The Tale of Hephaistos
Hephaistos, lord of the forge, molder of earth, master of metal was not always thus. He was an immortal bastard, born from Hera’s bitter jealousy of Pallas Athena. Hephaistos at an early age showed a gift for shaping metal and stone into beauteous works. He made delightful trinkets and gifts for his fellow Olympians and his craft pleased them. Hera loved her son, who, even in his youth had a visage and form that seemed to be carved from the roots of Olympus. Zeus, however, resented the boy; his distrustful mind leading him to think that Hera, his wife, had taken a lover. On one occasion, while Olympus was still freshly hewn, during the time almighty Zeus, Lord of Olympians, was beginning his conflict with his own father Kronos, Zeus railed against Hera and questioned the origins of her son. When Hera’s acerbic tongue vexed Zeus mightily and he prepared to smite her. Hephaistos stood before her in defiance of Zeus’s wrath. For his impertinence Zeus turned his fury on Hephaistos, striking him down, and raining upon him many fearsome blows. Zeus caught the boy as he attempted to crawl away and cast Hephaistos from Mount Olympus, banishing him from the home of the gods.
Hephaistos’s fall was great, for Olympus towers far above the clouds, glancing against Ouranos’s realm. For three days Hephaistos fell through the firmament. None came to the aid of Hephaistos, for none wished to interfere with the path the Furies had set the youth upon. Hephaistos became a comet. Zeus’s ire had made him a javelin, and Hephaistos struck Gaea’s mantle with such force his immortal form was shattered and twisted.
Hephaistos’ broken body came to rest at the bottom of a volcano. He had landed far to the east of Olympus on the Isle of Lemnos. In the heat and smoke of the caldera his mind drifted far from his corporeal wreckage, soaring from Euxine to Axine, from Hyperborea to Cimmeria until a maternal voice, deep and rich with the ages, drew him back to Lemnos. It was the voice of Gaea and she nursed the youth back to health. With her molten blood she salved his pain, and reforged his body. But flesh and bone, even that of an immortal, does not mend like earth and he was left crooked. She brought her daughter, Rhea, Zeus’s mother (who fed Kronos the swaddled stone to save her son) to tend to him. Rhea in turn called to Lemnos; Thetis (daughter of Nereus, long before she was mother of Achilles by Peleus the mortal) and Eurynome, daughter of Oceanus, Mother of the Graces. These goddesses were to keep Hephaistos safe from harm.
Hera frantically sought Hephaistos during his recovery. Her servants across the lands spoke of a streak of light passing in the direction of Helios’s abode, visible even by day. It was the whim of the Fates that she came to rest on the Isle of Lemnos one sultry dusk. She took the form of a crone and entered a small village there. A mortal was tending to his cattle with delicate care and this pleased Hera, for the cow is one of her sacred beasts. She spoke to the man and complimented his herd. The mortal was courteous, in those times when Olympians walked among the mortals it was wiser to be kind to a stranger than not. He told Hera his cattle had been much disturbed by the eruption of a nearby volcano. They had gone off their feed and this rightfully troubled him. Hera’s curiosity was piqued by news of the eruption and thanked the herder, telling him his devotion to his stock pleased the Gods. She promised they would be strong and bring him much mortal praise. She then took her leave.
Hera approached the smoking volcano, feeling the earth tremble beneath her feet as if it withdrew from her tread. When she mounted the precipice and looked far below, she saw a form slumbering at the heart of the crater. Her immortal heart sang, only her son could slumber in such a place. As she made her way to him her visage darkened. The form was warped, the right side shifted higher than the left. Shoulders and spine had become a jagged ridge, as mountains form. Surely this creature could not be the son of dread Hera but she recognized Hephaistos’s face scarred and battered it may be. Indignation built within her, her frustration building to rage. Just when she was about to act, Rhea stepped from the billowing smoke to defend Hephaistos. Rhea admonished Hera, for how could any mother seek to strike down her own child? Hera found wisdom in Rhea’s words and calmed the storm within her. Bitterly Hera turned away from Hephaistos and told Rhea to care for the youth if she so desired for Hera would have nothing more to do him. Such an ugly, crippled creature had no place among the Olympians or as her son were Hera’s parting sentiments. While Hephaistos’s healing slumber continued Rhea set near him all the tools fitting the blacksmith of the gods. She had heard some whispers of the youth’s skills with stone and metal and hoped her gifts would bring him some consolation.
