The Lame God and his Toil

” …. silver-footed Thetis reached Hephaestus’ house of imperishable bronze, adorned with stars and finest among those of the immortals, built by the lame god himself. She found him running back and forth to his bellows, sweating with toil, as he fashioned twenty triple-legged tables to stand round the walls of his great hall. He had fitted their legs with golden wheels, so they might take themselves to the gods’ assembly if he wished, and roll home again, a wondrous sight. They were not quite finished, still lacking elaborate handles which he was burnishing while forging their rivets. It was as he laboured at these with all his care and skill ….”

The Iliad, Book XVIII

I have argued that Hephaestus, the Smith God can be understood as the personification of the metal tin, his marriage with Aphrodite as a metaphor for the alloying of copper with tin to produce bronze. And yet what did it really mean for a person to be a follower or devotee of Hephaestus?

The above passage from the Iliad shows the God very much as a person and a personality. He has a definite physical form. Like Smith Gods from many cultures he is seen as lame, deformed in the legs, and yet powerful and muscular from working with metal. Above all he is toiling, using hammer and tongs, setting the bellows to fire up the forge, sweating from the heat, even burnishing up the handles for his marvellous tables. He is working with brain and heart as well as with might, conceiving his cunning devices, adorning his creations with stirring scenes.

Thulden_The-Forge-of-Vulcan

The Forge of Vulcan by Theodor Van Thulden

This is no God who waves his hands and says ‘Let it be’. The physical process of Smithcraft seems essential to his being. The Romans, also, conceived of Vulcan ever at work in his forges beneath Mount Etna, the smoke and flames of his smithy rising from the volcano. It seems to me that his followers too would have seen the practice of Smithcraft as integral to the worship of the God. There may have been other requirements and observances but the Smithcraft was the bedrock.

The Gift of the God is that you can work in metal, the price of the Gift is that you do work in metal.

Or, as Terry Pratchett said of the black smith in Lords and Ladies, “The price for being able to shoe anything, anything that anyone brings you . . . is having to shoe anything anyone brings you.”

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