Hephaestus (IPA pronunciation: [hɪfiːstəs] or [hɪfεstəs]; Greek Ἥφαιστος Hêphaistos) was the Greek god of fire, metals and metallurgy, and technology, including specifically blacksmiths, artisans, and sculptors. As a result, he was widely worshiped in the manufacturing and industrial centers of ancient Greece, especially Athens.
Though his forge traditionally lay in the heart of Lemnos, Greece, Hephaestus' became associated with the volcano god Adranus (of Mount Etna) and Vulcanus (of the Lipara islands). This early migration of Greek gods to Roman areas led to the creation of the syncretistic Roman deity, Vulcan. The first century sage Apollonius of Tyana is said to have observed, "there are many other mountains all over the earth that are on fire, and yet we should never be done with it if we assigned to them giants and gods like Hephaestus." (Life of Apollonius of Tyana, book v.16)
In classical Greek mythology, Hephaestus can be seen as evidence of forging a strong link between the idea of creation with a blacksmith god, who himself created new tools for divine and human use. This general concept of creation (and creative power) is extremely important for many religious systems that see God as the original creator of the cosmos and of humanity. Some religious traditions seek to understand how God's original creation subsequently deteriorated and to find a way to restore God's original paradise.
Birth and physical characteristics
Of all the second generation Olympians (Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Athena, Dionysus, Hephaestus, and Hermes), only two, Ares and Hephaestus, are children of the Hera. Further, while Ares was indubitably the child of the divine ruling couple, the mythical sources that describe the origins of the smith-god are somewhat more conflicting. In some legends, it seems that, like his brother, Hephaestus was the son of Hera and Zeus. (Gantz 74-75) More interesting, however, are the accounts that describe Hephaestus as the product of asexual reproduction on the part of his mother—specifically, that Hera became jealous when Zeus produced Athena without her help and spitefully decided to make herself pregnant by force of will.
But Zeus himself gave birth from his own head to bright-eyed Tritogeneia [Athena], the awful, the strife-stirring, the host-leader, the unwearying, the queen, who delights in tumults and wars and battles. But Hera without union with Zeus—for she was very angry and quarreled with her mate—bare famous Hephaestus, who is skilled in crafts more than all the sons of Heaven.
These incompatible accounts lead to a second inconsistency, this time with respect to the smith god's physical appearance. In all cases, Hephaestus is described as malformed, crippled, or lame (or some combination of the three traits). When the misfortunate god is depicted as the son of Hera alone, he is understood as having been born with these various aesthetic and functional imperfections. Hurwit notes the innately patriarchal assumption in this tale, in "the fact that Zeus gave birth to a perfect daughter, while Hera, by herself, could only engender the crippled Hephaestus, [which] again argues for the superior role of the male" (Hurwit, 180). Appalled at the sight of her grotesque offspring, Hera promptly threw Hephaestus from Mount Olympus. He fell many days and nights and landed in the ocean, where he was brought up by the Oceanids, Thetis (mother of Achilles) and Eurynome. (Homer, Iliad XVIII) Conversely, when the divine blacksmith was seen as the son of Hera and Zeus, he was born in full health. However, after angering Zeus (by saving Hera from a painful physical punishment inflicted by the High God), he was unceremoniously flung from the Heavens. In this version, the god's lameness is explained by the violence of his abrupt landing on the rocky shores of Lemnos. Thus, the discrepancies between these two related episodes are reconciled in their shared explanation of the god's crippled limbs. (Gantz, 74-75)
Modern studies have made some interesting progress in exploring the nature of the god's physical deformities. In one case, Hephaestus’s physical appearance is seen to indicate arsenicosis, a low level of arsenic poisoning, which results in lameness and skin cancers. Such a diagnosis is appropriate, as most smiths of the Bronze Age would have suffered from chronic workplace poisoning due to the fact that arsenic was added to bronze to harden it. In another case, the god's craftiness in response to physical adversity is discussed. By way of background, some myths (and artistic representations based upon them) feature Hephaestus building himself a "wheeled chair" with which to move around, thus helping him overcome his lameness while simultaneously showing the other gods his skill as a craftsperson. Dr. William Ebenstein sees in the physical depiction of the god a potent symbol for re-formulating the modern understanding of the disabled and disability:
- Hephaestus is the only god that works. He is the most physically vivid of all the Olympians. In the Iliad he is depicted as a robust smith, middle-aged, with a bearded face, a powerful thick neck, hairy chest, sweaty brow, and heavily muscled arms, wearing a sleeveless tunic. His poetic workshop is specifically designed to accommodate his disability. Of particular interest to the field of disability studies is his work in the area of assistive technology, accommodations in the workplace, and his creation of mechanical objects that function as robots or automata. In his workshop he has built 20 self-animated tripods with golden wheels that can move back and forth at the gods' assemblies and perform the work of robot servants. He also utilizes voice-activated bellows. In a vase painting Hephaestus is also depicted riding in a magnificent winged wheelchair-like chariot."
