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Ancient Greek mythology, religion and art
Hephaistos (Ἥφαιστος; Latin, Hephaestus), the son of Zeus and Hera, was the Greek god of metalworkers and sculptors, the archetypal maker of fine and extravagant metal objects, including armour for gods and heroes (e.g. Achilles, see below
), Aphrodite's girdle, Hermes
' winged helmet and sandals and the chariot of Helios
. He was also the god of fire and volcanoes, his Roman equivalent being Vulcanus.
"The bellows blew on the crucibles, twenty in all, sending forth well-blown blasts of every degree sometimes in a hurry, at other times in whatever way Hephaistos wanted and demanded. He threw weariless copper in the fire and tin and precious gold and silver; and then he set a great anvil on its block, and grasped in one hand the mighty hammer, and in the other the tongs."
, Book 18, lines 470-477.
He was worshipped at many places around the Greek world, particularly on the northern Aegean island of Lemnos and in Athens, where the Doric Temple of Hephaistos (the Hephaisteion (see photo below
), built in the second half of the 5th century BC (around the same time as the Parthenon), stands in the Athenian Agora and is the best preserved Classical temple. It housed statues of Hephaistos and Athena who was sometimes known as Athena Ergane (the Worker), patron of crafts. The two deites were celebrated at an annual festival known as the Chalkeia (Greek for copper or bronze; chalkeus was a title for a bronzeworker), which included torch races.
"Sing, clear-voiced Muse, of Hephaestus famed for inventions. With bright-eyed Athena he taught men glorious crafts throughout the world, - men who before used to dwell in caves in the mountains like wild beasts. But now that they have learned crafts through Hephaestus the famed worker, easily they live a peaceful life in their own houses the whole year round.
Be gracious, Hephaestus, and grant me success and prosperity!"
Homeric Hymn 20, to Hephaistos 
Hephaistos was associated with Athena's birth: ancient vases and reliefs show him with an axe, splitting open Zeus's head, from which Athena springs fully armed (see the illustration on Athens Acropolis gallery page 13
Zeus married Hephaistos with Aphrodite (Ἀφροδίτη; her Roman equivalent was Venus), the goddess of love and beauty, to prevent quarrels over her between the male deities. But repulsed by Hephaistos' ugliness and lameness, she had many other divine and mortal lovers, notably Ares (Αρης; Roman equivalent, Mars), the god of war. The jealous smith learned of her infidelity from the all-seeing Helios, and used his skills to set a trap for them. When Aphrodite and Ares were in bed they were ensnared in the metal net made by Hephaistos, much to the amusement of the other Olympians.
Although in some myths he was said to have lived and worked on Mount Olympus, several volcanoes around the Mediterranean, especially Aetna on Sicily and the nearby Lipari islands, were believed to be locations of his fiery workshop and foundry.
In early Greek art Hephaistos was depicted as lame, sometimes as a dwarf; dwarf-like statuettes of him were placed before hearths. His lameness was the result of falling from Mount Olympus, or being thrown down by Hera. He refused to return to Olympus, but was persuaded by Dionysus
, who made him drunk, put him on a mule and led him home in a procession of satyrs (see photos below
In works of the 5th century BC onwards he becomes more heroic, shown wearing a chiton (tunic), sometimes with his right shoulder bare, and often wearing a pilos (πῖλος, conical cap).
An early 5th century BC Athenian red-figured cup by the Foundry Painter, now in Berlin (Staatliche Museen, Berlin), shows Hephaistos sitting in his workshop with hammer and anvil, presenting the armour he has made for Achilles to the hero's mother Thetis (see photo below
"And when the renowned smith, lame in both legs, had wrought all the armour, he lifted it and placed it in front of the mother of Achilles."
, Book 18, lines 614-615.
The 5th century BC Athenian sculptor Alkamenes
is said to have made a statue of Hephaistos, probably for the Hephaisteion, which subtly indicated the lameness in his legs (Cicero, de natura Deorum
, 1.30, 83; Valerius Maximus, 8.11, ext. 3).
Hephaistos returning to Olympus.
Detail of a black-figure neck amphora
from southern Italy, around 520 BC.
See details below.
