The Deception of Zeus


Now Hera of the golden throne, looking out from where she stood on the summit of Olympus, was quick to observe how Poseidon, her brother and brother-in-law, was bustling about on the field of battle, and she rejoiced. But she also saw Zeus sitting on the highest peak of Mount Ida of the many springs, and the sight filled her with disgust.

So ox-eyed lady Hera began to wonder how she could hood-wink Zeus who drives the storm-cloud; and she decided the best way to do it was this. She would deck herself out to her best advantage and visit him on Mount Ida. If, as well might be, he succumbed to her beauty and desired to make love to her, she would flood his eyes and sharp mind with soothing, forgetful sleep.

Accordingly she made her way to her bedroom that had been built for her by her own son Hephaestus who, when he had hung the heavy doors on their posts, fitted them with a secret lock which no other god could open. Hera went in and closed the polished doors behind her. She began by removing every stain from her desirable body with ambrosia and then lavishly anointing herself with the ambrosial oil with which her dress was scented; this only had to flutter in the bronze-floored palace of Zeus for its scent to spread through earth and sky alike. With this she smoothed her lovely skin and hair, then combed her hair and with her own hands plaited her shining locks and let them fall in their divine beauty from her immortal head. Next she put on an ambrosial robe that Athene had woven smooth, then finished and richly embroidered. She fastened it across her breast with golden clasps and, at her waist, tied a girdle from which a hundred tassels hung. In the pierced lobes of her ears she fixed two shining earrings, each a thing of brilliant grace with its cluster of three drops. Then the celestial goddess covered her hair with a beautiful new head-dress which was as bright as the sun; and last of all, she bound a fine pair of sandals under her shimmering feet.

When she had decked herself out to look her best, she left her bedroom, beckoned Aphrodite away from the other gods and spoke her mind:

’I wonder, dear child, whether you will do me a favour, or refuse because you are annoyed with me for helping the Greeks, while you are on the Trojans’ side.’

Aphrodite daughter of Zeus replied:

‘Hera, august goddess, daughter of great Cronus, tell me what is in your mind and I shall gladly do what you ask of me, if I can and if the task is not impossible.’

The lady Hera deceptively replied:

‘Give me Love and Desire, the powers by which you yourself subdue gods and men alike. You see, I am going to the ends of the fruitful earth to visit Ocean, forefather of the gods, and mother Tethys, who treated me kindly and brought me up in their own home after taking me from my mother Rhea, when far-thundering Zeus made my father Cronus a prisoner under the earth and the murmuring sea. I am going to see them and bring their interminable quarrels to an end. They have not been sleeping together for a long time now, as a result of an angry row. If by talking the matter over I could win them round and bring them together again in bed, I should win their affection and esteem for ever.’

Laughter-loving Aphrodite said:

‘To refuse a request from you, that sleep in the arms of Zeus the supreme, would be both wrong and impossible.’

She spoke and undid from her breast the charm decorated with ornaments in which all her magic resides, Sexual Pleasure and Desire and Intimacies and Sweet Persuasion, that turn even wise men into fools. She placed this in Hera’s hands and said:

‘There, take this charm with its ornaments and keep it in your bosom. All my magic resides in this, and I have no doubt that you will come back from your mission successful.’

So she spoke, and ox-eyed lady Hera smiled and, as she tucked the charm into her bosom, she smiled again.

Aphrodite daughter of Zeus went home, and Hera sped down from the summit of Olympus. First she dropped to the Pierian range and to lovely Emathia; then passed swiftly over the snowy mountains of the horse-breeding Thracians, the very highest peaks, but never setting foot on the ground. From Athos she travelled over the foaming sea and so came to Lemnos, town of lord Thoas, where she found the god of Sleep, brother of Death. Putting her hand in his she said:

’Sleep, lord of all gods and all mankind, if ever you listened to me in the past, do what I ask of you now and I shall be grateful to you for ever. Seal the bright eyes of Zeus for me in sleep, directly I have lain in love with him, and in return I will give you a beautiful chair, imperishable, golden, which the lame god Hephaestus, my own son, will make and finish for you, with a footstool underneath it, on which you could rest your gleaming feet as you dine.’

Sweet Sleep replied and said:

‘Hera, august queen, daughter of mighty Cronus, I should think it a small matter to put any of the other eternal gods to sleep, even Ocean Stream himself, forefather of all. But I dare not go near Zeus son of Cronus or send him to sleep, unless he asks me to do so himself.

