Hera’s titles included Pais (Girl), Nympheuomenê (Betrothed), Teleia (Adult Woman), and Khêra (Widow), all relating to stages in a woman’s life. One of them, Teleia, could take on several meanings, as you’ll see in the section on the Daidala festival of Platania.
One of Hera’s major festivals involved women and girls of various ages, and was celebrated at the major cult site at Olympia, home of the games. The Heraion is connected to the myth of Hippodameia, whose father would only wed her to someone who could beat him in a chariot race.
When someone finally found a way of defeating her father’s immortal horses, Hippodameia began the festival as a thank-offering to Hera, goddess of marriage.
A college of 16 women were in charge of organizing the Herean Games, which consisted of various rituals and offerings to Hera, and foot-races for girls, divided into three categories by age. The college also had to find two choruses of women for Hippodameia and Physkoa, who helped found the cult of Dionysus. Their third duty was to weave a new peplos for the goddess every four years.
While the Heraion was founded as a thank-offering for marriage, it is significant that the festival itself only involved women, and the main participants were girls. Olympia was Zeus’s stronghold, and women were not normally allowed to watch or participate, but at the temple of Hera there was a very old statue of her and her husband, suggesting that the two were important as a couple there.
Goddess of Marriage
While Hera’s married status seems almost like an alibi at Olympia, two other festivals, the Athenian hieros gamos or sacred marriage and the Daidala in Platania focus on Hera as goddess of marriage.
The Athenian festival is the more unusual, because Hera was not very popular in Attica; she was a goddess of Argos, Samos and Boetia, where the Daidala took place. Both festivals celebrated Hera Teleia, which comes from the Greek telos, meaning “fulfilment” or “end”. Those who were married were called teleioi, suggesting that marriage was a fulfilment or goal. Clark (17) notes that this fulfillment went both ways: Hera was fulfilled by marriage, and could complete those who married.
Zeus, too, was called Zeus Teleios, and acted as a guarantor of marriage as well. However, the festival itself was not an enacted marriage, but seems to have been an occasion to sacrifice to Hera Teliai and Zeus Telaios. (One calendar called him Zeus Heraios, stressing the nature of the festival.) The sacrifice was in the fourth month, called Gamelion (from gamos), at Hera’s shrine. The location was important, because:
In Gamelion D. 30 (and В. 37 and G. 40), three other gods were associated: there was a sacrifice to Poseidon on the same day and in the same place as a sacrifice offered to Zeus Teleios and to Hera. The place where this happened was the sanctuary of Hera, in Erchia. For this sacrifice, Hera was in the position of host. (Detienne 137-8)
It may have been an obligation only for those who were married; Clark (19) quotes a comedy which mocks someone for moving his sacrifice back so he can go to a dinner party. It may be that he is such a parasite he can’t pass up any free food, or perhaps he was single and so not obliged to keep the festival.
Knossos, in Crete, does seem to have had some sort of re-enactment of the marriage itself as part of their festival, but there’s no evidence of anything like that in Athens.
The Daidala festival at Platania also featured a sacrifice, on a much more spectacular scale. It was in fact two festivals, the Small Daidala and the Great Daidala. This was a very old festival, perhaps reaching back to Mycenean times, although the Great Daidala dates from 338 BCE, and was founded to celebrate the Platanians’ return from exile.
The Small Daidala lived up to its name: once every four years or so the Plataians went to an oak grove and put down food for birds. The oak tree that the birds lured by the food settled in was cut down and carved into a statue of a woman (xoanon), called Daidele. This went on for 14 cycles, and then the Great Daidala took place.
This was a festival for all of Boeotia, and Iversen (382) says that Teleia could also mean “Belonging” as in a telos of communities. For the festival all the wooden images were gathered and one was chosen by lot. This was considered to be the bride, and the women bathed it in the river and dressed it. The women then set the figure in a wagon, and with one woman selected as bridal attendant it made its way to the top of Mt. Kitharion.
There things take an unexpected turn; the figure, along with all the other xoana, was placed the altar and burned, accompanied by a bull for Zeus and a cow for Hera from each community participating. Private individuals could also make offerings, taking the number of sacrifices up to a hundred, so you can see why this festival didn’t happen very often.
Like the Heraia at Olympia, the Daidala had a myth to explain it. Hera and Zeus quarrelled, and Hera went away. Zeus wanted to reconcile, and a local hero advised him to make a wooden idol and pretend to marry it. Hera saw the “wedding” and came running to put a stop to it, with the women of Plataia joining her. When she saw what Zeus was doing she laughed and joined in the celebration, but she still insisted that the false bride be burned.
It’s an interesting story, clearly intended to explain the festival, but hardly a celebration of a marriage. The Great Daidala in particular seems to be more about bringing the towns together than about marriage. Perhaps the clue is in the reconciliation theme – just as Zeus and Hera forget their quarrel, so the Boeotians should put aside their differences and join the celebration.
Goddess of Childbirth
Marriages blessed by Hera no doubt expected to be fruitful, and the goddess looked after women in labour. Her daughter, Eileithyia, was an ancient birth-goddess, and as time went on Hera (and Artemis) took her name as a title, indicating that they had taken over her role.
The Iliad shows her affecting the births of two women:
But Hera darted down and left the peak of Olympus, and swiftly came to Achaean Argos, where she knew was the stately wife of Sthenelus, son of Perseus, that bare a son in her womb, and lo, the seventh month was come. This child Hera brought forth to the light even before the full tale of the months, but stayed Alcmene’s bearing, and held back the Eileithyiae.
(Iliad 19. 115-9, trans. A.T. Murray)
This is part of her feud with Hercules, beginning with his birth, but it’s also not surprising that she would take such an active interest in the rulers of Argos, her own territory. In the myths we see her mainly trying to delay or prevent births, both Hercules’ and Apollo’s, which was the dark side of her power.
She didn’t quit at birth, either. Images of a seated woman holding a child were found at Hera’s temple in Paestum, a Greek colony in Italy, dating from the 5th and 6th centuries BCE. (Ammerman: 135-6) While it’s not clear if the seated woman was meant to be the mother or the goddess, the image of a woman holding a child with her mantle lapped over it like a blanket suggests care and tenderness. (The two temples of Hera was one of the sights at Paestum.) The figurines became so popular that archaeologist have also found moulds for them.
Hera was the goddess of women, and as such she ruled over their transitions, including one of the most significant ones – marriage. Even in our own time marriage is primarily a women’s affair, with the groom and best man on the sidelines.
For Greek women, marriage was a major transition, moving from their family home to that of strangers, hoping that they would be of good will towards her. As the only married goddess of the Olympians1, Hera was a good choice of patron, although women no doubt hoped for better luck with their husbands.
1. I don’t think Aphrodite’s marriage to Hephestaios really counts, and Demeter is an umarried mother, while Hestia, Artemis and Athena are virgins.↩
Ammerman, Rebecca Miller 2007: “Children at Risk: Votive Terracottas and the Welfare of Children at Paestum,” Hesperia Supplements 41, Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy: 131-151.
Clark, Isabell 1998: “The Gamos of Hera: Myth and Ritual,” in The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece, eds. Sue Blundell and Margaret Williamson, Psychology Press: 13-26. (Google Books)
Iversen, Paul A. 2007:”The Small and Great Daidala in Boiotian History,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 56/4: 381-418. (JSTOR)