How Did the Ugly Olympian Hephaestus Manage to Marry the Goddess of Love?
As one of the twelve Olympians, Hephaestus was a major deity for the ancient Greeks. In Greek mythology, Hephaestus was primarily the god of fire and smiths, but he was also in charge of other crafts, including sculpting and carpentry. Hephaestus’ parents were Zeus and Hera, and he was married to the goddess Aphrodite. He appears in many myths.
The Anomaly of Hephaestus’ Appearance
Some ancient writers, such as the poet Homer, mention that Hephaestus was the son of Zeus and Hera. Others (Hesiod, for instance), however, state that Hera conceived the god on her own. In any case, Hephaestus is said to have been born very ugly, which is an anomaly, as the other Greek deities are believed to be physically flawless. Hephaestus is commonly depicted as a bearded middle-aged man with a large physique. He is normally shown wearing a short, sleeveless tunic, as this was the clothing of choice of craftsmen. As a craftsman himself, Hephaestus is associated with such tools of the trade as hammers, anvils, and tongs.
Vulcan. Marble, reception piece by Guillaume Coustou the Younger for the French Royal Academy, 1742. (Public Domain ) Hephaestus’ Roman name is Vulcan.
Hephaestus might have also been born lame, as one of his many epithets was ‘the lame one’. In some myths, Hephaestus is said to have been made lame either by Zeus or Hera. In one myth, Hephaestus is said to have intervened on behalf of his mother during a quarrel between Zeus and Hera. Enraged by his interference, Zeus cast Hephaestus out of Mount Olympus and he became lame after the fall. In other accounts, it was Hera, disgusted by her son’s deformity and ugliness, who threw Hephaestus down form the mountain.
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It was during his exile that Hephaestus learned his trade. In one version of the myth, Hephaestus fell in the ocean, where he was found by Thetis and Eurynome. The pair sheltered the Olympian in a cave under the ocean for nine years, where he learned to make jewelry using pearls and corals. In another version of the tale, Hephaestus landed on the island of Lemnos, where he was tutored by Kidalionas, a blacksmith.
Detail of Hephaestus in his forge in the painting ‘ Parnassus’ (1496-1497) by Andrea Mantegna. ( Public Domain )
Return to Olympus
Eventually, Hephaestus returned to Mount Olympus, thanks to Dionysus. According to one myth, Hephaestus intended to exact revenge on Zeus and Hera for what they had done to him. The god crafted a golden throne, which he gave to his mother. Hera accepted the gift, and sat on it.
When the goddess tried to get up, however, she was unable to do so, as she was tied down by invisible cords. Hera begged her son to set her free, as did many of the other gods, to no avail. Eventually, it was Dionysus who prevailed on Hephaestus by getting him drunk, and therefore succeeding in convincing him to set Hera free.
Hera and Prometheus. Tondo of an Attic red-figured kylix, 490–480 BC. From Vulci, Etruria. ( Public Domain )
Bargaining for Love
As Hephaestus was about to set his mother free, Zeus appeared and tried to convince his son to release Hera. Realizing that his father was unaware that he was going to set Hera free, Hephaestus took advantage of the situation by making a bargain with Zeus. In exchange for Hera’s freedom, Hephaestus was to have the hand of Aphrodite in marriage. Thus, the lame and ugly Hephaestus became the husband of the goddess of love.
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‘Marriage of Aphrodite and Hephaestus’ by Johann Georg Platzer. (Public Domain )
In one story, Aphrodite committed adultery with Ares, the god of war , and the pair were caught red-handed by Hephaestus with a chain-net that he made himself. Hephaestus invited the other gods to laugh at the adulterous pair, and it was Poseidon who eventually persuaded him to release them.
‘Mars and Venus surprised by Vulcan’ (1827) by Alexandre Charles Guillemot. ( Public Domain )
Hephaestus created many other magnificent objects, for himself, the gods, as well as for certain mortals. For example, his palace was made of gold, and he fashioned himself gold automata that behaved almost like humans. Moreover, several pieces of military equipment are said to have been made by Hephaestus for the heroes of Greek mythology. These include the armor of Achilles, the sword of Peleus, and the breast-plate of Diomedes.
‘Thetis Receiving the Weapons of Achilles from Hephaestus’ by Anthony van Dyck. ( Public Domain )
Top image: Hephaestus in ‘Vulcan forging the Thunderbolts of Jupiter’ (1636-1638) by Peter Paul Rubens. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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