Hephaestus was best known (and is most well-represented in the mythic corpus) as the crafter of much of the magnificent equipment of the gods, to the extent that almost any finely-wrought, magical metalwork that appears in Greek myth is said to have been forged by Hephaestus: Hermes's winged helmet and sandals, the Aegis breastplate (worn by Zeus or Athena), Aphrodite's famed girdle, Agamemnon's staff of office, Achilles' armor, Heracles' bronze clappers (used in his battle with the Stymphalian Birds), Helios's chariot, the shoulder of Pelops, and Eros's bow and arrows. In constructing these marvels, Hephaestus worked with the help of the chthonic Cyclopes, his assistants in the forge. More impressive still, he also built metal automata to work for him, constructed Pandora from earth (on the urging of Zeus), and assembled Talos (the robotic defender of Crete).
Hephaestus and the Olympians
In the mythic tales, Hephaestus was only reluctantly accepted as a member of the pantheon (a fact that may highlight the conflict between artisans and aristocrats in Hellenic society).(Powell, 186) In one case, the blacksmith god, to avenge his terrible treatment at the hands of Hera, decided to hold the goddess hostage until he was given the recognition that he felt he deserved. To achieve this, he constructed a golden throne for her and presented it to as a gift. Little did his mother know that once she sat in it, the magical seat would adhere to her body and prevent her from rising.
Springing to his mother's aid, Ares offered to force the smith god to release her, but was driven away from Hephaestus's home by the clever god's flaming arrows. Hera remained a prisoner until Dionysus got the divine blacksmith drunk and took him back to Olympus. Even inebriated, Hephaestus drove a hard bargain for his mother's release—arguing that he should be admitted to the pantheon and that (at least in some accounts) he should be given Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love, as his wife. (Gantz, 75)
In those sources that describe Hephaestus and Aphrodite as a couple, the union is not seen as a harmonious one. More specifically, the goddess of beauty, disliking the idea of being married to unsightly Hephaestus, began an affair with Ares, the god of war. Eventually, Hephaestus found out about Aphrodite’s promiscuity from Helios, the all-seeing Sun, and planned a trap for them during one of their trysts. While Aphrodite and Ares lay together in bed, Hephaestus ensnared them in an unbreakable, chain-link net and dragged them to Mount Olympus to shame them in front of the other gods. However, the gods laughed at the sight of these naked lovers and Poseidon persuaded Hephaestus to free them in return for a guarantee that Ares would pay the adulterer's fine. Given the cuckolding of the unfortunate smith, it is understandable that some accounts describe the couple as being divorced, as suggested by Hephaestus's statement in Homer that he would return Aphrodite to her father and demand back his bride price.
In an unrelated tradition, Hephaestus is thought to be married to Charis, the youngest of the Graces. (Homer, Iliad XVIII) Conversely, Hesiod states that "Hephaestus, the famous Lame One, made Aglaea, youngest of the Graces, his buxom wife." (Hesiod, 945)
Regardless of which goddess was seen as his wife, Hephaestus did not have any children that played a large role in the mythic corpus. Some of these children include the Cabeiri (two metalworking gods fathered by Cabeiro (a nymph), and two Sicilian gysers (the Palici).
