Seeing Hera in the Iliad

Citation with persistent identifier:

Ali, Seemee. “Seeing Hera in the Iliad.” CHS Research Bulletin 3, no. 2 (2015).
http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:AliS.Seeing_Hera_in_the_Iliad.2015

§1 Hera’s name appears early in the Iliad. Well before she herself speaks or even appears in the epic, she acts. Quietly and seemingly imperceptibly, she places an idea directly in Achilles’ phrénes:

ἐννῆμαρ μὲν ἀνὰ στρατὸν ᾤχετο κῆλα θεοῖο,
τῇ δεκάτῃ δ’ ἀγορὴν δὲ καλέσσατο λαὸν Ἀχιλλεύς·
τῷ γὰρ ἐπὶ φρεσὶ θῆκε θεὰ λευκώλενος Ἥρη
κήδετο γὰρ Δαναῶν, ὅτι ῥα θνήσκοντας ὁρᾶτο.

Nine days up and down the host ranged [Apollo’s] arrows,
On the tenth, Achilleus called the people into assembly,
A thing put into his [phrénes] by the goddess of the white arms, Hera:
Who had pity on the Danaans when she saw them dying. (I 53-56) [1]

Hera’s final action in the epic, like her first, is similarly subtle and gentle; it is likewise easy to miss. Again, her gesture involves the phrén, a term more commonly found in the plural (phrénes, as above), which signifies a realm of experience that is at once physiological, intellectual, and emotional.[2] In Iliad XXIV when Achilles’ divine mother, Thetis, ascends to Olympus, Hera offers her hospitality and speaks tender words to comfort Thetis’ phrén:[3]

Ἥρη δὲ χρύσεον καλὸν δέπας ἐν χερὶ θῆκε
καί ῥ’ εὔφρην’ ἐπέεσσι: Θέτις δ’ ὤρεξε πιοῦσα.

Hera put into her hand a beautiful golden goblet
and spoke to her to comfort her [phrén], and Thetis accepting drank from it.
(XXIV 101-102)

Hera’s first and last actions in the Iliad are deeply interior. In the first instance, she moves the mind and heart of a young warrior to introduce civil discussion to a panicked army. In the last, she offers genuine solace to a goddess mourning the imminent death of her mortal child. The intense interiority of Hera’s divine influence, her action upon the phrénes, means that her role in an epic of such monumental scale as the Iliad can be difficult to discern. Moreover, Hera can be purposely elusive. As she herself declares, “It is hard for gods to be shown in their true shape” (χαλεποὶ δὲ θεοὶ φαίνεσθαι ἐναργεῖς, XXI, 131).

§2 Indeed, throughout the Iliad, Hera is subtle and manifold in her self-presentation. Within an instant, she can tremble like a dove (V 778) and then immediately transform herself into the bronze-voiced warrior, Stentor, whose cry has the force of fifty men’s (V 784-6). Hera’s bibliography is astonishingly slight, however; [4] her depth and complexity seem to have passed unnoticed. Her critics, particularly those writing in English, most often characterize her as a divine shrew. One recent study of Hera’s Iliadic character denounces her as “savage” and argues that the Iliad intentionally presents her as a figure of “demonic degeneracy.”[5] Another recent critic characterizes Hera as “a needy, dependent spouse.”[6]

§3 This essay departs emphatically from the communis opinio. I hope to show here that Hera in the Iliad is a seeing goddess, one who also bestows insight. Indeed, Hera’s creative vision enlarges the imaginative scope of the epic––for her noetic mode of seeing brings unity to what is otherwise disparate and heterogeneous, including the community of gods themselves.

§4 Ruth Padel defines the phrénes as part of the “equipment of consciousness” in ancient Greek poetics.[7] Both concrete and abstract in signification, the phrénes, she writes, “contain emotion, practical ideas, and knowledge. . . . Phrénes are containers: they fill with menos ‘anger,’ or thūmós, ‘passion.’ . . . They are the holding center, folding the heart, holding the liver.”[8] Hera’s divine work in the Iliad focuses directly and insistently upon these vessels of mental and physical consciousness. Wherever the goddess appears, the word phrén and its cognates also seem reliably to attend her – words such as φρονέω, “have understanding; think; comprehend”; πρόφρων, “with forward mind”; εὐφραίνω, “cheer, gladden, comfort”; and, perhaps more tangentially, φράζω, “understanding, explaining”; φράζομαι, “take counsel with.”[9]

§5 In Iliad I 53-56 (quoted above), the language describing Hera’s action is noteworthy: ἐπὶ φρεσὶ θῆκε. The verb θῆκε here means to “set, put, place.” Hera’s gesture of setting or placing clearly happens in Achilles’ phrénes. To revise only slightly Nietzsche’s formulation, the hero’s thought comes to him not when he wants, in this case, but when Hera wants.[10]

§6 What Hera places in Achilles’ phrénes is a political idea: to summon an assembly. This Hera-inspired gathering is the first deliberative assembly that takes place in the Iliad; it is at this meeting, called to discover the cause of the devastating plague, that Agamemnon fatefully insults Achilles. Hera sees the mortal dispute and once again decisively determines its outcome from afar. Once more, the goddess quietly shapes Achilles’ calculated and reasoned response in order to avert catastrophe; she prevents Achilles from killing Agamemnon. In this instance, however, instead of remaining the invisible and anonymous author of Achilles’ thoughts and feelings, Hera begins to move into the foreground of the epic action. Thus at I 193-196, the master narrator of the Iliad shows Achilles contemplating in his phrénes and his thūmós (ὥρμαινε κατὰ φρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμόν, I 193) whether he should kill Agamemnon immediately, or, rather, whether he should check his anger (χόλον, I 192). “This is a fundamentally political decision,” David Elmer observes.[11] Because it is a political decision, one that requires deliberation and self-control, Hera intervenes.

