Hera, she who helps one to become who they are
Hera is so much more than just the goddess of marriage, though that is perhaps the most profound expression of her powers and nature. The true key to understanding who she is is change, growth and transformation. Hera is a catalyst, an outside force which sets things in motion, which nurtures growth and the transition from one state to another.
Her very name itself is said to be connected etymologically with the Horai or Seasons, in whose company she is frequently depicted. She is the embodiment of this seasonal change: the Argives said that each spring, Hera would bathe in the river Kanathos to regain her virginity, and at Stamphylos she was gifted with the names Pais, Teleia, and Chera, representing the lifecycle of the human female. Yet it is significant that one step is left out – mother.
And that is because she is not a manifestation of the nurturing, fruitful earth out of which all material substance arises and to which it must inevitably return. No, Hera is the force that acts upon that substance, which causes the lilies to bloom, young girls to grow into women, cows to give birth in the proper season. But none of these happen within her, from her, but rather she is the force that acts upon them from outside, like a potter shaping clay at his wheel, or a maiden plaiting a garland of flowers she intends to offer on Hera’s altar at her marriage.
And in the lives of most women in antiquity, this was the single biggest transition that they would make, for without it, they could not become women. In ancient Greek, the word for bride and woman is the same. So, in that sense, Hera watches over them as they transition into fullness, as they pass from girlhood into womanhood, like Artemis, with whom she shared the epithet Kourotrophos.
Similarly, marriage itself is transition, bringing two separate lives, two separate families and households together into one – thus Hera was also called Zygia, the “Uniter”. This requires constant change as one alters everything about their lives: how they act, how they eat, how they sleep, new responsibilities, when and where they may come and go, who they may associate with, and how they may associate with them. Marriage is never a static thing, and two people can spend a lifetime getting to know each other and becoming comfortable with the person who emerges.
Also, this role applies to the role of heroes, whose name also has been linked with that of Hera. Consider the greatest hero known to the Greek world, Herakles, whose name means either “glory of Hera” or “one made famous through Hera”. And indeed that was the case, because at every step of the road Hera was there, driving him on, throwing obstacles in his path, challenging him, forcing him to become stronger, wiser, and more courageous – or else to become destroyed by the goddess, like an impure piece of metal bursting under the pressure and fire of the forge.
But Herakles was worthy of the challenge, and at the end of his trials, ascended to Olympos and was met by Hera who gave him her daughter Hebe as his immortal bride. We see this too in her interactions with Dionysos – who is the force of life upon which Hera acts.
And that action, when experienced personally, and especially by those who are resistant to the process, may seem like persecution, madness, suffering – but it is really transformation and growth into fullness, a testing of the will. And those who come out the other end, pure and full, are truly worthy of being called Teleia and Hero.