Monday, 3 March 2014


Called the ugliest of gods, Hephaistos is the god of the forge and fire and patron of craftsmen and was often associated with volcanoes which were seen as great primeval work rooms in which treasures and miraculous devices were created.  In particular Mt. Vesuvius, which devastated Pompeii and Herculaneum, was linked with him. 

Known as Vulcan and Mulciber (gentle touch) by the Romans and associated with the Egyptian god Ptah; Hephaestus was worshiped in the archaic, pre-Hellenic Phrygian and Thracian mystery cults of the Kabeiroi, who were also called the Hephaistoi, "the Hephaestus-men" and was possibly a cult centered around the blacksmith and the magic he did.  In the ancient world the smith was one of the most important characters in society, these magical beings took stones (ore) and produced great wonders; it was he who created the tools and implements by which the natural world could be shaped and used to provide food and shelter.  Early on Hephaistos was connected with copper and bronze and the tools made from them.  With the discovery of iron this became his sacred metal; one wonders if his origin was a god of the stone tools and weapons that was one of humanities first attempts at shaping the world to our needs. 

Hephaistos is also the god of technology and those who create and invent it and was worshiped in all the industrial centers of ancient Greece; in this, he shares duties with the goddess Athene who is also a patroness of inventors and crafts.  Hephaistos is credited with the creation of many miraculous and amazing devices: nearly every object of metal in Greek myth that carries with it special abilities or symbolism was created by this god.  The armour of Akhilles and Agamemnon’s staff of office, both recounted in the Illiad were made by him as were the winged sandals of Hermes, the breastplate worn by Athene – the Aegis, Aphrodite’s famous girdle that increased the desirability of it’s wearer, Helios’ chariot, Ares’ bow, the shoulder blade of Pelops (created from ivory to replace the one chewed on by a distracted Demeter) and Haides’ helmet of invisibility.

With the aid of the subterranean Kyklopes, Hephaistos was also the inventor of a curious category of living, moving creatures named automatons.  Some of these were animal in form, such as the giant fire-breathing bronze bulls of king Aeetes of Kolkhis and a pair of dogs – one gold, one silver – that he crafted for King Alcinous of the Phaeacians.  There were also human automatons, the Keledones were golden maidens made for the temple of Apollon at Delphi and there also were four maidens which he built to be his own attendants. Talos was a bronze giant built for Queen Europa of Krete to guard the borders of her island.  He threw boulders at strangers who attempted to land on the island and after standing in flames until he was white-hot would crush and burn strangers in his grasp.    His most famous creation however, was of flesh and blood – the first mortal woman, Pandora as well and the jar in which she carried the woes that plague mankind. 

It was his great gifts and skill that placed Hephaistos among the Olympians, but he did not always have a position among them.  At his birth Hephaistos was thrown out of Olympus, literally, and he fell for days onto the island of Lemnos below. Hephaestos is sometimes called the child of Hera and Zeus, but in most and in the oldest myths he is a child of Hera alone.  Some say that Hera herself threw the child from Olympus because of his hideous visage; others claim it was Zeus who did so because as a child he freed his mother from imprisonment by Zeus.  Either way, the fall added to the gods’ deformities and he was often shown with a limp, walking with a crutch or with feet turned backwards.  Even the crippled and maimed could find use in society and this was no difference among the gods.  Hephaistos learned smithcraft from the Okeanids (sea nymph daughters of the great Ocean) and in particular from his foster- mother Thetis (mother of Akhilles and why Hephaistos was so willing to make the hero his famous armour).  His grotesque appearance and limp was likely a refection of arsenicosis an affliction common to smiths in the Bronze Age as arsenic was added to the metal in order to harden it and in doing so slowly poisoned themselves causing the inability to walk and types of skin cancer. 

This god, maimed and ugly was married to the most beautiful of all the goddesses – Aphrodite.  In revenge for his treatment Hephaistos created a great throne of gold and gave it to his mother, but once Hera sat in it the throne grasped hold of her, turned upside down causing her skirts to fall over her face and would not let her go.  Dionusos plied Hephaistos with wine until he agreed to free Hera, but also demanded the hand of Aphrodite as his wife.  The pairing is not so strange, in the earliest times of humanity it would have been the powers of procreation and manipulation that allowed for survival.  After war became an important aspect of society, Aphrodite was paired with Ares instead of Hephaistos; this is reflected in the myth where Hephaistos captures couple in an adulterous union with a net of gold spun so fine it was invisible to the naked eye. 

In later myths Hephaistos is called the husband of Aglaea, on e of the three Graces, goddesses of beauty and pleasure who were often companions of Aphrodite, and who in one myth actually beat the  in a contest of beauty.  On Lemnos he was considered the wife of an okeanid named Cabeiro and was the father of two smith gods called the Cabeiri.  In Sicily he was the husband of the nymph Aetna who bore him the Palici the gods of two geysers. 

Hephaistos’ most famous son was Erichthonius, the first king of Athens, a strange being, whose lower half was serpentine. His birth suggests that there may have been a relationship between Hephaistos and the goddess Athene, perhaps even one of a sexual nature.  Later myths tell Erichthonius’ birth was a result of Hephaistos attempt to rape Athene and his semen falling on Athene’s thigh or upon the ground or of an unconsummated wedding night between the two.  Athene and Hephaistos seem to be a natural paring, both deities of crafts and craftsmen and of invention and the human drive to mould the environment to our desire. 

As an artist I have a great respect for Hephaistos and what he represents.  I give thanks to him with every sculpture and painting I create and offer to him small pieces of clay and metal that I use in my art.  There is a small crutch, sculpted of clay, buried deep in my offering bowl given to the god in thanks for the inspiration that drives me to create and for the his special gift – the ability to envision with my mind and create with my hands.

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