Reclaiming Hera

by Sheila Bright & Cheryl Straffon

First called Her Name

Meditating in front of Hera’s altar in the Iraion (Temple to Hera) on Samos, Sheila remembered that “Hera” was the first name Sheila ever called the Goddess by. Twenty-seven years ago, feminists in Philadelphia wanted to create an alternative to “Thank God” in everyday speech. What was the Goddess’ name?  Since Zeus was the King of the Greek Gods (the Gods we knew most about), they reasoned that his wife Hera must be Queen, Sovereign, the Goddess.  So they began to say “Thank Hera”.  Little did Sheila know that nearly three decades later she would be a Goddess worshipper, doing research and accumulating facts which would substantiate that earlier imaginative leap – an intuitive leap which was ignorant of Goddess herstory/history and mythology, and which sprang not out of Goddess worship but from a dawning consciousness of patriarchy.

Hera clay scupture c.500 BCE Italy - banner by Lydia Ruyle

Hera clay scupture c.500 BCE Italy – banner by Lydia Ruyle

Astrological Opposites

Hera is not a fasihionable Goddess for us to invoke, worship or pray to these days. Feminists find little attraction to the Hera of classical Greek times, who was chiefly known for upholding monogamy and the sanctity of marriage and the family, and for being the jealous and nagging wife of Zeus, to whom She was unhappily married.  Full of ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’  and honouring the outer forms rather than the inner spirit and feelings, the classical Hera was decidedly Saturnian in temperament, and thus was a complement to Zeus (Jupiter). Indeed, astrologically Jupiter and Saturn form a pair of polar opposites.  It is all the more interesting, then, that Saturn/Kronos was Zeus’ patriarchal, earthbound father whom he had overthrown, only to re-introduce the same complementary qualities through his wife. There cannot, after all, be expansion without limitation, freedom without responsibility, or spirit without body, matter and earth.

Saturnian virtues

Even modern feminists can still find useful Saturnian virtues in the classical Hera. In our ritual She came through with loyalty and commitment to one’s partner, honouring family ties, self-discipline, and an antidote to the excesses of New Age self-indulgence by doing what is right instead of being a slave to one’s feelings. But these are rarely comforting or pleasurable qualities, and not what we mostly seek from the Goddess.

A much older Goddess

However, our experiences on the Greek islandof Samos, of walking the Sacred processional Way from the main town of Pythagorio to the Iraion and in Her temple itself, led us to reconnect with a much older Great Goddess and Mother of All who lies behind the Hera of classical Greek times.  The visible remains of Hera’s temple are mostly squared-off stones built in the Hellenic period, which we found rather hard to relate to.  Rectangular blocks do not really evoke the Goddess as we know Her today.  But beneath those remnants of classical Greek architecture lie not one but three earlier temples.  And just as you have to dig through the layers of earth and buildings to find the earlier invisiblet emples of Hera, so you have to sift back through times and mythologies to find the earlier little-known Goddess Hera.

Hera’s Island

Samos was Hera’s island.  It was here in ancient mythology that She was born.  It was here that She was worshipped way back in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, long before She was ‘taken over’ by the Hellenistic patriarchs and their new theology.  And it was here that Her name continued to be loved and Her presence revered throughout the historical Greek and Roman times.  Little wonder, then, that Her spirit is in the very soil of this magical island.

Ancient Goddess figurines found in the Iraion on Samos

Ancient Goddess figurines found in the Iraion on Samos

Ancient Goddess

On Samos a fertility Goddess was worshipped from Neolithic times, although we do not have Her name or know anything about Her. When the Mycenean colonists arrived c.1450 BCE, they brought with them the name of the Goddess Hera, which Marija Gimbutas says is a pre-Mycenean name (‘IRA’) in a language which pre-dates Greek, perhaps an ancient remnant of the goddess-celebrating cultures of Old Europe from thousands of years before this period.

Her First Temple

At any rate, Hera then became identified with Samos.  She was the ancestor Goddess of the island, whose first shrine was made of wood and built by the legendary King Angios in the thirteenth century BCE, probably on the site of an existing Neolithic temple to a Goddess. The central focus of reverence at this site was a plank of wood painted with the Goddess’ features.  This survived into later times, continuing to be the sacred heart of the later temples which were built there.  It was then believed to have “fallen from heaven”, and it was said to be too sacred to be touched.

Four Temples

The site of the first temple was beside the river Imvrasos that runs down into the sea on the south side of the island.  Legend says that Hera was born here under a sacred osier (willow tree) on the banks of the river.  The original wooden temple lasted over five hundred years until two temples of mud, wood and bricks were constructed in 718 BCE.  They were destroyed by the Persian king Cyeus, and were in turn replaced by a structure designed by the architect Rhoikos.  This was also destroyed by the Persians.  Finally the ruler Polycrates assigned to Theodoros, the son of Rhoikos, the task of building the fourth temple.

