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Hephaestus: The Greek God of Fire

Gaynor Borade Mar 19, 2020
Hephaestus is the Greek god of fire, and is considered to be the patron of blacksmiths and metallurgists. This story is a brief glimpse into the life of Hephaestus, and what the god essentially stands for.
According to some scholars of Classical mythology, the ugly and lame appearance of Hephaestus essentially represents arsenicosis, a medical condition caused by the presence of high levels of arsenic in the body. Constant exposure to arsenic during metallurgical processes may result in lameness and hence, Hephaestus is depicted as a lame god.
Ancient Greek mythology boasts of a huge pantheon of gods and goddesses, spread across various generations. In the initial days of the ancient Greek civilization, people worshiped the titans, who formed the first generation of Greek divinities. 
With the advancement of civilization, new myths and legends centered around gods and goddesses were developed, and eventually this gave way to the creation of a generation of divine beings, known as the younger gods.
According to popular myths, these younger gods had defeated the titans in a bloody war, owing to which, they became more important and prominent in the Greek religion thenceforth. The abode of these new-generation gods was Mount Olympus and so, they were known as the Olympians.
Like that of the titans, the Olympian pantheon also consisted of a plethora of divinities, major and minor. The ancient Greeks had each of their divinities assigned to some or the other aspect of life and/or elemental force, and they were invoked and worshiped in order to acquire blessings/boons related to their particular realm. 
There were primarily 12 major Olympian divinities, and Hephaestus was one of them. The elemental force associated with him was that of fire, and he was considered to be the god of metalworking, stonemasonry, and fine arts. It was believed that he resided within the volcanoes, and was mostly worshiped by blacksmiths and artisans.

Birth of Hephaestus

The 8th century BCE Greek poet Homer, in his classical epics Iliad and Odyssey, says that Hephaestus was born from the divine union ofZeus, the king of gods, and his wife, Hera, the goddess of women and marriage. However, there were several other myths that developed either simultaneously or later on, which attribute a different parentage to Hephaestus.
The 8th-7th century BCE Greek poet Hesiod, in his famous work Theogony, mentions that when Zeus gave birth to Athena on his own without having an intercourse with Hera, she was enraged and vowed to take vengeance. She decided that she would also bear a progeny on her own, without uniting with her husband. 
So, she gave birth to Hephaestus, who was a skilled craftsman, and was better in fine arts than all the other Olympian deities. A similar account of Hephaestus' birth has been described by the 2nd century CE Greek mythographer Pseudo-Apollodorus in his compendium, Bibliotheca.
Pausanias, the 2nd century CE Greek geographer, in his travelogue Description of Greece, refers to another 8th century BCE Greek poet Kinaithon of Lakedaimon, and states that the latter had credited the Cretan solar deity Talos to be the father of Hephaestus.
This description associates the origins of Hephaestus with the Minoan civilization, one of the important civilizations that preceded the Classical Greek Empire.

Hera Casts Hephaestus Away

In the Odyssey, Homer mentions that Hephaestus was crippled right from his birth. In one of his other hymns to Pythian Apollo, Homer also goes on to describe how Hera was ashamed of the physical disability of the son, born to her without any interference of her husband. 
The hymn chronicles how, before the assembly of gods, Hera expresses her frustration with regards to bearing a crippled son, and tells them that disgraced by his physical frailty, she had herself thrown him down Mount Olympus, so that he fell into the depths of the sea and died.
However, despite such a great fall, Hephaestus did survive after all, as numerous Greek and Roman accounts tell us. 
Pausanias, in his Description of Greece, mentions that when Hephaestus fell from Mount Olympus, he was received by Eurynome, the daughter of the Ocean (Oceanus), and Thetis, one of the sea nymphs, who nursed him until he was fit enough to travel back to the abode of the gods.
Hera's reaction on the physical handicap of Hephaestus reflects the ancient Greek take on physical weakness. The ancient Greeks saw disability as a sign of inferiority, and it was believed that people with physical problems were also slow-witted. 
Although, this was not the case with Hephaestus, as can be seen from his numerous skillful creations, myths tell us that he was always treated as a second-class citizen on Mount Olympus, and was always teased by other divinities for his lameness.
Moreover, Hephaestus was the only Olympian who had to work in order to earn a living, and perhaps his casting away and subsequent return to his original abode shows assimilation of lower working class into the mainstream, ruling class of the ancient Greek society.
Also, the birth of a crippled son resulting from Hera's sole attempt to bear a child sheds light on the outlook of ancient Greeks towards women. It clearly shows that the ancient Greeks believed that the creative potential of women was inadequate on its own, and that in order to create something complete or flawless, an interference of a male was always needed.

