Hephaestus: God of Fire

‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’

That is the advice King Cadmus seeks. You see, it is his wedding day – he is to marry the divine Harmonia, the bastard daughter of Ares and Aphrodite. But Cadmus is no fool. Weddings, he knows, can be contentious affairs, none more so than weddings between gods and mortals. Golden apples. Divine contests. Even the theft of brides. No. Cadmus has no intention of becoming the Muses’ next cautionary tale. And so, he asks the company of sisters to sing a story of each new guest as they arrive.

Forewarned is forearmed.

So what will they sing of this most recent guest, this great, bearded god who shuffles and stumbles and hobbles into the bronze-floored hall of Olympus. His eyes are like holes in a forge’s grate; behind them rages a ferocious flame.

This is soot-blackened Hephaestus. Smiths, wrights, makers – every artificer the world over pays him homage. He is the god of the foundry. And he was Aphrodite’s husband.

The Muses have quite a story to tell of him.

When Hephaestus is born, his mother, royal Hera, is appalled by him. His leg is twisted. And his foot is clubbed.

Hera’s shame is matched only by her cruelty. Without a moment of doubt, without a drop of mercy, the queen of the gods hurls her new-born babe from Olympus.

​It takes nine days for him to make landfall in Lemnos. A crater is his first cradle.

​The people of the island take him in. They are artisans all, and they train their fosterling in the same. A clang of hammers – his first lullaby.

He learns quickly. Even a fallen god is still a god, and so soot-blackened Hephaestus’s talent for artifice is uncanny. The stuff of prodigy. Armour from his anvil is impenetrable. His blades need never know a whetstone’s kiss.

And yet, for all the strength of his arms, for all the speed of his mind, his legs remain slow and stunted. He is no warrior. Wielding his own arms and armour will not see him reclaim his rightful place upon Olympus, nor enact his revenge against royal Hera.

He must be craftier than that.

And so, in his foundry beneath Lemnos, he contrives a gift for his mother: a majestic throne to stand beside that of Zeus on Olympus. But the throne is a web, and Hephaestus has spun it like a spider. He takes adamantine and exposes it to hammer and heat. He draws, ducts, extrudes until finally, he forges a single, perfect link. It is to a chain as a single word is to a speech – his indictment of Hera’s abandonment writ in metal. Ten thousand links long, he hides this chain in the throne’s arms. A trap. And the moment Hera takes a seat, it is sprung. The chains wrap about her until she is little more than a fly in a gossamer prison. She may strain. She may strive. But every movement serves only to ensnare her further.

None of the other gods can release her. Not even warlike Ares’s own adamantine sword can break the chain; Hephaestus has tempered each link with the flame of his anger.

Finally, Zeus, father of gods and men, is left with no option but to bargain. He offers the soot-blackened god his daughter, flawless Aphrodite, and only when their marriage is made, and his position on Olympus assured, does Hephaestus, at last, release his mother.

But Hephaestus and Aphrodite are a poor match; their incompatibility is fundamental: soot staining marble. And while he may love hershe does not love him. How could she? She already loves another: warlike Ares.

It does not take long for their infatuations to be acted upon.

One day.

The next.

Then another.

And another.

Until, every day that follows, while Hephaestus works his forge in Lemnos.

He is not ignorant of his wife’s betrayal; she has begun to grow round with child. But the soot-blackened god can hardly challenge warlike Ares and his adamantine blade.

He must be craftier than that.

And so Hephaestus contrives another trap. Once again, he takes adamantine and exposes it to hammer and heat. Once again, he forges a single, perfect link. It is to a chain as a single word is to a speech – his accusation of Aphrodite’s betrayal writ in metal. Ten thousand links long, he weaves the chain into the canopy of their bed. A trap. And the moment the lovers lie together, it is sprung. They are little more than flies chained in a gossamer prison.

Hephaestus invites all Olympus to his hall to witness the lovers’ disgrace. Of course, none can break the chains. So, once again, Zeus is left with no option but to bargain. Hephaestus will keep the dowry, but the marriage is annulled so that all the deathless might know that the child Aphrodite carries is not of Hephaestus but of Ares.

That is where the Muses bring their story of the guest to a close. For that child, they explain to King Cadmus, is his intended, the divine Harmonia.

Except Cadmus is no longer listening. He has seen Hephaestus cross the hall toward his bride. He has seen that the soot-blackened god bears a wedding present.

The other guests are a throng impenetrable as a shield wall, and Cadmus can only watch as Harmonia accepts the gift, as the great artificer fixes it about her throat.

The necklace is light as gossamer.

It is adamantine, exposed to hammer and heat.

It is a chain, ten thousand links long.

Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast

Written by Andrew Hulse