How Should We Remember Hera?

I fell in love with Greek mythology as a boy. My grandparents, on my father’s side, gave us the beautiful D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and it touched me like few books did. Not that I didn’t love the Bible, which we grew up with in a Christian home. But the Greek myths were so different from the Bible. Perhaps more relatable. I adored powerful Athena and Diana, with their arbitrary but extraordinary commitments. I wished to be like Ares or Apollo, who could topple enemies with the swing of a sword.

Yet even the D’Aulaires, with all their skill, couldn’t make sense of Hera. Zeus’ wife, queen of the gods, supposedly the next most powerful being next to her husband — yet she is portrayed as willful and incompetent in nearly every story she appears in. The D’Aulaires begin their section on Hera with this sentence: “Hera, the beautiful queen of Olympus, was a very jealous wife.” Flattering.

I’m watching the wonderful Netflix show “Blood of Zeus” right now. It’s good. Really good. But as usual, Hera is the villain. The hero of the show is a man (surprise?), the son of Zeus and a mortal woman. Hera, jealous of her husband’s constant affairs with other women, raises the Titans from the dead and tries to kill Zeus.

As a boy I accepted this classical representation of Hera as jealous and petty. It’s only a story, after all. It’s not likely that Hera actually existed. So why does it matter?

Because as a boy, through the ever-present stories of Zeus and Hera, I was taught that men were rational, sensible, and natural rulers, while women were irrational, compulsive, and natural followers. When a woman ruled, we had failures such as Hera, Cleopatra, and Mary, Queen of Scots. When a man ruled, we had successes such as Zeus, Julius Caesar, and Richard the Lionheart. I don’t wish to oversimplify, but I cannot understate the importance of this lesson which was drilled home in my childhood: men are born to lead, women born to follow.

In my twenties, thanks to an extraordinary education at Brigham Young University and a variety of feminist friends who taught me to see gender roles differently, I began to realize that I had been indoctrinated with the idea of men as natural leaders and women as natural followers. As co-president of the Management Consulting Club at BYU, I worked with the extraordinary Hilary Hall. I took classes with the extraordinary Camille Fronk Olsen. And soon after graduation, I spent a year under the extraordinary management of Kelsey Harris. Other names come to mind. Those suffice. I learned more from each than I possibly could imagine. They were true leaders.

Back to Hera. The jealous Queen of the Gods. But why was she jealous? In Greek mythology, Zeus pledged to be her faithful husband. Yet time and time again, he made his way to earth or heaven, had sexual relations with other women (goddesses and mortals), and impregnated them. His partners included the Titanesses Metis, Themis and Leto, the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, and the mortals Europa and Io.

Hera may have been unfaithful once or twice. But the myths do not typically record it. Rather, they record a constant succession of Zeus trying (and usually failing) to hide his indiscretions from his jealous wife. Yet these stories almost inevitably end with Zeus’ offspring saving the world, despite Hera’s mistrust. Thus, she almost always comes out looking petty.

What to think? They’re only myths, of course. I don’t actually think Zeus and Hera, or even Hercules and Achilles, actually existed. They are archetypes, heroes, stories from which we learn and in which we find ourselves.

But if we find ourselves in these stories, as I did, what a tragedy that our modern culture was shaped by these ancient myths. As a boy, I identified with Zeus and resented Hera for her jealousy, since she turned out to be wrong most of the time. Yet in real life, the behavior modeled by Zeus is a recipe for marital, interpersonal, and societal collapse.

I am not arguing for marriage here. I do not believe marriage is the solution to all the world’s problems.

I am arguing for honor. I submit that, once Zeus promised himself to Hera, he was morally bound to stay honest and faithful to her. We may conceive of an arrangement, perhaps only acceptable to gods, in which Zeus could have other sexual partners with Hera’s approval. But not once in the myths did Zeus seek his wife’s approval. He never once consulted with her. Yet almost inevitably, it is Hera rather than Zeus who looks bad at the end of the story.

What does this reflect, if not sexism? Zeus was strongest, therefore he became king. He was wisest, therefore he knew when it was right to cheat on his wife and when it was not. He was kindest, and therefore mortals ended up loving him more than Hera.

Absurd. Absolutely absurd. If you want my opinion? Greek kings and bards wanted excuses to cheat on their wives, so they made up stories in which cheating was justified. Don’t shoot the messenger. I call it like I see it.

So on this Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks for feminism. Because the Greek myths, as beautiful as they were, perpetuated gender stereotypes which have lasted thousands of years. Let’s leave them behind. Women make good leaders. Women make good soldiers. Women make good workers. Women make good families and good children too. Replace “women” with “men” and it rings true. Your gender isn’t what matters. It’s your character. Hera would have said the same.

Zeus and Hera

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’