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Notebook

Notebook, 1993-

ANCIENT GREEK CULTURE

Hephaestos

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Hephaestos [Vulcan] was the son of Zeus and Hera, and according to another version, of Hera alone. He was not only an ugly and deformed deity, but his facial features were repulsive, and to boot, he was lame in both feet. Despite his unsightliness, Hephaestos represents the creative element in every civilization, fire, representing the first great leap forward of man in his conquest of nature and of the earth. The lame god of fire, soon became also the deity of metals and the official smith of the gods and heroes alike, for according to the legend, he dwelt in the depths of volcanoes or volcanic islands and was aided by the Cyclopes and the Kabeiroi [Cabiri]. He forged the armour of Achilles, the trident of Poseidon, the breast plate of Heracles, the sceptre of Zeus, and the weapons of Peleus. Consort of Aphrodite, he exposed to ridicule the infidelity of his wife whom he caught with an invisible net in the embraces of Ares. In contrast with the other deities, Hephaestos had relatively few amatory affairs, although numbers of his sons from illicit mating were the kabeiroi, the robber Periphites, Pylios, Ardalos, and others. In addition to the gifts he had made for the gods and heroes, the Greeks credited Hephaestos with other remarkable works such as the palace [p. 39] of Zeus on Olympus, the golden statues of the Ephebes [young men] possessed with powers of thought and speech, the silver dogs that guarded the palace of Alcinoos, and the bulls with the copper legs which exuded flames from their nostrils. The main center of his worship was in Athens where the Hesphaesteia were held every five years. He was also esteemed highly at Epidauros, in Phrygia, Caria, Lyceia, and especially in Lemnos. In the latter Hephaestos was worshipped as a god of healing, and his priests possessed antidotes to poisons. Hephaestos in addition is accredited with the creation of Pandora, the first woman. [pp. 39-40]

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]




'Sing, clear-voiced Muse, of Hephaistos famed for his skill. With Bright-eyed Athena he taught men glorious crafts throughout the world--men who before used to dwell in caves in the mountains like wild beasts. But now that they have learned crafts through Hephaistos the famed worker, easily they live a peaceful life in their own houses the whole year round.' [Homeric Hymn to Hephaistos]


Hephaistos is the only Olympian who works--the other gods plot, manipulate events, make things happen, but they do not work in the consuming sense that our modern era understands the word. So it is not surprising that on the eve of the Industrial Age it was this aspect of Hephaistos, and his Roman equivalent Vulcan, that excited the imagination of Tintoretto and Velazquez, Rubens and van Dyck. They show him toiling at the forge, busily at work in his workshop in the womb of the earth.

Hephaistos is the embodiment of man's unquenched creativity--the creativity that forged the bridge between our primordial dependence on nature and our industrial world. He is the symbol of endless resourcefulness and prodigious productivity. He built the magnificent Olympian palaces; he made the golden shoes with which the gods trod the air or the water and moved from place to place with the speed of the wind or even of thought; he shod with brass the celestial steeds; he made Achilles' intricately wrought shield, Athenena's spear, Apollo's and Artemis' arrows, Agamenmon's sceptre, Demeter's sickle, jewels for Zeus' lovers. He made the first self-propelled objects--tripods, tables and chairs that could move in and out of the celestial halls by themselves; he made the first robots, fully endowed with artificial intelligence--golden maidservants that, Homer tells us, 'looked like real girls and could not only speak and use their limbs, but were endowed with intelligence and trained in handiwork by the immortal gods'. He even made, in the likeness of Aphrodite, Pandora whom Zeus sent to earth to plague men.

Hephaistos' creative gift is solidly grounded in the earth, and there is magic as well as magnificence in what he produces. In his workshops he is supreme, unrivaled, but like the modern man who identifies himself exclusively with his work, he is at a total loss outside it. He was born [p. 175] deformed, with his feet turned backwards, making it difficult to walk except with a forward-rolling movement. But his crippledness in no way affected his work--his monumental capacity to produce and create. It was only in his relationships that it became an issue, especially in his relationship to the feminine. He is lost in a world of intimacy where he cannot use axe or forge to create. Indeed his lameness is the physical manifestation of an emotional crippledness that invites rejection. And rejection is the leitmotif pervading his involvement with women. It starts with his rejection by Hera who gave birth to him parthenogenically and, appalled by his deformity, flung him out of Olympos. And it colours from the beginning his relationship with Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty who becomes his wife.

