The Marriage of Zeus and Hera

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The eternal triangle, by its very name, indicates that humans have always had difficulty in loving one person exclusively. Triangles are the essential stuff of the world's great poetry, drama and fiction, as well as of many lawyers' incomes. Infidelity hurts and demeans us; yet it also fascinates us, perhaps because we know its sufferings and enchantments all too well. The eternal triangle is an archetypal experience, and psychology is full of explanations about why we stray. We know, sometimes from bitter experience, that loss of trust corrodes marriages and destroys family life; and deceit makes us feel humiliated. Some of the greatest human suffering arises from betrayal. Yet we are really no closer to understanding why we seek monogamy and enact polygamy than we were millennia ago when the great myths of sexual and emotional betrayal were first written down.


Commitment versus freedom


One of the most famous mythic portrayals of infidelity is the marriage of Zeus and Hera, classical king and queen of the gods. Here we find not just one triangle, but an sequence of them, for Zeus is the archetypal serial adulterer, with Hera the jealous wife. Their married life is a catalogue of affairs, seasoned with jealousy, revenge and illegitimate children; yet somehow their marriage survives.

Zeus was king of heaven, and it was he who organized and governed the smooth and orderly workings of the cosmos. He married his sister Hera after a highly romantic courtship, and it seemed he was besotted with her. But, from the very beginning of the marriage, he was unfaithful to her, and she was hurt and furiously jealous. They bickered constantly, and Zeus was not averse to occasionally beating her to silence her accusations and protests. Hera was enraged by his constant pursuit of other loves – goddesses and mortals, women and boys. The constantly changing objects of his desires always required great inventiveness and effort to pursue. In fact, the more difficult the challenge, the more powerful his passion; and he often had to shape-shift – in various disguises and animal forms – in order to slip past angry husbands and possessive fathers. For Leda, he transformed himself into a swan; for Europa, a bull; for Demeter, a stallion; and for Danaë, a shower of gold. Yet, the moment he had achieved his desire, the object of his love would no longer appeal to him, and he would be off in search of a new one.


The god Jupiter falling for Io while Juno watches. Jacopo Amiconi (1682-1752)

Jupiter and Io

Hera, on the other hand, spent most of her time feeling wounded and rejected. She concentrated all her energies on seeking out proof of Zeus' adultery and then working out some cunning plan to humiliate him and take revenge on his lovers. It sometimes seemed as if this gave her life meaning, since she did little else. Zeus' illegitimate children – who were as myriad as the stars in the sky – were especially in danger of Hera's wrath, and she always persecuted those whom she feared Zeus loved more than her or the legitimate children of their marriage. She drove Dionysus mad and contrived to have his mother Semele burned to death; she tormented Herakles, the son of Alcmene, with impossible tasks. She even bound her husband with thongs and threatened to depose him, although he was, conveniently and inevitably, rescued by the other gods. Yet, through it all, their relationship continued, and their passion periodically resuscitated itself. Hera was also quite capable of borrowing Aphrodite's golden girdle to enchant and excite Zeus' desire to suit her own ends. During the Trojan War, Hera (who held a particularly strong grudge against the Trojans) used this magic girdle to seduce Zeus and distract him from offering his protection to Troy.

Zeus was every bit as jealous as Hera and he adhered firmly to a double standard. Once, a mortal called Ixion wanted to seduce her; but Zeus read his mind and shaped a false Hera out of a cloud, upon which Ixion proceeded to take his pleasure. Zeus then bound him to a fiery wheel which rolled through the heavens for eternity. On another occasion, Hera decided she had had enough, so she left her husband and went into hiding. Without his mighty wife at his side arguing and berating him, great Zeus felt destitute and lost. His other loves suddenly seemed less interesting. He searched everywhere for Hera. Finally, taking the wise advice of a mortal experienced in marriage matters, Zeus gave out word that he was going to marry someone else. He fashioned a statue of a beautiful girl, draped it in veils like a bride, and paraded it through the streets. On hearing the rumours which Zeus had carefully spread, Hera hurried out of hiding, rushed to the statue, and tore the veils off her imagined rival – only to discover the rival was made of stone. When she realized she had been duped, she burst out laughing, and the couple were reconciled for a time. And for all we know, they may still be quarrelling and reconciling, hurting, deceiving and loving each other on Mount Olympus to this day.