The Fourth Temple

This fourth temple was the third largest temple ever built by the Greeks (after the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and the Temple of Zeus at Akragas), its dimensions being some 354 x 165 feet (108 x 52 metres).  It was at one time considered as one of the possible Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and Heradotus in ‘The Histories’ called it “the greatest of all known temples”.  It is the remains of the fourth temple which can be seen at the Iraion today, although only one single column remains out of the original 133, together with the remains of some buildings, shrines and altars.

Remains of the Iraion Temple on Samos

Remains of the Iraion Temple on Samos


The Destruction of the Temple

This temple was attacked a number of times and rebuilt, and was then finally destroyed in the third century BCE by raiding Herulians.  Earthquakes in the fourth and fifth centuries CE and builders looking for ready-cut stone finished it off, so that all that remains today is the base of a massive altar, some walls and other small temples.

Hera’s Great Temple

The Temple was at the height of its prestige during the sixth century BCE: the precinct was walled and contained several temples to other deities, though only Hera herself had a sacrificial altar.  The temple was filled with great works of art.  Although by this time the Greeks had turned Hera into the dutiful (if somewhat unwilling) wife of Zeus, this only reflected the patriarchal take-over of the Goddess culture, and on Samos Hera was still worshipped as the Great Goddess.

Finds in the Iraion

Finds from the Temple site, now in the Archaeological Museum in Samos Town, include geometric vases and masses of votive offerings, with little terracotta figurines dating back to the tenth century BCE, splendid bronze figurines and bronze griffin heads.  Various artefacts, especially statuettes, were brought from Egypt and dedicated to the Goddess Hera.  Some of these statuettes were originally dedicated to the Egyptian Goddess Mut, who was thought to have a number of characteristics in common with the Greek Hera.  Other offerings included oriental bronzes from the Ancient Near East; there are pieces from Iran, Syria and Assyria, evidence of a flourishing trade in the ancient world between the near East and this major shrine to Hera on Samos.

First Visit to the Temple

The first time we visited Hera’s temple, we found it hard to really connect with the Goddess as we know Her in that place of great square stones.  But when we saw the statue of a female figure apparently seated on a throne (actually not of the Goddess but of a woman in the donor’s family), it reminded us of Hera’ ssovereignty aspect and started us thinking about Her protective side (later usurped by Zeus). It was not until we started talking about Her as the ancient Mother of All that we could get past Her Hellenic traits of guardian of marriage, monogamy and the family to something more relevant to us.

The Sacred Way

In addition to the Temple, a Sacred Way ran from the nearby town, formerly the capital of Samos, called Pythagorio now.  Part of this Sacred Way still remains as the road out of Pythagorio. It runs beside or near the ruins of several other temple sites or shrines, and then becomes a track along the seashore towards the modern resort of Heraion.

All Goddess Temples

We noticed that all the temples on or close to the Sacred Way are dedicated to Goddesses, none to Gods: from the Temple of Aphrodite in central Pythagorio (which is unexcavated, but could produce some exciting finds); then the ‘Sanctuary of the Nymphs’; and finally the ‘Archaic Sanctuary of Artemis’, which has been excavated. Some wonderful Goddess pieces were found there, including a series of seated Goddesses, a beautiful bronze bull’s head and a lovely clay rhyton (half woman, half bird, i.e. Bird Goddess).  Celebrants processing to the Iraion from Pythagorio would probably have passed each of these temples in turn and might have stopped to make offerings or pay respects to other Goddesses en route to Hera.

Remains of the Sacred Way leading to the Iraion

Remains of the Sacred Way leading to the Iraion

The Route

Originally the route, about six kilometres long, would have been lined with an estimated two thousand statues.  These included gigantic statues of young women (Kores) and men (Kourai), as well as tombs and elaborate monuments, culminating in the approach to the Temple itself, which nowadays enters the Temple site from the back.  This Sacred Way can still be walked today as a track alongside the sea, although sadly the final approach to the Iraion itself is now blocked by fields and orchards, and there is no way through to the Temple (we tried hard, twice!).  This is a great shame, as it prevents Goddess-celebrants today from walking the whole processional way to the Temple, for want of a few hundred metres.  We are writing to the Greek Archaeological authorities to suggest that it be re-opened, and we encourage others to write also to:  Archaeological Museum of Samos , For The Director: Ms Maria Biglaki, 83100 Samos Island, Greece.

Walking the Sacred Way

In the evening after visiting the Iraion, we walked part of the Sacred Way, by full moon light along by the sea – a very Cancerian energy (moon, sea).  It was much easier to visualise and relate to Her, to connect with Hera as the Goddess we know and love, in those familiarly sacred scenes than when staring at huge slabs of carved stone.  And we were reminded of Hera’s Cancerian Mother-protectiveness, and wondered whether the ritual Processing along the Sacred Way and festivities in Her Temple occurred while the Sun was in Cancer and also at the height of its sovereign power (the month following Midsummer).

