Category Archives: Neolithic
Etymology: Greek – “Lady” or from haireo – “chosen one”
Alternate Spellings & Other Names: Ἥρᾱ, Hērā; Ἥρη, Hērē in Ionic and Homeric Greek
Epithets: Ἀλέξανδρος or Alexandros (“Protector of Men”), Hera Aigophágos, Αἰγοφάγος or Akraia (“She of the Heights”), Ἀμμωνία or Ammonia, Ἀργεία or Argéia (“She of Argos”), Argive Hera (“Hera Argeia”), Hera Antheia (“Hera of the Flowers”), Βασίλεια or Basíleia (“Queen”), βοῶπις or Boōpis (“Cow-Eyed” or “Cow-Faced), Βουναία or Bounáia (“She of the Mound” in Cornith), Hera Gamelia (“Hera of Marriage”), Hera Heniokhe (“Hera of the Chariot”), Hera Hyperkheireia (“Hera, Whose Hand is Above”), Hera Nympheuomene (“Hera the Betrothed”), Ἥρᾱ Παῖς or Hera Pais (“Child Hera” for her role as virgin), Ἥρᾱ Τελεία or Hera Teleia (“Adult Hera” as goddess of marriage), Ἥρᾱ Χήρη or Hera Chḗrē (“Widowed”), Λευκώλενος or Leukṓlenos (“White-Armed”), Παρθένος or Parthénos (“Virgin”), “Goat Eater,” “Queen of the Immortals,” “Queen of Heaven,” “Queen of the Gods,” “Queen of Olympus,” “Golden-Throned Hera,” “Bride of the Thunderer,” “The Supreme Goddess”
Not only is Hera the Queen of the Gods in Greek mythology, she is also the goddess of marriage, women, childbirth, and family. All roles that appear nigh impossible to preside over when one is married to Zeus, King of the Gods who goes about doing whatever he wants. It is easily understandable why some myths and stories will depict Hera constantly angry with Zeus, taking it out on his many “love affairs,” offspring, and even mortals who cross her path.
Animal: Cow, Crow, Cuckoo, Lion, Panther, Peacock
Patron of: Women
Plant: Lily, Lotus, Pomegranate
Sphere of Influence: Marriage, Childbirth, Family
Symbols: Peacock Feather, Diadem, Scepter, Throne, Veil
In some art, Hera is shown riding in a chariot pulled by peacocks. Hera is often shown with those animals sacred to her. As the Queen of the Gods, Hera is depicted as majestic and solemn, sitting on a throne wearing a polo (think a high cylindrical crown) or diadem with a veil hanging down behind her. Sometimes Hera is shown holding a pomegranate symbolizing marriage, fertility, and even death.
The most famous statue depicting Hera is the one carved by Polycletus. It is considered the noblest image and one that represents the ideal image of Hera as a mature woman with a beautiful forehead and large, wide-opened eyes. She is regarded as having a grave expression thought to command reverence.
In some instances, there is no imagery used for Hera to represent her, or she can be difficult to distinguish from other goddesses in Greek art. In Argos, Hera was represented as a pillar and on the island of Samos where Hera is said to have been born, she was represented by a plank of wood.
What’s In A Name
There are several possible etymological roots for Hera’s name. One given is the Greek word ὥρα or hora meaning “season,” or “year,” and likely meant to refer to being ripe for marriage. According to Plato, Hera’s name comes from ἐρατή or eratē for “beloved” as Zeus is supposed to have married her out of love. Yeah… we will get back to that myth later.
If we go by Plutarch, Hera’s name is an anagram of ἀήρ or aēr meaning “air.” That’s a little better.
Now we get into some suspect meanings that have been offered up. In Walter Burkert’s “Greek Religion,” he makes note of how scholars have argued for a meaning of Hera as the feminine of Heros meaning Master. Close on Burkett’s heels is John Chadwick who in deciphering the Linear B Greek script, says that Hera’s name may be related to the word ἥρως or hērōs and thus, the modern word of “hero.” It does get pointed out that this connection is too tenuous and obscure for any firm confirmation.
Then we have A. J. van Windekens who suggests the meaning of “young cow” or “heifer” for Hera as one of her epithets is βοῶπις or boōpis meaning “cow-eyed.”
Finally, we have R. S. P. Beekes who has put forward the idea of Hera being of Pre-Grecian origins. That her name may have meant “Lady” or “Mistress” That one makes sense too; we do have Hera’s name appearing in the Mycenaean Greek Linear B script and tablets found in Pylos and Thebes that seem to point to that meaning.
According to Herodotus, Hera is the only goddess not introduced to Greece from Egypt.
Like many deities and even words for that matter, the meanings and what they stand for change over time. On this hypothesis, however tentative, Hera goes from being an ancient earth goddess with vast power to a goddess of marriage ruling alongside Zeus with diminished influence.
We’re talking ancient ancient Mycenaean Greece of about 1500 B.C.E. to the ancient Greek and its city-states that many think of and are familiar with around 500 B.C.E. So, about a thousand years and a lot has happened. A lot has changed and even been lost.
Worship & First Temple
For all that Zeus tends to get top billing in Greek mythology and appears to be very prominent, after all, he is the King of the Gods! Archeological evidence shows that Hera may have been the first deity that the Greeks built and dedicated an enclosed, roofed temple. Said temple is found on the island of Samos and dates to around 800 B.C.E. It must be noted that this temple was later replaced by Heraion of Samos, being an even larger temple.
There is some archaeological confusion with dates as there have been many temples built on Samos. Rhoecus sculptors and architects destroyed the temple sometime between 570 to 560 B.C.E. and then replaced it with the Polycratean temple between 540 & 530 B.C.E. A lack of tiles suggests that the temple was never finished or that it was open to the sky. Other excavations at Samos have found votive offerings that date to the 7th and 8th centuries B.C.E.
There are “house sanctuaries” that date from the Mycenaean era. On mainland Greece, there is the “Argive Hera,” another sanctuary found between the Mycenaean cities of Argos and Mycenae. Festivals honoring Hera would be held there. There are two Doric temples dedicated to Hera that were constructed at Paestum around 550 B.C.E. to 450 B.C.E. One of these temples had long thought to be a Temple of Poseidon until the 1950’s when it was properly identified as belonging to Hera.
Further archaeological evidence shows that people would come from across the Mediterranean to make offerings at this site. These people likely came from Armenia, Assyria, Babylon, Egypt and Iran.
Argos – This city is held to be Hera’s favorite city. There is a sanctuary devoted to her in the Peloponnesus where she was worshipped as the city’s goddess and protector
Other Temples – Other temples dedicated to Hera are found at Mycene, Sparta, Paestum, Corinth, Tiryns, Perachora, and on the islands of Samos and Delos.
In book IV of the Iliad, Hera refers to Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae as “The three cities I love best.” Many of Hera’s temples and sanctuaries were located outside the city as she served as the city protector and for the privacy of various sacred cult observances.
The Temple of Hera – Located at Olympia, the seated figure of Hera is older than the warrior statue of Zeus that accompanies her.
Great Daedala – This sacred festival honoring Hera was celebrated every sixty years in Euboea. During this festival and ritual, wooden dolls would be dressed up as brides and then burned in a pyre. This festival reenacts a myth where Hera and Zeus had a fight before reconciling.
Heraia – This is a New Year’s Festival held every year to honor Hera. The Heraia held at Argos is known to have had a sacrificial procession where priestess of Hera rode in ox carts as young men carried the “Shield of Hera.” This culminated with a “hecatomb” where one hundred bulls were sacrificed. For this, the Argive Heraia was sometimes known as the “Hecatombaia.”
In the region of Kanathos, every spring there was a special rite where Hera would renew her virginity by bathing in the stream. The Heraia festivals were also celebrated at the cities of Corinth, Elis and Samos. Couples would re-enact the marriage of Hera and Zeus and every four years, there would be sporting competitions for women held in Hera’s honor.
Toneia – A festival held on the island of Samos, there would be a scavenger hunt where people searched for an image of Hera. When it was finally found, the statue would be washed and dressed in new clothes.
Parentage and Family
Ouranos (the Sky) and Gaia (the Earth)
Depending on the source, Hera can have a few different origins.
Cronus and Rhea – The often-recognized version of Hera’s parentage, especially when referencing Hesiod’s Theogony as the source.
Father – Aether (Arcadian origin)
Father – Coelus (Arcadian origin)
Father – Saturnus (Cretan origin)
Zeus – Also her brother, who becomes King of the Gods.
She is the third child born of Cronus and Rhea.
Chiron – a half-brother by way of Cronus and the nymph Philyra.
Sidenote – Homer’s Iliad will have Hera stating she’s the oldest daughter of Cronus.
With Zeus, Hera is the mother of Angelos (Angelia) an Underworld goddess, Ares god of War, Arge a nymph, Eileithyia goddess of Childbirth, Eleutheria goddess of Liberty, Enyo goddess of War, Eris goddess of Discord, Hebe goddess of Youth, Hephaestus god of Fire and Forge
The Charites – Goddesses of beauty and grace. Usually given as being the daughters of Zeus and Eurynome, or Dionysus and Coronis. The poet Colluthus places them as the daughters of Hera though no father is mentioned.
Pasithea – One of the Graces, the Greek writer Nonnus places her as a daughter of Hera. Sometimes Dionysus is given as her parent and there is uncertainty if both Hera and Dionysus are meant to be her parents together.
Prometheus – The Hellenistic poet Euphorion lists the giant Eurymedon who raped a young Hera as being the parents of this Titan. Though other sources place Iapetus and Clymene as Prometheus’ parents.
Typhon – A serpent monster whom Hera gives birth to parthenogenically.
Hera is counted among the twelve major deities who resided on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain peak in Greece and all of Europe. For the Greeks, this was the perfect location for where the gods would preside at while keeping watch on humankind down below them.
As there are several deities within Greek mythology, just who numbers among the Olympians vary. It’s generally agreed that the twelve major Olympians are: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and then either Hestia or Dionysus.
During the Hellenistic era of Greek history, Hera becomes associated with peacocks and has a chariot pulled by them. Peacocks were not part of any associations, symbols, or attributes until Alexander the Great’s conquests and expanding the Greek empire. The peacock is also interpreted as a symbol of pride.
Aristotle, Alexander’s tutor calls the peacock, the “Persian bird.” It is during the Renaissance era that the peacock imagery is more heavily used by painters to fully identify Hera with her Roman counterpart, Juno.
Before this, Hera’s chariot had been pulled by horses.
This bird has been associated with Hera the longest and before her associations with peacocks. It mainly comes from Zeus’ “wooing” Hera to get her to fall in love and marry him.
Yeah, I’ll cover that story more later down. So many of Zeus’ “affairs,” seducing, and “ravishing” women are too often a euphemism for rape.
One of Hera’s epitaphs is Boôpis meaning “cow-eyed.” On the island of Euboea, just off the coast of Greece, the region was known for having an abundance of cattle. Then in Cyprus, archaeologists have found several cattle skulls that have been used as masks. All of this has caused some to see a connection to the Egyptian goddess Hathor.
Queen of the Gods
Being married to Zeus does have some perks. With Zeus being the ruler of the Olympian gods, that places Hera as the Queen of the gods and keeping some of her prominence and influence. Though with much of the known Greek culture, they were a patriarchy, and unfortunately, we don’t often see the might and power of Hera in surviving myths except as being petty, cruel, and vindictive. In fairness, this aspect gets attributed to a lot of the Greek gods, so it says something for the level of cruelty and vindicativeness that Hera becomes known for.
Looking at the story of Jason & The Argonauts, we do see a time when Hera did hold a lot of influence, sending Jason on his quest and the favors she grants him there. An old Ray Harryhaussen movie for Jason and the Argonauts depicts Hera as begging Zeus to allow her to be the one to guide the heroes on their quest. After having watched the movie, I can’t help but feel that they should have stayed closer to the source material.
