Hephaestus, the smith god of ancient Greece, was characterized by his imperfections. Among the ideal noble deities of Olympus, he was a dirty and deformed god with a pronounced limp.
His disability was considered so terrible that it was often cited as the reason he was expelled from Mount Olympus as a child. In art it was often emphasized with a hunchback, clubbed feet, or the inability to walk and stand on his own.
The imperfections of Hephaestus extended beyond his disability, however. He was described with other, unrelated, attributes that made him seem less attractive and regal than his peers.
Hephaestus was a god whose work made him sweaty, dirty, and uncouth. It also may have been responsible for his noticeable physical disability.
While most Greek gods were paragons of physical perfection, Hephaestus was noteworthy for being the opposite. The unattractive and disabled god was a direct contrast to the idealized forms of the other Olympians.
According to many myths, Hephaestus was deformed at birth.
The most common story is that Hera was jealous of her husband after the birth of Athena. Just as he had created a praise-worthy goddess without a mother, she wanted to have a child of her own without him fathering it.
Rather than a perfect deity like Zeus had birthed from his head, 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 shriveled foot.
While most literature was not specific about his disability, some artists emphasized his physical imperfection by giving him a hunchback or clubbed foot.
In many images, it is also implied that the god is partially or wholly unable to walk, rather than just having a limp. He is often shown seated, riding a donkey, or even in a small chariot that is reminiscent of a modern wheelchair.
In fact, some writers also mentioned the use of wheels in connection to Hephaestus. Wheeled tripods were said to assist in his work in the forge and his similarly disabled son was said in Athenian legends to have invented the chariot so he could travel around the city.
A birth defect or disability was considered to be a curse in the ancient world. Among the perfectly-formed gods, it was an especially bad sign.
In some versions of the story, Hera herself threw her son down from Olympus when she saw his deformity. In others, she was simply disgusted when she saw that the child was red-faced and crying and he was injured during the fall itself, causing him to limp later in life.
Among ancient writers, Homer was one of the most specific in regards to the appearance of Hephaestus. More than once he mentioned the source of the god’s limp as being “shriveled legs.”
Homer also emphasized that the smith god was not attractive even when his disability was not an issue. In the Iliad, he described a scene in which the smith god wiped his sweat from his “massive neck” and “hairy back,” both physical attributes that would have been contrary to Greek standards of male beauty.
Not only would a thick neck and a hairy back be considered unattractive, but the sweat itself could be as well. While the other Greek gods embodied the ideals of the well-dressed and well-groomed nobility, the dirty work of Hephaestus was an additional strike against him.
In fact, everything that made Hephaestus imperfect in the eyes of Greek culture may have been due to his nature as a working god.
In the Greek pantheon, a disabled smith seems like an unusual inclusion. In addition to his physical imperfections, his role was much different than those of the other Olympians.
His domain was not one of lofty ideals or common elements of life, but of a specific profession. This was exceptionally rare among the Olympias, whose duties were usually more complex and abstract.
In other world mythologies, however, the image of the lame smith was a common one. Gods from India, Scandinavia, Egypt, and elsewhere fit a similar image.
The lame smith is a widespread archetype of Indo-European religion. Like the thunder-throwing sky god or goddess of beauty born from the sea, gods fitting this archetype can be found throughout Europe, South Asia, and the Near East.
While many of these types of gods can be traced to a presumed divine originator, however, the lame smith is more likely traceable to human life in the Bronze Age.
Many cultures in this era would have developed smith gods because of the importance of metalworking in their lives. The new technology of making bronze alloy quickly became a central focus of human life.
Bronze tools and weapons were not as strong as iron, but they were easier to work with and cheaper to produce. The production and trade of bronze became a major factor not only in local life, but in relations between civilizations.
Trade was established to spread both raw materials and the products they made. Wars were fought to control copper and tin mines and conscript labor.
It is understandable, then, that many cultures would develop a god that represented this major aspect of their lives. The fact that most of these gods were lame, however, is due to the way in which bronze was made in the ancient world.
The common way to make bronze is by melting copper and tin. The resulting alloy is stronger than either metal is on its own, but easier to forge and more plentiful than iron.
When tin was scarce, however, another material could be substituted to create bronze. Arsenic could be combined with copper instead of tin to create an alloy referred to as arsenical bronze.
The use of arsenic in Bronze Age metalworking was widespread because bronze itself was so popular. When wars interrupted trade or mines were exhausted tin was often too difficult or expensive to be used in everyday tools and mass-produced weapons.
Arsenic was a less expensive material that could be used as a substitute. When tin was not available, arsenic ensured that the bronze-based economy continued to thrive.
The use of arsenic could be disastrous for smiths, however. Many smiths suffered from arsenicosis, arsenic poisoning, because of their work with the hazardous material.
Some of the most common ailments associated with arsenic poisoning are skin cancer and neuropathy, or damage to the nerves of the extremities. Thus many smith gods showed the signs of their profession, a limp or disfigured skin.
Hephaestus limped not because Hera had formed him incorrectly or he had been injured in his fall from Mount Olympus, but because arsenicosis often caused damage to the nerves in smiths’ legs.
The myths of Greece developed as the Bronze Age ended, but the archetype of the lame smith had already been established. A limp was so broadly associated with metalworking that it passed through oral tradition long after the risk of arsenic poisoning was forgotten.
In classical Greece, metalworkers no longer displayed the symptoms of arsenicosis. Their god, however, retained the ancient physical signs of his profession.
Hephaestus, the Greek smith god, was depicted primarily as deformed or disabled. While the exact nature of his physical problem was not clear, it was generally characterized by a limp.
In art and literature alike, this was shown by shriveled legs, malformed feet, and occasionally even a hunchback. Such features put him in stark contrast to the perfect and beautiful figures of the other Olympians.
In other aspects, however, he was still considered unattractive. Homer, for example, described him as a sweaty god with a thick neck and hairy back.
Many of the imperfect physical characteristics of Hephaestus can probably be traced to the profession he represented. Throughout Europe, the Near East, and South Asia, an archetype existed of lame smith gods.
This probably comes not from a single Indo-European origin, but from the time period in which the profession flourished. When tin was unavailable, Bronze Age smiths risked their health to make an alloy of arsenic instead.
Arsenic poisoning was thus a common ailment among early metalworkers. The nerve damage caused by arsenicosis was so common in the profession that it was an attribute of smith gods throughout the world.