Another being was drawn to Lemnos, the Cyclops Ktistis. He was only guided by his curiosity, “What had caused Gaea to tremble so? What new foolishness had Titans and Olympians engaged in?” Ktistis travelled chthonic byways known only to him and emerged from the fiery depths of the volcano. The Cyclops spied a smith, alone at his forge, working with vigor. Ktistis saw that the craftsman, though misshapen of body, swung his hammer with grace. He also noted that the youth used more natural talent than skill in his labors. Ktistis told the youth as much. The Cyclops settled his massive bulk next to the forge as if it were a simple campfire. Hephaistos was taken aback by these remarks, for not even Zeus had insulted his works. Ktistis laughed, a sound like a rockslide, “Young Olympian, you know nothing; nothing of rock or stone, ore or gem. You create baubles, trinkets, simple amusements. To truly become master you must be able to breathe life itself into your works.” With these words Ktistis took a great block of stone in his hands and dipped them into the depths of the forge. He pulled forth the stone, pressed it between his palms, and breathed upon them. He unfurled his great calloused fingers and Hephaistos beheld the shape of a towering man. Ktistis set the stone man down and the statue, grinding at first, slowly stretched like Hermes before a race. The golem lumbered towards the forge and began to stoke the furnace. Hephaistos humbly said, “Will you teach me your art?”
Thus began a long friendship between the fallen immortal and the solitary Cyclops. Both felt a bond of kinship neither had known before. Together they began work on the Aethaleia, a forge the likes of which no creature had ever seen before. Under Ktistis’s tutelage he slowly learned to form living stone in the shape of men. These creatures kept the Aethaleia alive, mined the depths of Lemnos, and performed innumerous tasks tirelessly, under the direction of Hephaistos and Ktistis. Rhea, Thetis, and Eurynome kept watch over them and on rare occasions visited. For the most part Hephaistos and Ktistis worked together alone for many years, uncaring of any happenings beyond the workshop.
Hephaistos was as happy with his lot as he could be but sometimes his mind would turn nostalgic for the airy majesty of Olympus, for Helios’s luminescence, and the glamour of the Olympians themselves. He began to wonder if metal could be brought to life. Ktistis reasoned that it could but he knew not the delicacy such work would require. Hephaistos joked with his friend that perhaps his own skill creating baubles and trinkets would provide the delicacy needed.
Long did Hephaistos tinker and ponder. He created delicate metalwork that impressed even Ktistis. Hephaistos’s love of his craft went into each piece and his clever mind brought these pieces together. The elaborate puzzle pieces began to build a statue. It was that of a gold and bronze woman. Its beauty rivaled that of an Olympian goddess. Ktistis jibed, “Even the golem will be distracted by the gifts the Graces have bestowed upon your daughter.” Finally Hephaistos finished his task and with great tenderness turned the final screw into place. For some moments nothing happened and Ktistis looked at Hephaistos sadly, ready to offer condolences. Then both detected a subtle thrum in the air as the clockwork maiden awoke. She turned her gilded head towards Hephaistos and with a sweetly chiming voice said, “Good morning Father.” Hephaistos felt a deep swell of love and pride within himself and replied, “Good morning Iota.”
So it was that Hephaistos’s first daughter was born, bringing joy and light to the bottom of the inferno. Iota became Hephaistos’s right hand at the smithy. Ktistis himself loved Iota and taught her what craft he could. She could not breathe life into stone or metal for she herself did not possess anima. He would become her protector in the years to come, when the Titanomachy would reach its pinnacle, and even the peace of the calderic workshop would be shattered. But such a tale is for another time.
Bulfinch, Thomas. The Age of Fable. New York: Review of Reviews, 1913; Bartleby.com, 2000. www.bartleby.com/bulfinch/. (September 11, 2009)
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Ill. Steele Savage. Penguin Books USA Inc. 1969.
Hesiod. Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Shield. Trans. Athanassakis, Apostolos N. John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore and London. 1983 pp. 27 line 571
Stewart, Michael. "Hephaistos", Greek Mythology: From the Iliad to the Fall of the Last Tyrant. http://messagenetcommresearch.com/myths/bios/hephaistos.html (November 14, 2005)
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