The Olympic torch relay is not the only fire lit for the Olympic Games. In fact, there’s a much older tradition, dating back to Ancient Greece and the temple of Greek goddess Hera.
Every four years in honor of the Olympics, a fire is lit on the Altar of Hera, which stands inside the beautiful goddess’s temple. This tradition began in more than 80 years ago, but it has ancient roots. The “Olympic flame” represents the Greek myth of Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus.
By comparison, the torch relay has no ties to ancient history. That flame also begins in Greece but then travels to different locations for the competition.
The temple of Hera in Olympia and the famous site of the original Olympic flame is a popular site to see when traveling to Greece. The temple was built around 600 BC and is considered the oldest, preserved structure in Olympia, as well as one of the oldest temples still standing in the country.
This is not the only major site special to Hera. The island of Samos was said to be where Zeus and Hera spent the first secret three hundred years of their marriage, making this the longest honeymoon on record.
Who Was Hera?
More than just the wife of Zeus, Hera was a prominent, beautiful and powerful goddess in early Greek history and prehistory.
She was described as being a young, beautiful woman. In fact, she was said to be the most beautiful of all goddesses, even beating out legendary Aphrodite.
Hera's symbol, fittingly, was the showy peacock.
Hera and Zeus's Love Story
She was also a determined defender of the sanctity of marriage and monogamy. But there was only one catch: She was married to Zeus. And Zeus was not known for his monogamy.
As the legend goes, Hera was very relationship-oriented and spent much of her time driving off Zeus's innumerable nymphs, mistresses and other dalliances.
She also sometimes tormented the offspring of those unions, especially Hercules.
To her credit, Hera was gorgeous and kept Zeus busy on his honeymoon on Samos for 300 years, so it's a fair question to wonder why on earth he needed to go anywhere else. When Hera was especially fed up, she wandered off by herself, always hoping Zeus would miss her and seek her, but then usually eventually relenting and returning without being so sought. Hera truly loved Zeus and suffered over his inattention, though it also frustrated her and drove her to drastic actions, usually at the expense of one nymph or another.
Their relationship even started out with her pursuing him. Zeus was her brother and she fell in love with him from the first moment she saw him. She eventually sealed the deal with the help of a love charm from Aphrodite.
Hera and Zeus had one son for sure: Ares. Hephaestus is also usually said to be by Zeus, but sometimes by Hera alone through a mysterious process. Her daughters were Hebe, goddess of health, and Eileithyia, the Cretan goddess of childbirth. Also, by herself, Typhon, the serpent of Delphi.
Hera's Restored Virginity
Despite having multiple children, Hera is said to restore her virginity each year by bathing in Kanathos, a sacred spring near Nauplia in the Argolid region of Greece.
The waters are supposed to be so purifying that any carnal transgression is simply washed away.
Did she need "sins" washed off? One tale suggests Hera used magic to force Zeus into marrying her in a secret ceremony. Given some of Zeus's later behavior, which was not exactly the archetype of the perfect, divine husband, perhaps the marriage was a secret even from him.
Other tales have Zeus seducing her, in the form of a damp cuckoo bird seeking refuge in her lap during a storm. You've got to be careful about taking in whatever the wind blows into your lap.
More Fast Facts About Hera
Birthplace: Said to be born on the island of Samos or at Argos.
Siblings Zeus, Hestia, Demeter, Hades and Poseidon.
Roman equivalent: In Roman mythology, Hera is considered equivalent to Juno, though Hera has much more jealousy than Juno.