The Goddess Problem

“Zeus, Hera, and…” I paused and glanced at my glass of red wine, “Dionysus.” We were playing a game: five seconds to name three things in a category. I had Greek gods.

“Hold on a second there,” my husband said.

I thought he might be under the misapprehension that I had used the Roman name for one of the gods. I was prepared to bust out an impassioned Jupiter-Juno-Bacchus-based defense, when he continued.

“Well, technically, Hera is a goddESS.”

“So what?” I said.

“The category was gods,” he said.

“Hera is absolutely a Greek god,” I said.

“I mean, it’s not a big deal, just…I’m not sure goddesses fit the category,” he replied. “It’s gods.” He was joking around, quibbling—we are a family of quibblers, we often say—but my wrath was instantly on a level with that of Hera descending to earth to blast one of Zeus’s mortal side pieces.

“Are you saying the goddesses were lesser? Or somehow not gods?”

“No, no, goddesses are great! They’re just…their own category,” he said. He was trying to placate me, but—as I saw it—just digging himself in deeper. “I actually think most of the goddesses are cooler and better than the gods, right, girls?” He turned to our daughters, who are 11 and 7, for support. They nodded along, unsure what to make of my sudden anger over this seemingly small point.

It wasn’t small to me, though. “So we have to put up with being lumped in under men because male terms are supposedly gender-neutral catchalls but then when we actually claim that we are told we have our own category and don’t count? Great. Fine.”

“God, you’re in a foul mood,” he replied.

“That’s the fucking patriarchy for you,” I hissed at him, snatching up the remaining dinner dishes from the table and going to wash up. Here I should register my regret that I did the predictable woman’s-role thing: I washed the dishes while my family finished playing the game, and I stewed in resentment, just like my mother decades ago. That’s the fucking patriarchy for you.

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aa9fcd8845456b61ca7c5330b22ff12aI was annoyed with myself for not naming three female gods to start with. For putting Hera second. I should have said “Hera, Athena, and Gaea.” Queen of the gods, the presiding god of wisdom, and the god of the entire earth. Gods whose righteous anger can scorch all humanity. Gods who run the world. Gods—in the words of one of our modern divinities— smart enough to make these millions, strong enough to bear the children and get back to business.

Hera was god of marriage, wife of Zeus, and queen of Olympus. In comparison to the other gods, though, being goddess of marriage is a bullshit job and a cruel irony, given how often her marriage was on the rocks. Hera’s brother and sister gods run the underworld and the seas, control the weather, make the sun and moon rise and set. Hera—their coequal in divinity, as much a child of the Titan Cronus as her brother and husband Zeus—just gets to be a wife, and a badly treated one at that. Her role is to look lovely, to preside over the high table of Olympus, and to look the other way while Zeus chases mortal skirt and fathers dozens of illegitimate demigod babies. Like a political wife, she is meant to stand by her man; when she objects to being shabbily treated, she gets written off as a shrew. In other words, she is a First Lady, Olympus’s version of 1990s-era Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But modern-day mythology presents Hera merely as a petty and jealous wife. She is forever chasing around Zeus’s earthly girlfriends to avenge herself on them—never on Zeus, the trash guy who caused all the problems. This view of Hera is evident in the stories told by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire, in their Book of Greek Myths—a classic illustrated text that has become many kids’ first introduction to Greek mythology. Or rather, the D’Aulaires’ book was the best-known Greek mythology text before the wild popularity of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, in which Hera’s primary characteristic is also jealousy. The first information the D’Aulaires offer about Hera is that she “was a very jealous wife. Even Zeus, who was afraid of nothing, feared her fits of temper.” In ancient Greece, Hera inspired powerful cults, with several temples and specific rituals dedicated to her; she was also considered the patron of an all-women analogue to the Olympics. But since most myths known about her today center on her jealousy and anger, contemporary readers could be forgiven for thinking she is nothing but a divine bitch.

Hera’s wrath was certainly mighty, as mighty as that of any wife who has tirelessly supported her more successful, more famous husband through all eternity and is repaid with infidelity. Zeus is a shitty husband, constantly tempted by and sneaking off to earth to seduce—or rape—beautiful women, and not even good at covering his tracks.

Hera knew that much-married, philandering Zeus would be a terrible husband, and at first refused to marry him. So he tricks her into marriage, pretending to be a tiny cuckoo seeking refuge from a storm: “She pitied the wet little bird and hugged it close to keep it warm, but all of a sudden she found herself holding mighty Zeus in her arms instead of the bird. Thus Zeus won Hera and all nature burst into bloom for their wedding.” Only then is Hera granted, as a gift, the biggest symbol of her divine power: “Mother Earth gave the bride a little apple tree that bore golden apples of immortality. Hera treasured the tree and planted it in the garden of the Hesperides, her secret garden far to the west.” What, I wonder, was Hera’s role before she and Zeus were married? Did she have other trappings of godhood, or did she have to await marriage to get them, like Olympian versions of china and crystal?