Ancient Earth Goddess
It is the scholar Walter Burkert who makes the claim that both Hera and Demeter have characteristics that link them to a Pre-Greek Great Goddess. Then we have the British scholar Charles Francis Keary suggest the idea of Hera as an Earth Goddess worshiped in ancient times. Keary further suggests this connection with Hera having been a Pelasgian goddess. This makes sense with Demeter given her connection to the Eleusinian mysteries and how it predates Grecian culture. Plus, it makes sense for Hera given how her temples are among some of the oldest in Greece, even dating to the Mycenaean era.
Some of the ancients viewed Hera as a personification of the atmosphere, the Queen of Heaven, the Goddess of the Stars, and as the Goddess of the Moon.
With Hera clearly being the Queen of the Olympian Pantheon and the ideas put out connecting her as an ancient earth goddess, do make sense. Those cultures that are more agriculturally inclined are more often going to be matriarchal versus those cultures that are more nomadic and thus have a stronger tendency to be more patriarchal and war-like fighting over land and territory.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen puts forward the idea that Hera was the goddess of a matriarchal culture; given her place in Greek religion and in the region before the rise of Hellenistic Greece that most think of as Ancient Greece.
It should be noted that the idea of a Great Mother Goddess among the ancient Greeks is seen as controversial even among modern scholars. But it’s worth taking note of when looking at various myths and why it is that so often, Hera comes across as jealous and petty towards Zeus and all his “affairs.”
Birth Of A Goddess
We start with Cronus and Rhea, the parents of Hera and all her siblings.
As the story goes, Cronus defeated his father, Uranus, overthrowing him to become the leader and King of the Titans. Shortly after, Cronus receives a prophesy that just as he killed his father, so too, would a child of his kill him.
This prompts Cronus to decide to devour his children whole as soon as they are born. This happens five times. Poor Rhea just gets to where she can’t take it anymore. With the birth of her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea hides him away and manages to convince Cronus that this large stone is their latest child. Bon Appetit, Cronus eats the “stone baby” none the wiser that he’s been tricked.
Rhea takes and hides Zeus, so that later when he is older, he can come to fulfill the prophecy of killing his father Cronus. During the battle, Zeus splits open Cronos’ stomach, freeing all of his brothers and sisters: Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera, and Hestia.
There is a ten-year long war known as the Titanomachy, and by the end, Zeus takes his place as ruler and king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Hera takes her place as Queen of the gods and the others take up their roles as part of the newly formed Pantheon.
Raising Hera – Childhood
Going by the Homeric poems, the Titans, Ocean and Tethys raised Hera and that she never knew who her birth parents are. As such, Hera marries Zeus later without knowing of the connection between them as brother and sister.
Looking at other traditions around the Mediterranean, the Arcadians say that Hera was raised by Temenus, the son of Pelagus. The Argives say that Hera was raised by Euboea, Prosymna and Acraea, the daughters of the river Asterion, And then, looking at Olen, he says that the Horae were Hera’s nurses.
Plus, many places in Greece such as Argos and Samos claim to be the birthplace of Hera. This makes sense as Hera was also prominently worshiped in these two cities.
Goddess Of Marriage
As the goddess of marriage, Hera is the protector of married women. She would preside over weddings and their arrangements and bless the unions. On the surface, that seems great until you look at the Greek myths and what life was like for Grecian women. Here it’s a bit spotty as we don’t have good records to show, but the general idea and belief are that Grecian women held fewer rights than men in regard to voting, owning land or inheritance, and were relegated to the home, raising children. Plus, this could vary by the Greek city-state in question such as Sparta, women being held in higher regard. Or we just erroneously assume that’s how it is given the nature of the myths and stories that have survived.
The biggest one is that while Hera is married and presumably faithful, Zeus however, is not and is frequently depicted having a roaming eye, chasing after every woman that catches his interest. How much of this is the result of mythological hijackings and the subsuming of many local myths to bring them all under an all-encompassing myth to try and justify or show nearly every hero, mortal or certain gods being a descendant of Zeus or not, is hard to say. Especially thousands of years later.
It is also worth noting that for all the reputations that many of the other Olympian deities have with affairs and resultant offspring, Hera is the only goddess who doesn’t cheat on her spouse, managing to keep fidelity on her part in the marriage with Zeus. Though given the reputation for being petty, vindictive and jealous, this attribute of fidelity is overlooked or dismissed.
Marriage To Zeus
As stated above, Hera is married to Zeus who is also her brother. For gods and immortals, this works out. There just weren’t very many other options. For those who are mortal and human, Ewww…. Inbreeding. Don’t do it!
Depending on the source, for Zeus, Hera is his second wife. Zeus had to trick Hera into marrying him as she had refused the first proposal. Knowing that Hera holds an affinity for animals and other beings, Zeus first created a thunderstorm and then transformed into a cuckoo. Pretending to be hurt, the cuckoo fluttered on Hera’s window where she would spot the “poor thing.” Naturally, Hera picked up the bird and held it close to her to warm it up. It is at that moment that Zeus transforms back to his godly self and rapes Hera. Shamed by what happened, Hera agreed to marry Zeus.
As a goddess connected to nature, it is said that all the earth burst to life and greenery and blossoms for their wedding and many lavish gifts were given. The Greek writer Callimachus says their wedding feast lasted for three thousand years. Gaia brought the Apples of Hesperides as a wedding gift.
Given how this marriage came by duress, I just don’t see how it will be a lasting or happy marriage.
Some myths will try to say that Zeus feared Hera’s wrath. It just comes across as a poor excuse to defend Zeus’ promiscuous nature, even if it really is just the ancient mythographers trying to connect every local god, hero, and ruler as being related to him. The same mythographers also add that Hera held great jealousy towards all of Zeus’ “lovers” and any resulting children.
With how Zeus is said to be powerless to stop Hera’s wrath, these could be holdovers remnants of ancient stories where Hera is resisting Zeus and the arrival of patriarchy. Hera is always said to be aware of Zeus’ actions, if not constantly on the look out for his antics when he descends down to the earth.
Close on the heels of Hera’s role as the goddess of marriage, she was also known as a matron goddess or Hera Teleia, the “adult Hera.”
That is interesting, digging further into this, aside from the fragments of a practice for a sacred marriage with Zeus, we find at Platea there is a sculpture of Hera seated in her role as a bride and another statue of a matronly standing Hera.
We find in Stymphalia, Arcadia where Hera was worshiped at a triple shrine, first as Hera the Girl (Hera Pais), the Adult Woman (Hera Teleia), and the Separated (Chḗrē, Divorced or Widowed).
Near the region Argos in Hermione, there is a temple of Hera as Hera the Virgin. Every spring in the region of Kanathos, close to the city of Nauplia, there is a rite where Hera would renew her virginity.
So, What Went Wrong?
Most people who have any understanding of the Greek myths know Hera to be a jealous woman and vengeful against Zeus for his many “affairs” where she would often punish Zeus’ “lovers” and children rather than confront her husband outright.
Like any of the Greek gods, yeah, Hera could favor or punish mortals at a whim too. However, in Hera’s case, this something really pointed out and noted between her and Zeus.
Why? The evidence is anecdotal and relies on looking at the surviving myths and connections of Hera being an Ancient Earth Goddess and worshiped first in the ancient, ancient Mycenean Greece and accepting the ideas of an early Matriarchal Greek culture.
There is a Neolithic, Cycladic culture that is best known for its female idols. Couple these archeological finds with Hera and her vehemence towards Zeus and his numerous affairs. Now it appears to be clear that the Greek myths we get of Zeus & Hera are the result of revisionist history and storytelling.
From that standpoint, then we see Hera as the goddess of marriage, being the arrival and introduction of patriarchy where Zeus becomes the leader and King of the gods, ruling over everything, and Hera is to somehow be subordinate to him.
Accepting this, we can see so much of Hera’s anger and jealousy as a holdover to a time when she and thus her cults resisted a theological takeover in Greek culture as Zeus rises to prominence, even replacing his brother Poseidon who in some early myths was once ruler.
There’s hints and evidence of all of these theological takeovers with the various myths, which Grecian scholar is writing down what and the apparent discrepancies as Greece and then Rome expanded, trying to absorb all of these local myths and to equate local deities and variations with their own myths and deities.
Homer – There is also influence from Homer’s writings where Hera is not treated as respectfully which leads to later retellings of the myths focusing more on Hera being vengeful as she is supposed to uphold the old rules of Hellenistic Greek culture.
Greek Culture – The way Hera’s stories are presented does show the misogynistic culture of the ancient Greeks and where a woman’s place is. Hera is the only properly married goddess in the Olympian Pantheon if you make an exception for Aphrodite. As such, Hera is expected and does show fidelity to Zeus even throughout all his affairs. However, much Zeus cheats on Hera, she remains faithful. Because of an oath that Hera swore to Zeus when she tried to initiate a revolt in the heavens, Hera is unable to move against Zeus. But she does frequently act against his “lovers” and children. With some futility against those such as Alcmene, Leto, Io and Herakles, it does show the limits of justice that women could expect and just whom the Greeks blamed in any of Zeus’ “affairs,” who was responsible.
Grandmother Of Monsters
Wait… isn’t that Echidna the mother of monsters? Yes, however looking at the Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo, Hera, in her older, more ancient form from Minoa is mother to the monstrous draconic looking Typhon, giving birth to him solely herself in an act of parthenogenesis. Not the only time for Hera. From there, Hera is to have given her monstrous child to the serpent Python to raise.
In the Iliad, Typhon is born in Cilicia and is the son of Cronus. Gaia is angry with the destruction of her children, the Giants slanders and insults Zeus in front of Hera. This results in Hera going to Cronus and he gives her two eggs fertilized with his own semen and instructs Hera to bury the eggs. Hera buries the eggs in Cilicia. By the time Typhon is born and begins his reign of terror and problems, Hera has reconciled with Zeus, and she informs him about the issue.
Sometime after Zeus has succeeded over coming all the previous challenges from Gaia, the various giants and titans to become ruler of the heavens, a young Zeus had gotten rather prideful, temperamental and arrogant in his rulership.
Enter Apollo, Hera, and Poseidon (and depending on the source, all the other gods except Hestia join in) decide that Zeus needs to be taught a lesson.
Hera’s part was to drug Zeus so that he fell into a deep sleep. While Zeus is sleeping, they come in to steal his thunderbolts and tie him up with some one hundred knots. Powerless, Zeus lays there until the Neriad, Thetis comes and seeing the god’s predicament, calls the Hecatoncheire, Briareus who comes and unties Zeus.
With Briareus’ support, Zeus is able to put an end to the rebellion and punish those involved. Most notable is Hera’s punishment as she led the rebellion. Zeus hung her up int the sky with golden chains. Hera’s weeping kept Zeus up all night and the next morning, he agreed to end the punishments after Hera and all the gods swear never to rise up against him again.
This is the story of why Hera is to have her “petty jealousies” against Zeus and his many affairs. If she can’t outright go up against Zeus, she takes it out on those unable to stop her.
This story seems to be a remnant of when Zeus and Hera got along relatively well before later additions where Hera gets her reputation for being petty and vindictive.
After a fight with Zeus, Hera left and went to Euboea. Nothing that Zeus said would get Hera to change her mind. She had had it. A local king, named Cithaeron suggested that Zeus make a wooden statue of a woman and pretend to marry it. That gives an idea of what they were fighting about.
Following this advice, Zeus named a wooden statue Plataea, claiming that she was the daughter of Asopus. When Hera heard this news, she came tearing in, interrupting the ceremony only to discover that it was only a lifeless statue and not a rival lover.
Hera and Zeus are to have reconciled and those gathered, celebrated with the two in a festival to become known as Daedala. During this festival, there is a reenactment of the myth where a wood statue of Hera is chosen, bathed in the river Asopus and then placed in a chariot where it is led around in a procession before being ritually burned.
Echo & Hera
This version of the story originates from Roman mythology from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. As it’s Roman, the Roman names for the gods are Jupiter or Jove (Zeus in Greece) and Juno (Hera in Greece). Anyone familiar with Greco-Roman mythologies knows of Jupiter’s reputation and his numerous affairs among mortals and gods alike; much to his wife, Juno’s displeasure. For most lay people, the two pantheons are virtually one and the same.