§7 At the crucial moment, just as Achilles begins to draw his sword (I 194), Hera sends Athena to urge restraint:

ἕως ὃ ταῦθ’ ὥρμαινε κατὰ φρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμόν,
ἕλκετο δ’ ἐκ κολεοῖο μέγα ξίφος, ἦλθε δ’ Ἀθήνη
οὐρανόθεν: πρὸ γὰρ ἧκε θεὰ λευκώλενος Ἥρη
ἄμφω ὁμῶς θυμῷ φιλέουσά τε κηδομένη τε:

Now as he weighed in [phrénes] and [thūmós] these two courses
and was drawing from its scabbard the great sword, Athene descended
from the sky. For Hera the goddess of the white arms sent her,
who loved both men equally in her heart and cared for them. (I 193-196)

The epic deliberately emphasizes Hera’s role by repeating these lines when Athena explains her sudden appearance to Achilles (I 195-6):

ἦλθον ἐγὼ παύσουσα τὸ σὸν μένος, αἴ κε πίθηαι,
οὐρανόθεν: πρὸ δέ μ’ ἧκε θεὰ λευκώλενος Ἥρη
ἄμφω ὁμῶς θυμῷ φιλέουσά τε κηδομένη τε:

‘I have come down to stay your anger––but will you obey me?––
from the sky; and the goddess of the white arms Hera sent me,
who loves both of you equally in her heart and cares for you. (I.207-209)

Here, once again, Hera acts without being seen. We can now observe a pattern established early in the epic: In the first passage (I 53-56), Hera manifests invisibly in Achilles’ phrénes. Meanwhile, in the second and third passages quoted above (I 193-196 and I 207-209), Hera decisively intervenes in the internal drama unfolding, invisibly, within Achilles’ phrénes and in his thūmósboth in his mind and in his heart, we might say. It appears that Achilles learns of Hera’s involvement in his own interior life only when Athena explicitly tells him.[12]

§8 In each of these passages, Hera enters into the hero’s internal deliberations to instigate expressly political action. The goddess shapes Achilles’ imagination in order to achieve ends that are not obviously for his own good. Indeed, the master narrator of the epic repeatedly stresses that Hera acts through Achilles not because she loves or pities him, particularly. Rather, Hera intervenes for the Danaans and through Achilles because she pities the Greeks, generally (κήδετο γὰρ Δαναῶν, ὅτι ῥα θνήσκοντας ὁρᾶτο I 56), or, in what may amount to the same, because she loves Achilles and Agamemnon equally (ἄμφω ὁμῶς θυμῷ φιλέουσά I 196, I 207). The thoughts and feelings Hera inspires in Achilles aim at some larger, communal good––an end, moreover, that may not necessarily be good for Achilles himself, even though he is the chosen bearer of Hera’s messages. Hera’s aims are collective, political in the fundamental sense.

§9 Hera’s first intervention in Achilles’ phrénes–motivated by her care for the Greek army as a whole–necessarily illuminates her second intervention, when she prevents him from killing Agamemnon, the commander of the army. What does it mean, after all, to love equally men who are as different as Achilles and Agamemnon? In the latter event, Hera’s love for Agamemnon seems to have less to do with who Agamemnon is as an individual than with what Agamemnon represents, namely the Greek host as a whole. (Notably neither Hera nor Athena offer any reasons why Achilles himself should love Agamemnon.) Despite his manifest failings, Agamemnon is the single, unifying leader of the heterogeneous Argive host; as the lord of men, ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν (I 5), he folds many disparate constituencies into one–clumsily, to be sure, as his haplessness in Iliad II makes abundantly clear.[13] If Hera loves the leader of all the Greeks, Agamemnon, as much as she loves the one who represents what is best in all of them, Achilles, it is because she loves Greeks as such, that is, as a people, rather than as individuals.

§10 In Book II, Hera again sends Athena as her proxy to change the will of angry men by means of persuasive words. When the Greek host begins a massive, frantic retreat, it is Hera who turns them around:

ἔνθά κεν Ἀργείοισιν ὑπέρμορα νόστος ἐτύχθη
εἰ μὴ Ἀθηναίην Ἥρη πρὸς μῦθον ἔειπεν:

Then for the Argives a homecoming beyond fate might have
been accomplished, had not Hera spoken a word to Athene (II 155-156)

Hera directs Athena to speak gentle words (ἀγανοῖς ἐπέεσσιν II 164) to each Greek soldier in order to draw him back from the ships. As in the earlier intervention with Achilles, Athena reports Hera’s words verbatim to Odysseus (II 174-181); Odysseus then effectively restores order to the troops.

