1902 Encyclopedia > Hephaestus


HEPHAESTUS, a word of uncertain derivation but certainly pre-Greek in formation (Kuhn, Zeitschr., v. 214), denotes among the Greeks a god who represents the power of fire and its appliance in the operations of daily life, corresponding to the Latin Vulcan. A clear distinction must be drawn between the Hellenic god and the deity worshipped by the Pelasgic races. Though the word Hephaestus is used by Homer in the sense of fire, yet in the Hellenic god no elemental idea is at all prominent. The Hellenic religion had raised itself far above such con-ceptions of the divine power, and its gods were moral powers. Zeus, the ruler of the world, whose will, according to the finest Hellenic conception, is fate, is surrounded by a court in which Hephaestus appears as the divine artificer, an object rather of laughter than of respect to the other gods. No worship was paid him, for his altar at Olympia seems not to have been an ancient institution. The fire of the hearth, as the centre of family and city unity, is now personified under a purely Greek name, Plestia; but here again it is not the elemental but the moral conception that is the predominant idea in the goddess (see HESTIA). The similarity between the divine artificer of the Greeks and the Finnish Ilmarine or the German Wieland, who has degenerated finally into the Wayland Smith of Scott's Kenilworth, has been often pointed out, and the starting-point of them all is the smith who makes the new sun every morning (see Mannhardt, Zeitschr. f. Ethnol., 1875, p. 221). The round disk of the sun has in poetic treatment become the shield of Achilles, whose fabrication is the great deed of Hephaestus in the Iliad. This artificer is naturally represented as married to the dawn, Aphrodite or Charis (see GRACES), as Wieland marries the Swan-maiden; and the girdle of Aphrodite which Hephaestus made is the halo of rays that heralds the rising sun. All wonderful works came to be attributed to the divine smith; in particular the house of the gods has been made by Ilmarine and by Hephaestus ; and they also, like Wieland, have made metal figures that move and almost equal living beings. In general the art of working metals by the hammer is under his patronage—a fact which points out this art as one of the very oldest known to the race (Conze, Götter- und Heroen-Gestalten, s.v.). In local traditions a set of elfish creatures like the Idsean Dactyls or the dwarfs in German legend were often put in place of this divine smith. The belief which in Lipara and Strongyle was associated with Hephaestus, that any one that put a lump of iron in a certain spot at night found next morning the article he wished ready made, provided he paid the required price, is in some parts of Germany attached to a correspond-ing set of dwarfs. An ill-omened character often attached to the works of Hephaestus, as to that of the Telchines or the German dwarfs. Other points in the Hellenic Hephaestus can be explained only by a reference to the worship of the older Pelasgic tribes. When Homer (IL, i. 593) says that he was hurled by his father Zeus down to the earth, the reference to the lightning is unmistakable (Welcker, Gr. Gott., i. 661). Again the weak legs always attributed to Hephaestus remind us of the serpent legs of his son Erichthonius; and serpents occur often as symbols of lightning. Homer (I.e.) says that Hephaestus fell on Lemnos, whose inhabitants tended him; he evidently considers that the Hellenic deity was identical with the Pelasgic god. Wherever a Pelasgic race is most certain, there the god is found, associated with the Cabiri: he is the Cabirus par excellence (Herod., iii. 37). Among these tribes the power of fire was considered the life-giving and reproductive power of nature, and the deity in whom it was embodied became the chief object of their worship.

Hence on, the coins of Imbros an ithyphallic Hephaestus appears. As Greek influence prevailed among the kindred Pelasgic tribes, their native worship survived in the form of mysteries, and their proper" gods, whose nature was revealed to the initiated, became in popular tradition heroic or demoniac figures who were the founders of the mysteries (v. HARMONIA, and comp. Lenormant in D'Arem-berg's Diet, des Antiquités, art. " Cabeiri "). This Hephaes-tus or Cabirus is the lightning that has descended to earth and become there the origin of all life, and according to Pindar (Fr. 162) the first man. The original conception, vague and wide like all primitive ideas, is that the heavenly and the subterranean fire are identical with the fire on earth. In both thunderstorm and dawn the fire of the sun is relighted after being for a time extinguished. In both the alternation of light and darkness was the prominent fact. In the thunderstorm the sparks emitted from the sun descend as the lightning to earth. This original power of fire has been developed in various ways ; the higher thought of the Greeks rejected such a naturalistic deity as the Pelasgic found congenial, while in Athens, where the Pelasgic element was very strong, Hephaestus occupied a correspondingly high place, and is in close relationship with Athene. In many ceremonies, as the Lampadephoria, they were associated ; and at the Apaturia honour was paid to Zeus Phratrius, Athene, and Hephaestus. In the oldest traditions they were perhaps married, and their son Erichthonius was the parent of the Athenian people. When the Hellenic conception of the maiden-goddess Athene prevailed, this connexion was transformed into an unsuccessful attempt of Hephaestus at a union with Athene. But the marvellous birth of Erichthonius is an ancient feature, as it occurs in Vedic tradition (Kuhn, Zeitschr., i. 443).

Small images of Hephaestus stood on every hearth at Athens, and the Amphidromia round the hearth-fire was the rite whereby the newly-born child was adopted into the family. In the oldest Greek art Hephaestus is a bearded man fully clad, carrying a ham- mer. This hammer, which the Cabirus of Thessalonica carries, is doubtless in its origin, like the hammer of Thor, the thunderbolt or hammer with which was shattered the tower where the sun was hid during the winter darkness. An undignified and comic character is, however, often apparent, when he wears short, workman's clothes, and wants the dignity proper to a god. The ruling type in later art is a bearded man with a certain resemblance to Zeus, wearing a close cap, carrying the traditional hammer, and clad in a short, girt tunic which leaves the left shoulder free. (W. M. HA. )

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