Hephaestus and Athena
In Greek thought, the fates of the goddess of wisdom and war (Athena) and the god of the forge (who crafted the weapons of war) were linked. In a general sense, Hephaestus was credited with creating much of Athena's weaponry, and the two gods were sometimes worshipped together. More specifically, the blacksmith god played a decisive part in two important myths centered on the wise goddess. In the first, Hephaestus is sometimes credited for providing the coup de grace to Zeus's skull that allowed Athena to emerge into the world. In the second, the sexually-repressed god is described attempting to rape the beautiful goddess, though he only succeeded in ejaculating on her leg. When his seed fell to the ground, it miraculously produced Erichthonius (one of the founding heroes of Athens).
These accounts help cement the complex relationship between these two deities.
Cult of Hephaestus
Hephaestus is somewhat notable among the Greek gods for his definitively non-Hellenic origins, as his association with the indigenous fire cults of Lemnos is well attested by both mythic accounts and archaeological records. (Farnell Vol. 5, 375; Powell, 185-186) Despite this extra-Hellenic provenance, worship of the blacksmith god came to be incorporated into various aspects of the classical Greek religion (albeit to a lesser extent than many).
In Attica, Hephaestus and Athena Ergane (Athena as patroness of craftsmen and artisans), were honored at a festival called Chalceia on the 30th day of Pyanepsion. The god was also venerated on his own during the Hephaisteia, an annual festival. (Parke, 171-172.) Athens also boasted a well-appointed temple honoring the deity:
In the mid-fifth century the beautiful temple (miscalled the Theseion) was built in honor of Hephaestus on [a] hill overlooking the Agora. Its dominant position indicates his importance as a god of craftsmen. Already by 343 B.C.E. at latest a statue of Athena Hephaistia was set up in the shrine next to the cult statue of the god. The use of the epithet implied the special association of Athena in this aspect with the god of the smiths. (Parke, 92-93)
Finally, a compelling case has been made that the lampadephoria, a ceremony of lamp lighting and torch running that was featured in numerous socio-religious festivals, emerged from (or was related to) the veneration of Hephaestus.(Farnell Vol. 5, 378-380)
Outside Attica, Hephaestus was somehow connected with the archaic, pre-Hellenic Phrygian and Thracian mystery cult of the Kabeiroi, who were also called the Hephaistoi "(the Hephaestus-men)," in Lemnos. The adherents of this mystery religion claimed that their founders had been children of the blacksmith god.
- Hesiod, The Theogony of Hesiod. Retrieved June 8, 2007.
- Aterman, Kurt, “From Horus the child to Hephaestus who Limps: A Romp Through History," American Journal of Medical Genetics, (Volume 83, Issue 1, 1999), 53-63.
- Dolmage, Jay, "'Breathe Upon Us an Even Flame': Hephaestus, History, and the Body of Rhetoric," Rhetoric Review, (Vol. 25, No. 2, 2006), 119-140.
- Ebenstein, William, Disability Studies Quarterly Volume 26, No. 4, Toward an Archetypal Psychology of Disability Based on the Hephaestus Myth. Retrieved June 8, 2007.
- Theoi Project, Guide to Greek Mythology and Gods, Kabeiroi. Retrieved June 8, 2007; See also (Burkert, 1985).
- Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Oxford: Blackwell. 1985. ISBN 0631112413
- Dillon, Matthew. Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in Ancient Greece. London; New York: Routledge. 1997. ISBN 0415127750
- Farnell, Lewis Richard. The Cults of the Greek States. Oxford: Clarendon. 1907.
- Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University. 1993. ISBN 080184410X
- Mikalson, Jon D. Ancient Greek Religion. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 2005. ISBN 0631232222
- Parke, H. W. Festivals of the Athenians. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University. 1977.
- Powell, Barry B. Classical Myth (Second Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1998. ISBN 0-13-716714-8
- Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. 1959. ISBN 0-525-47041-7
- Ventris, Michael and Chadwick, John. Documents in Mycenaean Greek (Second Edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University. 1973. ISBN 0521085586
All links retrieved December 19, 2017.
- Theoi Project, Guide to Greek Mythology and Gods. Hephaistos.
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