§11 In Book VIII, Hera once more protects the Greeks from disaster by placing a political idea in the phrénes of a hero. This time, it is Agamemnon:

καί νύ κ’ ἐνέπρησεν πυρὶ κηλέῳ νῆας ἐΐσας,
εἰ μὴ ἐπὶ φρεσὶ θῆκ’ Ἀγαμέμνονι πότνια Ἥρη
αὐτῷ ποιπνύσαντι θοῶς ὀτρῦναι Ἀχαιούς.

And now [Hektor] might have kindled their balanced ships with the hot flame,
had not the lady Hera set it in Agamemnon’s [phrénes]
to rush in with speed himself and stir the Achaians. (VIII 217-219)

Again, Hera’s quiet intrusion into a hero’s phrénes keeps disaster at bay for the Greek army, collectively. Agamemnon effectively rallies his men in this scene. Agamemnon’s efficacy here, with Hera’s active, if invisible, aid, stands in stark contrast to his miserable failure to rally the troops earlier, in Book II, when he is motivated by an evil dream sent by Zeus. (As we will see below, that dream presents a false image of Hera as supplicant.)

§12 Consistently in these passages, Hera’s action suggests an overlooked dimension of her character–her ability to contain and channel the passions of an army. The goddess exerts her restraining force by engaging a singular individual (Achilles at I 53-6, Odysseus at II 155-6, Agamemnon at VIII 217-219) through his phrénes. In each of the instances we have examined above, the Greek army remains an army rather than devolving into a mob, because Hera sees what is happening and knowingly, creatively acts.

§13 The hero Achilles, for his part, is well aware of Hera’s potency. In his understanding, however, she appears as a dangerous, destabilizing force on Olympus. After he breaks with Agamemnon and quits the war, Achilles reminds his divine mother, Thetis, of a story she has told him many times (πολλάκι, I 396). He recalls that Thetis once averted cosmic disaster by coming between Hera and Zeus; he now wants her to come between them once more, although he does not say so explicitly. Instead, Achilles recalls:

πολλάκι γάρ σεο πατρὸς ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ἄκουσα
εὐχομένης ὅτ’ ἔφησθα κελαινεφέϊ Κρονίωνι
οἴη ἐν ἀθανάτοισιν ἀεικέα λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι,
ὁππότε μιν ξυνδῆσαι Ὀλύμπιοι ἤθελον ἄλλοι
Ἥρη τ’ ἠδὲ Ποσειδάων καὶ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη:
ἀλλὰ σὺ τόν γ’ ἐλθοῦσα θεὰ ὑπελύσαο δεσμῶν

. . . many times in my father’s halls I have heard you
making claims, when you said you only among the immortals
beat aside shameful destruction from Kronos’ son the dark-misted,
that time when all the other Olympians sought to bind him,
Hera and Poseidon and Pallas Athene. Then you,
goddess, went and set him free from his shackles . . . (I. 396-401)

Thetis has told and retold this story in Peleus’ house; now, Achilles cannily repeats it, perhaps to arouse a predictable reaction from his mother. In the story, Hera, together with Poseidon and Athena, almost succeeds in overthrowing Zeus. The ruler of the cosmos is already in shackles when Thetis arrives to liberate him. A cosmic revolution is thus forestalled.

§14 Achilles further reminds Thetis that she freed Zeus easily with the help of the hundred-handed monster Briareus. He describes Briareus (presumably just as Thetis has described him in earlier recitations) as a son who “is greater in strength than his father” (ὃ γὰρ αὖτε βίῃ οὗ πατρὸς ἀμείνων, I 404). But, in the story, Briareus actively does nothing. He simply stands next to Thetis and Zeus and rejoices in his own glory (κύδεϊ γαίων, I 405). His menacing physicality, juxtaposed with Thetis’ far less tangible power, her intelligence, deters Hera and her rebellious allies from overthrowing an otherwise impotent Zeus.

§15 As Laura Slatkin shows,[14] Thetis’ oft-repeated story is a displacement of a myth preserved by Pindar. According to a prophecy, an immortal son born to Thetis will be stronger than his immortal father; this mighty, immortal son will overthrow his no-longer-mighty father. To avert such catastrophe–which would end their cosmic power–the Olympian gods force Thetis into marriage with the mortal Peleus.[15] It seems that the tale that Thetis repeats “many times” (I 396)–a tale in which she upholds the rule of Zeus against all odds–here appears as a refracted version of her own autobiography. Briareus figures as “a sort of nightmarish variant of Achilles himself,” as Gregory Nagy observes,[16] the son who might have been stronger than his father. As with Briareus, Achilles’ mere presence is a sign that the Olympians can “read” clearly, since his mortal condition signifies Thetis’ surrender to Zeus.

§16 The cosmic truce among the gods at the beginning of the Iliad is hardly stable, it appears. Thetis’ concession to Zeus’ rule was never entirely voluntary, after all. Her cooperation with the Olympian regime remains always precarious. In the dream-logic of the story Thetis tells Achilles so many times, and which Achilles now mirrors back to her, it is Hera who rebels against Zeus. But this Hera, the Hera of Thetis’ imagination, also serves as a nightmare version of Thetis herself. Like Hera, even after Thetis concedes to Zeus’ power, she (Thetis) remains near at hand. Thetis, like Hera, does not disappear; nor does the threat she poses to Zeus vanish, either. As a goddess, Thetis is always fertile, always capable of bearing another child–even a divine one, mightier than his father. Thus Thetis, like Hera, still remains a threat to Zeus; the threat she poses is just as ominous as Hera’s in the tale Thetis repeats so “many times” to her son. She too can summon the power to overthrow Zeus. In Achilles imagination, perhaps, as well as in his mother’s, this fantasy-Hera easily transmutes into a fictive double, or twin, to Thetis. Humiliated, she still simmers with resentment; her divine power is not (or, is not yet) what it could be.

