If you had to invent a god of art, you could scarcely do better than the Greeks did in creating Hephaistos. It’s easy to identify with his story. He is Hera, the Queen of Heaven’s attempt at procreation without Zeus. Seeing a baby disabled, his feet facing the wrong way, she casts him out of heaven.

A prettified Hephaistos on his way to Olympus – 430/420bce

In another version, Zeus and Hera quarrel and Zeus throws him out. Either way, his early experience was one of parental rejection and exclusion from society. He falls to the ocean floor and is raised by women: Thetis and her nymphs for whose delight he lovingly makes enchanting jewellery whilst plotting his return. In time he sends a beautiful golden throne to his mother. Thrilled, she sits in it – and is immediately welded to it, giving Hephaistos the most marvellous revenge and bargaining power.

Zeus agrees he can return to heaven, but has to send Dionysus down to make him drunk for him to agree to return. Once back in heaven, however, his mind miraculously clears and he ups the conditions. Now he wants the goddess of physical love, the beautiful Aphrodite for his wife. Faithfulness is not part of her repertoire, but he wants her anyway. The Beast wants Beauty.

Already we have an image of someone who turns the exclusion by society into a right not to be bound by its rules. Someone who uses creativity to process his anger and acquire power, specifically by inventing things beyond the imagination of his fellow divinities.

Automata and Conflict Resolution
How does he live on Olympus? He works. All day, every day. He makes armour for heroes, houses for the gods, all their domestic vessels and tools, automata such as tripods on wheels which move of their own accord and can be called to a feast and then sent back. He creates assistants from gold who can speak, move and even think for themselves. Golden girls, the adoring sea-nymphs of his childhood.

He has other skills too, the ones which come out of negotiating difficulty: self-awareness and psychological insight. When Zeus and Hera quarrel in the Iliad, he persuades them to be at peace, then diffuses the tension created in heaven by making himself an object of ridicule as he wobbles among the gods pouring out wine in a parody of the handsome boy Ganymede. This is a poignant vision for us, but it’s the behaviour of a well-grounded person and he’s adept at turning ridicule against the gods too. He traps the adulterous Aphrodite and Ares in a golden net, exposing them to the guffaws of the Olympians, who are relieved at not being caught at their own escapades. Working with fire day in, day out, he is the most well-tempered of the Olympians.

His supreme achievement is to make a shield for Achilles which contains no less than the entire cosmos – Heaven and Earth: wars, weddings, trials, feasts, hunting and ploughing. So powerful is the representation and its description in Homer, that the viewer can experience what’s portrayed as if it’s actually happening, as if they can hear the figures and their music, and see them move. “The men in closely woven tunics showing the faint gleam of oil, and with daggers of gold hanging from their silver belts”*. So intense is the experience there was a legend that the brilliance of the imagined shield caused ‘Homer’ to go blind. It isn’t entirely poetic hyperbole; theirs was not an image and word saturated world like ours. This is an attribution of genuine power to the artist and wordsmith.

*Trans. E.V. Rieu.


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