Hephaestus or Vulcan:
Who Was Hephaestus -- His Birth -- Early Years -- Love and Marriage -- Hephaestus as Artisan -- His Activities -- The Worship of Hephaestus -- Hephaestus as Psychological Archetype -- Links -- Sources
Who was Hephaestus?
The Greek god of the forge and subterranean fire, the master craftsman, and the only god who worked or suffered from physical deformity, Hephaestus was ugly in appearance but a creator of beauty. A skilled blacksmith and artisan, he was most known for his devotion to his forge, where he crafted not only decorative jewelry, drinking vessels, furniture, but also weapons (including Zeus' thunderbolts) and armor for the gods and heroes. He was also known for his less than satisfying marriage to love goddess, the unfaithful Aphrodite, as well as his role in the stories of Pandora and Prometheus. Hephaestus was a kindly, peace-loving god of steady, stable temperament, popular both on earth and on Olympus.
In Roman mythology, Hephaestus was known as Vulcan (which means fire), and was the god of volcanic fire; he was also called Mulsiber. Because people feared the devastations of uncontrollable fires, temples to Vulcan were built outside of town. According to the Romans, his smoky, flaming workshop was inside Mount Etna, the Sicilian volcano. Hephaestus’s festival in Rome, known as Vulcanilia, was celebrated on August 23 (the first day of Virgo) to protect people from destructive fire.
Physically, Hephaestus was a muscular man with a thick neck and hairy chest who because of a shortened, lame leg and club foot (with feet facing backwards), supported himself with the aid of a crutch. Bearded, he most often dressed in a ragged sleeveless tunic and woolen hat. Most frequently, he was portrayed in art holding the tools of his trade, especially the blacksmith's hammer and tongs. Sometimes, he was surrounded by the Kabeiroi, the dwarflike blacksmith servants of the Mother Goddess who helped in his subterranean forge.
Temperamentally, Hephaestus was a peacemaker. Gentle and introverted,
he was sensitive to conflict, and often took the role of peacemaker, seeking
to reconcile his parents, Zeus and Hera, and facilitate the union between
the masculine and the feminine.
His Birth: Two Versions
Hera's motive in conceiving Hephaestus was power over her husband; she
desired a son who would be more glorious than Zeus, and outshine him. But
after a long and difficult labor, Hera gave birth from her thigh to a son
who was deformed, with clubfeet, facing backwards. According to both the
Hymn to Apollo and the Iliad, Hera was enraged that he did not
meet her standards from the start; she considered him ugly and threw him
out of Olympus. After a long fall he landed in the sea, breaking his legs
in the process. Later, Hephaestus took revenge on his mother by building
her a golden throne which bound her with invisible fetters when she sat
on it, and would not release her.
According to Homer, Hephaestus was the son of both Hera and Zeus. In both Homer (Iliad) and Apollodorus, when Zeus and Hera were in conflict, after Zeus chained Hera because of a storm she sent against Heracles, Hephaestus defended his mother and came to her rescue. This further enraged Zeus, who then threw him from Olympus. For an entire day he fell, eventually landing upon the island of Lemnos, and becoming crippled as a result of the fall. In the Iliad (I,620), Homer portrays Hephaestus telling his story: "Zeus flipped me by my foot off our balcony. I fell all day and came down when the sun did. On the island of Lemnos, scarcely alive. The Sintians had to nurse me back to health." The Sintians were the barbarian residents of Lemnos.
His Early Years
Secretly Hephaestus lived with these goddesses in their underwater caves for nine years. He lived in their "mukos", a Greek word meaning both innermost place and the women's apartments of a house, suggesting that his nine year hibernation there was a second womblike incubation, a parenting by two feminine forces, awakening his own creative energy.
There, he began to craft beautiful jewelry from the underwater coral
reefs, and metals found underwater. Partially paralyzed, he built two golden
robots to help him move around, and also the twelve thrones of Olympus.
Helped by the Cyclops, he continued to develop his skills with decorative
iron and other metals, creating beautiful gifts for his surrogate mothers.
Eventually, Hera saw some of the beautiful jewelry he had created and demanded to know the creator. When she learned it was her own son Hephaestus, and she recognized the beauty he did not possess physically but could indeed create from the physical world, she forgave him for not being what she had hoped for, and asked for Zeus to return him to Olympus. But Hephaestus, happy on Lemnos and angry at his mother, would not comply.
Finally, Zeus sent Dionysus, Hephaestus' brother, to intoxicate him and persuade him to return. Drunk on wine, which he had never previously experienced, Hephaestus then rode a donkey, accompanied by Dionysus, back to Olympus. There, where his mother reclaimed him (although he continued to insist that he had no mother), and he became one of the Olympians. Hephaestus' triumphant return to Olympus was a favorite subject for archaic Greek vase painters.
Once on Olympus, Hephaestus lived underground, where he could work as
an artisan undisturbed. Hera gave him a massive workshop with many bellow,
anvils, and helpers; there he continue to create beautiful ornaments, weapons,
furniture and jewelry to the delight of gods and goddesses.
Love and Marriage
Some view this union of inner and outer beauty as appropriate, but the
differences between their temperaments are dramatic ones -- her sensual
beauty and his ugliness, her flightiness and playful spirit contrasting
with his steady serious temperament; her unfaithfulness and irresponsibility,
and his conscientious workmanship ethics. Hephaestus loved Aphrodite, but
she rarely reciprocated; instead, she had frequent affairs with her handsome
war god brother, Ares. Some scenes in myth, however, such as in book eight
Metamorphoses, do reveal an affectionate and passionate bond between
them. In this scene, Venus seductively approaches Vulcan, in an attempt
to gain his cooperation and making armor for her son Aeneas. He is more
than willing to oblige - after they make love!