Hephaestus: An Overview

We often hear about Hephaestus as the God of Fire and Smithing, but that is a reduction. We know just fragments about him, rooted in a period which is not it’s peak moment. 
So the aim of this article is to give a quite complete picture of Hephaestus. A picture aimed to show the richness and the depth of this god and the archetype it represents.
I will probably push myself a bit out of academic thinking. Everything I’ll say will be based on solid research, and of course I’ll provide a bibliography to support this essay.
Of course I won’t push academia to the point of being unreasonable, I’ll just be a bit daring in my connections.

The XVIII Book of the Iliad

I’ve decided  that I won’t start from his beginning, or his birth, but from the most notable of his appearances, so that we may have a general look at who really is behind the etiquette of the Fire God of ancient Greece.

[…] silver-footed Thetis came unto the house of Hephaestus, imperishable, decked with stars, preeminent among the houses of immortals, wrought all of bronze, that the crook-foot god himself had built him. Him she found sweating with toil as he moved to and fro about his bellows in eager haste; for he was fashioning tripods, twenty in all, to stand around the wall of his well-builded hall, and golden wheels had he set beneath the base of each that of themselves they might enter the gathering of the gods at his wish and again return to his house, a wonder to behold.

Thus much were they fully wrought, that not yet were the cunningly fashioned ears set thereon; these was he making ready, and was forging the rivets. And while he laboured thereat with cunning skill, meanwhile there drew nigh to him the goddess, silver-footed Thetis. And Charis of the gleaming veil came forward and marked her—fair Charis, whom the famed god of the two strong arms had wedded. 

[…] “Verily then a dread and honoured goddess is within my halls, even she that saved me when pain was come upon me after I had fallen afar through the will of my shameless mother, that was fain to hide me away by reason of my lameness. Then had I suffered woes in heart, had not Eurynome and Thetis received me into their bosom—Eurynome, daughter of backward-flowing Oceanus. With them then for nine years’ space I forged much cunning handiwork, brooches, and spiral arm-bands, and rosettes and necklaces, within their hollow cave; and round about me flowed, murmuring with foam, the stream of Oceanus, a flood unspeakable.

Neither did any other know thereof, either of gods or of mortal men, [405] but Thetis knew and Eurynome, even they that saved me. […]” He spake, and from the anvil rose, a huge, panting bulk, halting the while, but beneath him his slender legs moved nimbly. The bellows he set away from the fire, and gathered all the tools wherewith he wrought into a silver chest; and with a sponge wiped he his face and his two hands withal, and his mighty neck and shaggy breast, and put upon him a tunic, and grasped a stout staff, and went forth halting; but there moved swiftly to support their lord handmaidens wrought of gold in the semblance of living maids. In them is understanding in their hearts, and in them speech and strength, and they know cunning handiwork by gift of the immortal gods. 

 […]Then the famous god of the two strong arms answered her: “Be of good cheer, neither let these things distress thy heart. Would that I might so surely avail to hide him afar from dolorous death, when dread fate cometh upon him, as verily goodly armour shall be his, such that in aftertime many a one among the multitude of men shall marvel, whosoever shall behold it.”

So saying he left her there and went unto his bellows, and he turned these toward the fire and bade them work. And the bellows, twenty in all, blew upon the melting-vats, sending forth a ready blast of every force, now to further him as he laboured hard, and again in whatsoever way Hephaestus might wish and his work go on. On the fire he put stubborn bronze and tin and precious gold and silver; and thereafter he set on the anvil-block a great anvil, and took in one hand a massive hammer, and in the other took he the tongs.

[…] But when he had wrought the shield, great and sturdy, then wrought he for him a corselet brighter than the blaze of fire, and he wrought for him a heavy helmet, fitted to his temples, a fair helm, richly-dight, and set thereon a crest of gold; and he wrought him greaves of pliant tin. But when the glorious god of the two strong arms had fashioned all the armour, he took and laid it before the mother of Achilles. And like a falcon she sprang down from snowy Olympus, bearing the flashing armour from Hephaestus.

From this, we may draw a general picture. Hephaestus is a smith god living with his wife Charis in a mighty palace in Olympus. A palace he designed himself, that outshine the others’ and which is also his forge.

