Hephaestus: The Lame Smith of the Gods
Hephaestus isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of the great gods of Olympus. Compared to figures like Zeus or Athena he seems like a very minor character.
He also seems like an unusual character. While most gods were known for their beauty and strength, Hephaestus was known more for lacking those things.
Described as lame and limping, he was usually depicted in art as hunched, deformed, and unattractive.
Hephaestus, who was known as Vulcan to the Romans, didn’t exactly fit in with his fellow Olympians in art or in the mythology that surrounded him.
Despite this, however, Hephaestus managed to marry the most idealized goddess of them all.
The story of Hephaestus is as amazing as the wondrous items he made in his forge!
In a few myths, Zeus is the father of Hephaestus. The smith was present in these stories when Athena was born from Zeus’s head, and was in fact the one to deliver the blow to the god’s skull.
More common, however, was the idea that Hera created him on her own.
Before marrying Hera, Zeus had been wed to the Titaness Metis. Hearing that she would eventually bear a son that would be strong enough to overthrow him, Zeus turned his first wife into a fly and swallowed her.
What Zeus had not known was that Metis was already carrying his first child. Several months later, blinding headaches began to plague the king of the gods.
Desperate for relief, he ordered his head to be split open. When he did, Athena emerged fully formed and dressed in armor.
The story goes that Hera was jealous of her husband’s new child. In carrying and birthing a daughter on his own, albeit in a very unusual way, Zeus had devalued Hera’s role as his wife.
Her jealousy toward Zeus’s many children was a common theme in myths. With Athena, though, there was no mother to point to as the enemy.
Hera was jealous of her husband himself.
Out of spite, Hera resolved to have a child on her own, as well. She and Zeus would each have a child the other could not claim.
Hephaestus was born from Hera’s will to get back at her husband, but it was immediately apparent that his birth did not live up to Athena’s.
Rather than a perfectly formed deity like Zeus had created, Hera gave birth to a son with a disability. Many myths describe him as “lame,” a common term for someone with a limp, while one hymn specified that he had a shrivelled foot.
Such a condition was considered a curse by many in the ancient world, all the more so for a divine being who was supposed to adhere to the ideals of the gods.
Hera was immediately disgusted by her son’s imperfection. It was not unheard of in the ancient world for physically disabled or deformed infants to be killed or left to die from exposure, and the same held true even for the gods.
In some versions of the story, Hera herself threw her son down from Olympus when she saw his deformity.
In others, he was not born with his disability. Zeus was so angry that he expelled the newborn, and the fall from the top of Olympus caused the injury that left him lame.
That would have been the end of the story of Hephaestus, had he not been found by Thetis and the Oceanids.
They raised the abandoned god, and the ancient people of the island of Lemnos trained him in crafting and metalworking.
Both the god’s skill and his anger at being abandoned would play a role in his unlikely marriage to the goddess of love and beauty.
As Hephaestus’s skills as a craftsman grew, he began to send gifts to his estranged family on Mount Olympus. On the surface, this seemed to be a way to ingratiate himself and earn their favor.
When he sent an ornate golden throne to Hera, however, his true plans became known. As soon as his mother sat on it, she became bound to the seat with fetters that none of the gods could break.
For three days the mightiest gods of Olympus tried to free their queen, but every time she pushed against her bonds they only grew tighter. Hera could not move, sleep, or even eat.
As it happened, the gods had been gathered together to decide the matter of Aphrodite’s marriage. The goddess of beauty had been on Olympus for some time following her birth from the sea, and Zeus had decided it was time for her to find a husband.
As king, Zeus had the authority to arrange marriages among the gods. The binding of Hera made Zeus abruptly change his plans for determining who would marry the beautiful goddess.
Only the smith knew the secrets to release the throne’s hold, but Zeus knew he would not free Hera willingly. He declared that whichever god could bring Hephaestus back to Mount Olympus and make him free Hera would earn the right to marry Aphrodite.
The goddess had her own ideas about marriage. She was confident that her lover Ares, the god of war, would easily overpower the lame smith who was raised on Earth.
She agreed to Zeus’s plan, certain that Ares would be the one to drag Hephaestus to Mount Olympus.
The god of war prepared to do just that. Ares was never known for clever strategies or plans, though, so he was determined to simply overpower the smith.
Ares burst into the smith’s forge, weapons ready for a fight. A spray of sparks and fire quickly knocked him back, though.
Valient as he was, Ares lost the contest. Without a plan, even the god of war was no match for the strength of a trained metalsmith or the fires he worked with.
The two sat and talked, enjoying cup after cup of the sweetest wine Dionysus could produce.
When the smith had become thoroughly intoxicated, the god of wine made a suggestion. He had found a loophole in the challenge Zeus had issued to the company of gods.
