1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hephaestus

HEPHAESTUS, in Greek mythology, the god of fire, analogous to, and by the ancients often confused with, the Roman god Vulcan (q.v.); the derivation of the name is uncertain, but it may well be of Greek origin. The elemental character of Hephaestus is far more apparent than is the case with the majority of the Olympian gods; the word Hephaestus was used as a synonym for fire not only in poetry (Homer, Il. ii. 426 and later), but also in common speech (Diod. v. 74). It is doubtful whether the origin of the god can be traced to any specific form of fire. As all earthly fire was thought to have come from heaven, Hephaestus has been identified with the lightning. This is supported by the myth of his fall from heaven, and by the fact that, according to the Homeric tradition, his father was Zeus, the heaven-god. On the other hand, the lightning is not associated with him in literature or cult, and his connexion with volcanic fires is so close as to suggest that he was originally a volcano-god. The connexion, however, though it may be early, is probably not primitive, and it seems reasonable to conclude that Hephaestus was a general fire-god, though some of his characteristics were due to particular manifestations of the element.

In Homer the fire-god was the son of Zeus and Hera, and found a place in the Olympian system as the divine smith. The Iliad contains two versions of his fall from heaven. In one account (i. 590) he was cast out by Zeus and fell on Lemnos; in the other, Hera threw him down immediately after his birth in disgust at his lameness, and he was received by the sea-goddesses Eurynome and Thetis. The Lemnian version is due to the prominence of his cult at Lemnos in very early times; and his fall into the sea may have been suggested by volcanic activity in Mediterranean islands, as at Lipara and Thera. The subsequent return of Hephaestus to Olympus is a favourite theme in early art. His wife was Charis, one of the Graces (in the Iliad) or Aphrodite (in the Odyssey). The connexion of the rough Hephaestus with these goddesses is curious; it may be due to the beautiful works of the smith-god (χαριέντα ἔργα), but it is possibly derived from the supposed fertilizing and productive power of fire, in which case Hephaestus is a natural mate of Charis, a goddess of spring, and Aphrodite the goddess of love. In Homer, the skill of Hephaestus in metallurgy is often mentioned; his forge was on Olympus, where he was served by images of golden handmaids which he had animated. Similar myths are found in relation to the Finnish smith-god Ilmarinen, who made a golden woman, and the Teutonic Wieland; a belief in the magical power of metal-workers is a common survival from an age in which their art was new and mysterious. In epic poetry Hephaestus is rather a comic figure, and his limping gait provokes “Homeric laughter” among the gods. In Vedic poetry Agni, the fire-god, is footless; and the ancients themselves attributed this lameness to the crooked appearance of flame (Servius on Aen. viii. 814), and possibly no better explanation can be found, though it has been suggested that in an early stage of society the trade of a smith would be suitable for the lame; Hephaestus and the lame Wieland would thus conform to the type of their human counterparts.

Except in Lemnos and Attica, there are few indications of any cult of Hephaestus. His association with Lemnos can be traced from Homer to the Roman age. A town in the island was called Hephaestia, and the functions of the god must have been wide, as we are told that his Lemnian priests could cure snake-bites. Once a year every fire was extinguished on the island for nine days, during which period sacrifice was offered to the gods of the underworld and the dead. After the nine days were passed, new fire was brought from the sacred hearth at Delos. The significance of this and similar customs is examined by J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough, iii. ch. 4. The close connexion of Hephaestus with Lemnos and especially with its mountain Mosychlus has been explained by the supposed existence of a volcano; but no crater or other sign of volcanic agency is now apparent, and the “Lemnian fire”—a phenomenon attributed to Hephaestus—may have been due to natural gas (see Lemnos). In Sicily, however, the volcanic nature of the god is prominent in his cult at Etna, as well as in the neighbouring Liparaean isles. The Olympian forge had been transferred to Etna or some other volcano, and Hephaestus had become a subterranean rather than a celestial power.

The divine smith naturally became a “culture-god”; in Crete the invention of forging in iron was attributed to him, and he was honoured by all metal-workers. But we have little record of his cult in this aspect, except at Athens, where his worship was of real importance, belonging to the oldest stratum of Attic religion. A tribe was called after his name, and Erichthonius, the mythical father of the Attic people, was the son of Hephaestus. Terra-cotta statuettes of the god seem to have been placed before the hearths of Athenian houses. This temple has been identified, not improbably, with the so-called “Theseum”; it contained a statue of Athena, and the two deities are often associated, in literature and cult, as the joint givers of civilization to the Athenians. The class of artisans was under their special protection; and the joint festival of the two divinities—the Chalceia—commemorated the invention of bronze-working by Hephaestus. In the Hephaesteia (the particular festival of the god) there was a torch race, a ceremonial not indeed confined to fire-gods like Hephaestus and Prometheus, but probably in its origin connected with them, whether its object was to purify and quicken the land, or (according to another theory) to transmit a new fire with all possible speed to places where the fire was polluted. If the latter view is correct, the torch race would be closely akin to the Lemnian fire-ritual which has been mentioned. The relation between Hephaestus and Prometheus is in some respects close, though the distinction between these gods is clearly marked. The fire, as an element, belongs to the Olympian Hephaestus; the Titan Prometheus, a more human character, steals it for the use of man. Prometheus resembles the Polynesian Maui, who went down to fetch fire from the volcano of Mahuika, the fire-god. Hephaestus is a culture-god mainly in his secondary aspect as the craftsman, whereas Prometheus originates all civilization with the gift of fire. But the importance of Prometheus is mainly mythological; the Titan belonged to a fallen dynasty, and in actual cult was largely superseded by Hephaestus.

In archaic art Hephaestus is generally represented as bearded, though occasionally a younger beardless type is found, as on a vase (in the British Museum), on which he appears as a young man assisting Athena in the creation of Pandora. At a later time the bearded type prevails. The god is usually clothed in a short sleeveless tunic, and wears a round close-fitting cap. His face is that of a middle-aged man, with unkempt hair. He is in fact represented as an idealized Greek craftsman, with the hammer, and sometimes the pincers. Some mythologists have compared the hammer of Hephaestus with that of Thor, and have explained it as the emblem of a thunder-god; but it is Zeus, not Hephaestus, who causes the thunder, and the emblems of the latter god are merely the signs of his occupation as a smith. In art no attempt was made, as a rule, to indicate the lameness of Hephaestus; but one sculptor (Alcamenes) is said to have suggested the deformity without spoiling the statue.

Authorities.—L. Preller (ed. C. Robert), Griech. Mythologie, i. 174 f. (Berlin, 1894); W. H. Roscher, Lex. der griech. u. röm. Mythologie, s.v. “Hephaistos” (Leipzig, 1884–1886); Harrison, Myth. and Mon. of Ancient Athens, p. 119 f. (London, 1890); O. Gruppe, Griech. Mythologie u. Religionsgesch. p. 1304 f. (Munich, 1906); O. Schrader and F. B. Jevons, Prehistoric Antiquities of the Aryan People, p. 161, &c. (London, 1890); L. R. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, v. (1909).  (E. E. S.)