By Nancy Hathaway
Begin with the body, immortal, flawed.
Or begin with the mother, who conceived him out of spite, not because her mate had been unfaithful but because he had given birth to a daughter, who sprang from his brow like a thought.
Hera paid him back in kind, or such was her intention. She rubbed her hands against the pebbly earth and caressed the veined, watery skin of a lettuce: cool celadon, bitter herb of impotence, deathbed of Adonis.
In this cheerless way, without a swan or a snake, a flame or a cascade of gold, she gave birth to Hephaestus, eternity’s smith.
Yet satisfaction was denied her. For unlike Athena, Zeus’s splendid daughter, Hephaestus was imperfect, with a foot so alarmingly twisted that Hera, mortified, stood on the frosty summit of Mount Olympus and tossed him into the sea.
Nothing in mythology is certain. Hesiod maintains that the boy had no father, that Hera gave birth to him as a solitary act of vengeance. Homer claims that Hephaestus was the son of Zeus. Pindar goes further, asserting that Hephaestus was born before his celebrated sister, and moreover, he played a role in her birth, for when Zeus complained of what turned out to be the ultimate splitting headache, Hephaestus cleaved his forehead with an ax. Out popped Athena, armed and shrieking.
Later on, when Hephaestus tried to protect his mother from Zeus’s imperial rage, his good deed was forgotten. The king of the gods grabbed him by the foot and hurled him off the mountain.
For an entire day, Hephaestus fell, tumbling through the upper air, slicing through icy clouds and roaring wind, rocketing past migrating flocks as the world approached, slowly at first and then in a blue rush. When he hit the surface, whether on land or at sea, he shattered his legs, which never fully healed.
So there it is. Either Hephaestus was born after Athena, or the other way around. Either his mother didn’t want him or his father didn’t. Either he was cast out because he was misshapen or he was misshapen because he was cast out. Cause and effect are interchangeable. You cannot avoid your fate.
On the island of Lemnos, his luck changed. The sea goddess Thetis and the nymph Eurynome set him up in an undersea grotto and taught him the mysteries of metal and fire. He fashioned Achilles’ shield, Zeus’s thunderbolt, Hercules’s rattle, Harmonia’s necklace, and virtually every useful or beautiful object mentioned in classical sources. Using only mud, he even sculpted Pandora. But he could not breathe life into her. Athena, ever the superior deity, did that.
The truth is, the other deities were more godlike. But Hephaestus had something they lacked: real work. Oh, they kept busy. Athena wove once in a while, Apollo tended cattle, and Poseidon ruled the waves. Yet we seldom see them at those tasks, whereas Hephaestus, ambidextrous and ambitious, could always be found at his labors. With the one-eyed Cyclopes as his assistants and the vast dramatis personae of Greek mythology as his customer base, he ran a thriving enterprise and was an artisan of the highest order.
And Eros, although absent at the conception, did not forsake him. He hid, as always, among the tools of the trade, the tools of every trade. The surgeon longs for the scalpel, the painter for the brush. The historian lingers over the map, the chef yearns for the pot, and the smith romances the forge and the fire, the bellows, the hammer, the anvil, the clang and the hiss, the molten metal and the cooling shelves.
He manufactured the artifacts of war – shields, spears, axes, knives, helmets, chariots, weapons – along with palaces, temples, jewelry, goblets and decanters, gold and silver guard dogs, and an entourage of automatons who did housework and resembled women in every particular except that they were cast in gold.
Still, there are sorrows you can’t overcome. Even as he honed his craft, Hephaestus blamed his parents for his unhappiness, whining that if they had never had him, he would not have had to suffer. He burned with resentment and, at last, devised a way to restore his pride. From his underground grotto on Lemnos, he constructed a throne, magnificent in design and precise in execution, and sent it up to Mount Olympus as a gift for his mother, who delighted in the tribute and received it without hesitation. But as soon as she sat down upon it, posing in her most queenly manner, a metallic net, lighter than milkweed, settled around her and locked her into place.
How gratifying. Only he could release Hera from the cunning trap, and he would not. Emissaries from Olympus, armed with fruitless arguments and hollow inducements, petitioned him to free her. Hephaestus refused. Let her suffer. He crossed his arms in defiance.
