Hephaestus was unique among the gods as being physically disabled and not particularly attractive. He was also unique for his identification with a real-world profession held by the working class instead of the nobility.
Images of Hephaestus reflected his unusual status on Olympus through more than just his personal appearance. While other gods had powerful or impressive symbols and animals, Hephaestus was shown like a true smith.
Even his clothing was more simple, a common tunic instead of the intricately draped robes of Zeus or Poseidon.
Holding a hammer and tongs and riding on the back of a braying donkey, Hephaestus stood out among the regal and rich gods of Olympus. Among them, he looked like an average commoner instead of a fellow god.
Hephaestus was the smith god, and his symbols reflected his work.
While usually associated with blacksmiths and metalworkers, Hephaestus was the god of all craftsmen. Carpenters, masons, and inventors looked to Hephaestus just as those who worked with metal did.
Thus, while the god was most often depicted with tools of metalworking, images in some contexts referred to other crafts.
Most common, however, were the hammer and tongs of a smith. These tools were used to work with iron and bronze, but Hephaestus also made masterworks of precious metals and unbreakable materials.
The god was also sometimes shown with a walking stick.
Although sometimes shown as a vigorous young man with a beard, most myths described the smith as lame and sometimes as physically deformed. Artists sometimes included a stick that would have helped the limping god move.
Although not shown in art, in some literature Hephaestus had an even greater mobility aid. He was credited with inventing a type of wheelchair and in the Iliad he created twenty wheeled tripod automatons to help him.
Hephaestus was also associated with both fire and volcanoes.
Like most Greek gods, he also had certain animals that he was closely associated with.
One temple of Hephaestus was said to have exceptionally intelligent and good-natured guard dogs, but these animals were rarely shown in broader iconography.
His sacred bird was the crane. In his youth he was said to have lived on the banks of Oceanus where the cranes flew to nest during the winter, and his saddle was often adorned with the birds’ heads.
That saddle was on a beast that was unusual for an Olympian. Instead of a noble horse or fantastic beast, Hephaestus rode a simple donkey.
The modest mount was so closely associated with him that it was included in many of his appearances in written mythology. He rode to the wedding of Thetis and Peleus on his donkey’s back and even went to war with the giants on his ass.
Hephaestus stands out among the gods of Olympus for both his physical imperfections and his association with manual labor.
He was one of the only gods to be associated with a single profession without other, more lordly, domains. Among gods of law, wisdom, and poetry, Hephaestus came across as distinctly working class.
His chief attributes were not powerful weapons or elegant symbols. They were the simple tools that his followers, the craftsmen who prayed to him, would use every day.
Even his mount was more familiar among the lower classes than representative of his godhood. Donkeys have always been regarded as ignoble, even shameful animals that were meant for work, not display.
In this, Hephaestus was much like his mount. He was a god of work rather than one who represented lofty ideals or unattainable perfection.
There were other gods who represented a more earthly type of person, but even they were exaggerated.
Ares, Hephaestus’s enemy in many stories, was shown with the weapons and helmet of a common solider rather than a noble general. But his body type was still representative of a physical ideal and his personality was an exaggeration of his job.
Hephaestus is distinct from the common people of Greece simply because the common people were not represented in art. Among the gods, kings, and heroes of Greek art, the handful of images of Hephaestus form most of the representations of labor and the lives of commoners.
This is not unusual in mythology. The gods of most cultures represented the highest orders of society even if they presided over work like agriculture or fishing.
But Greek art was particularly focused on presenting idealized forms, making Hephaestus and his imagery stand out even more. The lame smith dressed in a simple tunic stood out for his very simplicity, just as his donkey stood out among the powerful horses that pulled other gods’ chariots.
By showing Hephaestus in a distinctively lower-class manner, the Greeks made a distinction between him and the noble gods he worked for. Like human craftsmen, the role of Hephaestus was to create fine things for others while remaining modest and simple himself.
If the physically perfect and immaculately dressed Olympians could be compared with the kings and queens of humanity, Hephaestus was their representation of the working class. Imperfect and without the trappings of power, his symbols were the tools he used to work with his hands for the benefit of society’s rulers.
The symbols associated with Hephaestus were simple and straightforward without any abstract meaning or hidden mystery. He carried the tools of his trade, the simple hammer and tongs of a metal smith.
His clothing was equally simple. Hephaestus usually work a plain tunic and cap as would be work by any laborer in ancient Greece.
Even his mount was a marker of his low status. He rode on the back of a lowly donkey instead of a regal horse.
Among the physically perfect and universally beautiful denizens of Mount Olympus, Hephaestus was both physically imperfect and simply attired. He stood out not for his finery, but for his simplicity and realism.
Of all the gods, Hephaestus had the most in common with the average laborers of the ancient world. While he provided finery to the gods of Olympus, he was marked for his labor and lower-class status.