It is a marriage born not of love but of blackmail. Aphrodite was the prize Hephaistos demanded from Zeus for setting Hera free. His revenge on the mother who rejects him was to send her an exquisite, golden throne with invisible chains that bound her inextricably. Consternation reigned on Olympos, and an urgent message was sent to Hephaistos to come back and free his mother. I have no mother, replies the divine craftsman, and refuses to leave his subterranean workshop. Ares is sent to force him to Olympos but has to retreat, defeated, before his brother's flames. Then, on the principle that only a trickster can catch a trickster, Dionysos is dispatched to Hephaistos' underworld. There the god of the vine meets the god of the forge, and ecstasy wins over determination. Dionysos introduces Hephaistos to wine and, through wine, to an unfamiliar part of himself. Having got him ecstatically drunk, he sets him on a mule and leads him to Olympos as if in a triumphant procession--a favourite scene of vase painters in antiquity. Confronted with his enthroned and enchained mother, Hephaistos sobers up and refuses to release her until the gods promise him Aphrodite for his wife. He forces the goddess into marriage but he cannot force her into love.

The free spirit of passion that Aphrodite embodies cannot be compelled. And once again Hephaistos has to resort to the world of mechanical contrivances, the only world he really understands, this time to catch Aphrodite and Ares love-making in his own bed. It is one of the most beautiful and deeply human myths in the Odyssey: 'When he heard the galling truth he went straight to his workshop with his heart full of evil thoughts, laid his great anvil on the smithy and forged a chain network that cold neither be broken nor undone, so as to keep them prisoners forever. His fury with Ares inspired him as he worked, and when the snare was finished he went to the room where his bed was laid and threw the netting right around the bedposts. A number of further lengths were attached to the rafters overhead and hung down light as a gossamer and quite invisible even to the blessed gods. It was a masterful piece of cunning work.' [p. 179] Now the situation becomes pure Feydeau farce. As soon as Hephaistos has laid the invisible chains, he pretends to leave for Lemnos, and no sooner has he gone than Ares appears. Aphrodite, desiring 'nothing better than to sleep with him', leads him to her marriage bed. Hephaistos' chains close instantly upon them and, too late, they find out that there is no escape. The betrayed husband arrives, wild with rage: 'His shouts brought the gods trooping to the house with the bronze door. Up came Poseidon, the Earthshaker; Hermes, the bringer of luck; and the archer king, Apollo; but the goddesses, constrained by feminine modesty, all stayed at home. There they stood then, in front of the doors . . . and when they caught sight of Hephaistos' clever device a fit of uncontrollable laughter seized these happy gods . . . . except Poseidon, who was not amused, but kept urging the great smith Hephaistos to free Ares from the net. 'Let them go,' he insisted: 'and I promise you that he himself shall make full and proper atonement, as required by you, in the presence of the immortal gods.' The atonement Hephaistos demands is the return of the gifts he had given Zeus to marry Aphrodite. He turns from the love he cannot have to the golden material objects he can. He can use his skill to bind women in traps but lacks the spirit to create bonds of relationship.

Outside his workshop, the god becomes the fool. In the Odyssey, the blind bard Demodocus amuses King Alcinous' court by singing the tale of Aphrodite making a cuckold of her husband. In the Iliad, the gods themselves burst out laughing as he clumsily bustles up and down the hall to serve them nectar from a huge bowl. The master craftsman who achieves perfection in his artifacts and mechanical inventions completely misses the mark when it comes to flesh and blood relationships. In the myth of his pursuit of Athena he literally misses the mark when he excitedly and impetuously tries to make love to her. At the moment of climax she pushes him aside and he ejaculates against her thigh instead. His semen falls on the ground and impregnates Gaia, the Goddess Earth, producing Erichthonious, the man from whom the Athenians claim their heritage.

Modern man is living out both sides of the Hephaistos archetype. He has created the supreme technological civilization and, at the same time, he has spawned a whole industry of sexual manuals, sexual aids and psychotherapeutic tools. He has created artificial intelligence on earth and has sent man to the moon, but he can hardly make love without the help of Master and Johnson, or maintain a loving relationship without recourse to the technologists of intimacy. [p. 177]


[Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York: Abrams. 1983.]




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