§17 The doubling of Hera and Thetis will necessarily frame the terms of Zeus’ plan to honor Achilles. Zeus cannot plausibly remember his debt to Thetis without simultaneously thinking of Hera; indeed, on both occasions when he articulates his plan, he directs his speech specifically to Hera (VIII 470-484 and XV 49-77). When Thetis comes to Olympus to plead her son’s cause, she herself is too discreet to name her opposite, Hera. But Zeus understands immediately that her appeal requires his direct confrontation with his divine spouse. Even so, as if reconciling a zero-sum account, Zeus simply cannot take into account one goddess’ (Thetis’) appeal for timē, honor, without accounting for the response of the other–Hera.[17]

§18 Zeus therefore responds to Thetis’ supplication, first, with a long and pregnant silence (I 511-512). Then, he offers his first speech in the epic. He names Hera prominently:

τὴν δὲ μέγ’ ὀχθήσας προσέφη νεφεληγερέτα Ζεύς:
ἦ δὴ λοίγια ἔργ’ ὅτε μ’ ἐχθοδοπῆσαι ἐφήσεις
Ἥρῃ ὅτ’ ἄν μ’ ἐρέθῃσιν ὀνειδείοις ἐπέεσσιν:
ἣ δὲ καὶ αὔτως μ’ αἰεὶ ἐν ἀθανάτοισι θεοῖσι
νεικεῖ, καί τέ μέ φησι μάχῃ Τρώεσσιν ἀρήγειν.
σὺ μὲν νῦν αὖτις ἀπόστιχε μή σε νοήσῃ
Ἥρη: ἐμοὶ δέ κε ταῦτα μελήσεται ὄφρα τελέσσω:

Deeply disturbed Zeus who gathers the clouds answered her:
‘This is a disastrous matter when you set me in conflict
with Hera, and she troubles me with recriminations.
Since even as things are, forever among the immortals
she is at me and speaks of how I help the Trojans in battle.
Even so, go back again now, go away, for fear [Hera]
see [νοήσῃ] us. I will look to these things that they be accomplished. (I 517-523)

Previously Achilles reminded Thetis of her claim that she not only saved Zeus from Hera, she saved the cosmos itself from disaster (λοιγὸν, I 398). Here, Zeus pointedly repeats Achilles’ language in describing Hera’s potential reaction to Thetis’ request as itself disastrous (λοίγια, I 518).[18] Hera’s anger, Zeus implies, will be disastrous, cosmic in its scale should she discover Zeus and Thetis together. Indeed, Zeus urges Thetis to leave Olympus before Hera sees them. The verb Zeus uses is νοήσῃ (I 532), from νοέω; it signifies mental perception or insight as well as physical seeing. At this moment, Zeus’ concern is hardly the banal anxiety of an errant husband worried that he has been discovered in a dalliance. Rather, it is a political concern, a concern for the future of his rule. And because Zeus is the ruler of the universe, it is also a cosmic concern. He wants very much to control what Hera sees and knows.

§19 The ongoing threat Hera poses to Zeus, in the “now” of the Iliad’s story, becomes vividly clear in Book I. In the immediate instant following Thetis’ departure from Olympus, Hera makes her first appearance in propria persona. Before Hera speaks, however, the master narrator establishes the full force of her presence by means of a careful–and witty– grammatical construction:

. . . οὐδέ μιν Ἥρη
ἠγνοίησεν ἰδοῦσ’ ὅτι οἱ συμφράσσατο βουλὰς
ἀργυρόπεζα Θέτις θυγάτηρ ἁλίοιο γέροντος.

. . . yet Hera was not
ignorant, having seen how [Zeus] had been plotting counsels
with Thetis the silver-footed, the daughter of the sea’s ancient,
(I 536-538)

Here, once again, the epic suggests an interiority, a knowingness particular to Hera well before the audience of the epic sees or hears her. The verse first negates (with οὐδέ) the negative verb “ἠγνοίησεν” (I 537, from ἀγνοέω, “to be ignorant”; “not to perceive”) and then juxtaposes the double negative with an affirming verb of perception, ἰδοῦσ (I 537, from εἶδον, “to see, to perceive”). As with the language of phrénes and noesis above, the verb εἶδον conflates the physical and cerebral; it can mean both to see with the eyes and to perceive with the mind. Thus, before Hera speaks or acts, the master narrator makes clear that the goddess understands what is happening, in every way possible, both mentally and physically. Decidedly and emphatically, Hera is not ignorant; the language suggests that it is laughable even to imagine that she could be. She sees fully–she knows–that Zeus deliberately excludes her from his planning, even as (she reveals later) she also knows exactly what he has planned.

