The Juno of Handel’s Semele is best considered as the ancient Greek goddess Hera. As the Greek and Roman cultures came into contact with one another, these two great goddesses became so associated with one another as to be almost indistinguishable. Since the myth of Semele has Greek origins, however, Hera is undoubtedly the proper name of the divine queen who stands as Handel’s antagonist.
In her role as Queen of the Gods, Hera is said to rule over marriage, women, childbirth and family. Hera is occasionally portrayed as a warlike deity, which may be tied to her association with the lion, but her symbols additionally include the cuckoo, peacock and cow.
Hera and Her Children…
Although she is a goddess of marriage and childbirth, Hera is less notable as a mother. Being disgusted with the ugliness of her son Hephaestus (god of metalworking and masonry), Hera is said to have thrown him from Mount Olympus, making the god a cripple. In order to revenge himself on his mother, Hephaestus crafted a magical throne, which would not allow Hera to stand back up once she sat on it. Hephaestus only released his mother once she presented him with Aphrodite (goddess of love and beauty) as his wife.
During the Trojan War, Hera and her son Ares (god of war) found themselves supporting different armies. Noticing that Ares was actively assisting the Trojans, Hera convinced Zeus and Athena (goddess of wisdom and war) to drive Ares away from the battlefield. Zeus granted his permission and Athena helped to drive a spear into Ares’ body, causing him to flee to Mount Olympus.
Hera’s Famous Jealousy
The jealousy that Hera feels for Semele, Zeus’ new lover, is one of the key forces which drives the plot of Handel’s opera. In fact, the jealously of the goddess was often believed to have played a role in the outcome of much larger events, such as the Trojan War. Yet the goddess and her fellows on Olympus are perhaps better remembered for their vanity, best illustrated in the following story:
When the hero Peleus married the nymph Thetis, all the gods and goddesses were invited to the wedding, as well as important mortals. Eris, however, the goddess of discord, had not been invited. Being justifiably annoyed at this turn of events, Eris took a golden apple inscribed with “to the fairest” and threw it among the goddesses at the wedding. The three most prominent goddesses, Aphrodite, Hera and Athena, all believed herself to be the fairest, and thus the rightful owner of the apple. Requiring a way to settle matters once and for all, the trio of goddesses turned to Zeus, asking him to be the judge of their beauty. Seeing the danger in the choice before him, Zeus passed the matter on to the Trojan prince, Paris. Even after seeing each of the goddesses unclothed, Paris was unable to make a choice between them, prompting the goddesses to offer various bribes. Hera, as Queen of the Gods, promised to grant Paris control over all of Europe and Asia. As the goddess of wisdom and war, Athena pledged wisdom, fame, and glory in battle. Ruling over sexuality and love, Aphrodite offered Paris the most beautiful woman in the world as a wife, the famous, or perhaps infamous, Spartan Queen Helen. Persuaded by Aphrodite’s offer, Paris named her the rightful owner of the apple, simultaneously enraging the other two goddesses. Consequently he sparked the Trojan War by kidnapping the Spartan Queen.