Zeus Casts Hephaestus Away

► Several myths also give us an account of how Zeus cast Hephaestus away from Mount Olympus, rather than Hera. Both, Homer and Pseudo-Apollodorus give us an account of how Hephaestus was thrown down from Mount Olympus by Zeus after the former attempted to release his mother from the fetters in which Zeus had bound her.
In fact, throughout Greek mythology, Hera is known for her vengefulness towards Zeus' other wives and their offspring. Heracles (Roman: Hercules) was also Zeus' son from a mortal woman named, Alcmene. Owing to this and also to the unparalleled powers that Heracles possessed among the mortals, Hera always displayed a hostile attitude towards him.
Once, when he was sailing back to Mount Olympus after conquering Troy, Hera set a powerful storm with a motive to kill him. While Heracles did save himself from the storm, Zeus hung Hera in fetters from heaven, in order to punish her.
Hephaestus could not see his mother chained like a prisoner, and so, he attempted to free her, thus, inviting Zeus' rage, who pushed him off the heaven.
According to this myth, Hephaestus was not born with a disability. It was only after he was pushed off the heaven by Zeus that his legs were severed, and he ended up being crippled for life. Pseudo-Apollodorus further tells us that after the great fall, Hephaestus landed on the island of Lemnos in the northern part of the Aegean Sea, where he was saved by Thetis. Homer on the other hand states that a mysterious tribe, known as the Sintians, saved Hephaestus and nursed him till he recovered.
Much like Hephaestus' casting away by Hera depicts the mindset of the ancient Greek society towards women, his casting away by Zeus portrays the society's outlook towards masculinity. In the elite society of ancient Greece, mothers had the responsibility to look after the boys until they were young enough to attend school. 
Once they reached that age, the boys were supposed to leave the women's quarters (and the care of their mothers) to join the company of men. Hephaestus' inclination towards his mother rather than his father can be clearly seen from his attempt to free his mother against his father's will.
Owing to the Greek outlook of that time, such an attitude of Hephaestus may be an indication of his insufficient masculinity (as he supposedly preferred the company of women to that of men), a view that tends to be further amplified by his fall from heaven and subsequent lameness.

Hephaestus Returns to Olympus

► After being cast away by his mother from Mount Olympus, Hephaestus was enraged and hurt, and decided that he would never go back to the place from where he was thrown out by his own mother. Pausanias tells us that Eurynome, who looked after the injured fallen god, also taught him the art of metalworking.
Soon, he achieved expertise in the art and decided to use his skill to teach a lesson to his mother. We have several literary and artistic depictions narrating the tale of Hephaestus' vengeance and his subsequent return to Olympus.
► The most accepted version of the myth says that Hephaestus designed a throne made of gold and sent it as a gift to Hera. Hera loved it and happily accepted it, but she did not know what awaited her ahead. The throne had invisible fetters, and the moment she sat on it, she was fastened tightly to it.
Libanius, a Greek-speaking teacher who lived during the Later Roman Empire, has written in one of his narrations that Hera summoned all the gods, and asked each one of them to make attempts to free her. However, each one of them, including Ares, the god of warfare and blood lust, failed to do so.
Finally, Dionysus, the god of wine and merrymaking, was asked to bring Hephaestus back to Olympus, in order to free his mother. However, when Dionysus went to the God of Fire and requested him to return to Olympus with him, Hephaestus stood adamant and sharply refused to go. 
With no other resort left to his disposal, Dionysus finally made Hephaestus drink a lot of wine, and when the latter was completely drunk and not much in his senses, the former brought him back to Olympus and got Hera freed. From then on, Hephaestus never left Olympus, and acquired his place in the Greek pantheon.
► Some later myths and pottery paintings also tell us that as a prize of freeing her from the bonds, Hera had offered the gods to marry Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Owing to the fact that none of the gods were successful in the task, apart from Hephaestus himself, Aphrodite was married to the crippled god, about which, she was never happy in her life.
Myths tell us that Aphrodite had numerous love affairs after her marriage to Hephaestus, and once, she was even caught red-handed with Ares by her husband, who went out aloud about it all across Olympus.