This is the main story about Echo that most everyone knows, it explains the origin of echoes or repeating sounds in mountains and valleys or anywhere an echo can be heard.
On one occasion, as Zeus is pursuing one of his latest affairs with a nymph, Hera comes among the nymphs looking for her husband as she hoped to catch him in the act. As the case was, Echo had been tasked by Zeus himself to keep Hera distracted with a lot of idle chatter while Zeus engages in his latest tryst. Hera wasn’t happy with the overly talkative nymph and when she discovers that Echo is merely distracting her; Hera punishes Echo that she would always be able to have the last word, but she would only be able to repeat the last thing said.
Birth Of Hephaestus
The timing of this story takes place right after Zeus is to have given birth to Athena without the need for sex. Except that, Zeus swallowed Metis who was pregnant with Athena who springs forth out of Zeus’ brow, all to avoid a prophecy that Gaia gave him.
In an act of parthenogenesis, Hera gives birth to Hephaestus. On seeing him, Hera was so repulsed by the sight of her infant son that she threw him from Mount Olympus where he would become crippled.
It’s understandable that someone would grow up bitter towards the mother that rejected and threw them off a mountainside. Hephaestus got his revenge when he created a magical golden throne for Hera.
No hard feelings, right?
Nope, when Hera sat on the throne, she was unable to get up. The other gods begged and pleaded with Hephaestus for Hera’s release. Enter Dionysus who gets Hephaestus drunk and brings them back to Olympus riding a mule. Hephaestus agrees to release Hera after he is given Aphrodite in marriage.
Birth Of Hebe
While dining with Apollo, Hera became pregnant with Hebe, the goddess of Youth while eating some lettuce. Hera may have also become pregnant when she beat her hand against the earth. An act considered solemn to the Greeks.
Birth Of Apollo & Artemis
There are a few different versions of this story.
In the version of this story from the Homeric Hymn III to Delian Apollo, Hera is described as detaining Eileithyia the goddess of childbirth, from letting Leto birth to the twins Apollo and Artemis as their father is Zeus. As the other goddesses were present there at Delos, they send Iris to go fetch Eileithyia and bring her back so Leto can give birth.
Another version has Hera commanding all the nature spirits to prevent Leto from giving birth on any mainland, island or anywhere under the sun for that matter. Enter Poseidon who takes pity on Leto and guides her to the floating island of Delos. Here, Leto is finally able to give birth to her children. Afterword, Zeus secures Delos to the bottom of the sea.
The third version holds that Hera kidnaps Eileithyia to prevent Leto from being able to go into labor. The other gods got together and bribed Hera with a lovely, yet irresistible necklace to persuade her to give up Eileighyia and let the twins be born.
Either way, of the twins, it is Artemis who is born first, the moon, and then her brother, Apollo, the sun. Some versions will have Artemis then miraculously be old enough to help her mother give birth to Apollo after a period of nine days. Or that Artemis was born one day before Apollo on the island of Ortygia and that she helps Leto get to Delos to give birth to Apollo.
Hera’s Continued Spite Towards Leto
If that isn’t enough, Hera tries to get one of Zeus’ many prodigies, a giant by the name of Tityos to rape Leto on her way to the Delphi Oracle. Luckily Apollo and Artemis are there to slay Tityos as they protect their mother.
Hesiod’s Theogony – The birth of the twins, Apollo and Artemis is contradicted in this text as they’re born before Zeus is married to Hera. So why by this continuity she would have any animosity towards Leto doesn’t make sense.
Hera & Herakles
Better known by the Roman spelling of his name, Hercules. This hero is the most well-known for showcasing the vehemence, spite, and hatred that Hera could hold towards others. Hera is the stepmother to Herakles and no matter how the hero’s name means “Glory of Hera,” it wouldn’t be enough to placate her.
Birth of a hero – For this, we have three versions of this heroic origin story.
Homer’s Iliad – Right before Herakles was to be born, Zeus announced that when his son is born, that they would become the ruler of Argos (or Tiryns in some versions). Angered, Hera requested that Zeus swear an oath to enforce that proclamation. She then went down from Olympus to Argos caused the wife of Sthenelus, the son of Perseus, to give birth seven months early. As Sthenelus’ wife went into labor, Hera went to sit in the doorway of Alcimides’ home, preventing Eileithyia from coming in. so that his half-brother, Eurystheus would be born first and thus become ruler. This resulted in Eurystheus being born first instead of Herakles all while fulfilling Zeus’ oath.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses – When Alcmene is pregnant with Herakles, Hera tries to prevent the birth by ordering Eileithyia to “Alcmene’s legs in knots.” Hera’s plans were thwarted when Galanthis, Alcmene’s servant frighted off Eileithyia. Angry, Hera turned Galanthis into a weasel.
Pausanias’ Account – In this account, Hera sends witches (according to the translation available) to prevent Alcmene from giving birth to Herakles. The witches were successful until the daughter of Tiresias, Historis came up with a trick to deceive the witches. Historis called out that Alcmene had given birth and hearing that, the witches left, allowing Alcmene to really give birth.
Snakes In A Crib
Hera wasn’t done yet. This time she sent a pair of serpents into the infant Herakles’ crib. Imagine Alcmene’s surprise as she walks in to find her infant son holding a pair of dead snakes in his chubby baby hands playing with them like they were toys.
Side Note: This story and the imagery it invokes is something that the ancient Thebans would have been familiar with. That is a hero holding a serpent in each hand much like the Minoan goddess holding snakes and other Cabeiri.
The Milky Way
If that weren’t enough, by this time, Alcmene has become terrified of Hera. Not wanting to suffer Hera’s wrath further, Alcmene takes the infant Herakles out to the wilderness and leaves him there, exposing him to the elements. The goddess Athena, known for protecting heroes, found the infant and brought them to Hera who nursed the baby out of pity.
Once Hera realized which baby she was nursing, she pulled the infant away from her. The spurt of milk from her breast smeared across the heavens, creating the Milky Way. It is from the divine milk of Hera that Herakles is said to have gained great power.
After that, Athena brought the infant Herakles back to his mother.
Side Note: The Etruscan version of Herakles is shown as being fully bearded when he’s nursing. It has been suggested that later when Hera and Herakles do finally reconcile, this symbolizes when she adopted him, and he becomes immortal.
Driving Herakles Mad
All seemed well for a while, that is until Herakles became an adult. Hera drove Herakles mad, causing him to believe that his family were his enemies so that he murdered his wife and children.
Herakles’ Twelve Labors
To atone for his acts of murder, Hera assigned Herakles to go into servitude to his half-brother, King Eurystheus. This resulted in a series of twelve tasks or labors. In each of the labors, Hera strove to make each task harder. When Herakles went up against the Lernaean Hydra, Hera sent the crab to bite his feet to distract the hero.
Later, Hera would rile up the Amazons against Herakles during one of his labors. In another labor, when Herakles is sent to get the cattle of Geryon, Hera is shot in her right breast by a large, barbed arrow that leaves her in constant pain. In retaliation, Hera sent a gadfly to irritate the cattle causing them to scatter. Then Hera caused a flood of the river making it so Herakles wouldn’t be able to carry the cattle across it. Herakles eventually dropped a bunch of large stones into the river to make the river shallower. The cattle were then taken to Eurystheus and sacrificed to Hera.
The Cretan Bull is another of Herakles’ labors and Eurystheus wanted to sacrifice it to Hera. She refused of course as it would only glorify Herakles’ deeds. So the bull was let go and it wandered over to Marathon becoming the Marathonian Bull.
Gigantomachy & Reconciliation
Despite all of the animosity, Herakles does eventually win over Hera. The opportunity came during the Gigantomachy when Gaia sent the Gigantes to attack the Olympians after the defeat of the Titans. One such Giant was Porphyrion, the King of the Gigantes who attempted to rape Hera. Herakles killed Porphyrion with an arrow. An ever-grateful Hera offers the hand of her daughter, Hebe in marriage to Herakles as a further step to heal the rift between them.
This would make Herakles “Hera’s man” and the name meaning “Glory of Hera” more fitting and understandable. That maybe there was another name Herakles was known by or that all along, the name is a foreshadowing of how the story will end between them.
It is also worth noting that after the story of Herakles, Diodorus Siculus writes that Alcmene is the last mortal woman that Zeus had an “affair.”
Zeus & Io
Ever vigilante for Zeus’ next “affair,” Hera spotted a solitary thundercloud and knew that this could only be the latest. As Hera sped down to catch Zeus in the act, she arrived to find Zeus with a small, white cow. Naturally, Hera isn’t fooled, she knows that Zeus has likely transformed his latest love interest and demands that he give her the cow as a present. Unable to refuse, Zeus relents and gives Hera the cow.
The cow, Io in her possession, Hera takes and ties her to a tree where she has her servant, Argus watch over the heifer in order to keep Zeus away. Argus was a giant with a hundred eyes over his entire body. Even when asleep, some of his eyes would always be awake and watching.
Afraid and unwilling to face Hera’s wrath, Zeus ordered Hermes to lull Argus into a deep sleep so that all of his eyes would close. If anyone could do it, it would be Hermes, he succeeded at getting all of Argus’ eyes to close in sleep and the god killed him.
Furious that Io is free, Hera sends a gadfly to harry and sting her as she wandered the land. Eventually, Io would make her way to Egypt where the Egyptians would worship this snow-white cow and call her Isis. Hera finally relented and allowed Zeus to change Io back into a human on the condition that he never seeks her out again. Human again and worshipped as a goddess-queen in Egypt, the son that Io bore thanks to Zeus would become the next king or pharaoh of Egypt.
These stories linking Grecian myths with those of Egypt are just that, a means by which the Greeks and later Romans would say that all the myths were connected, and local gods are the same deities, just under a different name.
Ovid’s Metamorphosis – In this retelling, after learning about Argus’ death, Hera places his eyes on the tail feathers of peacocks, one of her sacred animals.
Callisto & Arcas
Another of Zeus’ many love interests and affairs, Callisto was a follower of Artemis and had taken a vow of chastity. Enter Zeus who disguises himself as Apollo and then “seduces” her.
Out of revenge, Hera turns Callisto into a bear. Later on, Zeus and Callisto’s son, Arcas nearly kills Callisto while hunting. Zeus then places the two up into the heavens.
A slighter alternative to this story is that Zeus disguised himself as Artemis before “seducing” Callisto. That an enraged Artemis turns Callisto into a bear. We still have Arcas nearly killing his bear mother while hunting with either Zeus or Artemis placing them up into the heavens to become the constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Hera becomes angry with Callisto and Arcas’ placement up in the heavens and asks her foster mother, Tethys the Titan goddess of the oceans for help. Tethys places a curse on the constellations so that they will forever circle the heavens and never drop below the horizon. Thus explaining why the two constellations are what’s known as circumpolar.
Semele & Dionysus
In this myth, Semele, the daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia is “seduced” by Zeus. Hera learns of this and disguises herself as Semele’s nurse and tells the young woman to persuade Zeus to reveal himself to her. The mighty Zeus promised, swearing on the River Styx, the young Semele to reveal himself in all of his godly glory. However, Semele dies when Zeus reveals himself as thunder and lightning to her. Zeus takes the unborn child and completes Dionysus’ gestation by being sewn into Zeus’ thigh.
Another version of Dionysus’ birth has him as the son of Zeus and either Demeter or Persephone. An infuriated Hera sends her Titans to rip the infant apart, earning him the name Zagreus or “Torn to Pieces.” Zeus rescues the heart or part of it at least is saved by either Athena, Demeter, or Rhea. Whichever version of the story is followed, Zeus uses the heart to recreate Dionysus and places him in Semele’s womb. This also earns Dionysus the name “twice-born.” Alternatively, Zeus gives Semele the heart to eat, thereby impregnating her. The end story is still the same with Hera tricking Semele to get Zeus to reveal himself, thus killing her.
