published on 13 June 2012
Born from Hera and without a father, Hephaistos was, unlike the other gods, a less than beautiful figure. So much so, that in Greek mythology he is said to have been thrown from the heavens by his mother (or in other accounts by Zeus) because of his ugliness and on landing on the island of Lemnos, the god was crippled. Cared for by Thetis (and possibly also by Eurynome, the daughter of Ocean) he would construct his workshop on the island’s volcano (or in other accounts on Mt. Etna in Sicily) where he lived in an imperishable bright bronze house, where he created his masterpieces of metallurgy.
Hephaistos married the goddess Aphrodite. The unlikely union occurred as a result of Hephaistos capturing her mother Hera in the invisible chains of a throne he had built, and the wedding was the price of release. The scene is a popular one in Greek art and usually depicts Dionysus leading Hephaistos, under the influence of wine, back to Olympus to free the entrapped Hera. However, the marriage was not to last as Aphrodite had numerous affairs, most notably with the god Ares. Hephaistos, informed by Helios, spied the lovers and captured them in an invisible net. Hephaistos’ most notable offspring in Greek mythology were Erichthonios, the king of Athens, and Periphetes, who lived near Epidauros and famously killed passing strangers with an iron club.
As an ingenious craftsman, Hephaistos is credited with making the sceptre and aegis of Zeus, the helmet of Hermes, secret locking doors for Hera’s chambers, and even the lovely first woman, Pandora, who he sculpted out of clay. He also manufactured automatons - gold maids who could speak and were intelligent - for himself and bronze Talos as a gift for King Minos of Crete.
Both Homer and Hesiod describe Hephaistos as ‘the cripple-foot god’ and ‘the lame one’. Supporting the Achaeans in the Trojan War, he memorably fights and defeats the river god Xanthos with fire and produces magnificent armour and a shield of bronze, gold, silver, and tin for Achilles, the latter being decorated with a multitude of scenes and described at great length by Homer.
In ancient Greek art, Hephaistos is often depicted wearing a pilos or workman’s hat and an exomis or workman’s tunic. He also often holds tongs, an axe, hammer, saw, or chisel and is frequently seen riding a mule side saddle (in reference to his lameness which is rarely explicitly portrayed). He is a prominent figure on the frieze and east pediment of the Parthenon where the scene of Athena’s birth is shown. This mythological scene was also popular on Attic pottery where Hephaistos, with his axe, splits the head of Zeus from where Athena is born. Often linked with Athena in their mutual capacity as patrons of craftsmen, the two are most famously connected in the Hephaisteion temple of Athens (449 BCE) within which stood two bronze statues of the divinities.
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- Hesiod. Hesiod. Loeb Classical Library, 2007.
- Homer. The Iliad. Penguin Classics, 1998.
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- National Geographic. National Geographic Essential Visual History of World Mythology. National Geographic, 2008.
- T. H. Carpenter. Art and Myth in Ancient Greece. Thames & Hudson, 2012.