Hephaestus, the Master Craftsman
Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, is most revered for his master craftsmanship. In works of art he is usually depicted as a middle-aged smith working in his forge, often making a thunderbolt for Zeus. Born of Hera alone, he was cast down as a baby from Olympus by his mother for his defective ugliness and fell for a whole day before he hit the ground. Nine years after he was thrown from the heavens, he returned to Olympus and became one of the twelve Olympian Gods. With Zeus’s favor, he was able to marry Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who sadly never returned the love he gave to her.
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Hephaestus was loved by the mortals for his kindness and he had an important role in Athens alongside Athena. Nearly every weapon, piece of armor, or building of any importance was crafted by Hephaestus. Hephaestus, rejected by his mother for his ugliness, helped countless mortals and gods, married Aphrodite, and rose to Olympus to become the master craftsman honored by all. Hephaestus is the god of fire but only in its positive and useful aspect. This also includes everything that is accomplished by fire. Therefore, any fire that destroys or damages is not attributed to him (Berens 73).
He, being a smith, is the protector of smiths, both goldsmiths and blacksmiths and jewelers. Also as a master builder he is the god of builders, masons, and carpenters (Graves 15). He is also considered to be the god of volcanoes because this is where it was believed his forges were located. Inside his forges, he uses Cyclopes as his helpers because they have a natural talent for forging (Bolton 178). Not only is Hephaestus a smith, he is also an architect, craftsman, and an artist (Bulfinch 13). In fact, he is known as the master craftsman (Hansen 185).
He makes nearly everything that the gods want from their weapons and armor, to their homes, palaces and chariots (Hamilton 36). Hephaestus is an ugly god. He is often illustrated with grotesque facial features and malformed legs but with massive upper body strength. Usually he is shown wielding a hammer and working on a weapon or object of some kind (Berens 76). In other depictions of art, items often associated with work, such as an axe, a mule, and a pilos, otherwise known as a workman’s hat, are used to represent him (Hansen 186). Hesphaestus is also represented by the quail.
This bird’s strange dance in the springtime is seen as similar to how Hephaestus hobbles when he walks (Graves 15). Several stories exist on how Hephaestus was born. While all stories agree that he was born to Hera, the goddess of marriage, they differ on when he was born and whether he had a father at all. Some say that he was born to Hera, alone, because she wanted to give birth to a child by herself after Zeus solely gave birth to Athena (Martin 88). However, this is contradicted by the story that it was Hephaestus that helped Zeus give birth to Athena by splitting Zeus’s head open to allow Athena to pop out.
Therefore, Hera could not have been jealous of Athena’s single parent birth since Athena hadn’t been born yet (Berens 21). This leads to the rumor where Hera had Hephaestus long before being married to Zeus (Martin 88). But the easiest explanation is that Zeus was indeed his father, and he was born before Athena (Bulfinch 15). After Hephaestus was born, Hera realized that he was ugly and crippled, and to rid herself of such an embarrassment, she threw him off Olympus (Graves 86). He plummeted into the sea, and immediately he was saved by the sea-goddess Thetis.
Thetis took him to an underground cave where she and an oceanide Eurynome took turns caring for and raising the young god (Hansen 183). For nine years he remained hidden in his secret, underground home. By the end of the nine years he was already an expert craftsman. He made elaborate items of jewelry, much to the delight of his caretakers (Martin 89). He also made useful objects like clasps, pins, and cups (Hansen 184). While Hephaestus was living with Thetis in the underwater cavern, she told him stories of his birth mother, Hera. After hearing these stories, Hephaestus desperately wanted revenge on his mother for throwing him off Olympus.
He began to work non-stop in his forge, leaving only for ambrosia and nectar. Some time later he emerged with a shining black and gold throne, his first masterpiece. Displayed across the entire throne were different scenes depicting the stories of the gods. He requested that Thetis take the throne to Hera up on Mount Olympus as a gift. When the throne was placed in front of Hera, she admired it for a long time. After she sat down, she realized that she could not move. Invisible bands of force held her in place. She yelled frantically, trying to escape but with no success.
The other Olympians quickly came to her aid but none of them could release her either. They soon came to the conclusion that a god had made the throne, but they did not know who could have made it (Martin 89). Thetis, who happened to still be there, explained to the gods who made the throne. Ares immediately volunteered to fetch Hephaestus, and set off at once for the underwater cave. When Ares arrived, however, Hephaestus fought him off using flaming brands. Ares returned to Olympus empty handed and Hera began to fear that she would spend eternity stuck in a chair. Luckily for Hera, Dionysus decided he would give it a try.
He gathered an excessive amount of wine and traveled to the cave. He made no sign that he was trying to take Hephaestus to Olympus. Instead he gave Hephaestus the alcohol and soon had him so drunk that Hephaestus couldn’t even walk. Dionysus then called upon his satyrs and donkey to escort Hephaestus back to Olympus in a grand parade of flute-playing and cymbal-smashing satyrs. Once they arrived at Olympus, Dionysus declared, on behalf of the drunken Hephaestus, that Hera could go only if Hephaestus was allowed to stay on Mount Olympus. Every god favored the agreement so Hephaestus unlocked the throne, setting Hera free.
From then on, Hephaestus the smith was one of the twelve Olympians (Martin 90). Many people wonder how Olympus’s ugliest god became the husband to the most beautiful goddess. There are several different explanations on how this happened. One story says that when Hephaestus first saw Aphrodite, he immediately fell in love with her and went straight to Zeus and Hera for permission to marry her. Since they both agreed, they became husband and wife (Bolton 178). Another story states that Zeus gave Aphrodite to Hephaestus in thanks for him forging his lightning bolts (Bulfinch 4).