§20 As she addresses Zeus with her first words in the epic, Hera claims that it is the secrecy of Zeus’ planning that offends her. Hera is angry, she announces to Zeus and the assembled gods, because Zeus does not himself share with her what he thinks (νοήσῃς I 543). Throughout the epic, as we have observed, Hera works as a powerful agent in the phrénes. In the first words she utters, however, she complains to Zeus that he is thinking without her. The specific verb she uses is φρονέοντα, another phrén cognate:

τίς δ’ αὖ τοι δολομῆτα θεῶν συμφράσσατο βουλάς;
αἰεί τοι φίλον ἐστὶν ἐμεῦ ἀπονόσφιν ἐόντα
κρυπτάδια φρονέοντα δικαζέμεν: οὐδέ τί πώ μοι
πρόφρων τέτληκας εἰπεῖν ἔπος ὅττι νοήσῃς.

[Crafty] one, what god has been plotting [συμφράσσατο] counsels with you?
Always it is dear to your heart in my absence to think [φρονέοντα] of
secret things and decide upon them. Never have you patience
frankly [πρόφρων] to speak forth to me the thing that you purpose [νοήσῃς].’
(I 540-3)

This passage is typical of those involving Hera. Again, as in the earlier scenes involving Achilles, words signifying thought and perceptivity cluster around the goddess’s name as they do in her own speech. This short passage offers συμφράσσατο (from συμ – φράζομαι, “take counsel with”) φρονέοντα (from φρονέω, to “have understanding”; to “think”; to “comprehend”); πρόφρων (“with forward mind”); νοήσῃς (“perceive, think”).[19]

§21 It is Hera’s noetic capacity that Zeus clearly resists in the opening scene of confrontation between them. Despite his secrecy, Hera nonetheless knows exactly what Zeus has in mind; she summarizes precisely his plan to honor Achilles (I 558-559). Nor does she evince any particular grudge against Thetis, as it is well worth clarifying. Rather, her own phrén (φρένα I 555) alerts her that Zeus has been persuaded to do something of great consequence without consulting her.

§22 Zeus’ imperious reply to Hera’s complaint–in which he summarily exiles her from his thinking–widens the chasm forming between them in Iliad I. Hera will see and know (εἰδήσειν) his pronouncements (μύθους), Zeus announces, when he wishes and only then:

Ἥρη μὴ δὴ πάντας ἐμοὺς ἐπιέλπεο μύθους
εἰδήσειν: χαλεποί τοι ἔσοντ’ ἀλόχῳ περ ἐούσῃ:
ἀλλ’ ὃν μέν κ’ ἐπιεικὲς ἀκουέμεν οὔ τις ἔπειτα
οὔτε θεῶν πρότερος τόν γ’ εἴσεται οὔτ’ ἀνθρώπων:
ὃν δέ κ’ ἐγὼν ἀπάνευθε θεῶν ἐθέλοιμι νοῆσαι
μή τι σὺ ταῦτα ἕκαστα διείρεο μηδὲ μετάλλα.

Hera, do not go on hoping that you will [know, εἰδήσειν] all my
[words, μύθους], since these will be too hard for you, though you are my wife.
Any thought that it is right for you to listen to, no one
neither man nor any immortal shall [know] it before you.
But anything that apart from the rest of the gods I wish to
plan [νοῆσαι], do not always question [διείρεο] each detail
nor probe [μετάλλα] me. (I 545-550)

In granting Hera only limited access even to his μύθους (I 545), his most public thoughts and declarations,[20] Zeus here does not concede much to Hera, even in the way of wifely privilege. Rather, he demands that she must not insist on questioning (διείρεο, δια- + -εἴρομαι) or probing (μετάλλα) him.

§23 Hera, for her part, finds the premises of Zeus’ argument patently flawed. In her reply to him, she repeats the offending verbs, εἴρομαι (to ask, inquire) and μεταλλῶ (to search carefully) that Zeus employs at I 550. She counters that, in fact, her inquiries do not limit Zeus’ thinking (φράζεαι) in the least:

αἰνότατε Κρονίδη ποῖον τὸν μῦθον ἔειπες;
καὶ λίην σε πάρος γ’ οὔτ’ εἴρομαι οὔτε μεταλλῶ,
ἀλλὰ μάλ’ εὔκηλος τὰ φράζεαι ἅσσ’ ἐθέλῃσθα.

[Dread] son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken?
Truly too much in time past I have not questioned nor probed you,
but you are entirely free to think out [φράζεαι] whatever pleases you.
(I 552-554)

This argument between Hera and Zeus is, in its essence, an argument about thinking. Zeus wants to think in splendid isolation, majestically, abstractly, without interruption. He experiences questioning – particularly Hera’s questioning – as a chafing and irksome limitation on his sovereignty. Hera, on the other hand, objects profoundly to Zeus’ insistence on thinking apart from her (ἀπονόσφιν, I 541) and in secret (κρυπτάδια, I 542). Zeus’ aloofness impinges upon her role as bringer of thoughts, questions, hesitations.[21]

§24 Desperately, perhaps, Zeus threatens violence against Hera if she continues to oppose him (I 566-567). In response to his threats Hera withdraws. The narrator reports that she “bends” her heart in silence.

