the Romans called Vulcan, enjoys a privileged place among the Greek
deities associated with Sicily. With Polyphemus, the dreaded Cyclops, he
is associated with the mythology of Mount Etna.
Like the one-eyed Cyclops, who probably represents a crater of volcanic
Etna, Hephaestus embodies
a natural characteristic of the fiery mountain - the flames themselves.
To the ancient Greeks flames did not represent Hell as expressed by Judaeo-Christian
belief; rather, their dark Underworld was the subterranean domain of Hades,
who abducted Persephone in another part of eastern
Sicily. To the Greeks mythology was all about nature and fire - though
potentially dangerous - was just another element.
Unlike Hades and Polyphemus, Hephaestus rarely posed a danger to gods
or mortals. His realm was simply a cavern with a forge. He was the blacksmith
of the gods, and a patron of earthly smiths. One of his most important clients
was Achilles. But he was also considered one of the gods of fire. In the
Greek postage stamp shown here he is depicted with the hammer that has come
to represent him. (Thor, the Norse god of thunder, also bore a hammer, but as
a weapon and as a means of making the sound with which he is associated.)
Two other figures, possibly of Ausonian or Sikel
origin, are closely identified with Hephaestus and may be more ancient.
These are Adranus on Mount Etna and Volcanos (not to be confused with the
name Vulcanus or Vulcan) in the Aeolian Islands where one island bears
the eponymous name Vulcano.
Hephaestus was the son of Zeus and Hera - king and queen of the gods
- and the husband of Aphrodite (the Romans' Venus), the goddess of beauty,
who was unfaithful to him.
Drawn from the Odyssey and other sources, Greek stories of Hephaestus
abound, and as Vulcan his cult was popular among the Romans as well. He
came to be known as the god of metallurgy, sculptors, volcanoes, artisans
and technology in general. Vulcan, the Romans' Hephaestus, even created
the thunderbolts of Jupiter.
Though worshipped in Athens and in Sicily, the center of his cult was
Lemnos, where he fathered two children by the sea nymph Cabeiro. In Greece
a temple is dedicated to him. In Sicily he consorted with the nymph Aetna
(alternatively Thalia) who bore him two sons, the Palici, gods of geysers
worshipped around Mineo. Hephaestus fathered numerous children, both mortal
and divine, including the robber Periphetes.
Hephaestus fashioned Hermes' winged helmet and sandals, Helios' chariot,
Aegis' breastplate, Agamemnon's staff, and the thrones in the Palace of
Accounts explaining Hephaestus' immobility (he moved about with the aid
of a special chariot he constructed) vary widely. According to the most
popular, as an ugly infant he was pushed from Mount Olympus into the sea
by either Zeus or Hera, and was injured during the fall, breaking a leg
that never healed properly and never learning to walk. Thetis, a sea nymph,
found him and raised him as her own son.
However, despite this archetypal "fall from grace," he is the
only god to have ever returned to Mount Olympus after being exiled. Did
he prefer Olympus to Etna? We do not know.
Decorative iconography representing Hephaestus was popular on vases and
other earthenware which probably made its way to Etruria where it influenced
the Etruscans (who called him Sethlans) and, in turn, the Romans. Indeed,
Roman myths about Vulcan are as numerous as Greek tales of their Hephaestus,
and in Rome his sanctuary was the Volcanal at the base of the Capitoline
Hill. He was also worshipped by strong cults at Ostia near the sea and the
volcano of Pozzuoli near Naples.
Perhaps the most enjoyable story about Hephaestus is the one describing
his discovery of Aphrodite's unfaithfulness. Helios, the all-seeing sun
god, told Hephaestus of Aphrodite's love affair with Ares, so the blacksmith
lay a trap in the form of a metal net that ensnared the two. He dragged
the naked lovers to Olympus, to the amusement of all present, where Poseidon,
the sea god, persuaded Hephaestus to free them if Ares would pay the fine
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno
has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and
Giuseppe di Lampedusa.