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PBP: the Cuckoo and Hera

February 2, 2012
“a year of exploring the Pagan world through blogging”

So I chose the cuckoo because I was curious to know why it was considered Hera’s bird.

The cuckoo (kokux in Greek) is a small, shy migratory bird in Europe and Asia.  It has an interesting habit.  It lays its egg(s) in other birds’ nest.  As in birds of different species.  When the cuckoo chick hatches, it shoves any other eggs or foster-siblings out of the nest.  The cuckoo chick is then the sole recipent of food from the adult bird(s) of the differing species.  Mama cuckoo gets to produce young get not have to work to raise them and dad never even sees the egg which may cause some ancients to think that shy bird self-reproduces.

Cuckoos are a bird that signals the start of spring.  It is associated with spring rains, thunderstorms and plough time.  It is from them that the word cuckold derives.  Cuckoos have been called indiscreet observers and agents in covert affairs.  They can represent the absent spouse, hidden lover, traveler or adulterous mate.  Cuckoos are a phallic symbol.  It is said that the number of their calls can predict the number of years left in your life, in your marriage or until you have children.

The statue of Hera is seated on a throne; it is huge, made of gold and ivory, and is a work of Polycleitus. She is wearing a crown with Graces and Seasons worked upon it, and in one hand she carries a pomegranate and in the other a sceptre. About the pomegranate I must say nothing, for its story is somewhat of a holy mystery. The presence of a cuckoo seated on the sceptre they explain by the story that when Zeus was in love with Hera in her maidenhood he changed himself into this bird, and she caught it to be her pet. This tale and similar legends about the gods I relate without believing them, but I relate them nevertheless.” Pausanias 2.17.4

As far as I can find this is the only surviving text that speaks of this myth.  (I want you to note, no where does it say that Zeus raped or ravished her.  Turning into the bird was the only way he could get close enough to woo her as Hera had been avoiding him.  She refused to give into his sexual overatures until he married her…then they had a honeymoon that lasted 300 years.)  Mythologically speaking, the cuckoo seems to describe Zeus more so than Hera.  So why is this bird associated with Hera?

Hera may have taken the bird as her symbol originally out of a sense of romance.  Because of it, she became Queen of the Gods, Goddess of Marriage and of Women and their fertility.  Among her duties was overseeing childbirth and the begetting of legitimate heirs.  It is through her marriage that she gained a position and power in the Olympian hierarchy.  Yet by taking that bird of omen as her symbol she set her self on track for difficulties and heartache.

As cuckoos heralded spring and regeneration, each year Hera would regenerate her maidenhood.  As cuckoos deceive other birds, so Hera deceived Zeus (borrowing Aphrodite’s girdle to distract him is a prime example).  As the female cuckoo seems to reproduce without a partner, so Hera reproduced at least one child without the aid of Zeus.  As the cuckoo chick is raised by non-biological parents, so did Hera often leave (or appeared to leave) the raising of her children to others…Hephaistos to Thetis; and according to Lucian, Ares to Priapus who taught him to dance before learning martial arts (admittedly I can find nothing on the raising of Hebe).  Hera was also known for dropping young gods and heroes (like Dionysos and Heracles) into situations to see how they would extricate themselves, not unlike leaving a young bird in a nest of strangers.  Yet, according to myth, she was also on the negative receiving end of the cuckoo omen with all the affairs that were attributed to Zeus.

So as interesting as it is to draw parallels between Hera and the cuckoo, I can’t help but wonder if she would have ever sheltered that wet, bedraggled bird if she had only known what it foreshadowed for her…

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2012 11:02 AM

    I believe I have read once before too that there are some interpretations in which Hebe may also have been self produced from Hera 🙂

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    • February 3, 2012 11:21 AM

      That is interesting. I’ve never seen much on Hebe and my quick search didn’t turn up much. It was late and I was tired so I missed out on an extensive search.

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      • February 3, 2012 11:52 AM

        I have read so much in the past two years that my brain gets frazzled trying to remember where I read stuff lol. It was either Diodorous Siculus or Apollodoros the Library. I don’t believe it could have been Pausanias though there is always a possibility. But I am betting on one of the first two 🙂

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      • February 3, 2012 11:58 AM

        Or I might have read in an article I once read called who is the wife of Zeus (an article about Hera). This is more likely possible now that I think of it. Well since I can’t find the information outright I guess dont quote me on that lol. For general information on Hebe though: http://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Hebe.html

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  2. heraqles permalink
    February 3, 2012 10:10 PM

    I can not say I know very much about Hebe, except she became Herakles wife when he obtained godhood after his death or the death of his mortal self.
    I think this post shows Hera was not going to be another conquest of Zeus. It also shows that Zeus did truly love Hera he did not rape her as he could have but pursued her and finally won her in the union of marriage.

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  3. February 3, 2012 10:23 PM

    The modern definition of rape is not the same as the ancient definition. Rape for the ancients was more of a kidnapping as a preclude to marriage. It may or may not involve sexual intercourse. As I understand it, Zeus and Hera had the first marriage which is how Hera became the goddess of marriage. He was just trying to get her into bed but she refused until he gave her a permanent place at his side. Like most such manipulations, it back fired on her as Zeus, according to the myths, could not or would not remain faithful.

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