Making Light: Hephaestos

Making Light: Hephaestos March 30, 2015

Hephaestos is a god of industry who is best known for the tools and machines of war that issue forth from his forge. But he’s also an inventor, an engineer, a maker. He makes lightning bolts, swords, shields, helmets, tanks, bulletproof vests, long range missiles, handguns.

Hephaestos makes all this stuff, which is very impressive.
Hephaestos makes all this stuff, which is very impressive.

But, he also makes ordinary things, the necessities of daily life: axes, horseshoes, hammers, screwdrivers, cars, bridges, air conditioners, power plants. He makes beautiful things, too: necklaces, diadems, brooches, finely jeweled boxes, rings, earrings, nose rings, toe rings, statues in bronze, architecture framed with steel.

...but he also makes things like this. How amazing is that? It has gears!
…but he also makes things like this.
How amazing is that? It has gears!

Though His works are ubiquitous, I hardly think about him unless something isn’t going quite right. When the car breaks down or the HVAC isn’t running, I pray that He will help us get things working again, but now that I think of it, I’d like to give thanks for such things as can openers and doorknobs. These are each feats of engineering that we often take for granted and when I think about it, it’s really quite amazing what has gone into the creation of the hundreds and thousands of ordinary little machines that we use every day.

And, then there's this guy. He's tuning the flux capacitor or something. I don't even know how it works.
And, then there’s this guy. He’s tuning the flux capacitor or something. I don’t even know how it works.

I’m cheating a little for this post, mainly because I don’t have nearly as close of a relationship with Him as I do with several of the others in the Dodecatheon (that’s the twelve Olympians that are actually more than twelve, but who’s counting?). My dear friend, Isildae, is, among other things, a tinkerer, a backyard mechanic, and a reluctant plumber when the necessity arises, and had much to say about Hephaestos.

First thing about Hephaestos is, his name.  The ancient Greeks were all about epithets, and Hephaestos is one.  It means “Of Phaestos” and refers to the city Phaistos which is on the southern coast of Crete about 30 miles from Knossos.  So saying Hephaestos has something in common with saying “Of Avon,” “da Vinci,” “Of Menlo Park,” or “of Nazereth.”  The ancient Greeks understood they were referring to a place that’s not particularly distant.  The average Greek not only knew where it was but had a pretty good idea how to get there.

This raises an interesting chicken-and-egg question: Did the Greeks first find Him there because he had a particular tie to that place or did it happen the other way around? Isildae continues:

There is strong archaeological evidence connecting the temple of Vulcan in Rome with the temple of Hephaestos in Athens at a quite early date (like 800 BCE), and that the Cretans, Etruscans, and Romans called this god something like Vulcan or Fulgan.  As far as I can tell, he’s only lame in the Greek stories.  This may have started as a bit of anti-Crete propaganda, as Athens and Knossos were periodically at war.  One prominent feature of the Roman temple is a large fire; because of the fire (both the risk of spreading and the smoke), early Roman law required the temple be outside the city limits.  It is likely that cremations were performed at the Roman temple.

I take a different tack than my fellow here and assume that Hephaestos chose to present himself as having a disability to some and not to others — that the idea originates with Hephaestos rather than with those who were in relationship with Him during ancient times. I will get back to this in a moment.

Hephaestos is all about making things, especially metal things.  He’s often depicted working in the mouth of a cave, with a hammer and anvil.  He made Zeus’s thunderbolts.  He made Achilles’ armor with a shield depicting a battle scene so ornate that the picture moved.

I had a vision of him, some years ago.  I’d been thinking about how to build a car that gets great fuel economy, and I saw in my mind this workshop.  It was very dark, except when his hammer struck the lightning that lay across his anvil.  I took this to mean I should build it.  When I taught myself how to weld, I realized I was on the right track

And, there it is. There’s the personal connection that I’ve been looking for. I have a closer relationship with Athene than with Hephaestos because I’m a maker, but in the soft arts. Bury everything I’ve made and very little of my industry will survive a thousand years to be studied by archaeologists apart from a little bit of pottery. I’m a textiles person and a painter. But, here we have a guy who works with metal and gears who gets it. While that’s not my art, I have a very deep appreciation for the minds of makers in all the arts. Athene is software; Hephaestos is hardware. When both function together, they are more than the sum of their parts.

As for His “lameness,” this is something that only makes His excellence that much greater. I’ve had a broken leg myself and it was a major traumatic event that has taken years of developing wisdom, inner strength, and fortitude to overcome. I have trouble with it even now, but excellence can be achieved by working through or around such a limitation. That process, in and of itself, can lead to excellence. There are those with far greater injuries than mine who have achieved far greater things and I cannot help but think that Hephaestos has blessed them. Apollon Physician can heal the body, but a prosthetic limb and the wherewithal to rise above one’s limitations is Hephaestos’ purview.

I will leave you with a picture that pretty much says it all. This one is via my dear friend Rose:

Image from Iron Man (2008, Paramount Pictures)
Image from Iron Man (2008, Paramount Pictures)


Making Light is an occasional column by Hellenic polytheist Sunweaver. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

Uncredited images courtesy of

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