Hera is hardly the ideal wife. She is mostly remembered as a jealous and vengeful spouse to Zeus, father of the Greek gods. It’s ironic, then, that she is considered the Greek goddess of marriage. As classical revisionist Sarah Pomeroy asserts, the marriage of Hera and Zeus was not modeled on human marriage. Married women in Ancient Greece couldn’t own property, vote or leave the house. The Gods’ story moves beyond the mumblings of everyday humans.
Hera’s story is especially significant. Though she may not suffer the role of mortal females, hers is a stormy saga, symbolic of the changing roles of women and men in a drama that has been consistently and predictably unfolding for over two thousand years.
Early art and myth of Hera shows that she and her lover once were partners in a mystical romance as demonstrated in a ritual conducted annually called the Sacred Marriage. When, as the story goes, the lovers were reunited, the earth bloomed in flowers. As they embraced, a golden cloud drew around them, cloaking them while shimmering dew descended. Feminist scholar Anne Baring suggests, “This divine event seems to have once drawn together the complementary principles of the universe.”
This ritual between lovers depicts sex as part of a religious framework. The Sacred Marriage, or Hieros Gamos, was an 8,000-year-old ritual whereby a priestess representing the goddess consummated a symbolic or real marriage to ensure the fertility of the earth, renew the healing energies of the cosmos, and open the creative forces of humankind. Tikva Frymer-Kensky says: "When we look beyond the cultural differences we find a powerful symbolic drama. The sacred marriage is a multileveled metaphor with powerful and poetic dimensions of meaning. Human sexuality is seen in this ritual as the known, visible component of the world´s regenerative process; it is the anatomical analogue of cosmic renewal."
A rite which lays such importance upon the goddess would have afforded women access to independence and economic power.
The Greek speaking invaders who brought the worship of Zeus to the older Aegean culture emphasized male dominance and patriarchal law. The invaders endeavored to either marry or have sexual liaisons with native goddesses can be interpreted that they attempted to unite the worship of female divinities, like Hera, with the newer population. Says Pomeroy: “The bickering between Hera and Zeus shows the manifestation of the conquering god and vanquished goddess at its most trivial level.” As patriarchal rule advanced, women’s status declined and the sacred marriage ritual fell into question.
The symbolic conquering of a woman’s worth is still at work in our culture and few things demonstrate this more clearly than domestic violence. When domestic abuse goes public, as in the case of Rihanna or Yeardley Love, society watches but does not fully address the problems that cripple a woman’s sense of self-esteem: few take the abuser seriously until it’s too late and so the instincts that tell a woman she needs to make changes in her life go unheeded.
Maria Dibari, a survivor of domestic violence and founder of the Tri-County Crisis Center in New York, says a woman with better self esteem will be more empowered to leave a relationship where there is abuse. “Women with low self-esteem feel that they cannot do better than the situation they are in, which makes them far less likely to leave than a woman who has high self-esteem and can stand up for herself. Domestic violence offenders tend to prey on women who have low self-esteem, realizing that the victim will want and need them no matter what they do.”
The notion that women must bear the weight of the relationship hasn’t changed much. Up until the last half of the twentieth century the success or failure of a marriage was on a woman’s shoulders. In an early edition of her publication, “Etiquette,” Emily Post gives strict advice that no matter how badly a husband slights or outrages a wife she must keep silent. This underscores the reality that victims carry guilt, embarrassment and responsibility for the abuse. And this, in turn, will make it less likely that they report a crime because of the shame they feel.
For years the early Christian church deemed that the only way to be close to God was by becoming celibate. Getting married, according to the church, was a way of codifying prostitution. Marriage wasn’t officially sanctioned by the Christian church until the 16th century. Throughout Europe common law had been the norm as were pagan hand-fasting ceremonies. Children born of a union would seal common law marriage as well. At first the church only thought of marriage ceremonies as heathen since only goddesses oversaw every aspect of love, relationship and childbirth in the ancient world.
The first church ceremonies of marriage were conducted outside the doors of the church lest the lustful feelings make their way into the house of worship. When the church finally sanctioned marriage it was to ensure that husbands took ownership of a wife’s property and inheritance. It was a social stain upon the woman and the family if she wound up a spinster, which meant she would end up destitute or working in a spin house sewing garments. The pressure to marry was palpable.
Although omitted now from most historical documents, the church in the Middle Ages commonly recommended physical abuse to women. The 15th century book, “Rules of Marriage,” stated that when it comes to wives, it is better to punish the body and correct the soul than damage the soul and spare the body. Whips were the advice of one pope who said that otherwise one might unintentionally cripple or kill a wife with wood or iron. Thomas Aquinas argued that a wife is lower than a slave because a slave could be freed.
Even in the New World married women had little recourse if a husband mistreated her or their children. The husbands (aka defendants) were found innocent in the cases of State v. Rhodes (1868) and State v. Oliver (1874), because, argued the judge, they had the right to whip their wives with a switch no wider than a thumb.
Such toxicity has survived into modern times.
In the mid 20th century the US the Doctrine of Immunity held that the law could not interfere with the sanctity of the home to stop husbandly violence. By 1994 the Violence Against Women Act was passed which recognized that domestic abuse is a human rights concern. The National Organization for Women described the bill as "the greatest breakthrough in civil rights for women in decades."
When I was growing up there was no class in high school on how to assert your emotional needs and no one spoke out about how to read the signs of an abusive relationship. Thankfully, things are changing. A Virginia bill passed by the General Assembly recently requires that the subject of dating violence and abusive relationships be taught at least once during middle school and twice during high school in the state’s family life education curriculum.
Three million women are physically abused by their husband or boyfriend each year. One in four women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime. Demographics or socio-economic status does not make abuse more or less likely. But when it happens in the public eye, we take notice like it’s a mythical drama playing out before our eyes. And each time we pray it won’t have a predictable outcome.
~Baring, Anne & Cashford, Jules. The Myth of the Goddess. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
~Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. In the Wake of the Goddesses: women, culture and biblical transformations of pagan myth. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1992.
~Pomeroy, Sarah. Goddessses, Whores, Wives and Slaves. New York: Shocken, 1995.
~Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. New York: Harper & Row, 1983