Having an ex-archaeologist as a partner means that we see a fair amount of old stuff. Amphitheatres, temples, burial chambers, the lot. On the whole, the kids and I are happy to wander about these places, shoulder to shoulder with the ghosts. Some sites grab me more than others, sometimes I’m tired and suffering from ancient site saturation and I struggle to connect with the people who laid the stones, walked the streets, sat in the theatres. Other times I’m utterly alive to the humming of souls hovering just behind their thin veil of time.
Whilst Paestum’s ruined Roman town was interesting – the cart tracks worn in the great stone slabs of the roads, the crumbled walls of the homes of the gentry – it was the earlier Greek temples that really stole the show. Of particular resonance for me, occasional student of the classics, were the temples dedicated to Hera; queen of Olympus, consort of Zeus.
Hera is an intriguing figure amongst the ancient Greek pantheon; the people were building temples to Hera before they even considered building them for Zeus and the number and grandeur of her temples suggest that she was greatly revered. But even a cursory look at the stories surrounding Hera will leave you with an impression of a jealous, bitter and shrewish character, vain and unpleasant. This picture of Hera is troubling though; it’s hard to look at her temples and not feel that she was loved. Why the discrepancy between the stories and the monuments?
I feel for Hera, she was just a girl when Zeus forced himself on her. The myths suggest that she then married Zeus ‘to cover her shame’, which prompts one to ask, why was the shame hers and not his? After they were married, she dutifully bore him three divine children and was said to be the most beautiful of all the goddesses, yet Zeus was constantly unfaithful, raping and seducing his way through vast swathes of the mortal and immortal worlds. Was Hera jealous then, or justifiably utterly hacked off with the situation she found herself in? For all her power she could do nothing about her philandering and abusive husband. She tried to take her revenge by making life difficult for some of his conquests and illegitimate offspring – Heracles, as one of Zeus’ more favoured illegitmate children, in particular had no easy time of it – but Hera, like so many women, was ultimately powerless to do anything about her own situation. And Heracles, for all her malicious meddling in his affairs, was brought up after his death to the home of the immortals, to become a god. Talk about adding insult to injury.
There are stories that tell of how, when desperate, Hera tried to get some of the other gods and goddesses on side, and drugged old Zeus and had him tied up. It seemed that once she had him there, however, she wasn’t really sure what to do with him. He managed to escape his predicament eventually and made Hera pay by stringing her up in golden chains until he could bear her degraded weeping no more. Occasionally, she made an effort to leave and wandered forlornly about until her tyrant husband tracked her down and brought her back to Mount Olympus.
Hera may have been the goddess of marriage but hers was an unhappy one, perhaps back in 550BC that’s all that marriage could aspire to be. Maybe that’s why they built her such splendid temples; the men to glorify the betrayed and abused wife and thereby excuse their own bad behaviour, the women to acknowledge her sacrifice of herself on the altar of domestic servitude. Or more likely, at the time of building, Hera was linked to an earlier, unfettered version of herself. A version more closely associated with the ancient female deities that were worshipped as the creative forces of the earth. The theory goes that Hera existed as a deity long before Zeus and that he came along later, to assert his control over the untamed female powers of the world, the ultimate patriarchal puppet.
Her temples, with their enormous soaring columns and their elaborate decoration, can be more easily understood if we associate them with the earlier Hera; the Hera of fertility and childbirth, the awesome life-giving, creative powers that bring into existence the very material of the universe. It’s small wonder though that Hera came handed down to us in stories as a nagging and miserable soul, it’s how history kept her small.
*I hope it’s obvious that the above is just my own musings on the Hera myths made with very little reference to actual academic interpretation! I’d also like to point out that the last two pictures are of Athena’s temple at Paestum.