A different story explains that Zeus married them to keep Aphrodite out of trouble. He thought she needed a hardworking and disciplined husband, so he chose Hephaestus (Graves 16). Lastly, one theory says that Zeus set it up as revenge for when Aphrodite refused him as a lover (Bolton 178). No matter how they got married, one thing is always agreed upon. Hephaestus loved Aphrodite, but Aphrodite never returned that love (Hansen 184). Aphrodite never loved Hephaestus because she thought it was shameful to have a crippled and hideous husband (Graves 17).
So instead of being a loyal and faithful wife, Aphrodite had many affairs with gods as well as mortals. The most prominent affair was with Hephaestus’s brother, Ares, the god of war. When Hephaestus found out about her affair with Ares, he became especially angry (Hansen 184). Helios came to Hephaestus and told him of the affair between Aphrodite and Ares. Hephaestus’s immediate reaction was of rage and revenge (Hansen 184). He went to his smithy and crafted a pair of invisible and indestructible chains. He took the chains and laid them over top of his bed, checking to see if it was concealed.
Hephaestus told Aphrodite that he would be leaving on vacation to Lemnos and pretended to depart. As soon as Aphrodite thought he was gone, she summoned Ares to come. They laid down in Hephaestus’s own bed and instantly became trapped (Hansen 185). Hephaestus then returned to his house and summoned all of the gods to come with him. There, he let them view the humiliated and trapped lovers in bed (Bolton 180). Hephaestus explained to the gods how Aphrodite hated him for being crippled and loved Ares for being attractive. All the male gods commented on the scene and viewed it without disgust.
Several of the goddesses, however, did not enjoy themselves as much as the male gods did (Hansen 185). Everyone laughed though, and made fun of Ares and Aphrodite, but some mocked Hephaestus as well (Bolton 180). Finally, with some pleading from Poseidon, Hephaestus let the embarrassed lovers go (Hansen 185). Hephaestus may have had some problems with his wife, but he was very popular among the mortals. He taught them smithing and the art of metalworking (Berens 74). Aside from that, he was known for being very helpful. Orion once came to Hephaestus’s forge on Lemnos after being blinded.
Hephaestus took pity on him and sent a guide to take him to Apollo. Because of his helpfulness, all the mortals honored him, and many of them worshiped him (Berens 73). He has temples on the volcanic Island of Lemnos and Mt. Maschylus (Graves 88). He also has a temple on Mount Etna and in Athens. To enter the temple on Mt. Etna, the mortals must pass fearsome hounds, who serve as guards. These hounds have the ability to smell if people are good or evil. With these special guards, only the clean and righteous souls can enter (Berens 76). His temple in Athens stands alongside the temple of Athena.
In Athens he serves alongside Athena as the patron of handicrafts, specifically the guardian of the smiths (Hamilton 37). Hephaestus, being the master craftsman, made a great deal of objects for the good of mankind. Many times he helped heroes on their quests, such as Hercules, Aeneas, and Achilles. For Hercules, Hephaestus crafted several gifts. First, he constructed an enormous pair of clappers that were somewhat like cymbals. Hercules used these to scare the Stymphalide birds (Berens 286). He made a golden breastplate on Hercules’ behalf (Hansen 185).
Lastly, he sent Hercules a golden quiver as a gift for when he became famous among the gods (Berens 282). For Aeneas, he crafted an impressive set of armor at the request of his goddess-mother (Bulfinch 155). Aeneas used the armor to defeat Turnus in battle. Finally, to the hero Achilles, he gave a set of impenetrable armor after Thetis, Achilles’ mother, asked him to help her son. Achilles had lost his previous armor and needed a replacement to protect him in his search for Hector. When Hephaestus was visited by Thetis and heard her request, he set all other work aside to complete it (Bulfinch 121).
Besides helping mortals, Hephaestus had other responsibilities. As the master craftsman, he solely designed and built the numerous palaces on Mount Olympus. These included the wondrous palace of Zeus and Hera at the peak of Olympus to the palaces of every other Olympian god to even the majestic thrones that sat in each (Berens 20). Again, being the master craftsman, he built many other things. For mighty Zeus, he made the shield, Aegis and constantly replenishes his supply of thunderbolts (Bulfinch 2). To Artemis he gave armor and arrows to help her on her hunts (Bolton 178).
Some of his greatest works were built for Apollo, the god of the sun. These included the magnificent palace of the sun in the east, as well as Apollo’s own Sun chariot (Bulfinch 23). Hephaestus lived through his harsh and misfortunate creation to become a well respected god, loved for his kindness and honored by the humans and gods that he assisted in numerous ways. Ordinary man chose the common quail, whose springtime dance is like his limping walk, to represent him. When he was born, his ugliness caused Hera to cast him off Olympus to rid herself of the embarrassment.
Thetis took him in, raised him, and he later returned to Olympus in revenge to Hera. Aphrodite became his wife although her loyalty was to Ares, Hephaestus’s brother, and not to her husband. Hephaestus was honored by having temples in Athens and on Mt. Etna. The most marvelous works known to gods or mortals were created by Hephaestus. Even though Hephaestus is the ugliest god on Olympus, he became one of the most popular in heaven as well as on earth by happily aiding humans and kindly assisting his fellow gods alike.