There he works assisted by his golden maiden servants, making wonderful works of art for gods and mortals.

Now, let’s outline some more points:

  • Stars deck his palace.
  • He’s a grotesque figure, a huge bulk, with nimble legs.
  • Sooty and Sweaty, so much that he has to clean himself
  • The tripods he’s making are capable of moving by themselves according to his wishes. 
  • It’s golden servants are capable of understanding, moving, speaking, thinking and working.
  • Thrown down from Olympus. Almost died, though being an immortal.
  • Hidden by Thetis and Eurynome for 9 years, where he learned his work.
  • He makes a complete set of armor for Achilles. One that will not prevent death but will assure him fame through centuries.
  • A note aside, that I’ve skipped, is about the Shield, which description, alone, is almost 100 verses.

The Starry Palace, house of Uranus.

In the Iliad, Hephaestus lives in a palace which is: entirely of bronze, bigger than the others’ palace, and starry.
In Hesiod’s Theogony, he describe Heaven (Uranus) as a brazen dome with stars. This remembers me golden rivets on a metal plate. From an elemental perspective, none of the primordial deities immediately have a clear link to fire. Some scholars affirms that the stars of the night sky are the fiery element. 

So Hephaestus and Uranus share being strongly related to the celestial fire.
Uranus “is” the sky dome, the vault of the heaven, foundation and essence of the upper world.
Hephaestus is the one who build the palaces of the gods, also made of bronze. One “is” the place where they live; the other “makes” that place. I wonder if, with a different language, they convey the same meaning.

And there are many more parallels between these two deities. They are strong relations with mother goddesses, and a deficiency of sort. The lameness and the castration, which have an hidden link in the feet having phallic references. But I’ll have to write about gods related to the Hephaestian archetype in a future article.
(Or This essay could become a short book.)

The Hulking Monster.

Often, we lose details in translations. Words in difference language are an approximation of their meaning in another. The english quote “a huge, panting bulk”, comes from a greek word, “Pelor”, which means “Huge, Gigantic, Monstrous”. In the Odyssey it describes the cyclops Poliphemus. Pelorus is one of the Spartoi, the earth-born-men sprung from the dragon teeth sowed by Kadmos. The term giant derives ultimately from the greek “Gigas”, which according to Hesiod means “Earth-born”. The etymology is pre-greek but we can see clearly the root Gi-, Ge- as a reference to Gaea. So this world brings us to primordial times, before the realm of Zeus.

This word, before evoking a high stature, evoked something that came before the realm of Zeus, who ordered the cosmos. In this chaos – order opposition, we see how often these creatures spawned before the Olympian generations have strange appearances: multiple limbs, animal body parts, grotesque shapes and bodies. This is because they belong to a time when Order, under the banner of Zeus, wasn’t established, and Greeks equated order with proportions.

There’s a reason if the word “Pelor”, monster, belongs to Hephaestus. First, like his predecessors, he’s born from, according to a version of the myth, Hera only. This mimic the first generations, born by Gaea alone, like the Giants. Secondly, his body is ,in different ways, grotesque: lame or with clubfeet, despite having strong arms and neck, making his disproportionate; sometimes he’s a dwarf, like his sons the Kabeiroi. Lastly, Hephaestus’s many relationships are towards older generations of gods, or with monsters.