Later, Dionysus would return to the Underworld to retrieve his mother and the two would go to live on Mount Olympus.
The Judgement Of Paris
First, we have a prophecy, one that stated that the son of the sea-nymph Thetis would become greater than his father. Zeus with his reputation for an ever-roving eye fell in love while watching her in the sea just off the Grecian coast, learned of this prophecy, and decided to wed Thetis to an elderly mortal king, Peleus, the son of Aeacus. Sources vary, Thetis agrees to this arrangement either out of Zeus’ orders or because Hera had raised her, and did so to please Hera, the goddess of Marriage.
The gods were feasting at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, who would become the parents of Achilles. All the gods were invited except Eris who hadn’t received an invite. Chiron oversaw the wedding invites and didn’t invite Eris due to her reputation for stirring up trouble. This understandably miffed Eris to no end. After all, everyone else got invited, so why not her?
Coming off as seeking to be peaceful and with no hard feelings, Eris proposed a beauty contest between the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera. As the prize, Eris tossed a golden apple of beauty, or better known, the golden apple of discord. In some retellings, it is noted that the golden apple has engraved or written the word: “Kallisti,” meaning: “for the fairest.”
This dispute, one driven by vanity over who was the loveliest of the goddess would escalate and the gods bring the matter before Zeus to decide. Not wanting to favor one goddess over the others, Zeus has the hapless mortal Paris called in to judge. Each of the goddesses attempted to bribe Paris to choose her. Hera offered political power, Athena offered battle prowess and Aphrodite tempted Paris with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen.
Being a young mortal man, Paris chooses Helen and rewards Aphrodite with the golden apple. Only there is one problem, Helen is the wife of Menelaus of Sparta. In claiming and taking her, Paris sparks off the Trojan War. This causes Athena and Hera to side with the Greeks in the ensuing war.
Divine Set-Up – If we go by the “lost” epic, The Cypria attributed to Stasinus, this whole Trojan War was planned by Zeus and Themis. There are only about 50 lines of text from the Cypria and it’s seen as a prequel to Homer’s The Iliad and explains how the events come about.
Hera has a significant part in the Trojan War, making a number of appearances throughout The Iliad. First, we know that Hera is angry towards the Trojans due to Paris’ decision to favor Aphrodite and not her. Hence why Hera favors the Greeks and convinces Athena to aid the Achaeans to help interfere against the Trojans.
Later, Hera and Athena plot against Ares who was supposed to side with them initially but was convinced by Aphrodite to help her and thus the Trojans. Diomedes was able to see Ares aiding the Trojans and called for his soldiers to fall back. Seeing this, Hera asked Zeus for permission to drive Ares off the battlefield. At Hera’s encouragement, Diomedes threw his spear at Ares and Athena made sure the spear found its mark. Howling in pain, Ares fled back to Mount Olympus, causing the Trojans to fall back.
In another book, Hera attempts to persuade Poseidon to go against Zeus’ word and aid the Achaeans. Poseidon refuses, saying that he won’t. A still determined Hera and Athena head off towards the battlefield. Seeing this, Zeus sends Iris to intercept the two, telling them they must return to Olympus or face the consequences. After more fighting happens, Hera spots Poseidon doing what he told her he wouldn’t do and that is helping the Greeks and keeping them motivated to stay fighting.
Jumping to another book, Zeus has made a decree that the gods are not to get involved in the mortals’ war. Hera conceives of a plan in which she will seduce her husband. Hera lies to Aphrodite, saying she wants the help so that she and Zeus will stop fighting and Aphrodite loans Hera her girdle. Some additional help from Hypnos, the god of sleep, Zeus fell into a deep sleep. Now Hera and the other gods could continue to interfere in the Trojan War.
Free to do as she pleases, Hera has her son Hephaestus keep a river from harming Achilles. Hephaestus also sets the battlefield on fire, this causes the local river deity to plead with Hera, saying that he won’t help the Trojans if Hephaestus would cease his attacks. Hera persuades Hephaestus to stop and Hera returns to the field of battle, fighting with and against the other gods.
Zeus does eventually wake up and sees how much of the war he’s missed and that several of the gods are involved despite his decree not to. Seeing that he missed saving Sarpedon’s life, Zeus just does a deific shrug and says yeah, the other gods can get involved now.
Despite all of the interference, the Greeks won.
Once the Queen of Libya, Lamia was another of Zeus’ many lovers. An infuriated Hera killed Lamia’s children and then turned her a monster. Driven insane, Lamia was also cursed to be unable to close her eyes so she would be forced to forever obsess over the image of her dead children. Lamia turned to killing children and eating them as she was held to be envious of other mothers with children. Zeus taking pity, gave her the ability to prophesy as well as remove her eyes so she could sleep.
A minor story, Gerana was a Queen of the Pygmies. In an act of hubris, Gerana boasted of being more beautiful than Hera. An angry goddess responded by turning Gerana into a crane, stating that forever after, the crane’s descendants would be at war with the Pygmy people.
In this quick story, Antigone, the daughter of Laomedon boasted of being the most beautiful, and like Gerana, Hera turned Antigone into a stork.
Also spelled Side and meaning “pomegranate,” she was Orion’s first wife. Like Antigone and Gerana, Sida also boasted of being more beautiful than Hera. Unlike the other two, Hera sent Sida straight to the Underworld.
In this story, Cydippe is a priestess of Hera who was headed to a festival honoring the goddess. The ox pulling her cart were late and Cydippe’s sons, Biton and Cleobis pulled the cart the rest of the way to the festival. Cydippe was pleased with her sons’ devotion and asked Hera for a boon, the best gift a mortal could receive. Hera decreed that both brothers would die in their sleep.
This is an interesting myth, Tiresias was a priest of Zeus. One day, he came upon a pair of snakes who were mating. He hit them with a stick and was turned into a woman. Tiresias then became a priestess of Hera, married and bore children, one of whom she named Manto. Seven years later, Tiresias came upon another pair of mating snakes. Now, depending on who is retelling the story, Tiresias either leaves the snakes alone, remaining a woman, or, as Hyginus tells it, tramples the snakes to become a man once more.
Battle Of The Sexes – As a result of his experiences, Zeus and Hera called on Tiresias to settle the question of who had more pleasure during sex. Men or Women? Zeus claimed it was women and Hera said it was men. Tiresias sided with Zeus and an angry Hera struck them blind. Since Zeus couldn’t undo what Hera did, he gave Tiresias the gift of prophecy.
Other sources say that Tiresias sides with Zeus in saying that men have more pleasure during sex and for that, Zeus allows him to live three times longer than other mortals. Yet another source says that Tiresias, having returned to being male, is struck blind by Athena after coming across her bathing. Chariclo, Tiresias’ mother begged Athena to undo the curse and as the goddess could not, she gave Tiresias the gift of prophecy.
In a rather minor story or substory, during the marriage of Zeus and Hera, the nymph Chelone was regarded as being disrespectful by either being late or flat out not showing up. In anger, Zeus turned the nymph into a tortoise.
In this story, Hera became angry with Pelias as he had killed his step=mother, Sidero in one of the goddess’ temples. Given how power-hungry Pelias was, it was easy for Hera to plot and plan his downfall. A prophecy was given to Pelias about a one-sandaled man would kill him. Wanting to rule of all Thessaly, he seized the throne of Iolcus. Jason, the rightful heir was sent away and grew up under the tutelage of the centaur, Chiron. Many years later, Jason returned to Iolcus, and with a series of events and motions, such as his losing a sandal in the river while helping an old woman to cross, really Hera in disguise, the goddess was able to get Jason and Medea to ultimately kill Pelias after they returned from a long voyage to get The Golden Fleece.
Ovid’s The Metamorphoses
Given that Ovid is Roman, this story fits more for Hera’s Roman counterpart Juno.
The rulers of Thrace, King Haemus and Queen Rhodope were turned into mountains, the Balkan and Rhodope respectively after the two dared compare themselves to Juno & Jupiter, thus incurring their wrath.
The first human guilty of murder, after he refused to pay a bride price. Ixion searched everywhere for anyone who could purify him of this crime. No one would or could until Zeus took pity on him and invited Ixion up to Olympus to live.
While there, Ixion tried putting some moves on Hera who complained to her husband, Zeus. In response, Zeus created a cloud named Nephele in Hera’s likeness. When Zeus caught Ixion trying to put some unwanted moves on Nephele, Zeus sentenced Ixion down to Tartarus to spin forever on a flaming wheel crying out how you should always show gratitude to your benefactor.
Shadow Goddess – Jealousy & Envy
With all the numerous stories of Hera’s jealousy towards Zeus, his various love affairs and children, Hera is seen as a goddess who represents jealousy, the need for revenge as she has never forgotten a slight or injury. All of this gives Hera a particularly vindictive nature, seemingly more so and notable compared to the other Olympian gods.
Like Zeus, how much a victim of the passage of time and the tellings and retellings of her myths over the millennia is hard to say. Most people aren’t aware of how the story between Hera and Herakles ends with them finally having reconciliation. I’ve had people mock the name of Herakles and the meaning of the name, for “Glory of Hera” and don’t seem to be aware of the part of the stories where Hebe is given to Herakles in marriage after he saves Hera from the giant Porphyrion trying to rape her.
“Hercules the Legendary Journeys” is a bit infuriating there with the ending where the reconciliation between Zeus, Hera, and Hercules all comes about with her getting amnesia. They could have built up a more meaningful ending that more closely matched the myths the writers were pulling from. That they didn’t just shows to me lazy writing on the part of the screenwriters. Many other shows and movies tend to gloss over the moral and marital problems as that usually is not the focus of the story at hand that writers want to tackle and tell.
Yet the reconciliation is there. It is in Herakles’ name as a foreshadowing of how the story ends and possible, potential hints of when Greek culture went from being matriarchal to patriarchal and stories getting rewritten.
We see an aspect that modern Wicca, Witchcraft, and Paganism would recognize as the Triple Goddess with Hebe, the Virgin of Spring, Hera, the Mother of Summer, and Hecate, the Crone of Autumn. Bear in mind, that this aspect comes from Robert Graves in his “The Greek Myths.”
Gaia – Greek Goddess
I’m my own Grandma!
Not really, leave it to the Greeks to continue with blending all their deities as being one and the same, to blur or ignore their own genealogies for their Pantheon. Gaia is the primordial goddess of the Earth and from whom all life sprang forth. Again, it works if you’re just seeing all of these deities as just different aspects of the divine.
In the case of Hera; older, more archaic versions place her as an ancient Earth Goddess. The Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo places Hera as the mother to Typhon, while most myths place Gaia as being his mother.
Hathor – Egyptian
In her role as a cow goddess or goddess of cattle, Hera has been identified with Hathor. Other than that, the similarities end there.
Juno – Roman
Where Hera is the Queen of the Gods in the Greek Pantheon, her Roman counterpart is Juno who is depicted as more warlike wearing a goatskin cloak as seen on those worn by Roman soldiers. The month of June gains its name from this goddess. There was a festival known as Matronalia, celebrated on March 1st honoring Juno as Juno Lucina, the goddess of childbirth. Juno Pronuba presided over marriage much like her Greek counterpart and Juno Regina was a special counselor and protector of the Roman state.
Thanks greatly to the influence of the Romans, many people will identify and equate Hera with Juno. The Romans were famous for subsuming many deities in their conquest across Europe, particularly the Mediterranean area, and identifying their gods with those of a conquered culture. The most famous being the Greeks, where many deities were renamed to those of Roman gods. Prominent examples like Zeus and Jupiter, Hera and Juno, Ares and Mars, and so on down the line.
With the Hellenization of Latin literature, many Greek writers and even Roman writers rewrote and intertwined the myths of these two deities so that they would virtually become one and the same. And this has become the tradition passed down through the centuries that many people know and accept. Just that there are still some differences that separate the two.
Uni – Etruscan
A cognate for Hera in the little-known Etruscan beliefs and mythology.