Hephaestus and Zeus

While the Greek mythology is filled with accounts about the tug-of-war that Hephaestus and Zeus always seemed to be in, it also gives us various instances wherein, Hephaestus helped Zeus and/or executed a task for him. Some of these are as follows:
By far the most popular myth, in which Zeus was helped by Hephaestus, was the one relating to the birth of Athena. The 5th century BCE Greek lyric poet Pindar, in his work Olympian Ode, describes how Zeus had an excruciating headache before the birth of Athena. The pain became so unbearable that he ordered Hephaestus to break open his head with his ax. 
Hephaestus followed the orders, and the moment Zeus' skull was split open, Athena popped out of it, fully grown and armed. 
The 3rd century CE Greek rhetorician Philostratus the Elder, in his rhetoric, Imagines, goes on to say that on seeing Athena fully armed right at her birth, Hephaestus was disappointed as he could not think of how else he could get the favor of the goddess, if not by making an armor for her, which she already had.
► Another popular myth in which Zeus seeks help of Hephaestus relates to the birth of Pandora. According to Hesiod's Theogony,Prometheus, one of the titans who created men from clay, stole sacred fire from Mount Olympus and gifted it to his newly created earthly race.
Knowing about this theft, Zeus was outraged and decided to balance Prometheus' benevolent gift with a malevolent one. He immediately summoned Hephaestus and ordered him to make haste, and create a woman with help of earth and water. This he did, and Athena infused life in her and Hermes, the trickster god of travelers and thieves, gave her a soothing voice.
Zeus further ordered all the other Olympian gods to bestow the girl with gifts, which would bring sorrow to the mortal men. Pandora, the earth's first woman, was thus, born with the help of Hephaestus.
Pseudo-Apollodorus further expands the myth of the theft of fire by Prometheus and says that owing to his terrible sin, the titan was punished by Zeus. Zeus asked Hephaestus to rivet Prometheus' body to Mount Caucasus in Scythia, where he was kept bound for several years.
Everyday, the giant Caucasian Eagle flew to the mountain to eat up Prometheus' liver, however, it got regenerated every night, owing to his immortality. Finally, after many years of torment, Heracles rescued the titan from bondage.
► Apart from these there is another, albeit minor myth that tells us about the capture of  monstrous, immortal giant, Typhon. According to the description of the 2nd century CE Greek mythographer and grammarian Antoninus Liberalis, in his treatise Metamorphoses, Typhon attacked Mount Olympus, owing to which every god, except Zeus and Athena, fled to Egypt.
Finally, Zeus struck the giant with his thunderbolt and succeeded in trapping him beneath Mount Etna on the east coast of Sicily. However, considering that Typhon was immortal, Zeus once again sought aid of Hephaestus and requested him to set up his workshop on the peak of the mountain, and thus, to keep guard on the giant.

Hephaestus' Favors

The Greek myths give us several instances wherein, both gods and mortals enjoyed the favors of Hephaestus. Some of them are as follows:
Hephaestus' favors usually were in the form of crafted artifacts. For the Olympian gods, mortal heroes, and kings, Hephaestus crafted numerous artistic items and weapons. These included palaces, furnishings, jewelry, chariots, weapons, armor, and automatons.
Idaeus, the son of Dares Phrygius, the Trojan priest of Hephaestus was rescued from a certain death by the god, when the boy leapt off the chariot to escape the fatal arrow of the Greek hero, Diomedes.
► The Cabeiri were the twin sons of Hephaestus, according to Nonnus of Panopolis, the 5th century CE epic poet. In this poetry, Dionysiaca, he has described how both of them were saved by Hephaestus, during Dionysus' war against the Indians, in which the boys had sided with the God of Wine.
Hesiod's treatise, Astronomia, describes an incident in which Orion, the hunter, was blinded and thrown out of the country by Oenopion, the king of Chios, for raping his own daughter. Somehow, Orion reached the island of Lemnos as a beggar, where he met Hephaestus who took pity on him, and asked his servant Cedalion to guide the hunter to the abode of Helios, the Sun god. Orion was then, healed by Helios.
Pseudo-Apollodorus also makes a mention of Pelops, the king of Pisa in the Peloponnesus, and how he was purified by Hephaestus. Legend holds that Pelops has killed Myrtilos, the son of Hermes. On realizing the terrible sin that the king had committed, he fled to Oceanus for help and purification. Hephaestus purified him with his fire, and sent him back to his kingdom.
The ancient Greek mythology does not mention as many instances of Hephaestus' wraths as those of his favors. The most popular one relating to his wrath on Hera has been mentioned earlier. Another one worth mentioning is that pertaining to Aphrodite and Ares' offspring, Harmonia.
Harmonia was born from the adulterous union of Aphrodite and Ares, and wrathful of his wife's infidelity, Hephaestus decided to seek revenge from the girl. On the day of her wedding, Hephaestus presented her with a cursed necklace, that led to the doom of Harmonia and all her descendants.