  • Thetis: foster mother, sea goddess with double identity. As Thetis, she is daughter of Nereus, mother of Achilles, but we know of another goddess, Tethys, daughter of Gaea, wife of Oceanus and the one who educated Hera. In the myth of the pre-marriage birth of Hephaestus, Hera hides the son because she didn’t ask yet for the marriage approval from his family (Oceanus and Tethys). Their possible equation spans from their name, having a similar root “nurse, to nurse” and them being both figure of nurturing and care. According to the fragments of the theogony of Alcman, Thetis is the primordial being that emerge from creation.
  • Eurynome: foster mother, again a sea goddess with a double identity. Daughter of Oceanus, and mother by Zeus of the Graces (two of which, Charis and Aglaia are wife of Hephaestus). There’s also an Eurynome as wife of the titan-king Ophion, which ruled the heavens before Kronos and Rhea. There’s a certain overlapping between she and Tethys, Ophion and Oceanus (Ophion means Serpent, and Oceanus is the one “encircling” the earth, like the ouroboros serpent, depicted with a serpent tail) or Gaea and Uranus.
  • Helios: titan of the Sun, there’s some kind of relationship between him and Hephaestus, so much that he’s the one who warn the blacksmith god of the betrayal of Aphrodite. Helios also help him during the War with the Giants when Hephaestus lies exhausted on the battlefield by picking him up. We don’t know much of the reasons of this relationship. We can speculate that it could be due to the Lame having made the boat-chariot of the Sun.
  • Typhoeus: The so called anti-Zeus share a lot in common with Hephaestus. He’s born from Gaea alone, or according to some sources he’s born from Hera alone, like Hephaestus. They both share fire as one of their favorite weapon. They have both nimble, weird legs: one has clubfeet, or reversed feet, and the other has snake for feet. A curious detail is that at some point between his battle with Zeus, Typhoeus cut and steal his ankle tendons, thus rendering him lame. They also share their destiny: in a version, Typhoeus is buried under Mount Aetna, and Hephaestus stand watch at his top. He establish his forge on the peak of the mount, and legends says that the rumbles and eruptions are caused by Typhoeus screaming due to Hephaestus hammering on his huge anvil.
  • Cyclops: Born from Gaea and Uranus, they are freed from Tartarus by Zeus, and build for him the thunderbolt. According to certain later sources, they are Hephaestus’ assistants. In the Orphic fragments, they qualify as teacher of Hephaestus and Athena.
  • Aphrodite: even if the marriage with Aphrodite appears only in the Odyssey, it’s good to mention that in some sources she’s born when the phallus of Uranus go down into the sea, thus making her of a generation before that of the Olympians.
  • Prometheus: there’s a strange kinship with the trickster Titan, and they share a lot of traits. They are both culture heroes, bringing civilization to mankind (for Hephaestus, see the related Homeric Hymn). Also, both have a strong link to the element of fire, and they have an established cult in Athens. Other than that, they’re also somehow interchangeable in the myth of the Birth of Athena, in being the one who strike Zeus with the axe. The fire that Prometheus steals comes from the forge of Hephaestus, which, in Aeschylus, is the one who chains very reluctantly the Titan to the Caucaus. They also share the mean of creations, since in some sources, Prometheus create men through clay, the same means used by Hephaestus to make Pandora. They also share a founding mythologem, where Prometheus is father of the first man Deucalion, made from earth and water, and Hephaestus is father of Erichthonius, one of the legendary kings of Athens, born from earth (Gaea).

Summing up, Hephaestus represents a deviant figure (in ancient greek thinking, deviance from the social order was equated with deviance from the natural order, thus deformity and diversity). One point that denote his “otherness” is expressed by his figure, resembling that of the earth-born giants, monsters of the primeval age, and by his links to creatures and gods from that age.

Sweat, Soot, and Pain.

This is another curious point of ambivalence. Even if he’s an immortal, Hephaestus often appears a common worker, sooty and sweaty. These elements, I believe, are symbols of the role of Hephaestus in cults. A lower-class god, tightly related to the worker class. So much that in Athens his temple is off the Acropolis, on one side of the Agorà. This is the center of economic activity, near the entrance of the ceramic district. There was also the custom to hang image of him and Athene inside kilns. This to assure a proper baking of the products, and to avoid “workshop goblins”.
(malevolent spirits who could disrupt the making process. Expecially in those phases, like baking, where the craftsman didn’t have total control of the process).

He’s also prone to Empathy: to his foster mother Thetis, to Hera, his real mother, to Prometheus, his “Kinsman”. His humanity it’s visible also in other myths, where he is at the center of very earthly dramas. He shows a deep flare of jealousy, of sexual desire, while being at the center of jokes and laughter. He’s also capable of great coldness, in line with his “Trickster” aspects, like in the betrayal of Ares and Aphrodite.
He didn’t just catch them, he even managed to have back his dowry from Poseidon, who act as a guarantor. This also has the potential to be the first divorce of Greek mythology.

