Hesiod's Theogony, Ovid's Metamorphoses
Son of Zeus and Hera
An ancient god of fire in Greek mythology , Hephaestus is the counterpart of the Roman god Vulcan (pronounced VUHL-kuhn), the god of fire and of metalwork and crafts. The tales about Vulcan, who is sometimes called Mulciber (the smelter), are all based on Greek myths about Hephaestus.
The son of Zeus (pronounced ZOOS) and Hera (pronounced HAIR-uh; or, in some versions, of Hera alone), Hephaestus was lame and deformed. Some stories say that Zeus threw him from Olympus (pronounced oh-LIM-puhs), the mountain home of the gods, for taking Hera's side in a quarrel with Zeus and that Hephaestus became lame as a result of the fall. Other myths say that Hephaestus was born lame and that Hera threw him from Olympus because she was ashamed of his deformity. He landed in the ocean and was rescued by sea nymphs —or female nature deities—who raised him in a cave under the sea and taught him many skills.
Hephaestus became a master craftsman. One day he gained his revenge on Hera for throwing him off Olympus by creating for her a golden throne that contained a trap. When she sat on the throne, the trap closed and imprisoned her. The other gods begged Hephaestus to release Hera, but he would not listen. Finally, the god of wine, Dionysus (pronounced dye-uh-NYE-suhs), made Hephaestus drunk and obtained the key to the trap.
As craftsman for the gods, Hephaestus built palaces and other beautiful and wondrous things that enabled the Olympians to live in great luxury. He also fashioned thunderbolts for Zeus, armor for the heroes Achilles (pronounced uh-KILL-eez) and Aeneas (pronounced i-NEE-uhs) that made them unable to be harmed, and a scepter for King Agamemnon (pronounced ag-uh-MEM-non) that gave him great power. Some legends say that Hephaestus created Pandora (pronounced pan-DOR-uh) so that Zeus could take revenge on Prometheus (pronounced pruh-MEE-thee-uhs) for giving fire to humans. Hephaestus later made the chains that bound Prometheus to a mountain.
Hephaestus often appeared as a comic figure in myths and had little luck in love. One time he took an ax and split Zeus's skull to relieve a headache, and the goddess Athena (pronounced uh-THEE-nuh) sprang fully grown from the head. He fell in love with Athena, but she rejected him. He also courted Aphrodite (pronounced af-ro-DYE-tee), who accepted his offer of marriage but then had love affairs with others, including the god Ares (pronounced AIR-eez). Hephaestus fashioned a fine golden net and caught his wife and Ares in it. He then called the other gods so that they could laugh at the couple, but instead they mocked Hephaestus. The gods often made fun of him because of his limp and his soot-covered face, which came from working over the fire at his craft.
Hephaestus in Context
The Greeks believed that Hephaestus had a workshop on the volcanic island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. There, he taught the people the arts of metalwork, for which they became famous. The Romans thought that their god Vulcan lived and worked under Mount Etna, a volcano on the island of Sicily, and had workshops on Olympus and beneath other volcanoes as well. In this way, the Greeks and Romans provided a supernatural explanation for the violent eruptions and quakes that occurred wherever volcanoes were found: the quakes were said to be the result of the pounding of the hammers of Hephaestus.
The fact that Hephaestus is mocked for his disability is a reflection of the emphasis the ancient Greeks place on physical perfection. Physical deformity or disability in a baby was seen as something a family should be ashamed of, or a mark of the gods' disfavor. In fact, throughout ancient Greece (and in many other ancient cultures), deformed new-borns were killed. Generally, they were left to die of exposure, but the Spartans actually threw them off a cliff. Hephaestus must make up for his weak legs by developing especially strong arms and skilled hands.
Key Themes and Symbols
One of the main themes in the myths of Hephaestus is disability. He is wounded at a young age by a fall from Olympus and is routinely ridiculed and dismissed by the other gods for his physical flaws. The symbols typically associated with Hephaestus—the blacksmith's hammer, anvil, and tongs—all illustrate his place among the gods as a working craftsman, and a symbol of all men who must work with their hands. In this way—and in his physical imperfection—he is perhaps the most human of all the gods.
Hephaestus in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Although not as popular as other Greek and Roman gods, Hephaestus had his share of followers. The Greeks built a large temple to honor Hephaestus, which still stands. Each year in August, the Romans held a festival in honor of Vulcan called the Vulcanalia.
More recently, Hephaestus (under the name Vulcan) appeared as a character in the 1988 Terry Gilliam film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, played by Oliver Reed. He also appeared briefly in a segment from the original Disney animated film Fantasia (1940); he is shown creating lightning bolts for Zeus.
As the steel industry emerged in the nineteenth century, Vulcan enjoyed new symbolic popularity. The name “Vulcan” was applied to various products and companies associated with steel production, and the image of Vulcan was popular in steel-producing cities. Birmingham, Alabama, for example, features a 55-foot-high cast iron statue of Vulcan. Vulcan has also found his way into other industries. The process of “vulcanization,” or curing process that strengthens rubber by chemically treating it at very high heat, is named after Vulcan. The process was invented by Charles Goodyear, who put the new rubber to use in tire manufacturing.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Hephaestus is described as being deformed and physically disabled. He is also routinely the subject of ridicule and mocking by the other gods. Compare this to the situation disabled persons face in the modern world. Are people with disabilities often made fun of in modern books, movies, or television shows? Can you also find examples of disabled persons who are respected? Which of the two types is more common in the media, and what does this indicate about attitudes toward disability in modern culture?