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Hephaestus or Vulcan:
Artisan of the Gods

copyright 1999 
by Tracy Marks
(Torrey Philemon at Ancient Sites)

Sing, clear voiced Muse, of Hephaistos, renowned for his inventive skill, who with grey-eyed Athene, taught to men upon earth arts of great splendor, men who in former days lived like wild beasts in mountain caves. But having learned skills from Hephaestus, famed for his work and craftsmanship, they now, free from care, peacefully live year by year in their houses. Be gracious, Hephaestus, and grant me excellence and prosperity! 
--Homeric Hymn to Hephaestus 


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. 

Hephaestus, the master artisan, broke the silence,
Out of concern for his ivory-armed mother:
"This is terrible; it's going to ruin us all.
If you two quarrel like this over mortals
It's bound to affect us gods. There'll be no more
Pleasure in our feasts if we let things turn ugly.
Mother, please, I don't  have to tell you,
You have to be pleasant to our father Zeus
So he won't be angry and ruin our feast.
If the Lord of Lightning wants to blast us from our seats,
He can - that's how much strong he is.
So apologize to him with silken-soft words,
And the Olympian in turn will be gracious to us...
I know it's hard, mother, but you have to endure it.
I don't want to see you getting beat up, and me
Unable to help you."
Iliad I: 603-21, Lombardo translation


His Birth: Two Versions
Hesiod, as well as Roman sources, claims that Hera gave birth to Hephaestus parthenogetically, without Zeus' participation, since she was angry at him for birthing Athena from his own head without first procreating with her: (ll. 929)" But Hera without union with Zeus -- for she was very angry  and quarrelled with her mate -- bore famous  Hephaestus, who was skilled in crafts more than all the sons of Heaven."  For this reason, Zeus never liked Hephaestus. 

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 Homeric 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. 

from the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (ll. 309-330)  by Hesiod 

Once on a time Hera... was angry with father Zeus, when the Son of Cronos bare all-glorious Athena in his head.  Thereupon queenly Hera was angry and spoke thus among the assembled gods: 
Hear from me, all gods and goddesses, how cloud-gathering Zeus begins to dishonor me wantonly, when he has made me his true-hearted wife.  See now, apart from me he has given birth to bright-eyed Athena who is foremost among all the blessed gods.  But my son Hephaestus whom I bare was weakly among all the blessed gods and shriveled of foot, a shame and disgrace to me in heaven, whom I myself took in my hands and cast out so that he fell in the great sea.  But silver-shod Thetis the daughter of Nereus took and cared for him with her sisters: would that she had done other service to the blessed gods!  O wicked one and crafty!  What else will you now devise?  How dared you by yourself give birth to bright-eyed Athena?  Would not I have borne you a child -- I, who was at least called your wife among the undying gods who hold wide heaven....

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
But most sources claim that Hephaestus  landed in the sea near Lemnos, and was washed up on the shore, where he lay broken until rescued by the Nereids, Thetis and Eurynome (mother of the Graces).  They then hid him from his mother who, ashamed of him, would have continued to harm him. 

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. 

And the renowned smith called back:
"Thetis...saved me when I lay suffering
From my long fall, after my shameless mother
Threw me out, wanting to hide my infirmity.
And I really would have suffered, had not Thetis
And Eurynome, a daughter of Ocean Stream,
Taken me into their bosom. I stayed with them
Nine years, forging all kinds of jewelry,
Brooches and bracelets and necklaces and pins,
In their hollow cave, while the Ocean's tides,
Murmuring with foam, flowed endlessly around.
No one knew I was there, neither god nor mortal,
Except my rescuers, Eurynome and Thetis.
Now the goddess has come to our house.
I owe her my life and would repay her in full..."
Iliad,  18:423-32,  translated by Lombardo

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
According to one myth, Hephaestus asked Zeus for Aphrodite in marriage as a reward for setting his mother free; according to another, he asked for Athena as his wife, as a reward for having assisted her birthing. But most stories indicate that Zeus, regretting his previous enmity and valuing Hephaestus' skills, gave Aphrodite to Hephaestus as his wife. Aphrodite did not refuse. 

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 of Ovid's 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! 

In the Odyssey (8:269), and in Ovid's Metamorphoses, when Helios tells Hephaestus of Aphrodite's and Ares' coupling, Hephaestus devises a trap to capture them and display them in the act of lovemaking. He entangles them in an invisible net, and then exposes them to the laughter of the gods. Unfortunately, although he reveals his cleverness in the process, he also exposes himself as the cuckold, attempting unsuccessfully to retain the love and devotion of his wife. All too frequently, Hephaestus is the target of the gods' laughter. 

(RIGHT:  Mars and Venus Caught in the Net by Heemskerk)

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Several stories tell  that Hephaestus, unhappy in marriage, turned his attention to Athena, who also spurned him. In fact, he fell in love with her the moment he released her from Zeus' head, and again when she came to his forge, seeking for him to make for her a spear. When he tried to initiate intercourse, Athena rejected him, and he spilled his seed upon her leg. As she fled, his sperm fell on the earth, and resulted in the birth of Erichtonius, who was initially carried in Gaia's womb. 

(RIGHT: Athena Scorning the Advances of Hephaestus by Paris Bordone)


Ancient Athenians celebrated a yearly fertility festival called the Chalkeia, honoring the attempted union between Hephaestus and Athena, and their offspring. 

Apart from Aphrodite as his wife and Athena as an object of his desire, Hephaestus has also been associated in other myths with other goddesses. In Hesiod, he is considered husband to Aglaia (Splendor), one of the Graces (Homeric Hymns, II, 945) as well as Charis, another Grace (Iliad 18:362). Other wives associated with him include Kabeiro of Lemnos, Ocresia and Anticleo. Little is known about these marriages; most myths portray Hephaestus as the jilted lover, continually rejected by women and redirecting his frustrated love and passion into his work. 

This article is copyright 1999 by Tracy Marks and may not be reproduced. 

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