Alternate Spelling: Kybele
Other names: Agdistis Cybele Magna Mater, Berecyntia, Brimo, Dindymene, Magna Mater, Mother of the Gods, Kubaba, Matar Kubelē, Kubileya or Kubeleya “Kubeleyan Mother” (Phrygian, translation: “Mountain Mother”), Lydian Kuvava (Turkish Kibele), Κυβέλη, Kybêlê, Kybele, Κυβήβη Kybebe, Κύβελις Kybelis (Greek), Meter Theon, Great Mother
Other Names and Epithets: Antaea, Mātēr, Mētēr, Mistress Cybele the Mother, Mistress of Animals, Idaea, Isis, Rhea, Demeter, Ops, Potnia Theron (Mistress of the Animals), Mater Deum Magna Idaea, Meter Theon Idaia (“Mother of the Gods, from Mount Ida”), Meter Oreie (Mountain Mother), “The Mother of the Gods, the Savior who Hears our Prayers”, “The Mother of the Gods, the Accessible One.” Megalenses ludi, Pessinuntica (Phrygian – “Mother of the Gods.”)
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Etymology: ” Mother of the Mountain,” “Cavern-Dweller”
An inscription found on one of Cybele’s Phrygian rock monuments has been translated as mater kubileya, “Mother of the Mountain.” The inscription for matar or “Mother” is found at many other Phrygian sites.
Animal: Bee, Hawks, Lions, essentially all wildlife.
Colors: Brown, Green, Blue
Day of the Week: Saturday
Patron of: Nature, Natural places, Mountains, Caverns, Walls, Fortresses
Plant: Almond, Pine
Sphere of Influence: Fertility, Menstruation, Nature, Sex, War, Mother of Life
Symbols: lions, naiskos, tympanon (hand-drum or tambourine), pine cones
Early Greek depictions of Cybele are small votive representations of her rock-cut statues and images found in Phrygia. Cybele is shown standing alone inside a naiskos, which is basically a rock-hewn relief with walls and roof overhead to represent a temple or doorway. She is crowned with a type of tall cylindrical hat called a polos, a long flowing chiton that covers her shoulders and back. Cybele is sometimes shown with lion attendants to either side of her.
Approximately 5th century B.C.E., the Greek sculptor Agoracritos made the official Hellenized version of Cybele in the Athenian agora. This statue shows Cybele sitting on a throne with a lion at her side and holding a tympanon, a type of hand drum that the Greeks used in her cults and worship. In Greece, Cybele would be very closely identified with the Greek’s mother goddess figure of Rhea.
Anatolian & Phrygian Origins
While Cybele is known as the Great Mother in the Roman pantheon, she was originally a mother goddess from Anatolia. She is likely the precursor of a Neolithic goddess in Çatalhöyük (Konya), where a statue of a pregnant goddess that appears to be giving birth is seated on a lion throne was found within a granary.
For the Phrygians, Cybele is the only known goddess and is also likely the state deity. In addition, Cybele was a goddess of caverns, goddess of the Earth in its primitive form and was worshiped on mountain tops. Cybele’s domain was over all the wild creatures of the earth. Phrygian art dating to the 8th century B.C.E. shows Cybele attended by lions, a bird of prey and a small vase for libations or other offerings.
Greek colonists would later adopt Cybele in Asia Minor before bringing her back to the mainland where her worship would spread during the 6th century B.C.E.
In Çatal Hüyük, Turkey, there is a figurine that was found dating back to 8,000 B.C.E. that depicts a Mother Goddess squatting in the process of giving birth and is flanked to either side by two leopards. This figurine is thought to be Cybele in a very early form.
Cumae – The Sybils of this temple were Cybele’s priestess and oracles.
Ionia – In places such as Magnesia and Maeander, where Cybele is worshiped as Dindymene, she held temples.
Pessinus – Located near Mount Dindymus in Phrygia, a temple was built here dedicated to Cybele Dindymene. Legend holds that the Argonauts built this temple. Here, Cybele was represented by a black meteoric iron stone. This same meteorite may have also associated with another mountain deity of Pessinus as Agdistis.
Rome – A temple for Cybele as Magna Mater stood on the slopes of Palatine Hill it overlooked the Circus Maximus and facing another of Cybele’s temples on Aventine. The first temple here was destroyed by fire in 111 B.C.E. and later rebuilt. In Imperial Rome, the temple burned down again and was rebuilt by Augustus, only to get burned again.
During the ground breaking and preparation for Saint Peter’s Basilica on Vatican Hill, a shrine known as the Phrgianum and dedicated to Magna Mater was found. A motif of Saint Peter is found standing at the site of Cybele’s temple in Rome.
The Roman port of Ostia also boosted a sanctuary to Magna Mater and Attis, commemorating their arrival to Rome. The worship of Cybele brought on the anger of many Christians within the Roman Empire. Especially when Saint Theodre of Amasea, in recanting his beliefs, did so by burning down a temple of Cybele.
Mount Sipylus – A stone carving found here is believed to be the oldest image of Cybele. The carving itself is attributed to the legendary Greek hunter Broteas as having created it. The 2nd century C.E. geographer Rausanias mentions a Magnesian cult to “The Mother of the Gods” having been present.
Cults Of Cybele
The rites for Cybele were secretive and mysterious like many Earth Mother Goddesses such as Demeter and Isis. Cybele’ cult was directed by eunuch priests known as Corybantes or Galli. They were very faithful in conducting their orgiastic rites that were often wild and emotional with lots of ecstatic cries and frenzied, passionate music of flutes, drums and cymbals. In addition, sacrifices were made to Cybele, symbolizing the death and rebirth of her son and consort Attis. Self-castration is said to have taken place in Cybele’s rites. Other later rites were the taurobolium in which a bull was sacrificed and a priest bathing in its blood.
As a mystery cult, not much is known about Cybele’s initiates and worshipers. Stone reliefs show Cybele alongside both young male and female attendants carrying torches and vessels used for purification. Surviving literature describes a joyous sound of abandonment with loud percussions of tympanons, castanets, cymbals and flutes and a lot of frenzied dancing. It has been suggested that the dancing is likely to have been circle-dancing by women.
Worship Among The Greeks
Cybele’s cult was introduced to Greece by returning soldiers from the Trojan War and is noted for having caused a lot of conflicts. It would later be adopted by the Romans who held festivals in Cybele’s honor. The worship of Cybele among the Greeks held various mixed views. Here, her various different aspects were mixed with other goddesses. Notably the goddesses of Gaia, an Earth-goddess, Rhea, a Minoan goddess and the Harvest-Mother goddess of Demeter. The city-state of Athens invoked Cybele as a protector.
In 6th century B.C.E., Herodotus mentions that when Anacharsis returned to Scythia, that his brother the Scythian king had Anacharsis put to death for joining Cybele’s cult.
Athenian tradition holds that sometime around 500 B.C.E, a city metroon was created in order to placate Cybele after she visited a plague upon the city after one of her priests was killed for trying to introduce her cult. It’s thought that this story would explain why a public building would be dedicated to an imported goddess. The earliest source to this story is referenced in the “Hymn To The Mother Of The Gods,” circa 362 C.E. by the Roman emperor Julian. Given Cybele’s wild and forceful nature, her cults were often privately funded rather than publicly funded among the Greeks.
In Greek rites, Cybele was often seen as a foreign and exotic mystery-goddess who rode in a lion-drawn chariot accompanied with wild music, wine and a rather disorderly following; not unlike Dionysus or Bacchus’ Bacchanalias. As a foreign goddess, Cybele was seen as the great goddess of the Eastern World.
The transgender or eunuch priesthood was uniquely Greek. Many of Cybele’s Greek cults held a rite to a divine Phrygian Shepard-consort of Attis. This joint cult of Cybele and Attis was found throughout Magna Graecia, with evidence of this cult in Gaul, modern day Marseilles and Lokroi in southern Italy during the 6th and 7th centuries B.C.E. Following Alexander the Great’s conquests of the known world, wandering devotees to Cybele became common place in Greek literature and social life.
The Greeks associating Cybele with the Minoan goddess, Rhea has led to a number of different male demigods becoming tied into Cybele’s mythology as attendants or guardians for her infant son Zeus, in the cave of his birth.
Within the Grecian cults, these different male demigods acted as the intermediaries, go-between, even messengers for the goddess and her mortal followers through the use of dreams, trances and ecstatic dances and song.
Some of these demigod messengers are:
Korybantes – Or Kouretes, a group of nine armed dancers who are the offspring of the Muse Thalia and the god Apollo. They used drumming and dancing to drown out the cries of an infant Zeus to prevent him from being discovered.
Corybantes – Simply the same group, only this is the Phrygian name for this group of dancers.
Dactyls – A group of magician-smiths who are sometimes the offspring of Rhea or they worked for the god Hephaestus. They were ancient smiths and healers who sprang into being as Rhea went into labor with her son Zeus.
Telchines – An ancient primordial race with dog heads and flippers for hands. They were best known for their metal working. A group of nine Telchines were employed by Rhea to raise her infant son Zeus.
Worship Among The Romans
To the Romans, Cybele was known as Magna Mātēr or “Great Mother.” In the Roman State, Cybele’s cult and worship was adopted after the Sibylline oracle said it would be an important religious factor during Rome’s Second Punic War with Carthage.
The Romans had some dire omens in the way of a meteor shower, failed crops and an impending famine. It should be noted that a second consultation with the Greek oracle at Delphi confirmed to the Romans that adopting Cybele’s cult and worship would be the right way to go in assuring victory.
Cybele’s arrival into Rome is marked by the arrival of the Pessinos’ black meteor stone from the neighboring Roman ally and Kingdom of Pergamum. Further, Roman legend connects the voyage of the meteor stone with a Claudia Quinta who was accused of being unchaste. When the ship carrying Cybele’s sacred stone became stuck on a sand bar in the Tiber River, Claudia prayed to the goddess for help. Proving her innocence, Claudia was able to single-handedly pull and tow the ship free of the sandbar. Shortly after, Rome’s fortunes changed with a successful harvest and their being able to defeat Hannibal, the then leader of Carthage.
Among the Romans, Cybele was rewritten to be a Trojan goddess and thus making her an ancestral goddess through the Trojan prince Aeneas. Many of Rome’s leading families claimed Trojan ancestry and this made for Cybele’s integration into the Roman culture and pantheon a sort of reunion with a Mother Goddess’ exiled people. Further Romanization of Cybele sees her identified with the goddess Ops, wife of Saturn and the parents of Jupiter.
Rome’s dominance over the Mediterranean and Europe, saw many of Cybele’s cults get Romanized and spread throughout the Empire. Just what the exact nature of Cybele’s cults and worship among the Romans has meant were greatly discussed and disputed in both Greek and Roman literature and even among modern scholars.
It is generally agreed that the addition of Cybele’s consort Attis and her eunuch priests known as Galli or Gallai and all the wild, ecstatic features of her worship from her Greek and Phrygian cults have been largely Romanized. Something the Romans were very good at when adopting the gods of other cultures into their own. Under the rule of Caesar Augustus, he built a large temple to Cybele on the Palatine Hill. The statue of Cybele found within this temple has the likeness of Augustus’ wife, Livia.
Big Three – Cybele’s worship in Rome became so popular that it would become one of the three, major and important cults within Rome. The other cults are the Cult of Isis and Serapis (Osirus) and Mithraism. All three of these cults would persist and last until Rome’s conversion to Christianity as a state religion. Under Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century C.E., he outlawed all other cults and the church of Magna Mater, Cybele ceased to be and saw heavy persecution and the destruction of her temples.
Castissima Femina – “Purest or Most Virtuous Woman” Claudia Quinta’s connection and involvement with bringing the worship of Cybele to Rome would become more glorified and embellished over the centuries. To the point of forming a small cult. Claudia Quinta would be shown in the dress of a Vestal Virgin in art. Imperial Augustan ideology viewed Claudia as the very ideal of virtuous Roman womanhood.