The smither heard him out and agreed to his plan. Zeus was a god of law and justice, so he would have to obey the words of his order if not the spirit of it.
Hephaestus walked into Zeus’s palace of his own volition and freed his mother from the trap he had built. He then stood before the king of the gods and demanded his prize.
Because he had come of his own accord and acted without anyone else forcing him to, Hephaestus himself had been the one to bring him back to Olympus. Zeus was forced to concede that, under the challenge he had issued, Hephaestus had technically won Aphrodite’s hand.
Hephaestus was, perhaps begrudgingly, accepted on Olympus as the son of Hera and the husband of Aphrodite. He built a fine palace, with its own forge, and began producing great works for his fellow gods.
The marriage was not a happy one, however. Aphrodite, unhappy with the match, continued her affair with Ares.
Eventually, Helios learned that Aphrodite and the god of war were meeting in secret. When he told Hephaestus, the scorned smith began planning his revenge.
He told his unfaithful wife that he was leaving for a while to visit Lemnos, the island where he had been raised. Just minutes after he walked out the door, she invited her lover to the palace.
As soon as the pair went to bed together, Hephaestus’s trap was sprung. A net of thin but unbreakable chains fell down on them, trapping them in place.
Not only did Hephaestus catch them in the act, but he called the other gods of Olympus in to witness their humiliation. The goddesses refused to witness the spectacle, but a crowd of gods gathered in the bedroom to laugh at the sight of Ares and Aphrodite trapped under the net.
The only one who didn’t laugh at the embarrassing display was Poseidon. He pleaded with Hephaestus to show them mercy.
Hephaestus was reluctant, believing that Ares would avoid punishment if he were freed. Poseidon offered to personally hold the guilty party accountable, though, and Hephaestus finally relented.
Ares fled to Thrace. Aphrodite avoided her husband for a while, until finally divorcing him.
According to Homer, Hephaestus immediately demanded the return of the wedding gifts he had given Zeus in exchange for the goddess. He was nullifying the marriage, effective immediately.
By the time of the Trojan War, Homer said, Aphrodite and Ares were husband and wife.
Hephaestus remarried, as well. Aglaia, the youngest of the Charites (Graces) became his wife. They had four daughters and, from all accounts, a much more peaceful marriage than his first.
Before marrying Aglaia, however, Hephaestus had another notable failure in love.
Aphrodite had recently left him when Athena came to his forge to request new armor.
Lonely and frustrated, he was overcome with lust for the beautiful goddess. Athena, however, was a sworn virgin and rebuffed his advances.
They say that Volcanus [Hephaestus], following her there, tried to force her, and when, full of passion he tried to embrace her, he was repulsed, and some of his seed fell to the ground. Minerva [Athena], overcome by shame, with her foot spread dust over it.
-Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 13 (trans. Grant)
From the earth, Erichthonius was born. His given parents, therefore, were Hephaestus and Gaia, but he was adopted by Athena.
She tried to raise the boy in secret, but he was discovered by the princesses of Athens. Instead of eventually taking the boy to Olympus, she let him be raised as a mortal in the city.
Erichthonius grew up to be one of the founding kings of Athens, the city his adoptive mother was the patroness of. He overthrew the previous tyrant and became a beloved ruler who did much for his people.
Like his father, Erichthonius was skilled with metal and inventions. He was said to have taught the Athenians to smelt silver, yoke horses, and plow the earth.
Also like his father, the legendary king was said to be lame. In some legends this is translated as having a snake’s tail, but others seem to show more plausible mobility issues.
To facilitate getting around his city despite his disability, Erichthonius was said to have invented the four-horse chariot. This invention earned him a place in the stars as the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer.
Through Erichthonius, the city of Athens could claim both a spiritual kinship to Athena and a blood relationship to Hephaestus. The wisdom and skill the king inherited from these two helped to make Athens an economic and cultural center of ancient Greece.
Although the circumstances of Erichthonius’s birth were less than exemplary, the Athenians would see his father Hephaestus as the origin of their industriousness and skilled artisans.
While he had an involvement with the intrigue and affairs of Olympus, Hephaestus appeared most often in the myths in his role as a smith.
As the master metalworker of the gods, he was routinely called upon to create some of their most iconic weapons, inventions, and equipment.
The smith kept forges running both at his palace on Olympus and on the island of Lemnos where he had been raised.
According to Homer, he had twenty bellows that ran on their own power. These magical automatons allowed him to create works unlike any others in history.
Not only did Hephaestus himself have a grand palace on the peak of Mount Olympus, but he was said to have built the other palaces of the gods, as well. Some cities also claimed that he had contributed to the building of palaces and temples on earth.
Impressive metal doors and gates, heirloom swords and jewelry, and even finely wrought cups and scepters were said to be his creations.