Hera is also maligned for being vengeful and violent, much as rumors swirled about the vengeance Hillary Rodham Clinton took on anyone who crossed her. Most famously, she tries repeatedly to thwart Heracles, turning the ultra-strong mortal son of Zeus insane and murderous and then setting labors for him that she thinks will surely kill him. Of course Heracles succeeds in all his tasks and reaps glory instead of death—eventually forcing Hera to accept him in Olympus, and even to give him her daughter Hebe’s hand in marriage.

When Hera does act for herself or seize any real power—as in the story of Jason and the Argonauts—problems inevitably ensue. She takes an interest in the strong, handsome youth Jason, and becomes his patron and sponsor. Hera helps him to fetch the Golden Fleece and makes Medea, a sorceress (there’s that -ess ending again), fall in love with him. Jason marries Medea, pleasing Hera—but things go badly awry, with Medea and Jason killing her brother, displeasing the gods, and breaking their oaths to each other. The disasters that befall the Argo and Jason arise from the meddling of the goddess.

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Screenshot 2017-03-21 12.22.32Nowadays, the word “goddess” carries hippie, earth-mother, self-actualization connotations. In my mind’s eye, I see it in the same kind of fantasy-novel calligraphic font that the title of a book about faeries might be printed in. “Goddess” makes me think of The Mists of Avalon and swirly purple skirts and white women at a retreat for discovering the divine within, talking about the power of their menstrual cycle. It has been reclaimed for a particular flavor of wishy-washy mystic feminism. But that, too, is a way of cordoning off goddesses. Why obscure the power of women by draping it in worn-out tropes of the feminine and putting it on either an Olympian dais,or a fantasy-medieval one?

If we reject the bangle-wearing hippie divine feminine, there’s always the other modern cliché, the domestic goddess. Cute, armed with a cookbook and a perfectly iced cupcake, the domestic goddess is merely an updated, and more palatably empowered, version of the Victorian angel in the house. It’s hard to imagine any man (or woman, for that matter) being called a domestic god: the inclusion of the feminine ending clearly signals our cozy, ladylike roles as canners of jam and bakers of pies.

When I got angry at my husband’s objection to my including Hera as a Greek god, he used the age-old defense of clueless dudes everywhere and said I was making a big deal out of nothing. (Here I must add that my husband is a nice guy who was apparently having a patriarchal-blind-spot kind of day, and I particularly stress that he has never once brought home a bastard demigod to live with us, nor do I think he will.) Maybe I was making a big deal, but it was not nothing. It was just a game, sure. It was just a quibble. But how we categorize people is a cornerstone of the patriarchy. Gendered categories are a basic cultural construct from which flow the roles one is either consigned to (women, usually) or free to pursue (men, usually).

Why should any gods be lessened with a cutesy -ess ending? Hera was as powerful as Zeus. The -ess ending diminishes by its very nature, and most cases we have dropped it: authoress, poetess, murderess. (Actress and waitress and princess, however, are unfortunately hanging in there.) It comes in a close second in the most demeaning suffix competition to the even cutesier -ette. That’s -ette as in “suffragette,” a type of woman I hope we will never need again—though for the first time in my life, I feel twinges of fear about my right as a woman to vote.

Hera’s story, and the controversy in my household’s definition of Olympus, is one tiny indicator of the not-so-shocking revelation that the patriarchy is both very old and continuing to function as designed. We have seen that with painful sharpness over the last year, as a would-be presidentess (see how stupid that sounds?) was felled by the same entrenched sexism that has dogged stories about Hera for millennia: Hillary Clinton—equal or superior in intelligence and qualifications to any candidate in our history—was slammed for having been too jealous of her husband’s affairs. She was to blame for her husband’s faults, particularly the sexual ones. Her revenge schemes meant she ought to be in jail. She was too interested in power. She wasn’t feminine and compliant enough—but on the other hand she was far too feminine and compliant to be given a really important job. Hillary Clinton spoke truth to male power, and she was duly punished for it.

As a regressive, deeply sexist regime has taken power in America, the questions of what roles women can and will be permitted to assume have suddenly been reopened, and the landscape is bleak indeed. I had no idea how painful the loss of nearly-grasped female power would be for me personally, and for most of my close friends, intelligent women who are feminist as a matter of course. We are mobilizing to march and to protest for women’s rights, which as we know are human rights. And yet I found myself, in my own home, still talking about whether goddesses can really be gods. But that’s the fucking patriarchy for you.

Kate Washington, already toast.

Featured image: Jacopo Tintoretto, The Origin of the Milky Way, 1575



  1. March 22, 2017 @ 3:20 pm Lynn

    Katie-your brilliance leaves me speechless, but not ever surprised.
    Fascinating read-loved the part about getting up to do the dishes….and loved the reference to your mom, I love you both!
    I used to put Helen Reddy on the record player singing “I Am Woman, Hear me Roar”, whilst cleaning the house.

    Reply


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