The Cult of Hephaestus

Literary sources, artistic depictions, and architectural ruins indicate that Hephaestus was indeed a popular deity in ancient Greece, owing to the presence of a huge class of artisans and craftsmen. He was worshiped widely as can be known from the remnants of a number of temples dedicated to the god all over ancient Greece, and even Rome (where he was worshiped as Vulcan).
Pausanias wrote about the presence of a temple dedicated to Hephaestus in Athens, just above the Kerameikos, a region located northeast of the Acropolis of Athens. He also mentioned that just beside the temple, stood an imposing statue of Athena.
► The 1st century CE Roman rhetorician, Cicero, in his work De Natura Deorum, also stated that there was a very famous cult statue of Hephaestus in Athens, sculpted by the ancient Greek sculptor of Lemnos and Athens, Alcamenes. It was a tall, standing figure, fully draped, and portraying a slightly lame left leg.
► Hephaestus' main cult center was the island of Lemnos, where it was believed that the god's forge was also located. The 1st century BCE Roman poet Ovid, in his treatise, Fasti, says that Hephaestus (Vulcan) was the patron god of the island of Lemnos, and according to Homer, it was loved by the god more than any other place on earth.
Even in Sicily, the cult of Hephaestus seems to have been very strong. The 2nd-3rd century CE description of the Greek natural historian Claudius Aelianus suggests that in Etna, there was a temple of Hephaestus, surrounded by a sacred grove, containing a fire that was never extinguished.
Several festivals were also held in many parts of ancient Greece in Hephaestus' honor.
The 5th century BCE Greek historian, Herodotus, in his work Histories, has written about a torch festival that may have been widely celebrated in Greece. Herodotus has not mentioned the name of the festival; however, he had described how the Greek torch-bearers passed the lit torch from one person to another, in order to honor the god's sacred fire.
The 10th century CE Byzantine-Greek encyclopedia, attributed to the author called Suidas, has an entry called Khalkeia, meaning bronzes. According to the encyclopedic entry, Khalkeia was a festival held in Attica and Athens in honor of Hephaestus, and was celebrated by craftsmen, in general and bronze-smiths, in particular. It was held on the last day of the Hellenic month of Pyanepsion.
The encyclopedia also makes a mention of three different Lampados, festivals of the torch, which were celebrated by the Athenians, in which offering sacrifices to the holy fire of Hephaestus was the foremost ritual, after which all the other festivities began.
According to Argonautica, authored by the 3rd century BCE writer Apollonius of Rhodes, a great festival was also held in honor of Hephaestus and Aphrodite on the island of Lemnos. He says that the whole island came alive with continuous singing and dancing in praise of the deities, and a lavish banquet was also arranged for the citizens.
Owing to the important place that Hephaestus held in the Greek mythology, and the huge cult that centered around him, various epithets came to be associated with him, especially, in his cult centers.
Some of them are as under:
► Clytus - Glorious
► Clytometis - Famed craftsman
► Polymetis - Having many skills
► Amphigyeis - The lame one
► Cyllopodium - Having a crooked foot
► Aethaloïs Theus - The sooty god
► Chalceus - Coppersmith
► Polyphron - Inventive

Symbolism and Depictions in Arts

Owing to his association with fire, Hephaestus also came to be associated volcanoes. The ancient Greeks believed that Hephaestus' forge was situated deep within a volcano and thus, he also became a patron of volcanic and thermal activity, taking place underneath the ground. The god's wrath led to volcanic eruptions, which claimed many lives and destroyed property.
The main attributes of Hephaestus were the common tools of a blacksmith viz., anvil, tongs, and hammer. In certain depictions, he is also shown holding an ax.
He is either shown riding a donkey or a magical, winged chair, which he had made for himself. Although, he is credited for making chariots for the gods and mortals, it seems that he never made one for himself.
While in most depictions, Hephaestus is shown working in his forge, in some rare instances, he is also portrayed holding fire in his hands. Though he is crippled, not all depictions portray him as one (most of them do), mostly owing to the fact that disability was regarded as a sign of inferiority in the ancient Greek society.
We have both standing and seated figures of Hephaestus, who is more often than not, portrayed as a vigorous, bearded man, wearing an oval cap and a chiton.
It seems that Hephaestus has been a favorite subject amongst artists all along. Apart from the several pottery paintings of the god, one of the most renowned depiction of the god is in the painting completed in 1536 by a Dutch artist, Maerten van Heemskerck. The scene depicts Aphrodite and Ares caught red-handed by Hephaestus, who stands holding a cane as the other gods look on.
Greek myths tell us that Hephaestus taught all his skills in arts and crafts to humans, thus, giving a boost to commerce. One of the most unfaltering of the Greek gods, Hephaestus is also immortalized in the name of a minor planet 2212 Hephaistos, discovered by Lyudmila Chernykh, a Soviet astronomer, in 1978.
But above all, Hephaestus acts as a reminder of the value and dangers of losing ourselves in our work, although he was able to garner substantial respect from others and build genuine self-respect by focusing intently on creating and producing artifacts, thereby keeping many of his problems at bay.