BMCR 1995.02.04

1995.02.04, O’Brien, Transformation of Hera

, The transformation of Hera : a study of ritual, hero, and the goddess in the Iliad.. Greek studies. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993. xvi, 248 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780847678075 $22.95 (pb).

This study of Hera is a welcome one indeed, as I can attest from the personal experience of attempting to find material on Hera beyond the purely etymological when I was writing my thesis. O’Brien relies upon a combination of archaeological, ritual and literary evidence in her attempt to present a cohesive picture of the changing nature and character of the goddess. Her three main sources are the sites and myths associated with Hera at Samos and Argos, and the Iliad; these provide a view of the goddess as a complex mixture of Olympian sky goddess and chthonic deity (4). Despite different rites and founding myths, O’Brien sees the Hera at Samos and Argos as essentially the same deity: both Samos and Argos seem to have worshiped a trifunctional “Mycenaean Hera” (171); cultic myths associated with both sites describe priestesses with Argolic fathers and significant thefts (4, 55, 143-144, 169). O’Brien concludes that “the rites at both places apparently had antecedents in the Mycenaean Argolid where βοῶπις πότνια Ἡ was revered as the Argolid’s ox goddess linked to ox, bull, and heifer myths during its formative period” (170). A primary aspect of this goddess which becomes prominent in the Iliad is that she “had power over the life and death of .. heroes, including Heracles ‘he who wins fame from Hera'” (171).

Chapters one through three focus on the evidence at and relating to Samos. The archaeological evidence prior to the large seventh century sanctuary dates back to the Bronze Age and exhibits a strong Anatolian/Carian influence (4, 11-12). The architectural remains (the cult houses and altar) seem to reflect contemporaneous Greek structures, while the iconography of a goddess accompanied by animals, the potnia theron, seems to suggest an Asian fertility goddess (40-43, 45-50, 69-70). O’Brien connects the enlargement of the shrine in the seventh century with the assimilation of the local Hera cult to the Panhellenic Olympian religion (15). Significantly, no connection with Zeus is documented before the seventh century (15, 39). O’Brien argues that the change in Hera’s meaning from a fertility and protection goddess pre-600 to the wife and sister of Zeus post-600 can be seen in the switch from the aniconic xoana (about which we only know from literature) as the cult representation of Hera to iconic statuettes. The fourth-century Samian Inventory of the Heraion describes a fascinating juxtaposition between the earlier aniconic wooden image and the later iconic statue as “the goddess” and “the goddess behind” (25, 30). The new statue occupies the position of importance within the temple because it represents “Hera’s emerging Panhellenic role” as sister-wife of Zeus (31).

O’Brien turns to accounts of the Samian Tonaia and later the Argolic Hekatombaia and Bouphonia in her attempts to disentangle early cult praxis from later myths. In these rituals and their meanings, O’Brien again sees a change from an earlier of fertility and protection to the marriage of Hera and Zeus (54-55, 74, 151). I found myself extremely sceptical about these attempts to document or explain early rituals for two reasons. The first is that the description of the rites, which O’Brien argues precede the seventh century Olympian assimilation, are provided by much later authors such as Athenaeus and Pausanias. Clearly both sets of cultic myths focus on binding the goddess (or her surrogate priestess) to a tree (55-56, 143-144) and various scenarios involving oxen in Argos, but whether these are directly related to seasonal fertility in the sense which O’Brien intends seems dubious to me. Second, the goddess of fertility must be bound to her tree to ensure her presence (55-56, 144). Why? Does she not wish to perform her role? Is she not beneficent? The question of Hera’s beneficence arises again in her relationship to heroes.

The discussion of Hera in the Argolid in chapter five parallels chapter three on Samos and should properly precede the analysis of the Iliad in chapter four. O’Brien admits that the interpretation of Hera in Mycenaean Argolid is “hardest to weigh and fraught with problems of interpretation” (6). As in Samos, the evidence (written in this case) shows that a potnia called Hera already existed in the Mycenaean period, “or at least had cultic continuity with the Hera of the Archaic period” (120). The potnia seems to have comprised three aspects—trees, war, and family (126, 127) which evolved in Greek tradition into several goddesses (58, 130-131). O’Brien identifies the goddess of the column who is associated with the tree as the “Mycenaean Hera” (127), the most direct predecessor of the later Hera. O’Brien makes the provocative suggestion that, if Hera was understood as part of a trifunctional goddess, there is “the very real possibility that early regional versions of the Judgment of Paris would have featured Paris receiving his three choices from the one Argolic potnia, Hera” (162). O’Brien presumes here that the Argolic potnia is Hera, rather than Athena or Aphrodite, or, as seems most appropriate, a mixture of the three under the title potnia. This theory also begs the question of why Hera is then angry at Troy if she has not in fact been scorned by Paris (163-164).

O’Brien’s most interesting interpretations are her elucidations of the relationship between Hera the seasonal goddess and heroes. O’Brien follows other scholars in attributing Hera, hero, and Horai to the common etymological Indo-European root of *ier, “year, spring”. Hera thus means “of the year, spring” and hero “he who belongs to the goddess of the seasons” (5, 113-117, 137-139). Hera controls or tames the seasons in their cycle (185), as well as controlling or taming the seasonal nature of the Greek hero through death, or less frequently, marriage (117). The defining quality of a hero of course is his short life or early death, which O’Brien argues is controlled or tamed by Hera (118). The paradigmatic example of a hero controlled by Hera is Herakles, whose birth and death are connected to her (117, 156). O’Brien reads the later version of the Herakles myth in which he marries Hebe (heroes who die lose their ἥβη) and attains a certain immortality as an Olympian perversion of Herakles’ original heroic death (150, 192).

