To the ancient Greeks, fire represented many things. It was the warm hearth, the blacksmith’s forge, and the destructive power of the volcano. All of these aspects were combined in one legendary figure – the god Hephaestus. But how did this outcast get to be one of the most powerful gods?
Fire and Smithing
Hephaestus was a god with several important aspects.
Firstly, he was the god of fire. To the ancient Greeks, fire was less a source of danger than it was a vital tool for humanity. After all, it was how they cooked and how they made the metal weapons that gave them an edge in battle. This is why the theft of fire from the gods by the Titan Prometheus was such an important story, and why the gods punished Prometheus greatly for the theft. Hephaestus was the god of fire.
Because fire was so important to manufacturing, Hephaestus also the god of crafting. Though he was usually portrayed as a blacksmith, he was the patron of other sorts of craftsmen, such as sculptors, stonemasons, and artisans.
The fire of volcanos meant that they also became associated with Hephaestus. Some people believed that these were his forges, vast chambers in which he did his blacksmithing work.
Hephaestus was usually portrayed as a bearded, middle-age man, less glamorous than some of the other gods. He was occasionally shown as younger and clean shaven. Carrying craftsman’s tools, especially a hammer and tongs, marked him out from the other gods. He was sometimes shown riding a donkey.
Hephaestus was the son of Hera, the queen of the gods. There are two different versions of his origin.
In one version, he had no father. Hera, enraged at the infidelities of her husband Zeus, had a child on her own, who she brought into being when she slapped the ground. This unusual birth left him deformed and ugly, so Hera sent him away from Mount Olympus.
In another version of the story, Hephaestus was the son of both Hera and Zeus. He was thrown out of Olympus by Zeus for protecting his mother from his father, with whom she had a tempestuous relationship.
Arriving on Earth on the island of Lemnos, Hephaestus was taken in by the Sintians. They made him part of their community and taught him craftsmanship. He built his first workshop on the island and became a master craftsman, creating elaborate pieces of jewellery.
One of the items Hephaestus made was a magical golden throne, which he sent to Hera. When she sat on it she became trapped, unable to stand up – Hephaestus’s revenge for his rejection. He refused to tell the gods how she could be released, and so Dionysus, the god of wine, was sent to fetch him. Dionysus got Hephaestus drunk and brought him back to Olympus. There he released his mother in return for a more prominent place among the gods and the hand in marriage of the beautiful Aphrodite.
Having returned to Mount Olympus, Hephaestus built a new forge there. He then went on to build others like it, each under the location of a volcano, and it was said that his work was what caused earthquakes and eruptions, with the hammering of his tools and the blasts of heat from the forges. His workshops were scattered across the Mediterranean at sites such as Sicily, Imbros, and Hiera.
He was assisted in his work by three of the cyclops - Arges, Brontes and Steropes. He also made automatons and automatic bellows to do some of the work.
Hephaestus created a range of devices that weren’t living but moved, including the Bulls of Aeetes, Talos, and his own handmaidens. He made much of the furniture and décor for Mount Olympus, including thrones, golden tables, palaces of gold and marble, and the vast golden gates that were the entry to the home of the gods.
As fitted an ancient blacksmith, he made many accoutrements of war. These included chariots for Helios, Ares, Aphrodite, and his sons, the Cabeiri. He crafted bows and arrows for Apollo, Artemis and Eros, and a helmet for Hermes. For the demi-god Heracles, he made a quiver and bronze clappers used to scare off the Stymphalian birds.
His divine workshops fulfilled commissions for powerful mortals as well as gods. He built palaces for kings Aeetes, Alcinous, and Oenopion. When Prince Pelops was torn apart by his father and then restored by the gods, Hephaestus made a shoulder bone to replace the one eaten by a distracted Demeter. When he became king, Pelops also wielded a sceptre made by Hephaestus.
The Theft of Fire
Though Hephaestus shared his creations with humanity, he would not share his fire. And so the Titan Prometheus stole the secret of fire from his forge on Mount Olympus to pass it to humanity. When Prometheus was caught, it was Hephaestus who chained him to the Caucasus Mountains as part of the punishment laid out by the gods.
Hephaestus in Love
Hephaestus had a number of lovers, including the sea nymph Cabeiro, who he met on Lemnos. Together they had two children, metal-working gods like their father, who were known as the Cabeiri. He was also involved with a nymph named Aetna in Sicily, with whom he had sons.
Hephaestus’s most famous relationship was with his wife Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. When she had an affair with Ares, god of war, Hephaestus learned about it. He made a net of invisible but unbreakable chain links and captured them in bed together, then dragged them to court in shame. Ares was forced to pay a fine for his adulterous behaviour.
Hephaestus sometimes showed the dark side of the Greek gods – bitter, insecure, and cruel. But given his rejection by his parents, it is a wonder that he became perhaps the most helpful god, crafting tools for mortals and gods alike.