In Greek mythology, no marriage was as infamous as that of Aphrodite and Hephaestus. The lame smith god and the goddess of beauty were the most poorly-matched couple on Mount Olympus.
Even if Hephaestus and Aphrodite had not been so ill-suited for one another, she was famously in love with another god. Even when she was married to Hephaestus, Aphrodite never ended her affair with the god of war.
The story of Hephaestus and Aphrodite is well-known for its scandals. It is often taken as a warning against marrying for the wrong reasons.
It can also tell us something about how marriage was seen in the ancient world. The end of Hephaestus and Aphrodite’s terrible marriage is an example of how ancient laws regarding marriage were much different than most modern readers would assume!
The story of Aphrodite and Hephaestus’s unfortunate marriage does not survive in a full account from any single source. Instead, it is reconstructed from a series of fragments and brief mentions from many different writers.
Hephaestus was thrown from Mount Olympus at birth because he was deformed. He survived the fall, however, and was raised by Thetis and the metalworkers of Lemnos.
He grew to be a highly-skilled smith and craftsman. Eventually, he began to send gifts to Olympus, presumably in the hopes of winning back his place there.
His true intentions became known, however, when he sent an ornate golden throne to his mother. As soon as Hera sat on it, she became bound to the seat with fetters that none of the gods could break.
The Olympians had been gathered to decide which of them should marry Aphrodite, since Zeus had decided that it was time for her to be wed. Seeing a solution for both of his problems, Zeus declared that whichever god could free Hera would earn the right to marry Aphrodite.
Only Hephaestus knew how to free Zeus’s wife from the trap he had made for her. To win Aphrodite’s hand, Hephaestus would have to be brought back to Mount Olympus and compelled to release his mother.
Aphrodite was certain that Ares, the god of war, was the only one strong enough to drag Hephaestus to Mount Olympus. She offered no resistance to the plan since she had hoped to marry Ares anyway.
Ares, who was known for his battlelust far more than his strategic thinking, burst into the smith’s forge without a plan of attack. This proved to be a mistake, since the heat of the forge and the strength Hephaestus had built as a metalworker quickly drove Ares from Lemnos.
Dionysus next approached the forge, but he had a much different plan than Ares’s reliance on a swift attack. He came with an offer of friendship.
The two sat and talked, enjoying several cups of Dionysus’s finest wines. Eventually, Dionysus suggested that there was a loophole in Zeus’s decree.
The next day, Hephaestus returned to Mount Olympus and freed Hera without any commands or threats. 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 fulfilled the requirements of Zeus’s decree. As the god of law, Zeus was forced to agree that, because of the way he had worded his challenge, Hephaestus had won the right to marry Aphrodite.
The marriage of Hephaestus and Aphrodite proved to be an unhappy one. The goddess of beauty despised her unattractive husband and, according to some sources, refused to have anything to do with him.
Eventually the sun god Helios, who saw everything from his position in the sky, learned that Aphrodite and Ares were meeting in secret. He told Hephaestus that Aphrodite had continued her relationship with the god of war, and the smith began to plan his revenge.
Hephaestus often left Mount Olympus to visit Lemnos, so when he told Aphrodite that he was leaving their palace she immediately contacted Ares. The god of war came to meet her just moments after Hephaestus left his home.
As soon as Aphrodite and Ares were in bed with one another, Hephaestus put his latest trap in motion. A net of thin but unbreakable chains fell down on the lovers, trapping them in a very compromising position.
Hephaestus did more than catch Aphrodite being unfaithful, however. He got revenge by humiliating his wife and her lover, inviting the other gods to come in and see how ridiculous they looked under his net.
The only Olympian who did not laugh at Aphrodite and Ares was Poseidon. He vowed to make sure that Ares would be held accountable for his actions so that Hephaestus would agree to release them.
Ares fled to Thrace and most sources, as Hephaestus had predicted, said little of what consequences he faced. The marriage between Hephaestus and Aphrodite ended as a result of her infidelity.
According to Homer, Hephaestus demanded that Zeus return the gifts he had received as the surrogate father of the bride. This effectively nullified the marriage.
Other sources claimed that Aphrodite avoided her husband and the other gods for some time. Eventually, she and Hephaestus agreed that their marriage should be dissolved.
