God of the kiln, master of metallurgy, and patron of all artisans, Hephaestus was the deft and dexterous craftsman of Mount Olympus. While Hephaestus found his place among the gods as a weapons maker and trap setter, he nevertheless often found himself unloved and unwanted by the other gods. Derided as Amphigýeis, the “lame one,” Hephaestus bore the stigma of a “shrivelled [sic] foot,” the result of being hurled from Mt. Olympus at birth.
However much Hephaestus’ lameness might have stigmatized him in the eyes of the gods, it endeared him to Greek mortals, who like him fell short of the perfection that was embodied by the great Olympian deities. In their eyes, Hephaestus’ ability to craft and contrive, as well as his ceaseless effort to make whole what was broken, were rallying cries for the imperfect.
As with many Greek deities, there was no reliable etymology for the name “Hephaestus.” The first known recording of the word appeared in an inscription on the palace at Knossos on Crete. This palace was a relic of the Minoan people who lived more than a thousand years before the Greek golden age known as the Classical Era, indicating that the word was present in early Greek society. As it appeared within the palace, "Hephaestus" served as a place name—not a descriptor of the god’s characteristics or nature.
While it was known that Hephaestus was the son of Hera, the rest of his origin remained cloudy due to differences in the stories of his conception and birth. Though he was rumored to have been sired by Zeus—evidence suggested that this was an accepted truth among the Greeks—Homer insisted that there was no clear reason to believe such a thing.
In the Theogony, Hesiod told a different story. Scorned by the philandering Zeus, who gave birth to Athena without her involvement (Athena had burst from Zeus’ forehead after he had lain with Metis, the Oceanid sea nymph,) Hera took revenge and conceived a child, Hephaestus, on her own. The Theogony gave two renditions of the same sequence of events:
But Hera without union with Zeus—for she was very angry and quarrelled with her mate—bares famous Hephaestus, who is skilled in crafts more than all the sons of Heaven. [929a] But Hera was very angry and quarrelled with her mate. And because of this strife she bore without union with Zeus who holds the aegis a glorious son, Hephaestus, who excelled all the sons of Heaven in crafts.1
In his own time, Hephaestus married Aphrodite, the most beautiful of all the goddesses, but their marriage was an unhappy one, at least according to the Odyssey, where the Homeric authors had Hephaestus complain about Aphrodite, claiming that he would gladly return Aphrodite to her father and reclaim the bride price. With this depiction of their relationship in mind, it was unsurprising that Hephaestus and Aphrodite had no children together.
Although Hephaestus was not desired as his brethren gods were, he did reproduce. With Aglaea, one of the three Graces, he had four children: Eucleia, Euthenia, Eupheme, and Philophrosyne, all characters with little impact in Greek mythology. With Aetna, a nymph who lived near Mt. Aetna (or Etna) on Sicily, Hephaestus sired the twins known as the Palici. Both were chthonic deities who were thought to live beneath sulphurous geysers on the Palagonian plain.
With Anticleia, Hephaestus had his son Periphetes, known as the “Club Wielder,” a beastly man with one eye and a lame leg like his father. He lurked on the roads near Athens, robbing travelers until the mortal hero Theseus slayed him. Among the children Hephaestus had with unknown women was Palaemonius, one of the Argonauts.
Finally, in one well-known myth, Hephaestus was said to have accidentally fathered a child with the mother goddess, Gaia. It began when Hephaestus first took an interest in Athena. Hephaestus and Athena, incidentally, were often viewed as counterpart deities. Both were creators and benefactors who brought the gifts of wisdom and knowledge (Athena), and creativity and craft (Hephaestus) to humankind.
According to the version told by Pseudo-Apollodorus, Hephaestus attempted to rape Athena, but she eluded him just as he was about to consummate the act, causing him to ejaculate on the ground. His spilled semen impregnated Gaia, and out of the earth sprang Erichthonius, a prince raised by Athena who would become an early ruler of Athens.
In the version told by the Roman Hyginus, Hephaestus earned Athena’s hand in marriage because he had, in a sense, helped to deliver Athena; he had done so by splitting Zeus’ head open as she began to emerge from it. While Zeus gave his blessing to Hephaestus, Athena remained reluctant. In the marriage bed, when Hephaestus was about to consummate the marriage, Athena lost her nerve and fled, causing Hephaestus to ejaculate upon the earth. In this version as well, Hephaestus’ spilled seed would give rise to Erichthonius.