Many of the grandest and most fantastic belongings of the gods and heroes were made by their master smith. These included:
- He created the winged helmet and sandals of Hermes.
- The girdle of Aphrodite was imbued with the power to provoke love and desire.
- The Aegis, the breastplate worn by both Zeus and Athena, was made in his workshop.
- He forged armor for Achilles during the Trojan War. He also made armor for other notable heroes like Heracles and Aeneas.
- Hephaestus made the chariot of Helios, the sun god, as well as those of at least some of the other Olympians.
- When Heracles needed to scare away the Stymphalian Birds, he gave the demigod a set of bronze clappers to make noise.
- He created the arrows Eros used to make men and gods fall in love.
- Hephaestus made the crown given to Ariadne at her wedding. It became the constellation Corona.
- In some versions of the story, it was Hephaestus who crafted Pandora under Zeus’s orders to punish mankind.
- When Harmonia, the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares, was married he gave her a beautiful necklace that laid a curse upon all her descendants. This was his final revenge for his ex-wife’s betrayal.
- He forged the unbreakable chains that bound Prometheus and the gate that imprisoned the other Titans in Tartarus.
Items crafted, supposedly, by Hephaestus became some of the most valuable treasures in the Greek world. Royal families passed such artefacts down for generations and many temples boasted that they possessed a relic of the god.
Of course, modern historians know that the finest arts and tools of ancient Greece weren’t actually crafted by an immortal god. Rather, attributing a piece to Hephaestus was a comment on its fine craftsmanship and value.
Hephaestus was associated with volcanoes, as the heat of the magma reminded people of the heat of a smith’s forge.
The Eastern Mediterranean has many actively volcanic sites, and therefore the Greeks and other cultures of the area created many myths explaining their eruption, smoke, and ash.
The Greeks originally associated volcanism with the activity of Giants, but over time Hephaestus became closely identified with it as well.
Lemnos, the island that was sacred to Hephaestus, is no longer volcanically active but may have been in the ancient past. It was said that fire sometimes spewed forth from the god’s forge there.
This association was furthered by the Romans. In adopting and adapting Greek mythology, they identified Hephaestus with one of their most ancient gods – Volcanus.
Volcanus, or Vulcan as he’s commonly known today, took on the constructive association between fire and smithing but was typically seen as a more destructive god than his Greek counterpart.
Volcanoes were the most dramatic examples of the god’s power, but the Romans also connected him to all manner of destructive flames. His festivals, for example, were often held outside the city gates to limit the danger of fire.
This Roman god gave us many words associated with his powers. Volcanoes are named for him as is vulcanization, a process for hardening rubbers.
In the Greek world, the gods often represented ideals that humans could only hope to achieve. They exemplified whatever attributes they possessed, be it bravery, beauty, or talent.
Among such ideals, a disabled blacksmith seems to stand out. Hephaestus was noted for his imperfections, not his representation of an ideal.
Outside of Greece, however, the image of the lame smith was a common one. Gods from India, Scandinavia, Egypt, and elsewhere fit a similar image.
It turns out, there may be a very real historical reason so many smith gods walked with a limp.
The common way to make bronze is by melting an alloy of copper and tin. The resulting metal is stronger than either.
When tin was scarce, however, another material could be used. Arsenic could be combined with copper to create a metal referred to as arsenical bronze.
The use of arsenic in Bronze Age metalworking was widespread, but often disastrous for smiths. Many smiths suffered from arsenicosis – arsenic poisoning.
Some of the most common ailments associated with arsenic poisoning are skin cancer and neuropathy, or damage to the nerves of the extremities. Hephaestus, like many ancient smith gods, displayed the limp that would be common among those with nerve damage caused by arsenic poisoning.
While the myths as we know them were developed in the Iron Age, the characterization of Hephaestus was probably set long before. The god’s illness, a sign of his profession, passed through oral tradition generations after the disease itself had disappeared.
The people telling his stories had no way of knowing that they were shedding light upon a disease that plagued smiths a thousand years before.
At a glance, Hephaestus certainly doesn’t seem to fit in with the gods of Olympus. His mother certainly thought so when she cast him away as a baby.
While gods like Apollo and Dionysus were accepted by Zeus immediately, Hephaestus had to work for acceptance. He had to earn his way onto Mount Olympus.
But in his relationships with other gods, Hephaestus was not so different from the rest of them. He could be jealous and petty, he held a grudge and showed his temper.
Hephaestus used trickery to earn his place as much as he used the finely-crafted gifts he sent. He used deceit, along with a strong chain net, to gain the upper hand on his unfaithful wife.
His physicality and manual labor may have made him stand out, but the wits and wiles Hephaestus used made him more like the other gods than anything else.