by Lauren Harwyn
It was a cool night and Hera walked invisible on earth. She was relieved to escape the perfect tedium of Olympus and longed to hear whispers of praise from the mortals’ own lips. Hera knew at once that it was an unusual night, for the people had turned out of their homes and formed a crowd in the city centre, hushing one another to make out the voice of a lone speaker in their midst.
The orator was an old man, some lover of wisdom or comic poet. The crowd was laughing appreciatively as she approached, but the sound died away as the man’s face grew somber. His clothes were poor, but his eyes were lit with a fervour that made her pause for a moment to watch.
‘Man is the measure of all things,’ he called into the night. The crowd nodded, shook its many heads, unsure, but attentive.
‘What about the gods?’ a woman shouted and a few people murmured prayers which Hera breathed, satisfied, like a perfumed breeze.
‘As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or do not exist. Many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life.’ The crowd muttered again, but to her surprise, no prayers were given to honey her throat. The little man spoke with a gruff eloquence and emanated complete humility, but the lack of arrogance only stirred the gathering storm clouds in her chest.
Turning where she stood, Hera fled to Olympus, stepping across the purple mountains, up into the clouds. Trembling with fury, she poured herself a goblet of nectar and seated herself on the throne at the edge of the sky. Why hadn’t she revealed herself to the people of Athens? She was the Queen of the Gods, Wife of Zeus, Goddess of Childbirth, Women and Marriage. What had kept her from from vaporising that insignificant man and proving her unquestionable power to those caught in his spell?
A fear she had long hid from the world soured her tongue; the fear that she was not well-liked among the people of earth. There were stories, she knew, there were many tales unspooling from the four corners of the world about Zeus and his jealous bride.
She had begun as a midwife, intent upon preventing the loss of infants, new lights smothered too soon. Through prayer and sacrifices, she would enter the birthroom, guiding young ones into their mothers’ arms. A child born with a hearty wail in his lungs was said to have been touched by her hand.
Then Zeus. She had made his excuses – being destined to slice open your father and set your family free from his guts was bound to pervert anyone’s mind. She had to hide her face even now, as though they stood before her on the marble parapet; the victims of her husband’s lust, holding the infants Hera had helped labor into life. Her throat tore just to ponder their faces. For even as she pitied the soft girls, those dazzled virgins, she had not been able to stop herself smothering them in their sleep or doing her utmost to uproot their vile illegitimacies. Yet demigod after hero had joined the pantheon, smiling as if to mock her heart.
Zeus – he kissed her, spoke words of love, drank merrily, burned lightning into the sky. She said nothing when he crept soundlessly from their bedchamber. He said nothing when Leto was mysteriously set to wander, unable to bear her twins. Hera could not blame her husband for what she had become, though in moments of wretched despair, she often wished to. No couple was married ten minutes but someone had to be forgiven for something, she repeated to herself, hushed into the ears of mortal wives who sobbed alone or nursed cracked cheekbones. She could not deny that after so many pursuits and punishments, she had become as feared as he, as expected to spurn the women below as to save. What about the women of Troy? they whispered. What about the girl who was raped near the well? She heard a hesitance in their prayers, dissent in their worship and she knew this devastation to be sure; the jealous wife was more hated than the husband who tore the pleading girls from their beds.
Hera had cherished a private vision of the mortals one day crowning her above even Zeus himself, a merciful and just Mother. But grief crept into her ears like the whispers of Hades. She knew that guarding newborns did not erase the smoking wreckage of Semele or the bloody carcass of Callisto. Nor did her midwifery undo the cries for help she had ignored as she paced the lush carpets of rainclouds, wondering where her husband could be at that time of night. This mortal who had lowered his eyes from Olympus had begun to declaim the oversight of the Gods at this, the moment of her ascendency. And now that the threat had reared its fangs at her heel, she could not wholly trust mortal women to make sacrifices to her during their greatest trials.
Hera had been The Wife for a millennium of those flickering lifetimes. She was The Queen, she was The Mother. She had remained by her husband’s side through all of his failings and indiscretions. She knew that what stood for Zeus would not stand for her and her faithfulness might earn their respect if not their love. Hera called Athena to her side and waited impatiently for her arrival.
‘Sister,’ Athena was always generous with her affection. The goddess of war and wisdom sat and poured her stepmother another glass.
‘That man there,’ Hera wasted no breath, ‘What is his name?’
Athena stepped to the edge and looked down, following Hera’s gaze.
‘That is Protagoras, a lover of wisdom in the city of Athens.’
‘I walked among the people tonight,’ Hera insisted, ‘and heard this Protagoras claiming to all who would listen that man is the measure of all things – including the King, your father, and all your brothers and sisters. What will you do to stop him?’
Athena’s grey eyes were calm. Hera knew how Athena loved to encourage the men in their philosophy. And yet, an insult like this could not go unchallenged.
‘He will be cast out from my city. His papers will be burnt so no mortals may read his heresy.’ She kissed Hera’s brow and with a polite nod, left her again to her watching. Sacrificial fires lit and smouldered below, their sweet offerings somehow wasting, unsubstantial. Hera knew that burning the man’s scribblings could not suffocate this budding idea.
‘As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or do not exist.’ The words seemed to be carving themselves into Hera’s skull. As with Prometheus and Pandora, there was no undoing; the miseries would not relent, the hearth fires would not dim. For who among men, feared the Queen of the Gods, who would choose a destructive family of fickle immortals over the weeping girl, the crippled soldier, the smouldering city they could see with their own eyes?
Lauren Harwyn is an intersectional feminist and writing witch from California, USA. Ms Harwyn earned her BA in creative writing from Mills College, Oakland, attended Scottish Universities’ International Summer School for creative writing and has been published by Witty Bitches, Northern Light, Soliloquies Anthology and The Walrus.