(This is a republished article originally written August 2014)
Hephaestus is often an overlooked god of amongst contemporary Polytheists. Maybe it’s because his attributes are given to metal smithy, which is no longer a popular profession, or maybe because he is simply an unattractive god compared to the others of the Olympian pantheon, or could it be he is just too busy to communicate with new followers? I’m not sure. However I find him as a major mover in the Greek mythos, often the cause of problems that mortals struggle with.
As a professional metal worker, mould maker, sculptor – I find myself naturally attracted to the god. Metal working is a type of mystery magic and has always been associated with alchemy and shamanism – even today there are some shamanistic cultures that see it as direct magic and why not? Metal working in itself is turning solid basic elements into liquids and transforming them into objects. Craftsmen in general literally shape the gods and create their features. They also create things like pots to cook food in, jewels for marriage and proof of worth, tools to sow the earth, swords and armour to conquer etc. Industry is magic, it fosters civilisation and brings us closer to the divine. Mystical metals like gold and mercury, power our computers, our heating, cooking and lighting today. In no other time have we been so completely surrounded by the Gifts of Hephaestus.
The Gifts of Hephaestus. Interesting idea, I suppose one of the best things to do is explain myth in summary. Greek mythology has no canon text, it is an oral story that was shared by different people at different times that was later embellished by authors. So there are many variants of the same story. Here is my summery of the Gifts.
Commonly Hephaestus was born from Hera alone, after Zeus gave birth to Athena. When Hera saw her child she was disgusted at his ungodly features and threw him from Olympus. He fell on the island of Lemnos and became crippled but was cared for and raised by the Cyclops who taught him the art of metalworking and fostered his natural talents.
As he grew he conceived a means to take revenge on his mother. Crafting a beautiful golden throne and sent it to Olympus. Hera was so impressed by the craftsmanship of the throne she upon it without thinking, only to discover herself stuck. The gift was a curse. Distressed Zeus called for help from the gods to free his wife with reward of Aphrodite’s hand in marriage. But none of the gods could free Hera. The only god that could free her was Hephaestus, but he refused to help.
Dionysus arrived at his forge and got the smith drunk – placed him on a donkey and took him to Olympus. In the presence of the gods the smith complied to their wishes and released Hera. Dionysus gave his reward (Aphrodite) to the smith and both he and Dionysus became Olympians gods.
Aphrodite was not too keen on being married to a lame and ugly god and soon had an affair with the war god Ares. Hephaestus found out about their union and ensnared them in a trap, he brought them naked before the gods for judgement but they just laughed at his plight. He was not redeemed for their crimes and so instead sort vengeance on the offspring of their union…
Harmona was consummated in the illegitimate union. In the spinning thread of fate she met Cadmus at the mysteries of Samothrace – a mystery cult often attributed to Hephaestus as father of the Cabeiri- they fell in love and were wedded with the blessing of the gods. Hephaestus gave a gift to Harmona, a magical necklace that maintained the beauty of youth, but like many of Hephaestus’ gifts it was cursed.
Cadmus was exiled from his homeland and after a prophecy followed a cow into the plains of Boeotia and established the city of Thebes. This land was sacred to Ares and guarded by a dragon, which Cadmus killed. The dragons blood forever marked his family with miasma and even penance to Ares for eight years never cleansed the taint he had brought on his family and city. Cadmus and Harmona had five children one being Semele, she was given the necklace and was unintentionally killed by Zeus, but also gave birth to Dionysus (note the chronological paradox.)
After this event Cadmus abdicates from ruling and gave his throne to his grandson Pentheus – while Harmona passed her necklace to her daughter and mother of Pentheus – Agave. Pentheus refused to recognise his cousin Dionysus as a god and was torn apart by his mother and sisters in bacchic madness. Those involved depart the city in exile – Cadmus and Harmona became snakes to be free of their miasma and live a final life on earth before ascending.
In later generations of the Cadmus family line the necklace is worn by Jocasta, Queen of Thebes – wife to Laius. After an ill-fated prophecy of their son – killing his father and marrying his mother – his parents abandoned him on the mountain and pinned his feet. Like Hephaestus, Oedipus was abandoned and crippled (Oedipus means “swollen foot.”) Oedipus was saved by a shepherd and raised to adulthood by the king and queen of Corinth until he came to adulthood and heard the same prophecy as his original parents did. He thought it related to his Corinthian parents and went into self-exile, becoming an adventurer. In his travels he killed an ingrate noble and defeated the sphinx that had been terrorising Thebes. He was hailed as a hero and rewarded with the queens hand in marriage after the strange murder of king Laius. . .
Do you see where this going? The mounting miasma from necklace continues on and on until the city of Thebes is totally destroyed. The vengeance of Hephaestus is perhaps the most complex and everlasting of all the gods curses and directly influences human lives. Its effects ripple throughout civilisation and history. It is a pure analogy of technology. We are saturated with his gifts, his genius magic improves our lifestyle but at what cost?
I hinted at mystery side of Hephaestus. The Samothracian mysteries focused around deities called the Cabeiri. It unknown who these gods were, or even if they had names, depending on time their associations are mixed with other deities of Greece, sometimes they are eastern in origin. Some say they are twins who presided over orgiastic dances that honoured Demeter, Persephone and Hecate. They are the metalworking sons of Hephaestus that aided sailors, blessed because they helped in the recovery of the phallus of Zagreus.
Their mysteries were orgasmic with connection to the Kuretes – ecstatic soldiers that dance with clashing shields and armour, their identities hidden by their helmets. These same deities are said to have protected both Zeus and Zagreus-Dionysus in birth.
