Comments on comparative mythology 6, trifunctionality and the goddess Hērā

2020.03.20 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In Classical Inquiries 2020.03.13, where I was testing the idea of trifunctionality in the Homeric retelling of the Judgment of Paris, I analyzed aspects of the goddess Hērā that point to her third function, which is fertility, to be distinguished from her first function, which is sovereignty. Here in Classical Inquiries 2020.03.20, I will analyze further such aspects pointing to the third function of this goddess—as well as other divine aspects that point instead to the second function, which is warfare. For my analysis, I will focus on a moment in Iliad 5 where the hero Hēraklēs is caught in the act of shooting an arrow at Hērā, wounding the goddess in her right breast. I will argue that the wound, which causes a pain described as incurable in the Homeric narrative, is a sign of a dysfunctional relationship between hero and goddess in the world of myth. To be contrasted, however, is a functional relationship between the two in the world of ritual. The image that I have chosen as illustration for this argument highlights the functional side of the relationship between Hērā and Hēraklēs: in this image, of Etruscan origin, we see the goddess showing her benevolence toward the hero, breast-feeding him as if he were a newborn child. I will have to start my analysis by considering such benevolence before I can consider the malevolence of Hērā.

Line drawing of an Etruscan mirror, ca. 3rd century BCE. Uni (Latin Juno, = Hērā) nursing the adult Hercle (Hēraklēs).
Etruscan mirror, ca. 3rd century BCE. Uni (Latin Juno, = Hērā) breast-feeding the adult Hercle (= Hēraklēs). Image via Wikimedia Commons.


§1. So, why would Hērā breast-feed the adult Hēraklēs as if he were a newborn child? That is, why would Hērā give Hēraklēs such a gift, performing such a benevolent gesture of fertility? The answer has to do with a myth about the death and subsequent immortalization of Hēraklēs. According to this myth, as we will see, the death of Hēraklēs frees him from the dysfunctional world of myth, and now he can be reborn, entering the functional world of ritual. And the agent of rebirth, as we will also see, is the goddess Hērā herself.

§2. But what do I mean when I speak of a world of ritual that supersedes a world of myth? For Hēraklēs, such a world of ritual becomes a reality in the form of hero cult, and he becomes immortalized as a cult hero. In terms of my argument, which I first developed in The Best of the Achaeans (Nagy 1979:302–303 = 18§2), the antagonism of Hērā and Hēraklēs in the world of myth gives way to a nurturing symbiosis for the two of them in the world of ritual. There is an admirable summary of this argument of mine in an article by Nicole Loraux (1990:44).

§3. A minute ago, I spoke about Hērā as the agent for a rebirth of the hero. In the narrative of Diodorus of Sicily (first century BCE) about the life and times of Hēraklēs, we find a stylized but nevertheless quite explicit reference to such a rebirth, and the would-be mother who now gives birth to Hēraklēs is the goddess Hērā herself. In H24H 1§46, I offer a paraphrase of the relevant narrative by Diodorus (4.39.2–3), which I epitomize here.

Hēraklēs dies on Mount Oeta, blasted away by a thunderbolt of Zeus, but then he regains consciousness and finds himself on top of Mount Olympus, in the company of the gods. He has become immortalized, adopted by the Olympian theoi ‘gods’ as one of their own (the technical Greek term is apotheosis). Hērā now changes identities: no longer a stepmother to Hēraklēs, she becomes his virtual mother. The procedure is specified by Diodorus, and I translate literally (4.39.2): ‘Hērā got into her bed and drew Hēraklēs close to her body; then she ejected him through her clothes to the ground, re-enacting [= making mīmēsis of] genuine birth’ (tēn de teknōsin genesthai phasi toiautēn: tēn Hēran anabasan epi klinēn kai ton Hēraklea proslabomenēn pros to sōma dia tōn endumatōn apheinai pros tēn gēn, mimoumenēn tēn alēthinēn genesin).