Turning her attention to Achilles, O’Brien illuminates some aspects of a relationship between this Iliadic hero and Hera. O’Brien overstates her point when she claims that Hera is “the source of [Achilles’] demonic power” (81), and that she is his “tutelary goddess” (91) who “inspir[es] ” him (92). She argues unconvincingly earlier in the book that Achilles imbibes Hera’s χόλος from Thetis, who transmits it to him because she “suckle[d]” Hera (93-94, 80, 82). Achilles therefore inherits his χόλος from Hera (O’Brien is a bit confusing about whether this is biologically or psychologically determined, see 108 and 174). The text of the Iliad does not provide a basis for these assertions. Nevertheless, Hera does step in protectively to restrain Achilles’ μένος in Iliad 1 (159) and she is also instrumental in saving him from the river in Iliad 21 (87). O’Brien also sees Hera’s presence in the episode in Iliad 19 where Achilles’ two horses announce his fate (190-191). The tamed and yoked horses address the hero who is to be most famously tamed by his fate. O’Brien unfortunately does not refer to the two recent works by Sheila Murnaghan (“Maternity and Mortality in Homeric Poetry,”Classical Antiquity 11.2 (1992): 242-264) and Laura Slatkin ( The Power of Thetis, Berkeley, 1991) which discuss maternity and the mortality of heroes.

The final chapter of the book examines the panhellenic transformations of Hera manifested mostly in the Iliad (71). Hera’s contact with Panhellenism has lessened her power (172) and she has become the goddess of guile in the Dios Apate of Iliad 14 and the Dios Ate of Iliad 19 (175). In the Dios Ate in particular, O’Brien reverts to a religio-political explanation for Hera’s behavior that is not suggested by the text. O’Brien states that Hera interferes with Herakles’ birth for “hegemony in the Argolid” (176), that the scene represents a “struggle between Hera and Zeus for regional sovereignty” (176), and that Hera “establishes” cultic hegemony over the Argolid (178, again on 183), “thereby rationalizing to a Panhellenic audience why Zeus was not always considered supreme in Argolic myth”. O’Brien also analyzes Hera’s statements in Iliad 4.51-56 as the goddess ceding political power to the new order (160-161), leaving “the retrospective impression that she was responsible for the disappearance of the palace civilization in the Argolid as well as in Troy” (85). I am extremely wary of using the Iliad in this way as a historical (or religio-historical document). Likewise, O’Brien repeatedly refers to an “early Argolic tradition”, “Argolic motifs” (110), “earlier Argolic song” (119, see 164, 165), and a substratum of Argolic myth (206) in the Iliad which she does not demonstrate.

O’Brien concludes: “This study is provisional and incomplete” (203). This is particularly true for the question of the possible influence of the Minoan potnia and tree goddess (205-206), although O’Brien makes passing mention of a Minoan connection with respect to the Samian πόλος (33), trees (126), and in the Appendix on Delos (227). And, even though there has been no analysis of Minoan elements, O’Brien states: “Hence, even within her circumscribed Iliadic role, her aggressive character is more the agonistic Greek than the peace-loving Minoan” (205). O’Brien also relies upon the same broadly generalizing tone to strike a feminist note: “Panhellenic patriarchy, however unconsciously, transforms a goddess of soaring life into a scheming wife, and a universal tamer into a wife who tames women to men” (206). Both sentences are examples of the unreflexive or untheorized approach which characterizes the book. A study of Hera would seem fertile ground for a feminist approach, but while O’Brien makes occasional blunt nods to feminism such as the one just cited, she also often seems to accept at face value the judgments made by characters in the Iliadic text, such as Hera’s “unremitting lust for vengeance”, her “demonic degeneracy”, her representation as a “savage goddess”, and the accusations that Hera would eat raw flesh (77), even though this is clearly an insult or exaggeration. Conversely, O’Brien avoids questions of Hera’s benignity in other instances, such as the necessity of binding the goddess to ensure fertility, and more importantly, the meaning and nature of a goddess who demands from or imposes upon men in the prime of their lives an early death. Is this goddess hostile to heroes, as she is to Herakles? (For a discussion of Hera and Herakles’ relationship see Nicole Loraux, “Herakles: The Super-Male and the Feminine” in Before Sexuality). O’Brien also does not mention Hera’s meaning for women, and constructs Hera almost entirely upon her relationship to the male. The stated aim of the series to which this book belongs, “Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches” edited by Gregory Nagy, is to approach Classical subjects from an interdisciplinary and theoretical perspective (xiii). Like Lowenstam’s book in the same series, this one does present an interdisciplinary approach, but it is sadly lacking in critical theory.

Despite these misgivings, The Transformation of Hera usefully gathers and presents a wide variety of information about the early Hera, and provides stimulating and frequently provocative analyses of Hera’s ritual, mythic, and literary dimensions.