Homer described Aphrodite and Ares as husband and wife in his writings. Other writers agreed that they continued their relationship, but were unclear as to whether it was binding.
Hephaestus married Aglaia, the youngest of the Charites, or Graces. They had several daughters and there was no indication that their marriage was anything but peaceful.
The marriage of Hephaestus and Aphrodite is unique in Greek mythology. While many gods and heroes had unhappy marriages, the smith and the goddess of beauty were among the few to have something that might be called a divorce.
In other myths, marriages could end because of abandonment or a similar issue. Hephaestus and Aphrodite, however, both continued to live on Mount Olympus and be part of the same social and family group.
The story of Aphrodite and Hephaestus shows how divorce was treated in ancient Greece.
While some people believe that divorce is a recent phenomenon, it was actually relatively common in ancient Greece. Surviving texts from Athens show that a divorce could be initiated by either the husband or the wife.
According to Homer, Hephaestus demanded that Zeus return the bride gifts he had been given in exchange for Aphrodite’s hand. Surviving legal texts show that this was how a husband could initiate a divorce in ancient Greece.
A woman could also begin divorce proceedings by registering her complaint with the local ruler. This was not an impediment since the rulers had no authority to make any decision regarding a divorce; his only role was to make a record of the marriage’s end.
As women had little control over property and wealth, they would need the support of their families to be divorced. While this was likely a barrier for some women, legal records show that many were still able to successfully register their desire for a divorce with local authorities.
There is even a surviving legal record of a divorce being instigated by the bride’s father. This was allowed under the law only if the couple had not had any children together.
There were even instances in which a divorce was mandatory. If an unmarried woman inherited her father’s property, for example, Athenian law required a male relative to divorce his current wife and marry the heiress to keep the property in the father’s family.
Divorce seems to have been normalized and culturally acceptable in ancient Greece. Surviving documents show little moral judgement about divorce itself.
Instead, a person’s reputation could be harmed if there was a scandal associated with a divorce. Several accounts mention both Aphrodite and Ares avoiding the other Olympians for a time, presumably for the scandal of their affair to die down.
In fact, some laws demanded that a man divorce his wife if she, like Aphrodite, was unfaithful to him. While many ignored the law to avoid a scandal, they risked losing their rights as a citizen if they remained with an unfaithful woman.
Since he had done nothing wrong in the marriage, Hephaestus faced no negative consequences from his divorce. He was free to remarry and go about his life.
Just because divorce was socially acceptable, however, did not mean that it was amicable. Hephaestus supposedly held such a strong grudge against Aphrodite and Ares that he gave their daughter Harmonia a cursed necklace that brought misfortune to her family for generations.
While Aphrodite’s marriage was arranged, therefore, the story shows that there was recourse for an unhappy match.
Homer made it clear that Hephaestus had been the one to formally end his disastrous marriage to Aphrodite. Athenian law, however, shows that she could have initiated a divorce herself or even that Zeus could have done so after seeing how poorly suited Hephaestus and Aphrodite were for one another.
The marriage of Hephaestus and Aphrodite shows that, contrary to popular belief, divorce is not an invention of modern society.
The marriage of Hephaestus and Aphrodite was notorious in Greek mythology. The two were poorly-suited for one another and Aphrodite was known to be in love with another man.
After Hephaestus won the right to marry her, Aphrodite continued her love affair with Ares. She and the god of war would soon be found out, however.
Hephaestus set a trap for his unfaithful wife and her lover. He publicly shamed them by inviting the other gods to laugh after he captured them beneath a net.
Most sources are clear that the marriage between Hephaestus and Aphrodite ended after her affair came to light. She continued her romance with Ares, while Hephaestus made a much more suitable match and remarried.
The story of Aphrodite and Hephaestus illustrates a little-known fact about marriage in ancient Greece. While many marriages were arranged and unequal, divorce was surprisingly commonplace and easy to obtain.
Scandals, such as infidelity, could lead to scorn, but overall divorce does not seem to have been looked down on by Greek society. While Aphrodite and Ares had to wait for their scandal to blow over to be fully welcomed by Olympian society again, Hephaestus faced no negative consequences.
The story of Aphrodite and Hephaestus shows that ancient culture was not altogether unlike our own. While the way in which marriages were entered into and how they functioned was not like how it is today, both men and women had the legal right to end a marriage that they were unhappy in.