COMMENTARY: The marriage of Zeus and Hera is certainly not a harmonious one, and the moral climate of our present society is quick to condemn any latter-day Zeus who behaves as the ancient Greek god was said to have done. Yet, there is passion and excitement in this marriage, and each partner is lost without the other. On the surface, we may take a conventional moral stance and condemn Zeus' adultery. However, there are deeper levels to this marriage, which may surprise us with their insights into the nature of what binds people together.

Why should these two powerful deities, each quite capable of divorcing and choosing a less stressful partner, remain together? Zeus is the epitome of creative power and ingenuity. His shape-shifting and ceaseless pursuit of the ideal tell us that he is a symbol of the mysterious,fluid,fertile and potent power of the imagination, which cannot be bound or contained within conventional worldly structures and rules. Hera, on the other hand, is the goddess of home and family, and symbolizes those bonds and social structures which involve continuity, responsibility, rules and respect for tradition. In fact, these deities are two sides of the same coin and reflect two dimensions of the human psyche which are forever at war, yet forever dependent on each other for their fulfilment. In most relation ships, one individual tends to lean towards the imaginative dimension of life, while the other leans more towards containing and structuring life. But we all possess both these capacities, and need both in our lives.

If we understand Zeus' infidelities on a psychological level, they reflect a ceaseless quest for beauty and magic, and a desire for self expression which is the essence of any artist's creative power. If we understand Hera's jealousy also on a psychological level, we may glimpse the difficulty – and the great strength of remaining committed in life, and the anger we inevitably feel when our freedom is curtailed by our own choice, while someone else appears to get away with self-indulgence without consequences. Each of us, man or woman, may identify with either Zeus or Hera. Yet this mythic marriage really tells us that both Zeus and Hera exist within each of us, and, if we wish to avoid having their marriage enacted in painful and concrete ways in our own lives, we might be wise to find a balance within ourselves.


Jupiter beguiled by Juno, James Barry (1741-1806)

Jupiter and Juno

Zeus and Hera can also laugh together. This is the magic ingredient which reconciles them when they have quarrelled. And each stands up to the other. Although Hera is jealous, she is not made of the stuff of martyrs. She fights back with spirit and wit rather than dissolving into a puddle of abject self-pity. Thus, they respect each other, although they also hurt and anger each other. This myth describes something fundamental about human nature: the grass, as they say, is always greener in the next pasture, and greener still if it is forbidden. Zeus pursues love objects in part because he is forbidden them; when Hera leaves him, he pursues her with as much passion as he does his illicit loves. And Hera pursues Zeus because she cannot ever wholly possess him. The deepest secret of this Olympian marriage is that enduring love springs from never being entirely able to own the other. Painful though it may be, when we are confronted with a straying partner, we might do well to ask ourselves whether we have given away possession of ourselves and have therefore become wholly obtainable and owned. And, when we are confronted with our own propensity to stray, we might ask ourselves whether our pursuit of perfection masks a fear of becoming wholly obtainable and owned. Recognition of this quest for the unobtainable which lies deep in human nature can lead us to an awareness of the necessity for compromise if we are to make any relationship work in real life. Compromise is an imperfect solution in which both people get something of what they want but nobody gets it all his or her own way. In order to have a workable human relationship, we must give up the ideal of perfection; yet equally, we must never give up our own souls.

There is no 'resolution' in the marriage of Zeus and Hera; and perhaps there is no resolution to the problem of infidelity, literal or fantasized, in human relationships. So much depends on the personal morality, ethics, honesty, self-control and psychological insight of the individuals involved. Unless we have discovered Zeus' and Hera's secret, we may continue to be baffled by marriages in which these mythic antics are enacted, while both partners continue to love and inspire each other. But the more we understand the struggle between commitment and freedom, the better able we are to cope with this tension within ourselves. It is then less likely that we will polarize into a rampant Zeus or a complaining Hera.

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