Another aspect, often not mentioned, is his “mortal pain”. The meaning is not 100% clear, since it’s an attribute also shared by Thetis. Probably it’s got to do with his limp and the pain it causes him.
Still, it’s a curious choice of words, which brings him closer to mortals.

Hephaestus’ fall from Heaven

Following the brief mention in the text, be it at his birth, or later in life, Hephaestus fall from heaven down to earth. In one case, he fall on the Island of Lemnos, which was the home of Hephaestus according to the traditions. In the other, he fall into the sea and is rescued by Thetis and Eurynome.

First, it’s interesting to note that Hesiod used the metaphor of the anvil to speak about the distance between the different worlds, secondly, in certain minor traditions, the figure of Uranus “coming down” to mate with Gaea wear the name of Akmon, which, not only is the name of one of the Idaian Dactyloi, but it means “Anvil” and “Pestle”. Expecially in this last one, we see how the imagery is like something that crashes down from above. This makes me think that behind this, there’s the image of meteorites as part of the sky (which was made of bronze), falling down to Earth to “mate” with her, so that man can excavate the metals and use them. Even the mortar and pestles have sexualized roles.

The mortar is the female cup, the receiving end, and the pestle is the phallic male aspect that “strike” and penetrate the female one. I suspect that, form one side, Hephaestus’ fall is a continuation of this imagery, but from the other, it’s linked to a tradition that at some point met with the idea of the fall of Lucifer.
No one in contemporary occultism and esotericism has seen the many links that equate Hephaestus with a possibly devilish figure, or one of the figure who sparked the peculiar figure of the Devil. Here I will outline some points:

  • Fall from the sky and end in a pit, or on a remote place.
  • Live under the earth with his assistants, “torturing” the metal between flame and smoke.
  • They both limp. The limping devil was a figure of the middle ages, and the witch ambulation around the circle is similar to the gait of Hephaestus, which, having crooked feet, can go forward and backward
  • Hephaestus is a trickster and a binder. The same for the Devil, who try to cheat and to binds people to oaths.
  • He oppose Zeus’ in his quarrel against Hera. Also, he seems reluctant in chaining Prometheus, which he consider “his kinsman”. Even Prometheus is considered an opposer and a trickster
  • He’s related to Dionysian cults and he’s got a deep relationship with wine even if the comedies that could shows this link are lost.
  • Hephaestus could be (need to find a very rare book that will proof it) the god of laughter and low class comedy. This comic part is also present in these devil’s tales, along cheating, and tricks.
  • In the middle age, there are myths of underworld travels where the main protagonist reach Hell imagined as a big furnace, with devil smiths and metal and flames.
  • In many folk-tales the devil is challenged to build things, like churches and bridges.
  • There is a very ancient tale called The Smith and The Devil. And in these kind of narratives, the antagonist is a sort of mirror twin of the protagonist, like in german legends of heroes killing dragons.
  • During the middle age smiths maintain an aura of ambivalence, being tied to sorcery and devil’s influence. There are also some smiths who were burned at the stakes during the Witch Hunt.
  • The devil’s horns are related to the Bull, which has links to Hephaestus. In Typhon’s myth, when the gods flee from him, Hephaestus flee in Memphis and turn into a bull. Memphis is also home of Ptah and the bull Apis.
  • The “torturing” of metal is a metaphor commonly used by Alchemists to speak about their refinement. At the same way Hell, as a place of torture, is the place of refinement, as is seen in the Cappadocian Theology, in the Philocalia and the writings of John Cassian and Evagrius. Curiously, in the Bibliotheca of the Pseudo-Apollodorus is mentioned how Pelops go to Okeanos and there is purified by Hephaestus for a murder.

Of robots and androids.

In the text, he made two kinds of automatons:
The tripods (which in archaic greece were considered sacred offerings), capable of performing complex actions:

“that of themselves they might enter the gathering of the gods at his wish and again return to his house” with simple commands, much like ancient robots.

Then there are his Golden Servants. This passage has some details that need to be clarified:

“In them is understanding in their hearts, and in them speech and strength, and they know cunning handiwork by gift of the immortal gods”

Now, this means they’re capable of decision and will, explained by the dyad “heart and speech”. The heart, according to ancient thought, represents inner faculties, not only of the mind, but also of the soul.
So they are like androids: with the same endowments of human, and perhaps even with divine attributes.
They can also be considered living prosthesis. They help him move nimbly, so filling up the gap of his lameness.