§4. I follow up with the argument I present in H24H 1§§47–48. Birth by Hērā is the hero’s rebirth, a birth into immortality. But the rebirth can only happen after death. The hero can be immortalized, but the fundamental painful fact remains: the hero is not by nature immortal. By now we can see that the name Hēraklēs, which means ‘he who has the glory [kleos] of Hērā’, marks both the medium and the message of the hero. But when we first consider the meaning of the name of Hēraklēs, our first impression is that this name is illogical: it seems to us strange that Hēraklēs should be named after Hērā—that his poetic glory or kleos should depend on Hērā. After all, Hēraklēs is persecuted by Hērā throughout his heroic lifespan. And yet, without this unseasonality, without the disequilibrium brought about by the persecution of Hērā, Hēraklēs would never have achieved the equilibrium of immortality and the kleos or ‘glory’ that makes his achievements live forever in song.

§5. In terms of my argument, song is anchored in the functional world of ritual, in the world of hero cult. We see equilibrium here. We see seasonality. The unseasonality, by contrast, becomes visible only in the world of myth, retold in the ritualized context of song.

§6. The goddess Hērā presides over the seasonality, and that is what her name means, seasonality. As I have argued over almost fifty years by now (starting with Nagy 1972:51–52 / 770–771) the etymology of both names, Hḗrā and Hēraklês, as also of the noun hḗrōs ‘hero’, can be explained in terms of Indo-European linguistics. Etymologically, the name of the goddess, Hḗrā, accentuates her benevolent side, which is seasonality, as we see from the related noun hṓrā, which actually means ‘season, seasonality’. For more on these etymologies, I cite the following: Nagy 1979:303 = 18§2 318–319; Davidson 1980:199; Sinos 1980:14; [Nagy] PH 140n27 = 5§7; GM 136; H24H 1§49.

§7. In her wide-ranging book on the goddess Hērā, the etymological explanation that I offer here is accepted by Joan O’Brien (1993:116n9), but her view of the positive and the negative aspects of the goddess differs from mine. For O’Brien, the benevolence and the malevolence of Hērā toward Hēraklēs can be explained in terms of older and newer attitudes toward the goddess as she evolved through time. For me, on the other hand, the malevolence is just as old as the benevolence, but such negative and positive aspects of the relationship between divinity and hero can be explained in terms of antagonism in myths about heroes and symbiosis in rituals that frame such myths in the context of hero cult. Again I cite my argument in The Best of the Achaeans (Nagy 1979:302–303 = 18§2) and the summary by Nicole Loraux (1990:44).

§8. With regard to the positive as well as the negative aspects of the relationship between divinity and hero, I pick up where I left off in another post, Classical Inquiries 2019.08.08. There I was arguing that Hērā and Zeus are a functional pair of divinities in myths about the death and subsequent immortalization of Hēraklēs. I epitomize what I say in that post at §4, where I compare the death scene of the Indic hero Śiśupāla with the death scene of the Greek hero Hēraklēs:

In the case of Śiśupāla, his life-force is absorbed in a flash of light generated by the god Viṣṇu/Kṛṣṇa, and this flash, explicitly compared to lightning in the narrative, comes out of the hero’s body and goes inside the god’s body. Comparably in the case of Hēraklēs, his life-force is absorbed in a flash of lightning generated by the god Zeus, and this flash goes inside the body of the goddess Hērā. Such an entry is implicit in the ensuing stylized detail: as we have seen, Hērā now gives birth to the hero, so that Hēraklēs must have been inside Hērā. Now the hero can be born, really reborn, from his new mother, Hērā, who has thus given him a life that becomes eternal. Thus an antagonism between Hērā and Hēraklēs has led to an eventual symbiosis between divinity and hero.

§9. Once immortalized, Hēraklēs becomes the devoted son of Hērā, who gives birth to him, at least figuratively, as we have read in Diodorus (4.39.2). We find another example of such symbiosis in the image, engraved on the back of an Etruscan bronze mirror, that I showed in the main illustration for this posting. At §7 of Classical Inquiries 2019.08.08, I show another such Etruscan image.

Uni nursing the adult Hercle in front of divine witnesses. Etruscan mirror from Volterra.
Uni breast-feeding the adult Hercle in front of divine witnesses. Etruscan mirror from Volterra in Florence, Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Image via Wikimedia Commons.



