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My Favourite Planet > English > People > Hephaistos

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Ancient Greek mythology, religion and art

Hephaistos (Ἥφαιστος), 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."

Homer, Iliad, 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, 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 Hephaistos, famed for inventions. With bright-eyed Athena he taught men glorious crafts."

Homeric Hymn

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).

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 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 an oval 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."

(Homer, Iliad, 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 on horseback at My Favourite Planet

Hephaistos returning to Olympus.

Detail of a black-figure neck amphora
from southern Italy, around 520 BC.

See details below.
Hephaistos gives Thetis the armour he has made for her son Achilles at My Favourite Planet

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 Patroclus (see Homer).

Antikensammlung SMB, Berlin (Altes Museum). Inv. No. F 2294.

The tondo on the inside of an Attic red-figure kylix (drinking cup), made in Athens 490-480 BC. Known as the "Berlin Foundry Cup" (German, Erzgießerei-Schale); the name vase of the Foundry Painter. The outside of the cup (Sides A and B) shows workers (sculptors) at a foundry.

Discovered by Campanari in Vulci, an important Etruscan city (Lazio, north of Rome). Acquired for the Prussian Royal Collection, Berlin, by Bunsen in 1837.

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 stand to his right, wearing a chiton and cloak 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 hanging 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, escorted by Dionysus and his companions at My Favourite Planet

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.

British Museum. Inv. No. GR 1867.5-8.860 (Vase B 42). Blacas Collection.
Dionysus leads Hephaistos back to Olympus at My Favourite Planet

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.
Hephaistos returning to Olympus on an Attic column krater at My Favourite Planet

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.
Hephaistos returns to Olympus, Catania, Sicily at My Favourite Planet Detail of Hephaistos returning to Olympus in Catania at My Favourite Planet
Hephaistos returns to Olympus on a 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.
Photos and articles © David John
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