καί ῥ’ ἀκέουσα καθῆστο ἐπιγνάμψασα φίλον κῆρ:

and [she] went and sat down in silence [bending] her [dear] heart (I 569)

The participle ἐπιγνάμψασα signifies Hera’s self-control in this scene; she here restrains herself, just as she has restrained Achilles earlier as he curbs his violent response to Agamemnon. The verb ἐπιγνάμτω (bend, curve) is extremely unusual in the Homeric corpus, appearing only in six times in the Iliad and never in the Odyssey. [22] This highly unusual word will recur again in Zeus’ strange fantasy involving Hera at the opening of Book II (examined below).

§25 Hera’s concession to Zeus at the conclusion of Iliad I suggests the possibility of a reconciliation between the divine couple. As the sun sets, the two lie down in bed together, but Zeus does not sleep. Rather, as Zeus lies next to Hera, he ponders nightlong how he can fulfill the promise he has made to Thetis. Zeus is clear: he wants to think and act alone, autonomously, even autocratically. But his capacity for autonomy is already belied by his immediate response to Thetis’ supplication. Whatever he wishes, it seems, he must first account for Hera.

§26 As he lies awake next to his wife, Zeus contrives a “destructive dream” (οὖλον ὄνειρον, II 6) with which to trick Agamemnon. The dream suggests an impossible fantasy in which Hera and Thetis exchange roles:

. . . οὐ γὰρ ἔτ’ ἀμφὶς Ὀλύμπια δώματ’ ἔχοντες
ἀθάνατοι φράζονται: ἐπέγναμψεν γὰρ ἅπαντας
Ἥρη λισσομένη, Τρώεσσι δὲ κήδε’ ἐφῆπται.

. . . For no longer are the gods who live on Olympos
arguing the matter, since Hera [bent] them . . .
by her supplication, and evils are in store for the Trojans.’ (II 13-15)

This ruinous dream conflates and turns upside-down Zeus’ two most recent encounters with Thetis and Hera. Hera, not Thetis, becomes the supplicant. Instead of facing her rebuke in front of all the Olympian gods (as he did only moments ago, when he was fully awake), Zeus now imagines his sovereign wife Hera kneeling humbly before him and indeed all the Olympian gods in supplication.[23] It is a preposterous vision. (Agamemnon, the intended receiver of this peculiar delusion, is for his own reasons, perhaps, particularly gullible. He too may fantasize that his sovereign wife would bow before him in supplication.) The rare verb ἐπιγνάμπτω (“curve, bend”), seen just above at I 569, appears once again here at II 14 to signify that the whole community of gods bends (ἐπέγναμψεν) its will to Hera’s solicitous appeal. Earlier, it was Hera who, under threat of violence, bent her heart, at least momentarily, to Zeus’ will. Now, as Zeus encourages Agamemnon to dream, the gods bow to Hera.

§27 Zeus’ vision of the supplicant Hera captures a certain truth. Certainly, Hera wants Zeus to think with her, collaboratively and consensually; she persistently reminds him of what “all the gods” approve or not.[24] Ultimately, her vision represents something fundamentally new in the divine modus vivendi. Zeus intuits rightly that Hera seeks change on Olympus. When Hera addresses her husband as “son of Kronos” (I 552) she invokes not only their common father, Kronos, but also the whole narrative of their shared genealogy.[25] Kronos and his father Ouranos, like Zeus, imagined themselves to be wholly autonomous, oppressing their divine partners, “burying” their offspring, either literally or figuratively. But they were not in fact autonomous, as the mythic history makes plain. Kronos and Ouranos were overthrown by the collusion of their oppressed spouses and children, as Zeus, son of Kronos, knows all too well. The present agon between Hera and Zeus in Iliad I thus reverberates powerfully with–and against–this shared genealogical and political inheritance. The tension between them is only the latest iteration of the old, mythic conflict between the patriarch’s desire for absolute autonomy and his partner’s desire to be recognized, to be seen, as “other.”[26] Zeus cannot simply engulf and assimilate Hera into himself, as if she were another Metis. In order to end the ancestral curse of the Theogony, the married gods must actually come to terms with each other as others.

§28 In some sense, it is possible to say (although not adequately in this limited essay), that the narrative of the Iliad absorbs the tumultuous mythic history of the Theogony precisely in order to transform it. Hera and Zeus will change the model of divine partnership they have inherited–mainly through Hera’s efforts. It is Hera who repeatedly insists that Zeus cannot simply act as he alone wills. It is she who reminds him, repeatedly, “not all the rest of us gods will approve” (IV 29, XVI 443). Athena, Hera’s handmaiden throughout the Iliad, picks up Hera’s phrase and echoes it herself (XXII 181) when Zeus hesitates over the imminent death of Hektor.[27] In sum, Hera alone is forceful enough, wily enough, and seductive enough to keep Zeus from repeating his forefathers’ political blunders.

§29 It is indeed possible to see the entire action of the Iliad as a working out of new politics for Olympus, a system that David Elmer calls a “poetics of consent.” Hera is essential to the creation of this new divine order–which is to say, a stable and functional form of polytheism. The form of thought and feeling she awakens in her epiphanies induces a recognition of a reality that is larger than even a god’s ego. Thus, after Hera seduces her husband Zeus in Book XIV, he too imagines a new possibility, a vision of godhood that is larger than autocratic rule:

εἰ μὲν δὴ σύ γ’ ἔπειτα βοῶπις πότνια Ἥρη
ἶσον ἐμοὶ φρονέουσα μετ’ ἀθανάτοισι καθίζοις,
τώ κε Ποσειδάων γε, καὶ εἰ μάλα βούλεται ἄλλῃ,
αἶψα μεταστρέψειε νόον μετὰ σὸν καὶ ἐμὸν κῆρ.

