Divine Disabilities – The Myth of Hephaestus, the Disabled God

Hephaestus & Ancient Wheelchair

An ancient depiction from the year 525 BC of the Disabled God on his “winged chariot” which we in the modern day would term a wheelchair.

On Mount Olympus, all was perfect.

So thought Hera, Queen of the Gods as she stood from her palace in the clouds surveying her divine Kingdom at the dawn of Time.

In those earliest days of Man’s reckoning, the Queen and her husband, Zeus, Ruler of All Gods, were in the process of initially forming their heavenly Kingdom by their own design.  This included populating Mt. Olympus with their own immortal offspring. As she stood fully with child while looking out upon all that she ruled, the process of child labor suddenly began, signifying to the Queen the time had come to give birth to another Olympian deity.

Perfectly on schedule.” Hera thought as she felt the first aching pangs from deep within her.

But everything wasn’t perfect and the Queen of the Gods knew it.

Hera Peacock Chariot
Hera’s patron animal was the peacock.  The ancient Greeks believed that within each of the feathers of the majestic bird’s tail was an actual eye that could watch over a couple’s fidelity, since Hera was the goddess who ruled over marriage.  Above the Queen of the Gods rides her peacock drawn chariot (Drawing by Granger, 1810).

There were those choice deities that had come into being with neither the Queen’s input nor influence. Said another way, the existence of various members of Mt. Olympus’ Pantheon of Gods were being brought into the world by ways other than the King and Queen’s process of divine procreation.

The most recent of these was that goddess on the half shell who sprang forth from the ocean’s waves, Aphrodite.  Despite the goddess’ birth being the end result from sea-foam merging with the slashed reproductive organs of the castrated ancient King Uranus after they were violently flung into the sea, Aphrodite truly was the most beautiful being throughout all Creation.

So much so, Zeus officially deemed her to be the Goddess of Beauty which was immediately followed by every untaken deity on Mt. Olympus desperately begging the King of Gods for permission to take Aphrodite’s hand as their wife.

But the most beautiful being in Creation found favor with none of them.

Whenever Zeus called upon Aphrodite with one suitor after another breathlessly wanting to propose, the most beautiful of deities would both smirk and grimace in disgust, as if to divinely say, “As if!”.

Hera herself was smirking upon being informed her latest divine delivery was a boy. “The perfect suitor for the perfect priss I’d imagine.” Hera thought to herself since she had already arranged a matrimonial union between her now newly born son with the most beautiful creature in all of Creation.  But the Queen’s smirk quickly disappeared upon being handed the child she had just brought into the world.

He was anything but perfect.

The infant boy had a rough and harshly lined face along with a drastically misshapen body.  The baby looked more like a wrinkled old man rather than a child that was newly born. Upon further horrified inspection, Hera beheld that the boy’s feet were completely inverted, with his toes being positioned where his heels should have been and vice versa.

This cannot be.” Hera muttered repeatedly to herself over and over as if in a hypnotic trance. The Queen eerily stared straight ahead, her eyes ghostly large and unblinking as she slowly made her way to Mount Olympus’ highest precipice.  With her flattened face frozen and stoic while her eyes remained wide open continuing their need not to blink, the Queen of the Gods lifted her newborn  child  high over her head and hurled him into the air with all her might, walking immediately away afterwards without giving as much as a cursory glance behind her.

For two full days the baby hurtled through the air until finally hitting the ocean’s waters near the Greek island of Lemnos. The force of the child’s collision with the surface of the earth was so great, a massive depression formed that nearly reached the fiery center of our planet’s core.

Thus the first volcano had come into existence.

Although he was thrown from Heaven and nearly crashed to the center of the earth, the child did not perish. The infant boy loudly wailed but did so only with the hope his mother would hear his cries.

The baby’s sobs did not go unheard. Two Nereids, a race of magical mermaid, named Thetis and Eurynome, heard the child’s lonely bawling and cared for the infant as if he were one of their own.

Hephaestus as baby found by Nereids Thetis and Eurynome

The Nereids, Thetis and Eurynome come upon the abandoned infant whom they nurtured and named “Hephaestus”.

The Nereids named the child “Hephaestus” which roughly means “the crafty one of many devices” and raised the boy as he matured into a master builder and sculptor, using the volcanic chambers deep within the Earth as his first workshop and smelting oven. In a short time it became evident there was no better blacksmith, metal worker, or artisan in either Heaven or Earth more skilled than the young Hephaestus.

Although his childhood was quite happy living with the Nereids while teaching himself how to be a master maker of things, the God of Fire’s unhappy beginnings were forever marked on his body, since Hephaestus’ collision with the Earth as a helpless newborn made him permanently lame.

But even with that said it must also be mentioned that quite often the most precious gifts are hidden just below the surface of things.