The Hephaisteion, the temple of Hephaistos and Athena Ergane, in the Agora of Athens.
Built in the second half of the 5th century BC (around the same time as the Parthenon),
it is the best preserved Classical temple. It was previously believed to be the temple of
Theseus, and the nearby district and metro station were named Thission after it. During
the 19th century a number of foreign Christians were buried in the temple. Later the
graves were removed, and the building was used as a deposit for archaeological finds.
|Marble statue identified as Vulcanus-Hephaistos.
Perhaps a copy of an original attributed to Alkamenes, 420-415 BC.
Found in the Baths of Mithras (Terme del Mitra, I,XVII,2), Ostia.
The statue lacks attributes, such as a hammer or axe, which would identify him
as Hephaistos. His pilos (conical cap, see Medusa) and short-sleeved chiton,
worn over one shoulder only, are reminiscent of depictions of Odysseus.
Ostia Archaeological Museum. Inv. No. 152.
Detail of a marble puteal (well head) with an Archaistic relief depicting a procession
of twelve Olympian gods. Zeus, approaching from the left, meets Hephaistos (right),
who holds a double-headed axe or hammer with both hands.
Reign of Emperor Hadrian, 117-138 AD. Greek marble.
Height 83.5 cm; height of relief panel 49.3 cm.
Palazzo Nuovo, Capitoline Museums, Rome. Inv. No. MC 1919.
From the Medici Collection, then the Albani Collection.
|The puteal is said to have been found n the 18th century in a vineyard outside the Porta del Popolo, Rome. According to other accounts it was found either at Nettuno or Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli. It then stood in the Medici Villa outside the Porta del Popolo. Cosimo III de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany (1642-1723) presented it to Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692-1779). It was acquired by the Capitoline Museums in 1728 along with other objects from the Albani Collection.
Two trains of gods advance in opposite directions around the side of the puteal and meet each other. The procession approaching from the left is lead by Zeus, holding a sceptre in his left hand and a thunderbolt in his right. He is followed by Hera, Athena, Herakles, Apollo (with a lyre), Artemis (with a bow in her left hand), Ares, and Aphrodite (with a flower in each hand).
Hephaistos, approaching from the right, leads Poseidon (with trident and dolphin), Hermes (with caduceus and ram), and Hestia.
The representation has been variously interpreted as the return of Hephaestos to Olympus, the introduction of Herakles among the gods, or the birth of Athena (hence Hephaistos' axe). Not all the Twelve Great Gods of Olympus are present: Demeter is absent, as is Dionysus who is considered to have taken Hestia's place (see Dionysus). Herakles, who was not among the twelve, here makes up the number.
Fragmentary marble statue of Hephaistos.
Roman period, 2nd - 3rd century AD. From the
West End of the Forum of Ancient Corinth.
Corinth Archaeological Museum. Inv. No. S 790.
Hephaistos gives the goddess Thetis the armour and arms he has made for
her son Achilles during the Trojan War (Homer, Iliad, Book 18, lines 614-615).
Achilles used them to avenge the death of his friend Patroklos (see Homer).
The tondo on the inside of an Attic red-figure kylix (drinking cup),
made in Athens 490-480 BC. Diameter 30.5 cm.
Antikensammlung SMB, Berlin (Altes Museum). Inv. No. F 2294.
|Known as the "Berlin Foundry Cup" (German, Erzgießerei-Schale), it is the name vase of the Foundry Painter. The outside of the cup (Sides A and B) shows workers (sculptors) at a foundry.
It was discovered by Campanari in Vulci, Etruria, an important Etruscan city (Lazio, north of Rome), and acquired in 1837 for the Prussian Royal Collection, Berlin by Karl Josias Freiherr von Bunsen. It was previously kept in the Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin.
Bearded Hephaistos, wearing a short tunic and sitting on a cushioned stool, holds up a helmet in his left hand, and has a hammer in his right. Thetis stands to his right, wearing a cloak over a long chiton (tunic) and a fillet in her hair, and holds a spear and shield. The device on the shield is a flying bird carrying a snake in its claws, surrounded by four stars.