Once again we see an immortalized Hēraklēs (Etruscan Hercle) being breast-fed by his new mother Hērā = Juno (Etruscan Uni) attended by her consort Zeus (Etruscan Tini). Zeus here is holding up for all to see a tablet inscribed in Etruscan lettering, where the text is evidently validating what I describe here as a symbiosis of hero and goddess. I note especially the lettering HERCLE at line 3 and VNIA, in the genitive, at line 4. Jaan Puhvel (1987:252, with comments at 251) shows a copy of this image, and I too show a copy here.



§10. As I begin to conclude this essay, I need to work toward ending it on a negative note, considering the many myths that tell about the antagonism between Hērā and Hēraklēs. Here I single out one such myth, mentioned at §5 in Classical Inquiries 2019.08.08. We read, in a retelling by Diodorus (4.9.6), that Athena had once upon a time persuaded Hērā to breast-feed Hēraklēs when he was still a baby; the hero’s mortal mother had abandoned him and exposed him to the elements, since she feared Hērā. This symbiotic gesture, where Hērā breast-feeds Hēraklēs, led to more antagonism, as we read further in Diodorus (4.9.6–7): while the breast-feeding was underway, the baby sucked too hard and bit the goddess on the breast, so that Hērā tossed the baby aside, and Athena had to bring him back to his mortal mother. In further versions of the myth, it is added that Hērā, when she abruptly pulled her breast away from the biting baby, spilled her milk into the sky, thus unwittingly creating the Milky Way (for example, “pseudo-Eratosthenes” Catasterismi 3.44 ed. Olivieri).

§11. There is a similar instance of antagonism in the Homeric Iliad, 5.392–394, where we read that the adult Hēraklēs wounded Hērā by shooting an arrow into her right breast, causing an incurable algos ‘pain’ (394). Here I finally return to a point I made at the beginning of this essay: the antagonism of Hērā and Hēraklēs extends beyond the third function, fertility, to the second function, warfare. From the context of this Homeric narrative where a past moment in myth is being retold—how Hēraklēs once upon a time wounded Hērā by shooting an arrow into her right breast—it is clear that the goddess, at the moment when she was wounded, was engaged in warfare. Correspondingly, Hērā is now getting engaged in the Trojan War at the present time of mythmaking, which is the action that we see being narrated in Iliad 5 (starting at verse 711).

§12. The Homeric narrative in Iliad 5 pictures the goddess Hērā as she gets ready to enter the scene of man-to-man combat in war: first she outfits her divine chariot (719–732) and then she rides off from Olympus, driving her divine horses across the vast space separating sky from earth (768–769), finally arriving at the Plain of Troy (772–775). Joining Hērā  for the cosmic ride and standing side-by-side with her on the platform of this heavenly ‘chariot of fire’ (okhea phlogea, 745) is Athena, who has fully armed herself for combat in war (733–744). The mission for this divine chariot fighter Athena and for her divine chariot driver Hērā is to stop the onslaught of the raging god of chaotic war, Ares, who has intervened in the man-to-man combat by overtly fighting on the side of the Trojans. In the action that follows (verse 776 and thereafter), Athena as a goddess of organized warfare will stop Ares by aiding her protégé, Diomedes the Achaean, who will now achieve his greatest success as a warrior: he gets to inflict a serious wound on Ares, thus putting an end to the war-god’s chaotic onslaught. The success extends further, since Diomedes will now go on to wound Aphrodite, who has been aiding her son, her own protégé, Aeneas the Trojan. It is in her role here as accomplice of Ares that the third-function goddess Aphrodite receives her second-function wound in war. I see here a parallel in the embedded narrative about the wounding of Hērā by Hēraklēs, where it is this first-function goddess who receives her very own second-function wound.

§13. Such a wounding of Hērā by Hēraklēs in myth defines a special kind of anger that this goddess feels toward that hero—and, on occasion, toward other heroes as well. As we will see in the posting that follows, this anger is mixed into her milk, infected by the poisoned arrow that wounded her breast. The question will be: can there be a cure in ritual for the incurable pain that this wound has caused in myth?


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