Our First Ritual

We did a short ritual on top of a mound by the full-moon-lit sea, within sight of the one remaining Doric column of Her temple which was gleaming in the moonlight. This was as close as we could get to the temple from this direction, and we were sad that we could not get all the way. Yet the silent and chanting processional walking had been powerful, and perhaps from the mound we felt more free to relate to Her in our own way, outside the bounds of classical Greek structures both physical and mental.  We left offerings of a rose, grapes and water.  It felt good to participate in the continuity of Goddess worship on Samos – good for Hera as well as good for us.  By then we were right back to the Great Mother and Ruler Goddess She originally was, ‘the Noble One’ and ‘Giver of All’ (quoted by Marija Gimbutas in ‘The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe’)– a long way from the upstanding patriarchal wife of classical Hellenic myth, back to Her earlier, greater, truer nature, relating to Her essence underneath the alienating cultural specifics.

Limestone head of Hera from the temple of Hera at Olympia

Limestone head of Hera from the temple of Hera at Olympia


The Great Goddess of Samos

And it was powerful to walk Her Sacred Way towards Her Temple, pilgrims like so many thousands or even millions before us over the past 2,500 years.  It is wonderful to know that as Goddess She had been so loved and celebrated and worshipped by the whole main-stream culture that they had built that impressive temple for Her, the pre-eminent temple on Samos.  Yes, by then She was no longer the Great Goddess potent and free but a disempowered and usurped nag in a culture that devalued the feminine.  But yet the love of Her persisted, perhaps much like the adoration of the Virgin Mary in Catholic Christianity: precisely because She was recognised as another version of the same Goddess they had always worshipped. So we reclaimed Hera as a Goddess we can relate to and want to invoke, which is a special feeling. And since Samos is Her birthplace, this is Her land.  Mother Goddess, Mother Earth.  It felt so good to call Her and worship Her here, the Goddess as She is known in this place, the sovereign Goddess of the land, with authority because She was born here (an authority which was minimised in patriarchal times by being married off to Zeus).  We were so moved and touched by our connection with this reclaimed Hera that we were inspired to celebrate Her, a year later, in our own Midsummer ritual drama.

Ancient Ceremonies to Hera

We do not know many details about the actual ceremonies to the Goddess which took place on Samos in ancient times.  We do know that major celebrations took place at Her temple twice a year: the HEREIA, in honour of Her marriage, and the TONAIA, which recalled the attempt of the Argives to snatch the sacred painted wooden plank for their own temple of Hera, only to be thwarted by the Goddess who refused to let their ship sail away until they returned it.  During the ritual of Tonaia, a wooden statue of Hera would be bound on a litter of osiers, paraded to the river-mouth, bathed in the sea and draped with gifts. Priestesses or priests would also line the wooden painting of the Goddess with twigs of osier, and would place osier branches and peacock feathers by Her altar.

Worshipped Elsewhere in Greece

The worship of Hera also took place at other temples in the ancient Greek world, such as Olympia, Argos in the Peloponnese, Perachora (north of Corinth), Lesbos and possibly Thassos, and even in western Italy.  As on Samos, Her sanctuaries were built in valleys or river estuaries, near the sea and surrounded by pastureland– again very Cancerian!   But it was here on Samos, Her birth-place, where She was most celebrated and honoured for over a thousand years.

Goddess of Partnerships

For us, there ended up being a double reclaiming. First there was Hera as the ancient Great Mother Goddess of All.  Then we found we had also reclaimed Her as the modern Goddess of Partnerships, very relevant and important to lesbians and feminists now, translating “Goddess of Marriage” (the institution of relationship in Her time) into a modern idiom.

Ritual at the Iraion

The second time we visited the Iraion, we found ourselves walking the final stretch of the Sacred Way (completing the unfinished stretch from our full moon ritual) hand in hand to Hera’s altar.  There we gave thanks for all the joys and riches of our relationship and asked for Her help for the difficult, painful times: Her endurance, Her patience, Her understanding and Her commitment.  We placed our rings on Hera’s altar to ask for Her blessings. This seemed a very natural ritual to honour and celebrate Hera.

Hera's altar at the Iraion on Samos

Hera’s altar at the Iraion on Samos


Journey through Layers

The journey back to Her altar had been a journey through many layers of time and place. It was the journey to uncover the many layers of meaning behind the remains of the present-day temple; the journey to re-discover and walk again the Sacred Way that led to Her holiest of places; the journey to reclaim the relevance of Hera for our relationship and for partnerships today; and the journey to reclaim Hera as the ancient primal powerful Goddess She once was.