In texts from the city of Ugarit, the blacksmith god Kothar-wa-Hasis (which is probably a proto-Hephaestus) has servants too, and there, they aren’t specified as automatons but simply as divine-like figure who are related to him. His name is “K-t-r”, and their appellative is “K-t-r-t” so they differ only for the adding of a final consonant, who open many possibilities. Speculation have varied from them being like the Muses, representing the arts he make, to them being nymph-like figure related to the field of fire, of art and metal. Now, about these “Hephaesteides”, there is another last point to highlight.

If Hephaestus can make immortal entities which have a soul and can think, act and feel based on free will, why in Pandora’s Myth he just make the “mould” of the first woman?
My answer is that his role as god diminished in time, becoming a secondary figure (In ancient Asia Minor there is a Mt. Olympus considered home of Hephaestus). As we have seen, he could have basically made Pandora by himself.

About Pandora, there’s often the misconception that the name refer to her having all the gift of the Gods (pan, “every”, doron, “gift”), gifts which are not dresses or tiaras, but are the inner endowments of the immortal soul, of the psyche, of heart and speech.

There are scholars wondering if it couldn’t be something like “All-Giver” referring to a figure which is not a cursed woman, but a figure related to the Mother Goddess archetype, speaking of forgotten ages before Hesiod, who’s misogyny is perfectly clear in his “Work and Days”. It wouldn’t really surprise me if this myth would be a male-oriented reinterpretation of an older myth. And it wouldn’t even be the first (SPOILER: The whole minotaur saga. But since the Labyrinth is very related to our area of interest, we will talk about it in another article).

Hephaestus made more automatons than the one I mentioned; just to list them: The watchdogs of the palace of King Alcinous, the Colchis Bulls, and Talos the bronze guardian of Krete, among others.

Nine years under the Ocean.

A premise: we are talking about gods, who lack a specified age. When they grow into adulthood, they don’t follow human cycles. Gods like Zeus, or Hermes, sometimes grow up in a few days, or indefinite amount of time.

So the text reference to nine years has probably a symbolic meaning, as seen in other sources:

  • On Lemnos, there is annually a festival for the purification of fire. All the fires on the island are shut for Nine days.
  • Minos, on Crete, lived in Knossos for (cycles?) of nine years, where he received instructions on legislation by Zeus.
  • Every nine years King Aegeus sent to sacrifice for the Minotaur seven boys and girls.
  • It takes nine days and nights for an anvil to fall from heaven to earth, and nine more to fall from earth to Tartarus.
  • Nine are the Muses, who represent arts and sciences, and the sum of human knowledge.
  • Nine days of labor needed Leto to give birth to Apollo.
  • According to Manetho, Hephaestus (Ptah) ruled Egypt before Ra for Nine thousand years.

Another point to consider is the meaning of Ocean, thinking that it is equivalent of the Sea. Ocean is a boundary, a liminal place, separating what is available to our experience from the “Otherness”. It divides our world from Hades, it is the place where lies the Garden of Esperides. So we need to read this passage like: Hephaestus stayed for nine years in this liminal place, at the edge of the world, between Life and Death, in the place where the Sun sets and the day give space to the night. 

This seems like a part of an initiation. First the candidate meets a symbolic death (the fall from Olympus). Then he receives teaching in a remote place (the edge of Ocean) by two mentors (Eurynome and Thetis are primordial and demiurgic sea deities). This will allow him to complete his initiation and win back his place into Olympus.

The Shield of Achilles.

At the end of the text I quoted he builds a new armor for the son of Thetis.
The passage I’ve skipped, which is more than 100 verses, focuses on the shield engraving. It resembles a living world. Sky, earth, sea and cities, people moving and laboring, all encircled by the stream of Ocean.

A whole world, almost alive, so astounding that R. Sworder, in his essay “Homer’s Smith God”, proposed that this passage and the previous one “brooches, and spiral arm-bands, and rosettes and necklaces” represents the vestige of a myth of creation showing the Demiurge in the act of making and maintaining the universe.