The Birth, Expulsion, and Return of Hephaestus
A central aspect of the Hephaestus mythos—and one often depicted in art both ancient and modern—was his expulsion from Olympus, as well as his eventual return. This story saw many variations, but in most of them poor Hephaestus was thrown from the heavens by Hera, who had conceived the child on her own while angry with Zeus. When she discovered that her creation had a malformed foot, Hera became angrier still, and—deeming the child unworthy of divinity—threw him down to earth.
Another version of the tale featured an angry Zeus tossing Hephaestus from Olympus in an attempt to prevent Hera’s son from ravishing his mother. In this version, Hephaestus fell for a full day before striking earth on the isle of Lemnos (this spot, the “Lemnian earth,” became a sacred site for pilgrims of Hephaestus who claimed that it possessed healing powers). Also in this version, it was the impact of his fall that rendered Hephaestus lame.
Either way, Hephaestus was understandably troubled by the incident and refused to return to Olympus. To avenge himself (based on the first account), Hephaestus built a trap for Hera—a chair with a secret mechanism. Once Hera sat on the throne, it locked her in place.
For some time, Hephaestus wandered the earth. He eventually returned to his proper place on Olympus, albeit not by his own volition. The stories agreed on this detail—Hephaestus was wined by Dionysus, who gave him enough of his vineyard’s finest to ensure that he slept soundly; once Hephaestus was resting peacefully, the wine god placed him on a donkey that carried him to the top of Mt. Olympus.
Hephaestus, the Craftsman
More often than not, Hephaestus was not the center of mythic drama; he seldom figured as the obvious hero in great dramas, took fewer lovers than his brothers and sisters, and was generally less conspicuous overall. Unlike most of the other gods, he was often a ridiculous or comedic figure, at least in part because of his disability. As a foil, however, he was cunning and vengeful, often earning small victories. Such triumphs came from his tremendous skill as an artisan and his ability to contrive clever traps and tricks.
Hephaestus ran a massive workshop on Mt. Olympus, complete with twenty bellows, a forge and anvil, and a retinue of assistants, including several chthonic Cyclops. His masterful skill and ingenuity resulted in the creation of almost everything unique or sophisticated in Greek mythology.
In but one example of his genius, Hephaestus crafted automatons that helped him in his workshop. He also created a bronze automaton named Talos, whom he gave to King Minos of Crete. Talos was said to circle the island three times a day looking for pirates and invaders. In some versions of the human creation myth, Hephaestus crafted the first woman, Pandora, and her pithos, into which the gods placed all the evils of the world. The myth of Prometheus also claimed that the fire that Prometheus stole and gave to humankind was originally from Hephaestus’ grand forge on Olympus.
Hephaestus made most of the weapons and talismans of the gods and mortal heroes. He made the great scepter and aegis of the mighty Zeus, the wing-tipped helmet of Hermes the messenger, and the helm of invisibility for Hades. He also fashioned the golden girdle of Aphrodite (a sign of his distrust, perhaps) and the chariot Helios used to bring the sun around the earth. Hephaestus also worked for less divine clientele, crafting armor for Achilles, a cuirass for Diomedes, and clappers for Hercules.
Hephaestus also made machines with mechanisms so subtle they escaped the attention of unsuspecting observers. These he used to trick his prey, as he did with Hera, whom he trapped in a locking chair. He used a similar trick to trap his wife Aphrodite, whom he discovered in an affair with Ares. Never one to fly off in a rage, Hephaestus simply bided his time tinkering in his workshop. He built a net of material so fine it was imperceptible to the naked eye, then placed it on his bed and waited for Aphrodite and Ares to seek each other’s embrace once more. When they did, they became ensnared in the net. With his quarry trapped, Hephaestus invited all of Mt. Olympus to view the naked pair.
Hephaestus has enjoyed a lively presence in popular cultural media. In films and television based on Greek mythology, he usually appeared as a powerful, thick-armed craftsman in the archetypal blacksmith mode. In the 1981 film Clash of the Titans, he was played by a large British wrestler named Pat Roach. In the television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, meanwhile, he appeared as a large, leather-clad blacksmith played by actors Julian Garner and James Hoyte.
In video games too, Hephaestus was a renowned crafter of items. In the God of War series, he made weapons for the protagonist, Kratos. In the classic video game Diablo II, a crazed blacksmith and dungeon master was named Hephaesto in a clear homage to the Greek deity.
Finally, Hephaestus played a role in the popular Percy Jackson book series by Rick Riordan, which has caused a renewed interest in Greek mythology. In the fourth book of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, called the Battle of the Labyrinth, Hephaestus appeared as the master of the kiln with a workshop that pumped out finely-tuned objects. His most notable act in the novel, however, was repairing an old Toyota that had broken down!
- Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm.
Hesiod, Theogony, 929e. ↩