Who is Hephaestus anyway?


Last week I wrote a post titled “Prometheus, Orpheus, and the Energy Crisis” in which I explored Francis Bacon’s identification of our modern relationship with nature as Promethean as discussed in T. Wilson Dickson’s essay “Solar Energy: Theophany and Theopoetics of Light in Gregory of Nyssa” and amplified such a perspective through the lens of archetypal psychology.

In that post, I cited James Hillman who suggested that the Promethean outlook naturally gives rise to the blacksmith and quoted professor emeritus David L. Miller as saying: “The massive technologizing of contemporary culture, far from moving without purpose or form, is playing itself out according to the stories of Prometheus, Hephaestus, and Asclepius” (The New Polytheism. 83). Having explored one of three of Miller’s archetypal players in our modern technology-based world, today I delve into the second: Hephaestus, the blacksmith.

Historically, blacksmiths have played an ambiguous role in numerous societies. Masters as fire and metal, different peoples often believed the blacksmith possessed magical powers and, as such, were to be respected and feared. Oftentimes, the blacksmiths lived on the fringes of their society, at that liminal place where society and the wild met. So too is there the ambivalent nature as to what blacksmiths produce: tools for farming, weapons for war. Life and death.

In the Greek tradition, Hephaestus is the blacksmith and, like many other mythological blacksmiths, plays an important role in Greek myth.

So in keeping with my past posts on the gods and goddesses, today I ask “Who is Hephaestus anyway?” and how can we see him at work in our modern technology-driven world?

In perhaps his most famous myth, we find Hephaestus rejected by his mother Hera, because he was crippled and ugly. Of all the gods in the Olympic pantheon, only he was not physically perfect and beautiful. He is the ugly, the imperfect, the rejected. Thrown to earth, he would reside in volcanoes, pounding his anvil and creating. “A worker in concrete reality,” writes Edward Edinger, Hephaestus “stands for the archetypal factor that operates within the personal and concrete” (The Eternal Drama 36).

What does he make? That which is “useful, cunning, and beautiful” (Edinger 36). Cast from Olympus to Earth, Hephaestus, the “defect” as it were, “suggests that creativity is born out of a sense of defectiveness or inadequacy that requires extraordinary effort” (ibid).  His talent can be divided into two spheres: on the one hand he is the artist, the craftsman; on the other hand he is the “engineer and the mechanic” (ibid). In other words, Hephaestus makes both that which is beautiful and that which is useful, utilitarian, the latter of which can be found as embodied in science and technology.


Hephaestus is neither or celestial divinity nor a cthonic one: he is specifically earthly and, as such, is “a human culture hero…the artist as divine” who, according to his Homeric Hymn, “taught men to work…with the natural elements” (Downing Gods in our Midst 106). Always running back and forth trying to smooth things over between his parents, Hephaestus is a reconciling god, a harmonizing god who, as the wounded male, “knows what it is like not to be dominant, and that therefore he can be just as sensitive or intuitive as any woman” (Downing 108). And like many a man in relationship with women, Hephaestus “seems to have no intuitive sense of others, and especially not of women; he completely misunderstands their response to him” (ibid.).Creator of Pandora, the first human female, “Hephaestus can be understood to represent the inherently crippled (because arising out of a resented lack) but beautiful male attempt to simulate female procreativity” (Downing 109).

Murray Stein notes this connection with the feminine as well in his “Hephaistos: A Pattern of Introversion” in Facing the Gods. Citing Hephaestus’ “numerous connections” with the pre-Olympian mother background, Stein finds the god “in touch with the dark, internal energies of the Mother’s creativity” and his creation of Pandora is “a representation of the all-giving Mother herself” (71).

Taking his discussion into personal psychology, Stein writes that “a man whose ego-consciousness is strongly influenced by the Hephaistian pattern will experience certain characteristic problems and proclivities…he will be moody and given to swinging between inflation and depression” (74).

While the peace-maker who shies away from conflict, Hephaestus can and does become angry and when he does, volcanoes do what volcanoes do. And it is with this element of his mythology do we find a curious (and telling, perhaps foreboding) connection to our modern society. When the rejected becomes angry, the resentful Hephaestus often becomes self-destructive as it is “Only in Hephaistos this anarchistic violence would be directed not outward, as with Ares, but inward against himself, against his own body and soul” (Stein 78).

If, as Miller points out, our modern society is one rooted in Prometheus and Hephaestus, we find the element of fire at the center of such a complex: the theft of it and the use of it. From the same volume in which Dickinson’s essay is found, Clayton Crockett, director of Religious Studies at the University of Central Arkansas, writes, in his piece “Beyond Heat: Energy for Life,” the following, worthy of quoting at length:


The “animal model of energy conversion informs all of our human efforts to exploit and utilize energy, culminating in the extraordinary civilization produces over the last three centuries…But these processes of energy conversion also release extraordinary amounts of excess heat…thisdomestication that makes possible human culture is predicated upon the domestication of fire…The ability to burn wood and other plant and animal products enabled humans to develop what we call human culture and civilization” (60-61).

Prometheus’ theft of fire enabled human civilization; Hephaestus, as the “culture hero,” is responsible for just that: human culture.

But there is a danger when, again citing Miller, our civilization remains stuck in the Promethean-Hephaestian complex. Crockett writes of the excess heat produced through the reliance on this mythological complex. It is not a stretch then to see the connection between this mythologem and global warming.

But there remains the warning that is the Hephaestian complex: as much as the god enables human culture, he can become self-destructive. As long as our society remains stuck in the Promethean-Hephaestian, we will continue to destroy ourselves.

And yet there is another clue in Hephaestus, the god of techne (Stein 72): his feet are backwards. As much as he is a culture hero, this god of technology with the backward feet is simultaneously contrary to the human.  This, is telling and speaks, I think, to our modern society. And again, it can warn us.

Modern society increasingly relies on technology and in so many ways technological advances to help us. But the question I ask is to what cost? How much of what technology gives us do we really need? Marketers and corporations will, of course, tell us we need all those things and many of us buy into the marketing and participate in the wasteful consumerism. We may speak of CO2 emissions and the like, but just think of how much energy, and thus excess heat, it is spent and produced to make all that stuff. But I digress.

So sure, technology has its use and place. But to what end? Hephaestus tells us that technology is, for lack of a better term, “anti-human.” A culture hero for sure, but culture is not the same as the human. Culture does not necessarily produce more humanity. Just look at what goes on around us on a daily basis.


And in what direction are we headed? A continued reliance on the same: technology.

The American education system provides ample evidence. More and more time and money (and energy) is invested in the sciences while,perhaps not ironically, the Humanities suffer budget cuts. Art programs, music programs are the first to get cut. Promote the anti-human, cut the human.

Why? Because the jobs are in technology.

And of course we need to have our jobs, so we can have money so, as the Declaration of Independence tells us, we can be happy.

Now how happy can we really be as our humanity is taken from us?




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