‘I have learnt my lesson from the task you once set me before, when Heracles, that arrogant son of Zeus, set sail from Ilium after sacking the Trojans’ town, and you made up your mind to make trouble for him. I gently lulled Zeus who drives the storm-cloud to sleep, while you raised a terrible tempest at sea and carried Heracles off to the prosperous island of Cos, far from all his friends. Zeus was enraged when he awoke. He hurled the gods about in his palace and looked for me everywhere as the chief culprit. I would have been thrown from Olympus into the sea and never heard of again, if Night, who overpowers gods and men alike, had not rescued me. I found sanctuary with her, and Zeus, for all his fury, had to stop and think twice before doing something that swift Night would not like. And now you come to me once more with another impossible request!’

Ox-eyed lady Hera said:

‘Sleep, why are you so worried about this? Can you really think that far-thundering Zeus will exert himself in defence of the Trojans as he did when it was the abduction of his very own son, Heracles, that had enraged him? Come, do as I wish and I will give you one of the younger Graces in marriage. She shall be called your wife.’

So she spoke, and Sleep was delighted and replied:

‘Very well, swear to me now by the inviolable waters of Styx, grasping the bountiful Earth with one hand and the shimmering Sea with the other, so that all the gods who are below with Cronus may be our witnesses; and promise you will give me one of the younger Graces, Pasithee¨, whom I have desired all my life.’

So he spoke, and the goddess white-armed Hera agreed and gave him her oath in the way he had prescribed, naming all the gods under Tartarus, who are called Titans. When she had sworn and completed the oath, the two wrapped themselves in mist and set out, leaving the towns of Lemnos and Imbros behind them and travelling fast. They reached Mount Ida of the many springs, the mother of wild beasts, by way of a promontory at its foot, Lecton, where they first left the sea and passed over the dry land, causing the treetops to sway beneath their feet. But now, to avoid the eye of Zeus, Sleep came to a halt and climbed up into a tall pine-tree, the tallest on Ida, which reached through the mist up into the clear air above. There he perched, hidden by the branches, in the form of a songbird of the mountains which is called bronze-throat by the gods and eagle-owl by men.

Meanwhile Hera rapidly drew near to Gargarus, the highest peak of lofty Ida. Zeus who marshals the clouds saw her, and at the first look desire overwhelmed his heart, as in the days when they had first made love and gone to bed together without their parents’ knowledge. He went up to her and said:

‘Hera, what business brings you here from Olympus? And why no horses and chariot to drive in?’

The lady Hera deceptively replied:

‘Oh, I am going to the ends of the fruitful earth to visit Ocean, forefather of the gods, and mother Tethys, who treated me kindly and brought me up in their own home. I am going to see them and bring their interminable quarrels to an end. They have not been sleeping together for a long time now, as a result of an angry row. As for my horses . .. oh, they are waiting at the foot of Ida, ready to carry me back over the water and the solid land. But at the moment I have come here from Olympus to see you. I was worried you might become angry with me afterwards, if I paid a visit to the deep Stream of Ocean without letting you know.’

Zeus who marshals the clouds replied and said:

Hera, that’s a journey you can postpone. Come, let us to bed and the delights of love. Never has such desire, for goddess or mortal, flooded and overwhelmed my heart; no, not when I loved Ixion’s wife who bore Peirithous, wise as the gods; or Danae of the slim ankles, daughter of Acrisius, who gave birth to Perseus, the greatest hero of his time; or the far-famed daughter of Phoenix, who bore me Minos and godlike Rhadamanthus; or Semele, or Alcmene in Thebes, whose son was lion-hearted Heracles, while Semele bore Dionysus, mankind’s delight; or lady Demeter with her lovely hair, or incomparable Leto; or you yourself – never have I felt such desire for you, or has such sweet longing overwhelmed me.’

The lady Hera replied deceptively:

’Dread son of Cronus, what are you suggesting now! Suppose we do as you wish and make love on the heights of Ida, everyone will see everything. What will happen if one of the eternal gods saw us sleeping together and ran off to tell the rest? I certainly wouldn’t relish the idea of rising straight from such a bed and going back to your palace. Think of the scandal! No, if it really is your pleasure to do this, you have a bedroom that your own son Hephaestus built for you, and the doors he made for it are solid. Let us go and lie down there, since bed takes your fancy.’

Zeus who marshals the clouds replied and said:

‘Hera, don’t be afraid any god or man will see us. I’ll hide you in a golden cloud. Even the sun, whose rays provide him with the keenest sight in all the world, will not be able to see through it.’

The son of Cronus spoke and took his wife in his arms; and the divine earth sent up spring flowers beneath them, dewy clover and crocuses and a soft and crowded bed of hyacinths, to lift them off the ground. In this they lay, covered by a beautiful golden cloud, from which a rain of glistening dewdrops fell.

Text: Homer, The Iliad, trans. E. V. Rieu. London: Penguin Books, 2003
Image: Carl Kundmann, Josef Tautenhayn and Hugo Haerdtl, detail of Zeus and Hera from the Athena Fountain, 1893-1902, Vienna

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