A pair of greaves (shin armour) hangs on the wall of the workshop, between the two figures. On the right a hammer hangs from the wall, and beneath it an anvil stands on a mound of earth. The inscription, running downwards (clockwise) to the right of Thetis, states: Ο ΠΑΙΣ ΚΑΛΟΣ (O PAIS KALOS, the boy is beautiful).
Hephaistos returns to Olympus on a mule, escorted
by Dionysus (behind Hephaistos) and his companions.
Middle Corinthian column krater (bowl for mixing wine and water), about
600-575 BC. Perhaps by the Ophelandros Painter. From Nola, Campania, Italy.
Hephaistos, Dionysus and two other figures hold drinking horns.
Some of the dancers wear padded costumes which may suggest
that the scene depicts a ritual or dramatic performance.
Such carefree Archaic period depictions of the rustic procession
may be compared with the more sophisticated and consciously
triumphal Roman period images of Dionysus' return fom India.
British Museum. Inv. No. GR 1867.5-8.860 (Vase B 42). Blacas Collection.
Dionysus leads Hephaistos, riding a mule, back to Olympus, followed by a silen.
Black-figure neck amphora made in southern Italy around 520 BC.
Attributed to the Polyphemos Group.
British Museum. Inv. No. GR 1949.2-17.1.
Detail of an Attic column krater showing Hephaistos returning to Olympus.
Attributed to the Leagros Group, second half of the 6th century BC.
From Akragas (Agrigento), Sicily.
Hephaistos, wearing a crown and craftman's tunic (exomis), and
holding an axe or hammer, rides an ithyphallic mule led by maenad.
Behind him is a satyr with an erect penis holding a rhyton (cup).
The other side (Side B) shows the rape of Tetys by Peleos.
Agrigento Regional Archaeological Museum. Inv. No. C.1535.
A large Attic black-figure kantharos (drinking cup) with a depiction of Hephaistos
returning to Olympus. He wears short mantle and rides an ithyphallic mule which
has an oinoche (wine jug) hanging from its phallus. He is escorted by satyrs,
maenads and a small figure (a child?) beneath the mule.
Studiendepot Antike, Skulpturensammlung, Albertinum, Dresden. Inv. No. ZV 1466.
Detail of a black figure kyathos (cup) showing Hephaistos' return to Olympus
on a mule. Dionysus and a satyr carring a sack of wine follow him. 520-500 BC.
Excavated at tomb in Room 371, Banditaccia necropolis, Etruria.
National Etruscan Museum, Villa Giulia, Rome.
|Hephaistos returns to Olympus on an ithyphallic mule led by a satyr.
Attic black-figure lekythos, made in Athens, end of the 6th century BC.
Museo Civico, Castello Ursino, Catania, Sicily.
Inv. No. 5069. From the Benedettini Collection.
A beaded god on an ithyphallic mule, holding a large rhyton (drinking horn), with a dancing
Maenad on either side. Described by the museum labelling as a "dionysiac scene with the god
[i.e. Dionysus] on a mule", the deity may be Dionysus or Hephaistos returning to Olympus.
Detail of an Attic black-figure amphora, made in Athens, end of the 6th century BC.
Found in a small ceramic sarcophagus, Tomb 13, Cemetery Lombartolo, the
Necropolis at Capo Soprano, Gela, Sicily.
Paolo Orsi Regional Archaeological Museum, Syracuse. Inv. No. 21948.
A large Attic black-figure dinos (wine bowl) with a depiction of a
procession of deities attending the wedding of Peleus and Thetis.
Made in Athens around 580 BC. Signed by Sophilos as painter,
the earliest known Athenian vase painter to sign his works.
Height of dinos 71 cm.
British Museum. Inv. No. 1971.11-1.1.
|Both Zeus and Poseidon were attracted to the sea nymph Thetis, but then learned that her son was destined to be greater than his father. So it was decided that she should marry the mortal Peleus, and all the Olympian gods attended the wedding. It is notable that neither Zeus nor Poseidon or their respective wives Hera and Amphitrite are depicted on the dinos.
The procession scene runs continually right around the body of the vessel, beginning and ending with the house of the bridgroom Peleus, between two columns of which is written "Sophilos painted me". The names of the participants in the procession are painted next to the figures.
