God of the Forge
Photo: Guillaume Coustou the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/53/Vulcan_Coustou_Louvre_MR1814.jpg
Hephaestus, God of Forge and Fire
Roman Name: Vulcan
God of: The forge, ironworking, fire, sculpture and machinery.
Parents: Best guess is Zeus and Hera (or possibly just Hera on her own)
Married to: Aphrodite, but unhappily. Some stories say he had other lovers, such as Charis, the youngest of the three Graces.
Children: None with Aphrodite, but he did have various human and divine children (who were usually expert smiths and craftsmen) with other women.
Symbols: The equipment of the forge – an anvil, hammer, tongs and bellows. Fire and volcanoes were said to be his. Also his “wheeled chair” that he used to get around due to his disability.
Location of Story: The Temple of Hephaestus in the centre of the Agora, near the Stoa of Zeus.
The temple of Hephaestus was at the highest part of the Agora, at the heart of the city. If the forge-god was going to be found anywhere, it was there. Even as she approached, she could hear hammering. A warm wind seemed to be blowing from the inside.
Delphi peeked inside and felt a blast of hot air on her face. Through the smoke and steam she could just about make out a figure sitting down next to an anvil, raising his hammer into the air.
The man turned his head and brought the hammer down.
“Aaaaghhh!” He dropped the hammer and grabbed his hand.
“Oh, sorry! I didn’t mean to… um… woah!” Delphi had ran forward but then stopped when she could see what was inside. She was surrounded by the most extraordinary objects she had ever seen. There were weapons which seemed to give off their own light, golden cloaks and shining armour plates. There were exquisite pieces of jewellery: rings, necklaces and bracelets of every shape and colour. There were animals – dogs and birds, and even women – all made out of metal. The fierce heat and light of the forge made fire flicker in every one of them.
“Are you going to stand there all day?” the god said in a deep, rough voice, turning in his chair to face her. Delphi noticed it had wheels.
“Wow, cool… wheeled-chair! Um.. is your thumb ok?”
Hephaestus wiggled his fingers at her. “That’s the benefit of being a god! I can fix things in a heartbeat. Well… most things,” he added, looking slightly forlorn for a moment. Then he seemed to brighten up. “But as you’re here, you can give us a hand with the bellows.”
He pointed her towards a huge handle which, when pulled down, blew air over the forge, keeping it hot. Delphi reached up to grab it with both hands and tried to pull it down. Instead, it just pulled her feet off the floor. The fire-god laughed and stroked his slightly frazzled beard.
“Well maybe a life in the forge isn’t for you!” He turned round and picked up his hammer again.
“Did you really make all of this?” Delphi asked, looking around. There was a mighty hammer blow which made her teeth rattle.
“Yes!” Hephaestus called out. “Pass me the tongs, would you?”
Delphi quickly looked around for some tongues, possibly in a jar, while also hoping there was something she hadn’t quite understood. She decided to change the subject instead.
“What’s your favourite?” she shouted, over the hammer blows.
The god paused, wiping sweat off his forehead, and looked round at her again.
“It must be the animals,” Delphi suggested. “Or the giant metal people. They’re all so cool…”
Hephaestus looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he smiled.
The next hammer blow sent Delphi running back outside to stop her teeth from shaking.
The disabled god
Hephaestus had a troubled start to life, and different stories tell it in different ways. It might have been that he was the firstborn son of Zeus and Hera. To Hera’s disgust, he was not the strapping, strong boy she had been hoping for – rather he was squat, ugly and had a shrivelled and twisted foot. In her fury, Hera threw the newborn baby off Mount Olympus! Some versions of the story have it that he gained his disability as he came crashing down the mountain, while others say Hera alone had the child to get revenge on Zeus for having Athena without her.
Return to Olympus
Hephaestus grew up on the island of Lemnos and was raised by the oceanids and nymphs who dwelt there. It was on the island, where he would later be especially worshipped, that he learnt the skill of working metal. This skill proved to be his ticket home. When Zeus and Hera were going to be married, he sent Hera a splendid golden throne. However, when she sat down, the armrests twisted and painfully trapped her. All the gods tried to rescue her, but none succeeded – until Hephaestus limped up and freed her at a touch.
An unhappy marriage
Hephaestus married Aphrodite, the incomparable goddess of love and beauty. But how did such an ugly man marry the most beautiful woman of all? Some stories say he only agreed to release Hera from her throne if Zeus agreed to the marriage. Other stories say Zeus was so fed up with the other gods squabbling over Aphrodite that he gave her to his son just to end the argument. In any case, Aphrodite was not impressed by her new husband. She instead desired his brother Ares, who had been furious when Aphrodite married Hephaestus – and they made no secret of their affair. Hephaestus managed to humiliate them by trapping them both in a net together, so all the gods could laugh at them! But nobody could really stay angry at Aphrodite for long…
The forge god felt more attached to the goddess of practical wisdom, Athena. Indeed, he had helped give birth to the goddess by cutting her out of Zeus’ head! However, when Hephaestus made his move on Athena she was quick to escape him and insist that they just stay as friends! There is a very disgusting story about this that we couldn’t possibly tell you on a nice, friendly website like this one! Despite this embarrassment, together they were the masters of all practical knowledge – of how to craft every kind of tool or product. The two gods were held in high esteem in Athens. When boys were welcomed into the city as men, it was in honour of Hephaestus, and his temple stands pride of place in the Agora even today.
It didn’t take long before Hephaestus was well loved by the gods. As well as having a big bushy beard and huge muscles, he was said to have a kind heart and was generous with his talents. His forge on Olympus took up a whole valley – and the Romans believed he also had forges under volcanoes like Mount Etna, in his role as fire god. He made many gifts for the gods, from magnificent thrones and jewellery, mighty weapons like Zeus’ thunderbolts, Aphrodite’s magical girdle, Athena’s aegis shield, Hermes’ winged sandals, Helios’ chariot, Eros’ bow and many others. He also created the magical items used by many heroes, like Achilles’ armour. He was assisted at his forge by the mighty Cyclopes, and made himself many aids to help him get around more easily – including golden walking frames and even a wheelchair!
Creator of life
Some of Hephaestus’ greatest creations were the automatons – the first robots! As well as golden women, whom he created to look after him and assist in the forge, he created silver and gold dogs to guard a royal palace, bronze bulls which could breathe fire and a mighty metal giant called the Talos. This huge but nimble giant was sent to protect Europa of Crete by Zeus, and who then protected King Minos (the same king who owned the Labyrinth in the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur). The Talos was only defeated when Medea, a dark sorceress travelling with Jason on the Argo voyage, used a spell to send the Talos mad and destroy itself. But perhaps Hephaestus greatest achievement was his role in creating Pandora – the very first human woman.
Where do you want to go next?
Head back down the hill to the Stoa of Zeus.
Walk down to the government buildings at the centre of the Agora.