This mystery cults appears to have changed over time but it seemed have particular empathise on Hephaestus and Dionysus. In some Samothracian illustrations the Cabeiri appear almost dwarf or satyr like with grape vines – crashing and making wine. The mysteries migrated and were honoured in Thebes and elsewhere. In Sicily there was a similar cult, the Palici – dedicated to twin volcanic geysers. This cult was an early abolitionist cult. The Palici, like the Cabeiri are either the sons or grandsons of Hephaestus that offer liberty to slaves.
Lets move on: Fire!
As I write I just lit my cigarette with a lighter. A simple gesture and I have a lit smoke. We forget that fire is sacred. In primitive cultures it was either taken from trees lit by Zeus or after some hard work. Ever made fire from sticks? It’s tough and a skill that takes a long time to master.
It is a mystery and still is today, with Boy Scouts often using it as a simple initiation with rewards of badges and rank.
Some myth claim that Prometheus stole fire from the forge of Hephaestus and gave it to man. From there man moved from living in caves to building cities. Fire is the impetus of industry. In metal working it is a key component of transforming metals. Without fire we cannot refine metal from stone nor make it malleable to make into the shapes we want.
In metalworking you learn quite a bit about fire, it burns. Also you learn it’s limitations and develop a relationship that allows you to control it. Seeing molten metal is mesmerizing. It is actually difficult to explain the sensation of being it’s presence – let alone handling it. The heat is overwhelming, you feel it through the protective gear as it clings to your body with your hairs standing on end as if being prepared to be cooked. Handling it is intense, any mistake can bring doom and most of the time it is done in a group. It is a social experience with everyone relying on each other’s expertise to fulfil the task. I cannot speak for everyone but I personally find it to be a mystical experience.
The chthonic side of Hephaestus is fascinating too. Where does metal and gems come from? In early times it may have been possible to discover pure gold ore on the surface, but that time has mostly gone. To find ore – especially those of high erosion- we must dig. Mining is still one of the most dangerous occupations today, collapse, gas leaks, suffocation… But imagine primitive man entering caves with fire and mining at vein only for it to burst into flame for no apparent reason. In Hades domain his jewels are difficult to acquire without forever becoming a member.
Caves have often been a place for initiation or mysteries and for obvious reasons, darkness is mystery. Before Prometheus stole the flame from Hephaestus humans lived in caves, but accordingly if they were without fire they had no means to ventured far into the cave. Fire solved the mystery of our natural abodes, it showed us the gems and gold further into the caves. It melted the soft elements for us to use as tools or decorate ourselves with. So Hephaestus brings these secrets to life, he forms our intellect as we form his metal.
To create alloys one must combined base elements together. Bronze was an alchemical achievement as it was difficult to produce in ancient times, once mastered however it was far superior to any other metals like iron or copper, bronze swords could break copper ones, even primitive iron would break against bronze, not only that, when polished it has a semblance to gold, making it a sort after metal by sculptors.
Greeks had an abundance of copper, but to create bronze they required tin, which is relatively rare element in the Mediterranean. However there are alternatives to harden copper, such as arsenic. Long term low level exposure to arsenic creates crippling tumours and deformities to the feet, hands and face. So the followers of Hephaestus would had actually appeared like the god.
Mercury is considered a magical metal ( apart from being a liquid at room temperature) it has the unique ability to transform metals like gold and aluminium from solid to liquid back to solid (amalgamation). It also has the ability to turn the human brain into a liquid too. ‘Mad as a hatter’ was a condition illustrated by Lewis Carroll but a serious issue in the development of industry. Hatters were exposed to mercury when creating felt. Today some gold mining companies use mercury to extract gold from rock. This is an extremely dangerous processes that creates high levels of toxic gases and acids and was most likely used by ancient metal smiths for the same reasons. Apart from causing madness mercury also deforms the skin.
Then lead is another common element used by metalworkers. Like mercury it has similar effects on the body including deformities, mental and behaviour issues and blindness. There is a couple of theories why Cyclops are the smiths of Zeus before Hephaestus, one being that blacksmiths were tattooed with cycle on their forehead and another is that blindness was a common occupational hazard. Either from metals being used or from the flame itself. So we see that the class of labourers in ancient times would have been visually apparent, their behaviour too would had been erratic and easy to anger, they would had been deformed outcasts but still essential to the development of civilisation.
Thanks for health and safety protocols, advancements in industry and medicine, these ailments are no longer as much as an issue as ancient Greece. But as I mentioned in the intro we are surrounded by the god. Respecting Hephaestus is realising our environment and the devices of his domain. There is a tendency for polytheists to be more nature loving and concerned about environmental issues. This is admirable and valid, however few see the importance of industry within these circles. Since the advent of the internet and raise of the digital age there has been massive boom towards alternative faiths and pagan nature religions. Communication, industry, technology has brought us all together but it’s easy to forget to marvel at the technology behind the screen that you are reading right now. This is the gift of Hephaestus and like all his gifts they are dual formed. Even if we as not a metalworkers nor have an intimate relationship with the deity, we should never forget his dominance over our lives.
Incense: Powdered Frankincense
Powerful and strong-spirited Hephaistos,
Unwearying fire that shines in the gleam of flames,
God, bringing light to mortals, mighty-handed, eternal artisan.
Worker, cosmic part and blameless element,
Highest of all, all-eating, all-taming, all-haunting, ether, sun, stars, moon and pure light.
For it is a part of Hephaistos all these things reveal to mortals.
All homes, all cities and all nations are yours,
And, O mighty giver of many blessings, you dwell in human bodies.
Hear me, lord, as I summon you to this holy libations,
That you may always come, gentle, to make work a joy.
End the savage rage of untiring fire,
Since, through you, nature itself burns in our bodies.
Translation by Apostolos N. Athanassakis