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An Introduction to Hephaestus (Greek)

from Jenny March, Cassell’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology, 370-373:

HEPHAESTUS: Hephaestus, one of the twelve great Olympian gods, was the Greek god of fire and metalworking, identified by the Romans with Vulcan. Either the son of Zeus and Hera, or born of Hera alone after a quarrel with Zeus, he was crippled from birth. Hera was so ashamed of her son’s deformity that she flung him out of Olympus. He fell down into the great river of Ocean, but was saved by the sea-goddess Thetis and the Oceanid Eurynome. For nine years he lived in a cave by the ocean, practising his smith’s craft and making intricate jewellery for his benefactresses. When his skill grew great enough, he took revenge on his cruel mother by sending her a beautiful golden throne, which had invisible fetters that held her fast as soon as she sat down. The other gods begged Hephaestus to come to Olympus and release her, but he resolutely refused. Only when Dionysus made him drunk and brought him up to heaven on the back of a mule (a favourite scene in ancient art) did he yield and set his mother free.

He must have forgiven Hera, for he tried to defend her when Zeus hung her from Olympus, with anvils tied to her feet, as a punishment for her vindictive persecution of Heracles. Zeus responded to Hephaestus’ intervention by picking him up by the leg and flinging him a second time from Olympus. This time he fell through the air for a whole day before landing at sunset on the island of Lemnos. Halfdead, he was tended by the inhabitants, and ever afterwards he had a special affection for the island, which in historical times was his chief cult-centre in the Greek world. He returned to Olympus once again, apparently bearing no resentment against Zeus. In the battle of the Gods and the Giants, Hephaestus fought valiantly on Zeus’ side, killing Mimas by hurling at him missiles of red-hot metal; and it was he who acted as midwife to Zeus at the birth of Athena, splitting open the great god’s cranium with his blacksmith’s axe.

As the divine master-craftsman, Hephaestus made many objects of magical beauty and intricacy, including the palaces of the gods themselves in gold and bronze, gold-wheeled tripods that moved of their own accord, golden robots that attended him in his forge on Olympus, immortal gold and silver dogs to guard the palace of Alcinous on the island of Schema, the fearsome aegis of Zeus, and the famous golden necklace of Harmonia. At Thetis’ request, he made splendid armour for her son Achilles, just as, in Roman myth, his equivalent Vulcan made fine armour for Aeneas at the request of his mother, Venus. He forged a bronze breastplate for Heracles; the bronze firebreathing bulls of Aeetes which Jason had to overcome (see Argonauts); Talos, the bronze man who guarded Crete; and the bronze rattle which Heracles used to flush the Stymphalian Birds from their cover. He also fashioned the two punishments sent by Zeus on the Titan Prometheus: the first woman, Pandora, who let loose miseries on mankind, and the chains with which the Titan was bound to his rock, at the mercy of the eagle who continually tore at his liver.

The Iliad well illustrates three different aspects of Hephaestus. In Book 18 Homer vividly depicts the master-craftsman, with his huge, hairy torso and spindly legs, at work in his forge, sweating and puffing over his anvil. He makes the marvellous armour requested by Thetis for Achilles, and most notably the famous ornate shield, in gold and silver, bronze and tin, decorated with a multitude of intricate pictures. In Book 1 we see the comical aspect of the crippled smith-god, as he tries to make peace after a quarrel between Zeus and Hera. He puffs and bustles about, pouring wine, so that all the gods laugh at him and harmony is restored. Finally, Book 21 presents the powerful and fearsome god of fire, when Hephaestus comes, on Hera’s command, down to the plain of Troy to dry up the floods of the River Scamander. He scorches the river-god with flame until his waters seethe and boil and he begs for mercy.

As god of fire, Hephaestus was thought to have not only a workshop on Olympus, but forges elsewhere in the world, especially beneath the volcanic Mount Etna in Sicily. Here the one-eyed giants, the Cyclopes, worked under his direction, and the mountain resounded with the noise of their hammering, and quaked and smoked from the ceaseless fiery activity.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, Hephaestus is married to Aglaia, the youngest of the Graces, and in Homer’s Iliad simply to Charis (Grace). In the Odyssey his wife is Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Here Homer famously recounts how he was cuckolded by Ares, the god of war. But Hephaestus had his revenge by trapping the lovers beneath a magical, invisible net, and calling in all the other gods to witness the humiliation of the naked and helpless pair. He had few children (none at all by his wives). They include the wicked Periphetes, killed by Theseus, the lame Argonaut Palaemonius, and the obscure Cabiri. He also became the father of the Athenian king Erichthonius when he tried to rape Athena. He was thus the ancestor of the Athenians, and Athens in historical times was an important centre for his cult. His temple, built in the mid-fifth century, still stands above the Athenian Agora.

In ancient vase-painting Hephaestus appears in a variety of scenes: returning to Olympus, delivering Achilles’ armour to Thetis, and present at gatherings of the gods and (with axe) at the birth of Athena, a scene also depicted on the East pediment of the Parthenon. He often wields an axe or blacksmith’s tongs, and sometimes wears a brimless workman’s hat and tunic. In the postclassical arts he seems to have appealed most strongly to painters, and the smith-god in his forge, often visited by Aphrodite, is a very popular scene. But Milton makes verbal magic of his fall from Olympus in Paradise Lost (1.742-6):

… from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summers day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star,
On Lemnos th’ Aegaean Ile …

Sources for Hephaestus: Homer, Iliad 1.571-608, 2.426, 5.9-24, 9.468, 14.338-9, 15.309-10, 18.368-617, 21.328-82, Odyssey 7.91-4, 8.266-366; Homeric Hymn to Hephaestus, Homeric Hymn to Apollo 316-20; Hesiod, Theogony 570-84, 927-9, 945-6, Works and Days 60-71; Pindar, Olympian 7.35-8; Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 1-81, 365-9; Apollonius, Argonautica 1.202-6, 850-60; Apollodorus 1.3.5-6, 1.4.3-4, 1.6.2, 1.7.1, 1.9.23, 1.9.26, 2.4.11, Hera 373 2.5.6, 3.4.2, 3.14.6, 3.16.1; Lucian, Dialogues of the Gods 11, 13, 17, 21; Pausanias 1.20.3, 2.1.4, 2.31.3, 3.17.3, 3.18.13, 3.18.16, 5.19.8; Virgil, Aeneid 8.416-54. W. Burkert, Greek Religion (1985), pp. 167-8.