But resistance like that – fervent on the outside, fragile at the core – crumbles easily, given the right ambassador. And here he comes: Dionysus, the irresistible, a flask of wine tucked under his arm. Soon Hephaestus was woozily perched on a mule heading for Olympus, an episode frequently painted on Greek vases. On some of these vessels, his feet point backwards, highlighting his disability. On others, he sits atop the beast like a hero. And indeed, his homecoming was nothing like his expulsion. He had established himself; he could be magnanimous. When he freed Hera from the chair, she promised to reward him with anything he chose.
Hephaestus did not make the error of Midas, who wanted everything he touched to turn to gold. He made the other kind of mistake.
He asked for the hand—and not just the hand—of laughing Aphrodite, goddess of persuasion. And his wish was granted. Work and Love, said Freud. That’s all there is.
It didn’t work out. He festooned her with artfully wrought ornaments, but Aphrodite continued her amorous escapades with her longtime companion, his brother Ares, the god of war. Helios, the sun god who observed everything with his single, dispassionate eye, knew what was going on. He came to Lemnos and revealed the secret, causing Hephaestus to feel short of breath and disoriented, as if he were gazing down on himself from an enormous height. Was this rumor true? To find out, he concocted a trap not unlike the one with which he had imprisoned Hera. He crafted a delicate web of metal chains and suspended it over his marital bed.
No sooner did he leave for the smithy than Aphrodite and Ares, crazed with desire, toppled into bed together. The chains descended, pinning them in their disarray to the sheets.
Helios reported the news to one and all.
Bereft, Hephaestus moaned that Aphrodite had betrayed and humiliated him because he was imperfect. And he wasn’t wrong.
Meanwhile, the other gods gathered around, merrily admiring Hephaestus’s guile and Aphrodite’s charms. All agreed that Hephaestus – Slow, as they called him in the Odyssey – had outwitted War. So Hephaestus had his revenge.
But it wasn’t sweet. Aphrodite relished being on display, while Ares, so often scorned, even by Zeus, enjoyed being the envy of the other gods. And although the lovers, once freed, departed separately from the scene of the crime, they remained together.
Anyone can be rejected. Brilliant Apollo, lord of light, looked like the young Paul Newman – that is, like a Greek god – but his dry perfection often made his would-be lovers squirm. Daphne turned into a laurel tree to evade his advances. Dryope became a black poplar for similar reasons. Marpessa, given a choice between the golden god and a mortal, married the man.
With men, too, Apollo’s passions came to naught. He accidentally killed Hyacinthus, whose blood became a flower, and his beloved friend Cyparissus turned into a cypress tree.
But Apollo’s woes are not our concern. For Apollo embodied the DNA of deity, halo and all, his sorry love life notwithstanding, whereas limping Hephaestus, the Bronze Age blacksmith sometimes depicted as a dwarf, lacked all glamour, even if he did garner commissions.
At Hera’s request, he set the river Xanthus aflame until it boiled like a cauldron of lard, fish leaping in every direction. And when Zeus ordered him to shackle Prometheus to a rock for centuries of punishment, he did so, albeit reluctantly. There was nothing he couldn’t do.
One day Athena, in the market for a set of armor, visited him in his workshop. Dazzled, he made his move and was, of course, rejected. He pressed ahead anyway, and his semen fell on her thigh. She brushed it to the ground, where it impregnated the earth goddess Gaia. Trouble ensued.
Even the gods grow tame over time. Eventually Hephaestus married one of the three graces. They lived in a castle that he filled with elegant, laborsaving devices, and she was devoted.
But one cannot help wondering: Can he forget Aphrodite? Does she meander through his dreams, trailing fragrance, ever out of reach? Or are his dreams abstract, architectural, the reveries of an inventor? Does he sleep soundly? Or does he meet the dawn in a petulant mood?
And what about the grace? Does she marvel at her husband’s brawny shoulders, rejoice in the trinkets he bestows upon her? Does she draw him to her with the avidity that Aphrodite brings to War? Does she love him? Does he return the favor?
How comforting to imagine that the answer might be yes.
How sobering to realize that it doesn’t matter.
His love affairs are incidental, though that’s where the drama lies.
What matters is the work. And, yes, there is a god for that.
Nancy Hathaway is the author of The Friendly Guide to Mythology, Native American Portraits 1862 – 1918, and other books. She works and lives in New York City.