Indeed the scene engraved on the shield has also many parallels with the War of Troy. Two cities, one living in peace and the other at war.
It is a marvel just to visualize the scene. Something that defy the law of physics and brings us in a realm far from the humble workshop of a craftsman.

The Armor of Achilles: The power of Daidala

The armor of Achilles is the ultimate masterpiece in case of armaments. When he wears it, the visage of our hero with it’s full suit on almost resembles a divine epiphany. Wings seems to sprout from his side. His feet levitate from earth and a halo of fire and light surrounds him.

And that is consistent with what could be the powers of a craftsman god. But there’s another subtle theme. Here there are just hints, while in other episode is clearer, and fully explained in Sarah P. Morris’ book “Daidalos and the Origin of Greek Art”.
A word often appear in the Iliad and through greek literature: “Daidala”. (and in other forms, such as Daidalos, Daidaleia, Daidaleion, all variants)
Many masterpieces described in texts have this adjective, denoting two things:

  • Extraordinary beauty and features.
  • A “fateful importance”. 

Let’s focus on the second point:

“Would that I might so surely avail to hide him afar from dolorous death, when dread fate cometh upon him…”

While apparently normal for an armor to protect from death, here it’s implied another function: hiding from fate. In archaic texts, all the Daidala surround events that end in tragedy. They have a narrative power that appears in many tales. The Labyrinth, the Chest of Kypselos, the Scepter of Agamemnon, they are all daidala.

This magical properties of bending or attracting fate show itself in many episodes. Perhaps the clearest is in wedding of Kadmos and Harmonia. To get revenge of Aphrodite betrayal, Hephaestus make a cursed gift of wedding that will cause tragedies their family. A Necklace with a “cursed beauty”. (Note that this theme of object so beautiful and cursed span across millennia). It will cause a serie of events, resulting in Kadmus family to be afflicted by perpetual miasma. Even Dyonisus birth by Semele is results from the ripples of this curse.

This power of “cursing” intended as attracting fate is a common power in magical tradition. Still, it shows a part of Hephaestus often forgotten. Marie Delcourt in his “Hephaistos ou la légende du magicien” uphold the view that Hephaestus is a magician god. A parallel is in the Baal Cycle of Ugarit, where Kothar-wa-Hasis, the probable proto-Hephaestus, makes a club for Baal to defeat the serpent Yam. In the scene, Kothar make a peculiar act: he “names” the club so that they may perform the duty bound in their name, so that fate will make it happen:

“Therewith Kothar brings down two weapons and proclaims/pronounces their name: <<Thy name, thine, is Yagarish, Chaser. Yagarish, chase Yahm, Chase Yahm from his throne…>>”

(the first weapons are not strong enough, so Kothar tries again)

“Kothar brings down two weapons And he proclaims/pronounces their name: <<Thy name, thine, is Ayamari, Driver. Ayamari, drive Yahm! Drive Yahm from his throne..>>”

This part of naming as an act of giving reality to a decree can resemble the act performed by Adam. And this mustn’t surprise, since the jew religion and the Bible are rich with references to craftsmen and making. I will speak about this in another article. Just to spark some reflections, just think that YHWH “worked” to make the universe. A work so tiring that needed rest. God make Adam from clay, like Pandora from Hephaestus. Major themes of the Bibles are related to building. (The ark of Noah, the tower of Babel, the Tabernacle, the golden calf, the temple of Solomon)
Lastly, Jesus, “the one who baptized in fire” is the son of a craftsman.

Lastly, a Bibliography

As is said, i’ll put here some bibliography, of books and article that I find essentials to go deep and explore the figure of Hephaestus.

  • C. De Ciantis – The Return of Hephaistos: Reconstructing the Fragmented Mythos of the Makers
  • M. Delcourt – Hephaistos ou la legende du magicien
  • W. Burkert – Greek Religion
  • C. Pavel – Hephaistos and knowledge from below: Crooked feet on Mount Olympus
  • J. Bremmer – Hephaistos sweats or how to construct an ambivalent god
  • M. Barbanera – The lame god: Ambiguities of Hephaistos in the greek mythical realm

Hope you enjoyed the reading.

As the metal, so the body.

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