Hephaestus (Gr. Ηφαιστος Lat. Hephaestus) is the god of Terrestrial Fire and Metallurgy who discovered the art of metalworking.
He is one of the twelve Olympians and was assimilated to Vulcan by the Romans and it also bears the name of Mulciber.
Birth of Hephaestus
The discovery of Vulcan
Ancient traditions are different on the circumstances of his birth. Homer said he is the son of Zeus and Hera; Hephaestus thinks that he was born from the sole will of Hera (perhaps jealous of Athena’s surprising birth). The particularity of Hephaestus is surprising for people who had a cult of physical beauty. Hephaestus was lame. The origin of his accident was also unfortunate. Homer assures that his father, irritated by the support Hephaestus gives his mother in a quarrel, precipitates him from the top of Olympus. But Homer also has another version: Hera disgusted by such an ugly son, throw her son from Olympus.
He survived this unfortunate misadventure, however, without any physical damage, for he fell into the sea where Tethys and Euronymous, who were not far from there, quickly gave him help. These helpful goddesses educated him and kept him with them in an underwater cave where he set up his first forge.
He made all kinds of wonderful objects and jewelry and soon all the marine nymphs were adorned with beautiful necklaces and bracelets.
Nine years later, Hera met Tethys who was wearing a beautiful brooch that day that he had fashioned for her; she asked him where she had found this wonderful jewel.
Tethys would not answer, but Hera was able to force him to. She asked him to return immediately to Olympus.
Pausanias tell a different story. Hephaestus wanted revenge on his mother and sent her a magnificent golden throne with a secret mechanism. As soon as Hera settled on this throne she could no longer stand up. All the gods tried in vain to deliver her, but nothing did; finally, the council of the gods decided to go and get Hephaestus to deliver her. Ares was the first to try to bring him back, but his muscular attempt ended in failure because the blacksmith god used the resources of his fire art to put him on the run.
It was Dionysus who was able to gain his trust and brought him completely drunk perched on a donkey. It is said that Hera, in order to make amends but also to take advantage of his industrious son, set up a forge in Olympus itself.
Hephaestus as a blacksmith is represented by his instruments: a hammer or pliers. He personifies the underground fire concept that naturally leads to the god of volcanoes and blacksmiths.
Vulcan and Cupid
He was a genius inventor who discovered the art of working with copper, the iron, bronze, silver and gold and an outstanding craftsman who, with the help of the Cyclops, forged most of the magic objects used by gods and goddesses.
Two wonderful works excited the admiration of the gods themselves; they were two golden automatons, representing two beautiful young girls on whom Hephaestus relied to wander in his palace. These automatons walked, and spoke, like women and seemed to have awareness but they did not breathe and they only had the appearance of life.
Hephaestus and Thetis
Without being totally exhaustive, we can also mention:
- The Olympus Palace;
- The thrones of Zeus and his wife;
- Zeus’ wrath;
- The scepter of Zeus;
- The scepter of Pelops;
- the trident of Poseidon forged by the Cyclops;
- as well as the Hades’ magic helmet
- the arrows of Artemis and Apollo;
- the arrows of Eros
- Helios’ chariot, bed, and round boat;
- Achilles’ new weapons;
- Aphrodite’s magic belt;
- the Harmony necklace;
- The Talos robot;
- The king’s bull from Ates;
- The bells to scare the birds of Lake Stymphalus;
- The chains for Prometheus.
Facts and myths about Hephaestus
Hephaestus and his tools
Hephaestus had reconciled so much with Hera that he had the audacity to reproach Zeus himself for leaving her hanging in the sky by her wrists when she rebelled against him. He rushed with his tools to deliver her. But Zeus, very angry with this reckless blacksmith, threw him down Olympus a second time. He fell for a whole day. By reaching the ground on the island of Lemnos where the Cyclops worked. He broke both his legs and although immortal, he had very little life left when the islanders discovered and treated him, but this fall did nothing to cure his lameness. In gratitude for their good care, he taught the island’s inhabitants the art of metallurgy.
Another day Hera asked his son Hephaestus to intervene to save Achilles from the tumultuous river god Scamander. Immediately said, immediately done and in a short time the banks of the river were burned and the waters were vaporized by the fires of Hephaestus; then the river god addressed this ardent prayer to him:
“Hephaestus, none of the gods can resist you; no, I will not fight against your fiery flames, you who are burning with such a fire. Stop this quarrel;”
He was the one who intervened to free Athena locked in Zeus’ skull, which made him suffer horribly.