Criobolium And Taurobolium – While the Greeks may have had no problems with castration for initiation into Cybele’s Cults, the Romans did hold prohibitions to this practice that greatly limited who could be initiated into the cult. Around 160 C.E., it is known that Roman citizen who sought initiation could offer up two forms of animal sacrifice as an alternative to self-castration.
The first, Taurobolium, sacrificed a bull, considered to a potent and expensive offering. The high cost for this sacrifice ensured that only Rome’s highest social class could be initiated. The second, Cribolium, sacrificed a ram, seen as a more inexpensive and thus less potent offering. This sacrifice is more typical of Rome’s poorer social classes.
The Christian apologist, Prudentius gives a description of these sacrifices where a priest stands in a pit under a slatted wooden floor. When the acolytes killed the bull with a sacred spear. The priest will come out from the pit, covered in the bull’s blood, much to the applause of spectators. This is atypical of Roman sacrifices as what is more likely to have happened with a sacrifice is that the blood is carefully collected and offered up to the deity along with the animal’s reproductive organs.
Both the Criobolium and Taurobolium are not linked to any specific religious celebration with Magna Mater, though they clearly have the same symbolism seen with the observance of Hilaria, March’s “Holy Week” that celebrates and honors the death and rebirth of Attis. Later, during Rome’s Imperial era, many of Attis’ initiates come from the deeply religious and wealthy citizens and not necessarily for the worship of Cybele.
Galli – This is the name for Cybele’s priesthood during Imperial Rome. They were eunuch priests who practiced castration as a sign of their devotion to the goddess Cybele. The Galli castrated themselves in service to Cybele as they thought that doing so would give them the powers of prophecy. After castration, they would dress as women, keeping their hair long and adopting female mannerisms and appearances. The Galli also wore a tall cylindrical hat called a polos. It is known the Galli held orgiastic rituals accompanied by loud cries and the loud noise of flutes, drums and cymbals. While there are certainly the male priests who wore women’s clothing, in some regions there were also known to be female priestesses devoted to Cybele.
In Servius’ account, Attis is the founder of this priesthood with the highest ranking Gallus taking the name of Attis. The more junior Galli was known as Battakes. The Galli located at Pessinus were very politically influential among the Roman Senate.
In Rome, the Galli were forbidden citizenship and the rights of inheritance, as they were eunuchs and unable to have children. This was a very stark contrast to many other priests of other Roman gods who did have families and raise children, particularly of the more senior priests.
The Galli are thought to have castrated themselves in keeping with the myth of Attis where he castrates a king for their unwanted sexual advances and gets castrated in turn by the dying king. Cybele’s priest would have found Attis at the base of a pine tree where he dies and they proceed to bury him. In memory of Atti’s passing, the priests are believed to have emasculated themselves and added him to the celebrations and rites for the goddess Cybele. In Hellenistic Greek, a poet refers to Cybele’s priests as Gallai, a feminine form of the name. The Roman poet Catullus refers to Attis in the masculine form of his name until he is castrated. Catullus then refers to Attis in the feminine form of his name thereafter. Different Roman sources refer to the Galli by a third gender of medium genus or tertium sexus when mentioning them.
During the Megalesia festival, the Galli were allowed to leave their temple under Cybele’s law and go out into the streets begging for money. The standard of dress that the Galli wore, marked them as outsiders to the Roman people. Despite their effeminate dress and mannerisms, the Galli were considered sacred and inviolate as they were part of a state Cult. The Roman prohibitions of castration made the Galli a clear image of curiosity and scorn. The Galli were a constant presence within Roman cities even into Rome’s Christian era.
Parentage and Family
Dindymene – In Phrygian mythology, she with King Maeon, is the mother of Cybele. Otherwise, the name of Dindymene is sometimes seen as just an alternative name for Cybele.
Maeon – (Also spelt Meion). A King of Phrygia and Lydia, with his wife Dindymene, fathered Cybele.
In this version of the myths, Cybele was left out, exposed on Mount Cybelus to die. However, leopards came and suckled Cybele, allowing her to survive.
Zeus & Gaia – Pausanias identifies Cybele’s parents as being the Phrygian Sky-Gods and Earth-Goddess whom he names as having been Zeus and Gaia.
Attis – A vegetation bull-god. In the very conflicting and varying stories, Attis is both Cybele’s son and consort.
Midas – As in King Midas of the golden touch. He is sometimes shown to be a consort of Cybele. Though he is definitely regarded as a leader to Cybele’s cult.
Cybele is ultimately the mother and grandmother to a good many deities of the Roman Pantheon.
Cronos – When Cybele is identified with Rhea, she is the mother of Alce, Midas and Nicaea.
Gordius – With him, Cybele is the mother of Midas, when he’s not shown as her consort.
Iasion – With him, Cybele is the mother of Corybas (also spelt Korybas). Iasion is the Samothrakian for Cybele’s consort Attis. Corybas is the first of the Korybantes who will later stand guard over the infant Zeus.
Olympos – With him, Cybele is the mother of Alke-Kybele
Sabazios-Dionysos – Some versions of his birth place him as Cybele’s son instead of Hera/Juno’s child.
A Crisis Of Identity
While Cybele has her origins in Anatolian and Phrygian culture and mythology; her being imported and adopted by other cultures in the Mediterranean has led to a good many other goddess being identified with Cybele or seen as alternative names and epithet.
The most notable is that of the Greek Goddess Rhea, who is also a Mother Goddess. Many of her myths have become intertwined with those of Cybele’s over the years.
Other goddess who have been equated and identified with Cybele are the Roman Goddess Ops, the wife of Saturn, the Egyptian goddess Isis, a minor local goddess or nymph Idaea and the Greek goddess Demeter.
Cybele And The Sibyls
Due to the similarity in the how the names sound, there tends to be a lot of associating the Sibyls as potential female priests and oracles for Cybele. While female oracles, the Sibyls could claim patronage to any deity and not necessarily Cybele. Most seem to follow the Greek god Apollo as he is a god of Prophecy.
Many Sibyles would prophesy at holy sites and they were originally at Delphi and Pessinos, following chthonic deities. And yes, Pessinos is where Cybele originated from when the Romans brought her black stone and statue back home. So there just might be a real connection.
Agdistis – Hermaphrodite – The Birth Of Cybele
Anatolian Goddess – Before the drastic changes to her myth, Agdistis had been a benevolent goddess of healing. Accepted for as they are until later changes are made and forced to this goddess as she and many others are absorbed into the larger myth of Cybele and adopted by other cultures, namely Greece and Rome.
When taken as a separate deity from Cybele, Agdistis is of mixed Anatolian, Greek and Roman mythology. They are a hermaphrodite or androgynous being; having both the male and female sexual organs. This dual nature of Agdistis made them symbolic of the wild and uncontrollable nature. This is an aspect that was seen as so threatening to the other gods that they sought to destroy Agdistis. The one explanation found or given is that Agdistis, being a hermaphrodite, held a huge sexual appetite and the gods were unable to handle it. They felt that this being could and should only be one gender or the other and for the gods, it was easier to remove the male sexual organs.
There a lot of ancient inscriptions that plainly and clearly show Agdistis as being separate from Cybele. However, later, Agdistis’ name would become one of Cybele’s many epithets. A common occurrence for many localized gods and goddess of Phrygia as the gods were imported into Greece and then Rome and many deities of a foreign place were often seen as being the same god, just known by another name.
There are multiple versions of the story for how Agdistis is attacked by the other gods and is castrated, how Attis is born and that Agdistis, now Cybele falls in love with the youth, promising to make him immortal.
How in some versions, Attis is punished for falling in love with is mother, how instead of keeping his vow to Cybele to only follow her, that he falls in love with another and that a jealous, angry Cybele drives Attis and the other guests at a wedding mad. How after, regretting her actions that she pleads to Jupiter/Zeus to restore Attis. One version of the story has both Agdistis and Cybele as separate beings who both fall in love with Attis.
The Greek Version – In this version of the myths, Cybele was raped by Zeus and gave birth to Agdistis. It should be noted, that Attis is very strongly and likely an invention and addition to Cybele’s myth.
As a deity separate from Cybele, Agdistis was a mountain deity found on Mount Dindymus near the city of Pessinus.
The Roman Version – In one version of the myths, Cybele, known as Agdistis is thought to have been a hermaphrodite, having been born of the earth where Jupiter’s sperm fell. The gods castrated Agdistis who then becomes the goddess Cybele. Where the severed pieces of Agdistis’ manhood fell, an almond tree grew. The fruit of this tree impregnated the nymph Nana when she placed an almond on her womb. Or more likely, that she ate an almond. Nana later gave birth to the god Attis. The baby Attis was abandoned by Nana as she was afraid of her father. The baby was discovered and saved by shepherds. Attis would grow up to become Cybele’s lover.
Pausanias’ Version – Pausanias identifies the Phrygian Sky-God and Earth-Goddess as being Zeus and Gaia.
In Pausanias’ version of the story, while sleeping, Zeus had some of his sperm fall on the ground. This of course created a Daimon that was hermaphroditic having the sexual organs for both male and female. This Daimon would be called Agdistis, another name for Cybele. The other gods feared Agdistis and cut off the male organs. This proceeded to create an almond tree. The daughter of the river Saggarios then took the almond fruit and held it to her bosom where it vanished. The daughter would find later that she was pregnant and give birth to Attis.
A slight variation to this story is that while Gaia, as the Great Mother slept on a rock called “Agdo,” the god Zeus raped Gaia and brought about Agdistis birth.
Other variations yet have either Dionysus or Liber who make a potion to put Agdistis to sleep so they can castrate them by tying his genitals to his foot so they’re ripped off when Agdistis stands.
Depending on the version of the story read, there are different accounts to the sequences of events and who is involved, a river nymph or king’s daughter that Attis marries.
It certainly reads as a very conflicting story that will vary by which author relates it. There’s been a good many changes to the story, especially considering how much Attis is a later addition that is largely added-on by the Romans.
Also known as: Befana, Befanta
Etymology – Epifania or Epiphania – the Italian name for the religious holiday of Epiphany. It is thought by some that Befana’s name comes from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaenia” which means “appearance” or “surface” and “manifestation.” It certainly is the source for the English word epiphany. Another line of thought is that the name Befana comes from the word Bastrina which refer to gifts given by the Sabine goddess Strina.
Perhaps I’m a bit early in posting for La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch or Fairy. However with the holiday season, I find it easier to get her in now before January 6th arrives.
For children in Italy, Befana plays a role very similar to Santa Claus, however instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she flies around on a broom, delivering her gifts of candy to good children in the first week of January. Italian children are very lucky, they not only get visited by Befana; they still get visited by Babbo Natale; both of whom bring presents and gifts.
La Befana is described as an old woman wearing a black shawl while riding a broomstick and carrying a bag of gifts. Sometimes Befana is said to ride either a goat or a donkey.
Like her counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana is also known for coming down the chimney to bring her gifts to children. Presents and candy for those children who have been good and coal for those who have been bad. In more modern times, the coal is actually a piece of black rock candy. Befana’s being dressed in black explains her being covered in soot from going down chimneys, which she will sweep up after she’s done with her visit and leaving gifts.
Where Santa will receive plates of cookies and a glass of milk as a treat or offering left out for him; Italian children will prepare and leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for La Befana as she no longer has any good teeth left. Other foods such as a glass of wine or broccoli may be left too.
Another aspect that Santa Claus and Befana share in common is that children will write letters to them, requesting a special need or want. Some cities in Italy will set up a mailbox for letters to La Befana in the same manner that Post Offices such as in the U.S. will have mailboxes set up for Santa. Some children will hide their notes or letters to Befana in their chimney for her to find.
La Befana also doesn’t like to be seen and will smack any child caught spying on her with her broomstick. Obviously this part of the story seems a way of parents keeping children in bed while gifts are left out.
The Basic Story And Legend
There are a few different versions to the legend and story behind La Befana.