If even you, lady Hera of the ox eyes, hereafter
were to take your place among the immortals thinking [equally with me],
then Poseidon, hard though he may wish it otherwise,
must at once turn his mind so it follows your heart, and my heart. (XV 49-52)

Zeus here proposes that unity of thought (ἶσον. . . φρονέουσα, XV 50) between himself and Hera may also change the mind (νόον, XV 52) of a different rival, Poseidon. After Hera, Poseidon is the god who most openly resists being absorbed into the mind of Zeus (Διὸς . . . φρεσίν, XV 194). In their post-coital rapprochement, Zeus and Hera begin to forge for the first time, it seems, a new Olympian unity, a comity of purpose and thought, one that is rooted in the same-mindedness of the goddess and her husband. Zeus now accepts the influence of Hera in his phrénes; she may enter there when she wills.

§30 Immediately following this scene of rapprochement, Hera travels from Ida to Olympus in order to bend the communal will to Zeus’ vision. A simile expresses Hera’s exultation:

ὡς δ’ ὅτ’ ἂν ἀΐξῃ νόος ἀνέρος, ὅς τ’ ἐπὶ πολλὴν
γαῖαν ἐληλουθὼς φρεσὶ πευκαλίμῃσι νοήσῃ
ἔνθ’ εἴην ἢ ἔνθα, μενοινήῃσί τε πολλά,
ὣς κραιπνῶς μεμαυῖα διέπτατο πότνια Ἥρη.

As the thought flashes in the mind of a man who, traversing
much territory, thinks of things in the mind’s awareness
‘I wish I were this place, or this’, and imagines many things;
so rapidly in her eagerness winged Hera, a goddess. (XV 80-83)

The simile suggests that Hera’s distinctive mode of being is an epiphanic one, in which she manifests herself as an uncanny and rapidly arriving thought in the phrénes (XV 81). So, as we have already observed, she exerted her influence in the phrénes of Achilles at I 55 and of Agamemnon at VIII 218. So, too, she enters the communal phrénes of Olympus.

§31 From this point forward in the Iliad’s narrative, Zeus no longer rules unilaterally. Hera thinks with him in all the crucial divine action that follows. Thus, she clearly presides with Zeus over the death of Sarpedon (XVI 431-461); she negotiates with him, likewise, the divine response to Achilles’ desecration of Hektor’s corpse (XXIV 55-76), even as she offers comfort to Thetis’ phrén (XXIV 101-102).

 

Bibliography

Aloni-Ronen, N. 2013. Marrying Hera: Incomplete Integration in the Making of the Pantheon. Centre Pour l’édition électronique Ouverte (Cléo).

Chantraine, P. 1968, 1970, 1975, 1977, 1980. Dictionnaire étymologique de la Langue Grecque I, II, III, IV-1, IV-2. Paris.

Clark, Isabelle. 1998. “The Gamos of Hera: Myth and Ritual.” In The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece, ed. S. Blundell and M. Williamson. New York.

Cook, Arthur Bernard. 1906. “Who Was the Wife of Zeus?” The Classical Review 20.7:365-78.

— . 1906. “Who Was the Wife of Zeus? (Continued).” The Classical Review 20.8:416-419.

Cowan, Louise. 1995. “Hera.” In The Olympians, ed. Joanne Stroud. Dallas. 15-28.

Downing, Christine. 2007. The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. New York.

Dutra, John. 1966. Hera: Literary Evidence Of Her Origin And Development As A Fertility Goddess. Dissertation.

Elmer, David F. 2013. The Poetics of Consent: Collective Decision Making and the Iliad. Baltimore.

Frame, Douglas. 1978. The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic. New Haven.

— . 2010. Hippota Nestor. Cambridge, Mass.

Fridh-Haneson, B. 1988. Hera’s Wedding on Samos: A Change of Paradigms. Svenska Institutet I Athen, Skriftner Utgivna 38:205-213.

Gladstone, W. E. 1888. “The Homeric Herê.” The Contemporary Review 53:181-198.

Homer. Iliad. 1902. Books 1-12. Ed. Monro. 3rd ed. Oxford.
http://homer.library.northwestern.edu/html/application.html

Homer. Iliad. 1902. Books 13-24. Ed. Monro. 3rd ed. Oxford. http://homer.library.northwestern.edu/html/application.html

— . Iliad. 1951/1961. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago.

Kardara, Chrysoula. 1960. “Problems of Hera’s Cult-Images.” American Journal of Archaeology 64.4:343.

Kerényi, K. 1975. Zeus and Hera: Archetypal Image of Father, Husband, and Wife. Princeton.

Martin, Richard P. 1989. The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad. Ithaca.

Muellner, Leonard. 1996. The Anger of Achilles: Mēnis in Greek Epic. Ithaca.

Nagy, Gregory. 1979/1999. The Best of the Achaeans. Baltimore.