Loves of Hephaestus
March and Venus caught in Vulcan’s net
Marteen Van HEEMSKERK (1536)
Hera now surrounded her son with many respects and even arranged her marriage with Aphrodite who unfortunately deceived her with many gods and mortals. One day he surprised her with Ares and locked the two lovers in a net to show them off before all the hilarious gods.
Another day he tried to seduce Athena, victim of a joke that Poseidon had made to him, out of pure malice. It was Gaia who accidentally gave birth to the child. Upset by the idea of being the mother of a child that Hephaestus had tried to make in Athena, Mother Earth declared that she did not want to take charge of her education. Athena took charge of the child immediately after birth, she called him Erichthonius and, so that Poseidon could not laugh at the success of her joke, she hid it in a sacred basket which she gave to Aglaurus, the eldest daughter of the Athenian king Cecrops, giving her the order to take great care of it and not to lift the lid on what she quickly did.
He had more happiness with one of the Charites, Aglaea (or Aglaia), who loved him with sincere love and who gave him several daughters who appeared in the Orphic songs:
- Eucleia, Goddess of Good Reputation
- Eupheme, Goddess of Acclaim
- Euthenia, Goddess of Prosperity
- Philophrosyne, goddess of Welcome
We also mention an unknow Nymph of Thrace and daughter of Proteus, who gave her several children and in particular Cacus who was killed by Heracles and the Cabires who were venerated on the island of Lemnos.
Venus asking Vulcan
weapons for Aeneas
Fabre Montpellier Museum
hetis and Hephaestus sustained
by its automatons
On the mountain with its dark gorges
Where no one alive entered,
In the hills of Lipara
Hephaestus lights his forges.
He raises, the illustrious Worker,
Her arms in the smoky red,
And beats on the burning anvil
Soft iron and hard steel.
The tridents, the darts, the swords,
Come out in crowds from his hand;
He forges brass spears,
Arrows with hardened tips.
And Kypris, sitting away,
Ritual of these deadly weapons,
Less powerful than his prayers,
Less terrible than his eyes.
Cult of Hephaestus
Temple of Hephaestus in Athens
His cult appeared on the island of Lemnos in the northern Aegean Sea where his forges were located under the volcanic mount Moschylos. However, he still had other workshops such as in the Lipari Islands under Etna or in Campania under Vesuvius.
In Athens, he was honored in his temple and at two altars, one at the Academy and the other in the Erechtheion.
Hephaestus in arts
Hephaestus is rarely represented in Greek art with the exception of a few scenes that are highly appreciated by artists. Hera’s immobilization is part of the carved decoration of Amyclæa’s throne, but the return to Olympus is by far the most popular theme. Most often, the god is represented riding a mule, escorted by Dionysus and Silenus and driven before Zeus and Hera, frequently accompanied by other gods: Athena, Ares, Artemis, Poseidon or Hermes. The most famous example is the François vase, a scroll crater dating back to about 570 BC. The scene also appeared in the decoration of Athena Khalkiokos’ sanctuary (“at the Bronze House”) in Sparta, which has now disappeared.
The birth of Athena, where Hephaestus intervenes with his axe, is also a very popular theme. Hephaestus is also seen in representations of the Gigantomachy, armed with pincers and a forge bellows, as on the friezes of the treasure of Sifnos, or in a winged chariot, probably one of his inventions. A few vases finally show it in his forge, surrounded by satyrs: it is an allusion to two lost satyric dramas, both entitled Hephaestus, one from Achaios, the other from Epicharme – as well as the vase representing a battle between Ares and the blacksmith god.
Hephaestus is identified in Greek art as a craftsman: he wears the axe, pliers, the craftsman’s cap or the sleeved tunic. The infirmity of the god is represented by feet turned outwards, as on the Francis vase, by a crutch, as on the eastern frieze of the Parthenon, or by the fact of climbing in an Amazon on his mule. According to Cicero, Alcmene’s statue of the god represents him “barely adorned with slight claudication not without grace”.
Hephaestus is still often represented in art even after Antiquity, for example by Tintoretto, Bassano, Rubens, Tiepolo, Velázquez and van Dyck.