The line of wedding guests is led by Iris, who is greeted by Peleus, standing before his house, holding a kantharos (wine jug). Next to arrive are Demeter, Hestia, Chariklo, Leto, Dionysus and Hebe. Then comes the centaur Cheiron, the guardian and tutor of Achilles, the future son of Peleus and Thetis. Behind him walk Themis and three nymphs, followed by three four-horse chariots: Ares and Aphrodite accompanied by five muses, one playing a syrinx (Pan pipes); Hermes and Apollo accompanied by three muses; Athena and Artemis accompanied by three Moirai (Fates). At the rear are Okeanos, Tephys, Eileithyeia and Hephaistos (see photo below), behind whom can be seen the columns of Peleus' house.
Remarkably, the stand of the dinos has also survived. The foot of the stand and the lower part of the bowl are decorated with paintings of lions, deer, goats, rams, a wild boar and sirens. Bowls and stands of this shape are thought to have derived from eastern metal prototypes. It has been suggested that this vessel may have been designed for a wedding feast.
See also: the Judgement of Paris
Detail of the dinos above.
Hephaistos, left, riding a mule, at the rear of a procession of deities, nymphs and muses
at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Before him are Eileithyeia, goddess of childbirth,
with Tephys, and her husband, the fish-tailed god Okeanos, the grandfather of Thetis.
Bronze plaque with a relief of Hephaistos (Vulcan)
forging arrows for Eros (Cupid), watched by Aphrodite.
Made by Andrea Briosco, known as Riccio, Padua,
late 15th - early 16th century. On the back, the
inscription "Ri", was cast with the plaque.
Bode Museum, Berlin. Inv. No. 1921. Acquired 1892.
A modern statue of Vulcan by Democrito Gandolfi (1797-1874)
on the north side of the west tower of Porta Venezia, Milan.
|The Porta Venezia stands on the site of an ancient gate of the Roman city Mediolanum (Milan). Rebuilt a number of times and known by various names, including Porta Orientale and Porta Renza, the present monumental neoclassical gateway is based on an initial design Giuseppe Piermarini (1734-1808), whose work was continued after his death by his student Luigi Cagnola (1762-1833). Consisting of two massive sandstone towers on either side of the road, each with Doric porticos (with Tuscan columns) on three of the fours sides, it was completed 1827-1828.
The neoclassical reliefs depicting historical scenes and statues of Roman gods, sculpted by a number of Italian artists, were added in 1833. The statues on the west side: Mercury (Hermes), Vulcan (Hephaistos), Abundantia (Abundance) and Justitia (Lady Justice). The statues on the east side: Minerva (Athena), Ceres (Demeter), Eternita (Eternity) and Fedelta (Fidelity).
Vulcan is depicted with his right hand on his bearded chin, as if contemplating his next masterpiece. Identified in Roman culture not only with metalwork but also with industry in general, the muscular and dignified deity, showing no sign of lameness, thinks only of his next commission. He wears the pilos (conical hat) and partly discarded chiton, his left arm leaning on an anvil over a large hammer. A newly-finished cuirass can be seen between his legs. The generality of the flattened anvil, hammer and cuirass are tedious, but the figure of Vulcan is wonderfully evocative, and, like the other statues on the Porta Venezia, attempt to summarize the power and fascination of the allegorical depictions of the ancient deities.
||Notes, references and links
1. Homeric Hymn 20, to Hephaistos
Homeric Hymn 20 to Hephaestus, in: Hugh G. Evelyn-White (translator), The Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA., and William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1914. At Perseus Digital Library.
|Photos on this page were taken during
visits to the following museums:
Berlin, Altes Museum
Berlin, Bode Museum
Dresden, Albertinum, Skulpturensammlung
Athens, Agora archaeological site
Corinth Archaeological Museum
Thebes Archaeological Museum
Ostia Archaeological Museum
Rome, Capitoline Museums, Palazzo Nuovo
Rome, National Etruscan Museum, Villa Giulia
Italy - Sicily
Agrigento Regional Archaeological Museum
Catania, Museo Civico, Castello Ursino
Syracuse, Paolo Orsi Regional Archaeological Museum
London, British Museum
Many thanks to the staff of these museums.
|Photos and articles © David John, except where otherwise specified.|
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