— . 1990. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1886/2001. Beyond Good and Evil, translated by Judith Norman. Cambridge.

O’Brien, Joan V. 1991. “Homer’s Savage Hera.” Classical Journal 86:105-205.

— . 1993. The Transformation of Hera: A Study of Ritual, Hero, and the Goddess in the Iliad. Lanham.

Padel, Ruth. 1992. In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self. Princeton.

Pirenne-Delforge, V., and Pironti, G. 2009. “La Féminité des Déesses à l’épreuve des épiclèses : Le cas d’Héra.” In La Religion des Femmes en Grèce Ancienne. Mythes, Cultes, Société, edited by L. Bodiou & V. Mehl. Rennes. 95-109.

Renehan, R. 1974. “Hera As Earth-Goddess: A New Piece Of Evidence.” Rheinisches Museum Für Philologie 117 (3/4):193-201.

Slater, P.E. 1971. The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family. Boston.

Slatkin, Laura M. 1987. “Genre and Generation in the Odyssey.” ΜΗΤΙΣ 2 (2):259-268.

— . 1991. The Power of Thetis: Allusion and Interpretation in the Iliad. Berkeley.

Waldstein, Charles. 1901. “The Argive Hera of Polycleitus.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 21:30-44.

Whitman, Cedric H. 1970. “Hera’s Anvils.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 74:37-42.

Wright, James C. 1982. The Old Temple Terrace at the Argive Heraeum and the Early Cult of Hera in the Argolid. Journal of Hellenic Studies 102:186-201.


[1] English translations, except when indicated with square brackets, are Lattimore’s.

[2] See Padel 1992, 20-24 for a careful consideration of phrén and phrénes in ancient Greek tragedy and Nagy 1990, 92 for a discussion of these terms in Indo-European myth and poetics more generally.

[3] Chantraine, s.v., φρήν, affirms its relation with εὔφρην.

[4] A more or less complete list of references available in English, only a few of which pertain directly to the Homeric Hera, can be enumerated quickly here, in chronological order: Gladstone 1888, Waldstein 1901; Cook 1906; Kardara 1960; Dutra 1965; Whitman 1970; Renehan 1974; Kerényi 1975; Wright 1982; Fridh-Haneson 1988; O’Brien 1991; Slater 1992; O’Brien 1993; Cowan 1995; Clark 1998; Aloni-Ronen 1998. Refreshing new perspectives on Hera are beginning to appear in French, however. See especially Pirenne and Ponti 2009.

[5] O’Brien 1990-91, 105, 106.

[6] Downing 2007, 20, 21.

[7] Padel 1992, 18.

[8] Padel 1992, 21.

[9] Chantraine, s.v. φρήν, suggests the possibility of an etymological connection between the verb φράζω and the noun φρήν, a word we have seen repeatedly associated with Hera in the earlier verses of Book I (as quoted above). In his notes on the verb φράζω, Chantraine notably qualifies his suggestion, however: “Simple possibilité, mais sémantiquement satisfaisante.” (“Simple possibility, but semantically satisfying.”)

[11] Elmer 2013, 75.

[12] Athena behaves more consistently as Hera’s agent than on her own initiative or as Zeus’ agent in the Iliad––but space constraints here prohibit further comment.

[13] See especially II 16-270.

[14] Slatkin 1991, 68-70. See also Muellner 1996, 119-122.

[15] Pindar, Isthmian 8.27-55. See also Iliad XVIII 432-434.

[16] Nagy 1979, 346.

[17] My thinking here is influenced by Douglas Frame’s studies of Indo-European twin myths: Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic (1978) and Hippota Nestor (2010).

[18] See Nagy 1979, 74-76 for the correlation of this term, λοίγια, with the mēnis theme.

[19] All but one of these words (νοήσῃς) derives from phrén. (Chantraine, s.v.)

[20] Martin 1989 defines muthos in Homeric epic as a deliberate and public form of speech, “indicating authority, performed at length, usually in public, with a focus on full attention to every detail.” (12). See also his discussion of this scene at 57-58.

[21] See also Louise Cowan 1995.

[22] Muellner 1996, 144-5 (fn 27) notes that its metaphoric uses are always connected to the mēnis theme.

[23] See also VIII 10 where Zeus arrogates to himself the will of all the Olympian gods.

[24] IV 29, IV 62-3, XVI 443

[25] Slatkin 1987 and Muellner 1996 have laid the groundwork for explorations in this vein, in which Hesiod’s Theogony may be read as a “proem” to the Iliad.

[26] Kerényi 1975 proposes that Hera and Zeus, as divine siblings and spouses, occupy a numinous metaphysical threshold, one that links Being with Becoming––or, as he puts it, joins “motionless unity . . . on the one hand, and forward movement by proliferation into children, on the other.” 113.

[27] See Elmer 2013, esp. 148-50.

About Seemee Ali

Seemee Ali (PhD University of Dallas) teaches at Carthage College, where she holds a joint appointment in the interdisciplinary Great Ideas Program and the English Department. Her most recent essay, “Wallace Stevens’ Scrawny Cry,” appears in The Lyric Prospect(Dallas Institute Press, 2012). She is now working on a book about immortality and finitude in the Iliad, tentatively entitled The Reconciliation of Hera and Thetis.

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