think Hera doesn’t realize that there is no good reason for a man to be in a cloud with a cow?

Hera takes poor cow Io to her secret garden and ties her to the golden apple tree, where she sets her favorite watchman Argus to guard her. Blessed with one hundred eyes , Argus is able to keep watch at all times, as only 50 of his eyes ever close in sleep. Terrifying, but alright!

Some women might have resorted to throwing wine at their romantic rivals, but Hera plays the long game. Forced to eat grass and moo mournfully, Io stares up at Olympus, hoping Zeus will save her, and regretting the day she ever followed a strange man into a thundercloud. But Zeus, cowardly as ever, refuses to save her, and instead asks his son Hermes (who is coincidentally also the child of a woman Zeus forcibly impregnated) to use his tricks to get Io away from Hera.

Hermes disguised himself as a shepherd and walked up to Argus playing a tune on his shepherd’s pipe. Argus was bored…and glad to have a little company. Hermes sat down beside him…and began to tell a long and dull story. It had no beginning and no end and fifty of Argus’s eyes closed in sleep. Hermes droned on and on and slowly the fifty other eyes fell shut. Quickly, Hermes touched all the eyes with his magic wand and closed them forever in eternal sleep. Argus had been bored to death.

I’m not sure if Zeus meant for Hermes to murder someone in order to save Io, but either way, that’s what happened. Now free, poor little cow Io runs to her father, the river god Inachos, who is so furious about what Zeus did to his daughter that he rises up to fight Zeus, and of course, Zeus kills him with a thunderbolt. Two men dead, and all because Zeus couldn’t keep it in his pants, and refused to take any responsibility for his actions. Sounds like some…president…I know! Glad to know that assholery is as old as time.

When Hera discovers that Zeus had her favorite guard murdered, she flies into a (justified) rage. She takes Argus’ 100 eyes and attaches them to the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock, which I guess is why peacocks have eyes! It’s all due to murder. Who knew? After decorating her favorite bird with a dead man’s eyeballs, she sends a vicious gadfly to relentlessly chase Io all over the world as a punishment. Again, not Io’s fault for being tricked into following Zeus into a cloud, but when do the men ever pay for their lechery? Never! Like Khloe Kardashian, Hera would rather blame Jordyn Woods/Io for her husband’s philandering than confront and punish him. I feel sympathetic for her, as she’s stuck with him for all eternity, but I also feel bad for the poor women she uses as punching bags. Greek myths are so much like real life that it’s depressing.

Still a cow, Io runs all the way to the strait separating Europe from Turkey, and has the Bosporus strait named in her honor. Fun fact: Bosporus means “cow ford.” But Turkey wasn’t far enough to escape the evil gadfly, so Io runs to Egypt, where she is worshipped for her pure snow-whiteness and made into a goddess. Only then does Hera permit Zeus to turn Io back into a human, but only if he promises to never lay eyes on Io again. To reiterate, who is really being punished here? Io was turned into a cow and her father was smote by Zeus, and the only punishment he faces is Hera’s anger and her mandate that he never look again on his one-time lover. I’m sure Zeus had already moved onto a newer model.

Io lived long as the goddess-queen of Egypt, and the son she bore to Zeus became king after her. Her descendants returned to Greece as great kings and beautiful queens. Poor Io’s sufferings had not all been in vain.

Uh, sure? Seems like a lot to go through just to become the Queen of Egypt, but I guess she fared better than some of the gods’ other science experiments. She was also only one of many women who experienced violent revenge at Hera’s hands. You can read an abbreviated list of Zeus’ many infidelities and Hera’s corresponding revenge here if you’re interested.

The dubious moral: What can we learn from the story of Hera and Io? According to this random article, the discordant marriage between the queen and king of the Greek gods was a symbol for the growing institution of marriage in Ancient Greece, and reflected women’s unhappiness with their formerly polygamous husbands. I do find it ironic that Hera and Zeus have such an unhappy marriage, as I would expect the king and queen of the gods to have a perfect marriage to set an example for the rest of us. But gods and humans alike have to put up with cheating. Even Hera, icon of beauty, isn’t enough to stop Zeus from chasing other women. How can the rest of us expect any better? Just kidding. I’m glad that Western culture has evolved to the point that we (generally) look down on serial cheaters like Zeus, even if we don’t actually do anything about them. Look at our elected officials. Affairs and secret babies and scandals abound in the personal lives of the highest men in the land. I guess they model their personal lives off of the gods. In sum, I would pay to watch a reality-tv style show about Hera and Zeus’ crazy marriage. Make it happen, Bravo!

Don’t tell me Hera wouldn’t say this!

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