On the second hill in Via della Padella, there is a village where La Befana lives. In this story, she is said to be part fairy and part witch. La Befana spends the entire year in the company of her grotesque assistants known as the Befanucci preparing coal, making candy and toys and mending old stockings which are given out during the nights of January 5th and 6th, which is said to be the longest night of the year.
The second story is a Christianized version and probably one of the more familiar ones.
When the three wise men were on their journey to visit the young Christ, they stopped at the home of an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that were following a star that would lead them to the newborn baby and savior Jesus.
The wise men asked the old woman if she wanted to come with them, but she replied that she was far too busy cleaning and didn’t have time to go.
Later when the old woman, La Befana had either finished her cleaning, changed her mind about going or realized that the baby whom the wise men spoke of was the prophesied redeemer, it was too late. She was too late in coming to visit the Christ child, he had already left. Other versions of this story have La Befana getting lost on the way.
Ever since then, La Befana has been searching for the baby Christ and leaving gifts in the homes where children live in hopes that one of them is the young Christ. In some retellings, Befana has come to see and realize over her many years of searching, that in a way, the Christ Child can be found in all children and this is why she will leave her gifts.
Slight variations to this story have Befana running as fast as she could to catch up with the Wise Men that she began to fly on her broom she was still holding onto.
Another variation to the flying broom is that angels appeared, coming from the bright star in the sky and enchanted Befan’s broom so she could search more easily for the Baby Jesus.
Zoroastrian Connection – With this idea in mind, the Magi, Kings in their own right, were fire priests from a privileged caste in Persia. The gifts the Magi carry in the biblical story, represent thre worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three elements were linked to the sacred fires of Vedica, India and Avestica, Persia. There may be a connection between them, their gifts and La Befana with them all arriving on January 6th, the Epiphany.
In a story similar to that involving the wise men, this story too has Christian connections.
With this story, La Befana was a mother who lived during the time of King Herod. When Herod made his decree that all the first born male children and male children born that year were to be killed in his efforts to try and prevent the new king, La Befana’s son was among many of those slain by Herod’s soldiers.
So traumatized by grief with the loss of her son and in deep denial to his death, La Befana became convinced that her son was merely lost. She placed all of her son’s belongings in a sack and went out searching for him, going from house to house. The stress from worry, caused La Befana to quickly age, becoming an old woman.
With what seemed liked forever for the grief stricken mother, yet only a few days, La Befana found a male baby in a manager. Certain that she had found her son, La Befana laid out all of her son’s belongings for the infant. The baby in question was Jesus Christ and he blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts.
Every year since, on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana would be Mother to all of the world’s children and care for them by bringing gifts of treats, toys and clothing. While some families will leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, other families will have a plate with broccoli and spice sausage along with a small glass of wine for La Befana.
In this story, La Befana is benevolent and kindly old Witch who saw the emptiness that children suffered during the long, dark nights of winter. Because of her great love and affection for all innocents, La Befana wanted the children to know that even in the darkness of winter, that kindness and hope could still be found.
Starting with the eve of Yule, typically around December 21st, La Befana would, in secret go from door to door, leaving a basket of gifts. Inside each basket would be bread, cheese, sweets and gifts for the children. A final gift, more important and precious than the others was a colored, scented candle; a Solstice candle. Families would light this candle on the night of the Solstice, the flame of this candle both symbolized and brought the light of hope for the coming year. It is a reminder that even in the darkest cold of winter, the light and warmer days of summer would come again.
Epiphany – Little Christmas
January 6th marks the final day of the holiday season in Italy. This is the day that La Befana arrives, bringing gifts and treats for children, marking the end of the Yule Season. Epiphany or Twelfth Night is also when the 12 Wise Men are said to have finally visited the baby Jesus, bringing with them their gifts.
As Little Christmas, the Epiphany is traditionally a holiday for children in Italy. In the region of Abruzzo and other Southern areas, one festivity that children celebrate is called Pasquetta and commemorates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem when visiting the infant Jesus. There are parades held that feature La Befana. She is sometimes accompanied by her male companion, Befano. Children will sing songs to La Befana and leave out dolls in windows. Some families will burn the dolls as a means ending the past year and bring good luck for the coming year. Family and friends will from house to house visiting each other after opening their gifts from La Befana in the morning. Firework displays are also part of many modern Epiphany celebrations. Her arrival is also celebrated with traditional foods such as panettone, a Christmas cake.
The celebration of Befana during Epiphany is huge in Italy where she has become a national icon. In the areas of Marche, Umbria and Lazio, Befana is associated with the Papal States where Epiphany has the strongest presence. Befana’s home is thought to be Umbria.
The stories and traditions of La Befana are older than those of Babbo Natale; Santo Natale, the Italian names for Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She can be found going back centuries with some speculation that La Befana may be the goddess Hecate. Historically, La Befana first appears in writing in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.
La Befana’s festival has taken over an ancient pagan feast celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year. One aspect of the Epiphany celebrations as part of an ancient holiday for celebrating the New Year, is a time for purification. This is seen in Befana’s carrying a broom that she uses to sweep around the fireplaces of those whom she visits as a mean of clearing away the old, negative energies of the previous year and cleansing it for the coming New Year.
Other rites used for purification were burning effigy dolls of Befana to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the New Year. The end of the long winter nights and the return of the longer days of spring and summer. The coal Befana is known for leaving for naughty children has connections to sacred bonfires and is a symbol of fertility with the renewal of the earth at spring. The sacred bonfires are also seen in the ceppo or yule logs burned at this time of the year. The ashes from the burned yule log would be kept and sprinkled out in the fields for good luck and to ensure a healthy crop.
Sometimes the Ceppo is a pyramid made of wood, a tiered tree believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. This tree would have three to five shelves and the frame decorated. On the bottom shelf is the family’s Nativity scene and the remaining shelves would hold greenery, fruit, nuts and present. The Nativity or Presepio represents the gift of God. The fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents the gift of man. The top of the tree would have an Angel, star or a pineapple that represents hospitality. Sometimes candles are attached to the outside of each shelf, which is why the ceppo is also called the “Tree of Light.”
In Abruzzo, on the morning of Janurary 6th, sacristans would go from house to house leaving what is known as “Bboffe water.” This water was used for devotions or sprinkled around the house ward off and keep away negative energy or magic.
In the region of Romagna, the celebration of Epiphany was a time for connecting with their ancestors, which would help to ensure a successful crop and fertility for the coming year. This connection is seen in the Befanotti who represented the ancestors going from house to house singing Pasquella and in Befana coming down the chimneys to leave a gift.
The Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco make a connection of Befana’s origins back to Neolithic times, beliefs and practices. They make a further connection of Befana having evolved into a Fertility and Agricultural goddess in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (“House without a Door”).
Ancient Sabine Goddess – Strenua
La Befana is thought to be connected to the Sabine/Roman goddess known as Strenua or Strina who was a goddess of strength and endurance. This connection has been made mention in the book “Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily” by Reverend John J. Blunt. Strenua presided over the New Year, Purifications and Well-Being. She would give gifts of figs, dates and honey. Strenua’s festivities were opposed by early Christians who viewed them as too noisy, riotous and licentious.
On January 1st, twigs were carried from Strenua’s grove, likely located in or near Via Sacra where she had a temple, in a procession to the citadel. This particular rite is first mentioned happening on New Year’s Day in 153 B.C.E. This is the year when the consuls first began assuming their office at the beginning of the year. With the switch and change over from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendars, it’s not clear if January 1st had always been the date that Strenua’s New Year celebration had been observed or if it had been held on the original New Year’s Day, a date sometimes thought in this case to have been March 1st.
The name Strenia is thought to be the origin for the word strenae, which were New-Year’s gifts that the Romans exchanged to promote good omens. Various strenae have been branches or twigs and money. Another name for these gifts is Bastrina and it is thought to have given their name to La Befana.
According to a Johannes Lydus, strenae is a Sabine word meaning “wellbeing” or “welfare”. It is unknown how accurate this may be as many words attributed to the Sabines are only singular, one word or there and no surviving scripts or inscriptions have been found. Saint Augustine says that Strenia was a goddess responsible for making a person vigorous or strong. And if you haven’t guessed it, the root for the word strenuous.
There seems to be a lot of strong agreement that Strenua rites and celebrations survive in the festivities surrounding La Befana.
Other Mythological Figures Possibly Connected To Befana
Giubiana – An old woman or crone and festival of the same name held in the Northern Italy region of Lombardy. An effigy of Giubiana and sometimes her male counterpart and spouse, Ginée who is the personification of January. An effigy of Giubiana is burned to ashes to symbolize the burning away of the old year and the end of winter.
Nicevenn – La Befana has been connected to the Scottish figure of Nicevenn as a source of inspiration for her legend and traditions. With Nicevenn or Gyre-Carling as she was also known, it was considered unlucky to leave any unfinished knitting lying around lest she steal it.
Perchta – A southern Germanic goddess from the Alpine countries. She is sometimes identified with the Germanic goddess Holda. Both goddesses are known as a “guardian of the beasts” and make an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.
Befana Poems And Songs
There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.
The following is one version:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
The English translation is as follows:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”
The English translation is as follows:
“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”
Etymology – Swan
Also known as: The Northern Cross, Ornis (Greek “bird”)
The constellation of Cygnus, the Swan is considered one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky, particularly during the summer and autumn in the Northern Hemisphere.
To the Greeks, this constellation was known as Ornis, meaning “bird.” It was later named Cygnus by the Romans who proceeded to adapt several Greek myths to try and explain the name or connection.
While there are many people in Greek mythology who bear the name of Cycnus, the constellation of Cygnus is also associated with several stories. One of the more well known stories is that of the god Zeus and his transformation into a swan to try and seduce Leda or in some variations, Nemesis. Another well known story connected to this constellation is that of the story of Phaethon and his friend Cycnus.
The constellation known as Cygnus is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is a large constellation, ranking 16th in size. Pseudo-Eratosthenes and Hyginus’ Poetical Astronomy are the earliest sources of Greek astronomy and constellations that make the connection of the story of Zeus and Leda with his transformation into a swan.
Constellations bordering with Cycgnus are: Cepheus, Draco, Lyra, Vulpecula, Pegasus and Lacerta, The best time to spot Cygnus is during the month of September in the Northern Hemisphere.
Many of the older, traditional names for the star in Cygnus such as Albireo, Deneb, Rukh and Sadr clearly point towards a Middle Eastern connection. In Arabia, the constellation was known as: Al Ta’ir al Arduf, “the Flying Eagle.” Other names include Al Ta’ir al Arduf, Al Radif and Al Dajajah “the Hen.”
They clearly saw a bird, sometimes said to be an Eagle or Pigeon, but frequently, as the traditional names point to, a Hen.
The Arabs also have an asterism called Al Fawaris or “the Riders” that’s found within Cygnus.
Chinese Astronomy & Mythology
The constellation of Cygnus lays in the area of the night sky symbolized by The Black Tortoise of the North or Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ. Modern Chinese has adopted the name of tiān é zuò, meaning “the swan constellation.”
The Chinese also know the constellation of Cygnus as Que Qiao, the “magpie bridge.” In the story associated with it, there was a pair of lovers, Niu Lang (a Shepherd) and Zhi Nu (a Weaver) who were separated by the Goddess of Heaven because Zhi Nu is a fairy and due to celestial decrees and mandates, wasn’t allowed to be with a mortal.
When the Goddess learned that the two were secretly married, she took Zhi Nu with her up into the heavens and created a river, represented by the Milky Way in the sky to keep the two separated.
Niu Lang was still determined and took his and Zhi Nu’s two children to Heaven so they could all be together. The Goddess however still forbade the two lovers to be together but on seeing their bitter tears, she relented and allowed that once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month the two could be reunited. So once a year, all the magpies in the world come together to form a bridge over the river and help the two lovers unite and see each other. The star Deneb in the story either marks the start of the bridge or represents a fairy who chaperones the two lovers when they meet.
