Two Faced Hephaestus


Throughout Greek mythology, one of the least represented gods is Hephaestus. He does, however, make appearances in two of the major Greek works, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In each of these, Hephaestus plays a minor role, but nonetheless one that is very important. The notable thing about these two roles is that, in each one, the lame god is depicted in different ways. These differences may be subtle, but after careful examination, they are seen to exist. Obviously, the writer(s) of these myths chose to exhibit different characteristics of Hephaestus. Are these merely different sides of the same god, or are the variations due to different authors? I believe that, along with other discrepancies, the differences in Hephaestus’ character can be used to differentiate the authors.


The first instance that Hephaestus is seen in is the Iliad. In book 21, Achilles is attacked by the river Xanthos (Scamander). Hera, who sided heavily with the Greeks, called to arms her great son. After listening to her instructions, Hephaestus “turned his bright flame [against the river]” (Fitzgerald, 504). Not only does he roast Xanthos, he mercilessly destroys everything near the river. As the following line tells us, “the elms/ and tamarisks and willows burned away”(Fitzgerald, 504). This illustrates a few notable characteristics about Hephaestus, at least as this author sees him. First, Hephaestus is incredibly strong. One would think that a lame, crippled god would be weaker, but it is very evident that this is not the case. Another important aspect of Hephaestus’ persona is his complete lack of mercy. Even when Xanthos tries to praise him by saying “not one god can vie with you”(Fitzgerald, 504), Hephaestus does not relent. He continues with his wrath until Hera stops him.


In the Odyssey, Hephaestus plays an even smaller role than he did in the Iliad. In fact, he isn’t even in the main storyline, just a side-story sung by Demodocus. While it is less relevant to the overall story, it does focus more on Hephaestus, and therefore, it gives the reader a better idea of his personality. After hearing about Aphrodite’s affairs with Ares from Helios, Hephaestus decides to trap his wife and her supposed lover. To do this, he sets up an impenetrable mesh net, which he has skillfully labored to create, above his bed. With this, he catches the two gods in the act of love, and calls all the other gods to his home to shame the lecherous lovers. The arriving gods commend Hephaestus on his cleverness, saying “the tortoise tags the hare-/ Hephaestus catches Ares”(Fitzgerald, 146). After some mocking at Ares’ expense, Hephaestus, with a little pressure from Poseidon, decides to let the two captured lovers go.


To begin examining these two passages, I would like to first look at the similarities. The most apparent comparison that can be made pertains to Hephaestus’ awesome power. Not even the immortal gods that he opposes can undue his mighty works. Part of this amazing power comes from his raging madness. In the Iliad, he is livid about Xanthos’ actions against Achilles, and in the Odyssey, he is furious about his wife and her lover. This madness was probably inspired greatly by his lameness. This fact makes more sense in the latter situation than the former, but it could still be seen as justification for his madness in general. All his life, he has been labeled “the crippled one” or the “lame god”, something that would infuriate most beings. Along with being crippled, Hephaestus is more than likely impotent; hence, he would be unable to satisfy Aphrodite. Hephaestus seems to have a kind of underdog mentality, where he must prove himself when he gets the chance. And he most definitely demonstrates his raging power in these two instances.


Another important aspect of Hephaestus revealed through these incidents is his steadfast dedication to whatever task it is that he is working on. In the first example, he relentlessly keeps his flame on Xanthos, not letting down his guard for a second. In Demodocus’ story, Hephaestus patiently hammers out the netting, making sure to use “baleful calculation [in] his forge”(Fitzgerald, 145). These cases provide evidence that Hephaestus was, in addition to be very powerful, very hard-working. These two aspects combined would have made him a very fearsome god.


A third aspect of his personality, one that is evident in both stories, is his respect for his elders. After she feels that Xanthos has suffered enough, Hera, the one who recruited Hephaestus in the first place, calls for an end to his wrath. Hephaestus, being the obedient son that he is, releases the river from his mighty power. In the Odyssey, Hephaestus is acting on his own intuition, but he still shows respect for the elder gods. Poseidon, after seeing the lovers, “urged Hephaestus to unpinion Ares”(Fitzgerald, 147). At this suggestion, Hephaestus finally lets the two gods free, again showing that he values the ideas of his immortal peers. Through these examples, it is clear that Hephaestus exhibits a kind of humility. He knows his own powers, but he is responsible enough to heed the advice of the older generation. This makes Hephaestus seem somewhat noble.


Despite the numerous similarities between the two stories of Hephaestus, there are many, more important differences. The first point pertains to Hephaestus’ power. True, both stories depict the god as extremely strong. However, the way he controls his strength is different in each. While roasting the river Xanthos, he shows absolutely no mercy, killing everything is sight of the river. This lack of compassion differs greatly from the behavior exhibited in the song of Demodocus. Here, Hephaestus shows mercy on Ares and Aphrodite, releasing them without punishment, other than shame of course. Poseidon did initially suggest that he let them go free, but ultimately, the decision to show pity was left to Hephaestus. His mercy is particularly difficult to understand, as it seems that he would be more willing to forgive a river who was harming measly humans than to condone the being that stole his wife. This problem is not easily solved, unless the possibility of multiple authors is allowed.


The conflicting views on Hephaestus’ mercy are not the only differences represented in the stories. The method to Hephaestus’ power is also different in the two myths. In the first myth, Hephaestus uses pure, raw strength to overpower the river. He “brought heaven’s flame to bear”(Fitzgerald, 504) and constantly upheld this mighty fire. The second myth provides Hephaestus with a very different strategy. Instead of overpowering the two captured gods with raw strength, he slyly sets up a trap for the two to set off. This clever plan is a very different approach than in the Iliad. It makes Hephaestus appear intelligent in addition to simply being a tremendously powerful god. This difference can also tell us something about the authors, a point I will highlight in my conclusion.


Though the evidence from Hephaestus’ differences isn’t by itself enough to determine that there were different authors for the Iliad and the Odyssey, it can be used in support of the theory. The first myth, the Iliad, seems to reflect an author that came from a very war-obsessed society. Hephaestus is depicted as a very strong, unmerciful god, with no mention of his brilliant intelligence. These descriptions seem to be similar to descriptions of the Greek warrior Ajax. This warrior-type is precisely the persona that a warring society would have vested much pride in.


On the other hand, the Hephaestus of the Odyssey is much more controlled. He not only shows compassion to the gods who wronged him, he does so when it seems that logic would require him to be more strict. This author was probably from a more sophisticated society, or at least one where war was not a major factor in everyday life. This is also evident in his depiction of Hephaestus’ intelligence. By having the god win through cleverness rather than pure brawn, the author reveals something about his society; it valued intelligence more so than war. The two styles present the reader with differing societal values, and this detail can help support the theory that there were multiple authors to these fascinating stories.


Works Cited

Homer, trans. Robert Fitzgerald. The Iliad. Anchor Press: Garden City, NY. 1974.

Homer, trans. Robert Fitzgerald. The Odyssey. Anchor Press: Garden City, NY. 1974.

 

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