Hephaestus’ abilities of creative genius and innovative invention came about from the incapacitated deity making the most of the resources around him. The icon chosen for this piece is an image from an ancient Greek vase made in 525 B.C. depicting the disabled God of Blacksmiths with anvil in hand, moving about in a vehicle of his own creative design – a god-like version of what we in the modern day would call a wheelchair, or said in ancient terms, “a winged chariot.”

Upon coming of age, the God of Fire and Volcanic Flame asked his mermaid caregivers how his disability came to be. When the Nereids told Hephaestus the truth about his mother throwing him off the edge of Mount Olympus directly following his birth, Hephaestus said nothing. He merely went off and began to work in a frenzied state of haste.

Meanwhile back on Mount Olympus….

Along with reigning over the Pantheon of Gods as Queen, Hera was also the patron goddess of Childbirth and Marriage.   And as we have already seen, the goddess had quite the poor track record regarding her own experiences with child birthing.  Plus, at this point of our tale her marriage wasn’t faring much better, either.

Hera’s standard of Olympian perfection when applied to her marriage was constantly being overturned by the inner frustration and rage which the King’s actions caused her. Not only was Zeus constantly philandering, the King was furtively making  his share of god-like beings without his wife’s procreative assistance. The latest of these was the divinity who literally sprang forth out of her husband’s head fully grown and clad in armor, Zeus’ daughter, Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom.

 The Queen’s perfect standards certainly weren’t helped by the fact the Goddess of Beauty was being so divinely difficult by remaining undecided as far as her making a choice of an  immortal husband . Hera had just summoned Aphrodite before her and was about to harshly scold the headstrong girl for her overt display of marital indecisiveness, when the Queen of the Gods was unexpectedly informed a gift had arrived bearing her name.

Hera’s frustration transformed into surprised delight as she came upon an exquisitely hand carved throne made of pure gold that was adorned with the most decoratively detailed arrangements of pearls, opals, and amethyst.  High atop the throne’s seat an inscription could be read with the words, “Divine Mother”.

It’s perfect.” the Queen thought aloud as she proceeded to seat herself in the chair that was clearly custom made for the Mother of the Gods.

But no sooner had her expression of delight left her lips, when Hera’s chin was pushed down and in while her head and neck were thrust up and back as if being invisibly clamped.  Simultaneously, the Queen’s wrists and ankles were pulled down and against the arms and bottom of the throne, as if invisibly shackled. It all happened so horrifyingly fast, there wasn’t even a moment for the goddess to scream for Help.

For the longest time, no one noticed anything was amiss, all the Queen could do was stare in unblinking shock since the bewitched chair had imprisoned the Queen’s ability to both move and speak.

After soon realizing that no amount of brute force or physical strength could detach his wife from the cursed throne, Zeus commanded that the Messenger of the Gods, Hermes, scan both Heaven and Earth to find the culprit behind this heinous gift whose sole purpose was to mock and undermine the Queen of Heaven for all to see.

The Divine Messenger returned from his task informing Zeus that Hephaestus was the chair’s creator.   When Hermes was sent to retrieve Hephaestus by bidding him back to Mt. Olympus in order to come to his mother’s aid, the God of Fire angrily replied, I have no mother!

Aware the divine youth had recently come of age, Zeus commanded that the God of Wine, Dionysus,  pay a friendly call on the throne’s creator. After a few hours of pleading and many more of drinking, the residents of Mount Olympus were relieved to see a very intoxicated  young Hephaestus entering their gates passed out over a donkey’s back as he  returned to his rightful home accompanied by the debaucherous God of Wine.

Hephaestus rides the donkey

A 5th century BC Greek vase depicting the God of Wine, Dionysus, leading a donkey with a heavily inebriated teenaged Hephaestus riding atop the beast of burden’s back.   Note: Hera sitting frozen on her cursed throne in the far right corner.

Upon fully learning of his wife’s unmatronly treatment towards her own offspring, the King of the Gods proposed to Hephaestus that if he were willing to release his mother from the throne’s cursed clutches, the disabled deity would be compensated in kind.

Firstly, by having the Ruler of Fire, Volcanoes, and Blacksmiths, return once more to his rightful home among the Gods, along with,….the King of Creation commanding that the hand of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Beauty,  be taken by Hephaestus to be his loftily wedded, divine wife.

And thus it came to all not so perfectly pass.

For very much like that part of our mortal world which Hephaestus rules over, a flame when initially sparked is faint and extremely fragile at first but when tended to becomes one of the foundational forces of Life, itself.

Brad Kronen is so enamored of the world of ancient myth, his latest book is his own unique retelling of an ages old epic that is both a myth and one of the world’s greatest love stories – The Tale of Cupid and Psyche.  Go to amazon.com or click on the image of the winged deity directly below to purchase and to see a complete listing of all of Brad’s published work:

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