The Qixi Festival, also known as the Qiqiao Festival and Double Seventh Festival and even the Magpie Festival commemorates the joyful reunion of these two lovers. It is a variable holiday held on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month in China. It is celebrated and observed in a couple other countries like Japan as Tanabata in Korea as Chilseok. It is a festival and holiday comparable to the European celebration of Valentine’s Day.
The legend of Niu Lang and Zhi Nu is one of four folk legends regarding love and romance. Young girls pray to Zhi Nu for skillful hands for sewing and young newly weds will worship this celestial couple and bid them farewell before moving on in their own marriage and happiness. Now days though, young people tend to favor the Western celebration of Valentine’s Day more then the Qixi Festival though their story is still told and passed on.
In Tonga, Cygnus is known as Tuula-lupe. The Tuamotus called it Fanui-raro or Fanui-tai. The star Deneb is also given the name of Fanui-tai. The star Gamma Cygni is called Fanui-runga. In New Zealand, it is known as Mara-tea. The star Beta Cygni was likely called Whetu-kaupo. In the Society Islands, it is known as Pirae-tea or Taurua-i-te-haapa-raa-manu.
Zeus And Leda
One of the more well known stories connected to the Cygnus constellation is the story of Zeus disguising himself as a swan in order to seduce Leda. In this guise, Zeus behaved much like a swain, which means a lover or wooer.
Leda was the wife of the Spartan King Tyndareus. She’s known for giving birth to two sets of twins; the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), and Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra. When Leda laid with Zeus, their union produced an egg. Later that night, when she laid with her lawful husband Tyndareus, their union resulted in another egg. The immortal twins Pollux and Helen are said to have been fathered by Zeus while the mortal twins Castor and Clytemnestra were fathered by Tyndareus.
Zeus And Nemesis
A variation to the above myth is that instead of Zeus seducing Leda, he seduces Nemesis, the goddess of divine justice and retribution. She was also the goddess of the Pelopennesian cult. Other sources are more clear that Nemesis lived in Rhamnus (located to the North-East of Athens) where this cult may have been. When Zeus went to seduce Nemesis, she changed herself into a variety of different animals before taking the form of a goose to escape him. Zeus continued to pursue Nemesis, each time taking the form of a larger, swifter animal until he turned into a swan before he was able to catch and rape her.
A variation of the story with Nemesis that’s told by Hyginus is that Zeus had turned himself into a swan and pretends to be escaping from an eagle. Nemesis protected the bird, offering sanctuary. It’s after words, when Nemesis has gone to sleep with the swan on her lap that she discovers the truth of who the bird really is.
In either version of the story told, Nemesis ends up laying an egg that she leaves in a swamp. This egg was found either by Hermes or a shepherd who brings it to Leda who keeps the egg in a chest until it hatches. It is from this egg that Helen of Troy is hatched. As a result of his success, Zeus placed an image of the swan up into the heavens.
The great musician Orpheus was said to have been turned into swan after being murdered by a group of Ciconian or Thracian Maenads. In this retelling of the story, Orpheus was placed up into the heavens as a swan next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.
Cycnus And Phyllius
Another myth connected to this constellation is that of Cycnus and Phyllius. This Cycnus committed suicide and was turned into a swan after he was shamed and refused a tame bull that he demanded from Phyllius.
King Of Kolonai
Among many ancient Greek figures to have the name Cygnus or Cycnus, is a son of Poseidon and as well a king who fought in the Trojan war. He was killed by the hero Achilles on the first day and turned into a swan at his death by his father to save him.
The Death Of Phaethon
This story is perhaps the best known and most associated story to the Cygnus constellation.
Phaethon was the son of Clymene, whose husband was the Egyptian King Merops. Eventually, Clymene told Phaethon that Merops wasn’t his father and that it was the Sun-god Helios (or Apollo). Afterwards, Phaethon would boast and brag to his friends how his real father was a powerful god. Phaethon’s friends teased him and said he was lying. Hurt by this, Phaethon went to his mother Clymene, who then told him to go to the Sun-god and ask him yourself of the truth.
Helios was greatly pleased on seeing his son Phaethon and promised him anything that he asked for in order to prove to his friend who his father is. To Helios’ horror or dismay, Phaethon demanded to drive the Sun-chariot across the sky. Helios tried to dissuade Phaethon, telling him that driving the chariot was too dangerous for mortals, even demigods to drive. Unable to deter Phaethon, Helios relented, granting Phaethon his request.
Phaethon soon found himself loosing control of the chariot as the horses realized that someone new and inexperienced was holding the reigns. Like any such spirited animals who push to see how far they can go and do what they please, the horses took their own lead, racing across the sky towards the eastern horizon and heavens.
The horses’ uncontrolled pathway across the heavens left a scorch mark across the sky that became the Milky Way. The Earth became cold as the Sun-chariot was too high. As the horses continued their uncontrolled trek, they raced down close to the Earth, scorching the land across Africa and creating a great desert.
Making it worse, a frightened Phaethon saw the chariot racing towards a giant scorpion, the Scorpius constellation as the horses continued their uncheck race across the heavens. Pulling wildly on the reigns, Phaethon realized his folly and foolishness to not listen to his father.
To keep the Earth and Heavens from seeing more destruction from the out-of-control chariot, Zeus, the King of the Gods hurled one of his thunderbolts, striking Phaethon in the process. Phaethon’s body fell into the river Eridanus while the horses returned to their stables and back to Helios.
Phaethon’s friend or lover, Cycnus was so distraught over his death, that he went down to the river where he wept bitterly until the god Apollo took pity and turned Cycnus into a swan and eventually the gods decided to place him up into the heavens as the Cygnus constellation.
Another version to this story is that Phaethon and Cycnus were racing their respective chariots across the sky when they got too close to the Sun. Their chariots burned up and they fell to the Earth with Phaethon falling into the river Eridanus. When Cycnus came to and found where his friend was at, he dove in after to try and retrieve his friend’s body for burial and it’s from that action, that the gods or Apollo (sometimes its listed as Zeus) turn Cycnus into a swan and place him up into the heavens due to the level of grief Cycnus held and the gods sympathy and pity for him.
In other slight versions to this story, Cycnus is not only mentioned as a musician, but a King of the Ligurians. When Phaethon fell into the river Eridanus, Cycnus dove into the water, swimming back and forth searching for his friend’s body so he could bury them. Regardless of which variations of the story are retold and mentioned, Cycnus is still turned into a swan by the god Apollo and placed up into the heavens to form the Cygnus or Swan Constellation.
The Sons of Ares
There are two sons of Ares both of whom are named Cycnus. They often get confused together, though they both have in common getting killed by the hero Hercules and being turned into swans at their death.
Sacred Bird Of Apollo
While many deities have animals associated with them, Apollo is best known and associated with the swan. It was believed that large flocks of these birds could be found living on the mythical northern river of Eridanos in Hyperborea. These flocks were said to circle Apollo’s holy shrine, singing hymns. Another belief was that the people of Hyperborea, on reaching old age, that instead of dying, would turn into swans after bathing in the bitumen swamp of the river.
This phrase refers to a person’s final act or deed before death or retirement. Most often this is used for a person’s last piece of creative work, or performance, particularly in literature, music, or art.
One origin for this phrase is from the story of Cycnus, the friend or lover of Phaeton. The same Phaethon who begged his father Helios to be able to drive the sun chariot across the sky that ended in disaster and his death. While there are a few different versions of this story, it is generally agreed that Cycnus, being in such grief over the death and loss of his friend was changed into a swan by the god Apollo who took pity on him.
In addition, the Mute Swan was believed to sing a song at its death, a song considered to be the sweetest of all bird songs.
Queen Cassiopeia’s Pet
A rather minor note is that some think that Cygnus represents the swan that Queen Cassiopeia kept.
The constellation of Cygnus, along with 18 other constellations of: Hercules, Sagitta, Aquila, Lyra, Vulpecula, Hydra, Sextans, Crater, Corvus, Ophiuchus, Serpens, Scutum, Centaurus, Lupus, Corona Australis, Ara, Triangulum Australe, and Crux.
All of these constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Hercules. They are the largest grouping of constellations found in the Western Hemisphere.
Cygnus, along with the other avian constellations of Aquila and Vultur cadens form a part of a significant myth of the Stymphalian Birds and one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules.
The Northern Cross
Among Christians, the constellation of Cygnus is known as the Northern Cross. Many Christians have seen the Cross or Crux that Jesus hung on.
Five stars form this asterism. They are: Deneb (Alpha Cygni), Delta Cygni, Albireo (Beta Cygni), Gienah (Epsilon Cygni) and Sadr (Gamma Cygni) forming the center.
It has been noted by some archaeologists that there are megalithic sites such as those found in Ireland that appear to be aligned with the Cygnus constellation. The Avebury, Wayland Smithy long barrow and Callanish are two such places aligned with either the rising or setting stars within Cygnus.
The swan, like many other birds are seen as symbolic of carrying the souls of the deceased to the after life. Many Palaeolithic sites and cultures have used birds symbolically for death and rebirth. Even the Greeks saw birds as psychopomps or “soul-carriers” and it been a very common belief among several cultures of Europe.
With such a connection to death and rebirth and Cygnus’ shape in the heavens, it would be very easy for early Christians to adapt and adopt this belief to their faith as the Cross.
Stars Of Cygnus
The stars Delta and Epsilon Cygni are used to depicted Cgynus’ wings while the star Deneb depicts the tail and Albireo represents the tip of the swan’s beak.
Alpha Cygni – Also known as Deneb, it is one of the brightest stars seen in the night sky. It is a blue-white supergiant star and 19th in brightness. The name Deneb comes from the Arabic word dhaneb, meaning “tail.” It is from the phrase Dhanab ad-Dajajah, which means: “the tail of the hen.” Within the constellation of Cygnus, it is one corner of the Summer Triangle with the stars Altair found in the constellation Auila and Vega, found in the constellation Lyra.
Beta Cygni – Also known as Albireo, it is generally considered to be the head of the swan and sometimes called “the beak star.” The name Albireo is likely the result of a mistranslation from Arabic into Latin where ab ireo was thought to be the name of a particular herb. The original translated name in Arabic was from the Greek word for bird which is “ornis.” It is a binary star and the fifth brightest star in Cygnus. It is one of the stars that form the Northern Cross.
Gamma Cygni – Also known as Sadr which comes from the Arabic word for “the chest.” This star is also sometime known as Pectus Gallinae, which is Latin for “the hen’s chest.” It is the star found in the center of the Northern Cross asterism.
Delta Cygni – Also known as Rukh. The name Rukh is Persian in origin and is related to Urkhga in Akkadian. The star is named after the huge, mythical bird of prey known as a Roc that was capable of carrying off elephants. In the year 11,250 C.E. this star will take the position of the North Star for a period of about 400 years.
Epsilon Cygni – Also known as Gienah, this star shares the same traditional name with Gamma Corvi from the Corvus constellation. The name Gienah comes from the Arabic word janah meaning “the wing.”
Kappa Cygni – This star marks the tip of Cygnus’ left wing. Its most notable for a meteor shower, the Kappa Cygnids that take place in August.
North America Nebula
Or NGC 7000 is one of the most well-known nebulae found within the Cgynus constellation as it is visible within the night sky without the aid of any telescopes as a bright patch of the Milky Way. Due to its characteristic shape, which resembles the North American Continent, it is only visible in long-exposure photographs and for those using telescopes; it can be difficult to spot as the surface area for brightness is low. It was first discovered by William Herschel in 1786.
This is the largest star-forming region that has some of the brightest and most massive stars known such as Cygnus OB2-12 and Cygnus OB2.
Also known as NGC 6946; this galaxy is known for the number of supernovae that have been found there. It is a spiral galaxy that borders the edge of Cygnus with the constellation Cepheus. NGC 6946 was discovered on September 9, 1798 by the German-born British astronomer Sir Frederick William Herschel. So far nine supernovae have been observed within this galaxy.
There are two meteor showers associated with the constellation of Cygnus. They are the October Cygnids and the Kappa Cygnids, a minor meteor shower that occurs in August.