Why was the Smith God believed to be lame? It is a fascinating question with no easy answer. It seems such a definite and personal characteristic for a God. One moreover, that is at odds with the usual view of gods as exemplars of perfection. Various explanations for link between lameness and smiths have been postulated.
It has been suggested that the original conception of the god was merely as ugly, rather than disabled. Hard physical labour would tend to deform the bodies of smiths. In particular, away from the upright and symmetrical forms that the the Greeks saw as the embodiment of manly beauty, to a more stooped posture with uneven muscle development.. There may be something in this. Other supernatural smiths, while not described as lame, are seen as squat or deformed in various ways. Ptah, the Egyptian god of craftsmen and architects, is often depicted as a deformed dwarf, while in northern Europe the dwarven smith is a well known archetype.
Yet the epithets used to describe Hephaestus are very precise – Amphigúeis (Ἀμφιγύεις) “the lame one” or “lame in both feet”, Kullopodíōn (Κυλλοποδίων) “the halting”. They direct attention particularly to the feet. In Homer’s Illiad the god is described as needing the support of robotic maidens in order to walk, And while statues of Hephaestus often show no definite indication of lameness, vase paintings can send a very different message. See, for example, the Return of Hephaestus to Olympus which shows him with shrivelled, backward-facing feet or this picture, which shows him in a wheelchair-like winged chariot.
The earliest bronze smiths used arsenic to produce a copper alloy and arsenic poisoning has been suggested as a reason for their link with lameness. Chronic low-level arsenic exposure is said to be associated with arthritic lameness and skin cancers. However lameness does not seem to be is a particularly common symptom of such exposure, not being mentioned as a symptom in medical literature on the topic.
It has also been proposed that smiths were at one time seen as commodities and were deliberately lamed to prevent them from running away. This idea seems to owe much to the Germanic and Norse legends of Wayland Smith. Wayland (or Weland or Velandr or Volundr) a supernatural blacksmith was captured by his enemy, King Nithad. He was then hamstrung to prevent him escaping, and set to work. However, he managed to murder Nithad’s sons, rape his daughter, and finally make his escape on wings of his own fashioning. If anything, the story illustrates that making slaves of smiths, who must inevitably have access to weapons and other dangerous objects, is a really bad idea.
Is the mystery of Hephaestus’ lameness then unsolvable, lost in the mists of time and never to be uncovered?