Aeneas and the Iconography of Lineage

The image of Aeneas carrying his aged father, as they flee the fall of Troy, is one of the most arresting in mythology. It has long been a favourite of painters and sculptors, both for it emotional impact and for the opportunities it gives for showing the artists’ skill. I saw an example most recently at an exhibition in Norwich Cathedral. In the work Shadows of the Wanderer the artist Ana Maria Pacheco has created a haunting tableau on the theme of refugees.

Indeed, one can derive the whole story of Aeneas’ flight from Troy from the traditional iconic tableau. Aeneas heroically rescues his father and young son. They make their escape from Troy but Aeneas’ wife is lost. That, perhaps suggests that the image came first and then the story was built upon it.

Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius from a  painting in Pompeii In this illustration Anchises carries the household gods in a box

Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius from a painting in Pompeii
In this illustration Anchises carries the household gods in a box

If we look at the image, without the names and the narrative attached to it, what do we see? A young boy in front, linking hands with an adult – his father? – who carries an aged man on his back – the grandfather? – who clutches an even more precious burden, his household gods. For me this represents not just a family, but a lineage. A lineage perhaps on the move, venturing into an uncertain future, but carrying with them the traditions and beliefs of their past. It is moreover an explicitly patriarchal lineage, an icon of the male line.

It is an image and an idea that would have resonated with many peoples and cultures of the Mediterranean, in and after the ‘Bronze Age collapse’. That is a period of major upheaval, social breakdown and the fall of Empires that occurred at the end of the Aegean Bronze Age. The Fall of Troy  – or rather the destruction of Troy VII, the excavation layer believed to represent Homeric Troy – is generally dated to around 1200 B.C.E. The enemies of Troy, the mainland Greek palace cultures that included Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos, also suffered destruction a short time later. The Hittite Empire of Anatolia was overthrown and overrun at around the same time. Ugarit in Syria was completely destroyed. Egypt was troubled by attacks of the ‘Sea Peoples’ from 1300 to 1000 B.C.E.

All these upheavals will have resulted in the movements of peoples. There is evidence from archaeology that up to 90% of settlements on mainland Greece were abandoned and that there was a significant reduction in population. Many of these displaced peoples may have formed war-bands and raiding parties, on land or on sea, in an attempt to  push themselves into new territories and make new homes. Further waves of destruction and migration would follow. Such experiences would tend to reinforce patriarchal attitudes, as men earned their place in the tribe by their service in war, while women  often came by capture.

This is the background that created both the Aeneas icon and the Iliad and ensured that they had a powerful hold on the imaginations of all the peoples of the Mediterranean.

The Child of the Chemical Marriage

If, as I have argued, the marriage of Aphrodite  and Hephaestus represents the alloying of copper (Aphrodite) with tin (Hephaestus) to produce bronze, then we would expect there to be a child of the marriage, a god or demi-god representing bronze. Yet, at first sight, there seems to be no such character. In classical mythology the only god sometimes claimed to be the son of Aphrodite and Hephaestus is Eros or Cupid, a personification of sexual desire. Other classical writers, however, hold that Eros is the result of Aphrodite’s adulterous liaison with Ares and merely passed off as the child of Hephaestus. There are a number of other demi-gods  and goddesses who are said to be the offspring of Aphrodite and Ares. They are either personification of love – Eros, Anteros, Harmonia – or like Phobos, Deimos, and Adrestia, that is Fear, Terror and Retribution, aspects of war.

There is one child of Aphrodite, however, that doesn’t seem to fit this pattern of personification, one son that is actually the subject of a mythological narrative. That is Aeneas, the son that Aphrodite bore to the mortal Anchises, a prince of Troy. Aeneas appears in the Iliad; he is several times saved by his mother Aphrodite from various Greek heroes. He is also the hero of the Aeneid, Virgil’s great epic of the remote origins of Rome.

Virgil tells how Aeneas escaped the sack of Troy. He fled with his family, carrying the aged Anchises on his back and accompanied by his young son, Ascanius. Aeneas’ wife Creusa was lost in this escape. This account of Virgil’s closely follows the Iliad. Virgil then goes on to tell of Aeneas’ wanderings, his sojourn in Carthage and his final arrival in Latium where he marries the princess Lavinia and founds the Roman race.

Aeneas flees Troy carrying his father, Anchises.

Aeneas flees Troy carrying his father, Anchises.
“5049 bassenge chiaroscuro”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

There seems little in this tale to suggest that Aeneas is the missing personification of bronze, yet that is what I want to argue. My first point is his name. Aeneas is generally presumed to be a Greek name, derived from  the Greek αἰνή meaning “praised”, which seems reasonable. It should be noted that most of the Trojan heroes in the Iliad have names that are clearly Greek. However if we put that derivation aside for a moment and consider Aeneas as a Latin name –  then it most closely resembles  aeneus, meaning bronze.

Furthermore, some versions of the story of Anchises relate that when the goddess Aphrodite lay with him she made him promise never to tell anyone of it. Inevitably, however, Anchises did boast of his relations with the goddess – whereupon Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at him, laming him in the heel. In other words Anchises may just be another version of the lame smith god, perhaps a version that was a deified mortal rather than a goddess-born craftsman.

I suspect that there were once many versions of the myth of the copper goddess, her lover and their son Bronze to be found in the cultures around the Mediterranean. As the secrets of bronze-making became well known and everyday the importance of this story would have dwindled and been superceded by other versions. Except perhaps in Latium where the Bronze son , there known as Aeneus/Aeneas was believed to be a founding ancestor of the people. Later, perhaps because of a similarity of names, perhaps for other reasons, that story got conflated with the story of a Trojan prince, or included into the tale of Troy, resulting in the legend of Aeneas as we know it today.

A Little Self Promotion

My story ‘Object Lessons’ will be featured on Every Day Fiction – the Online Flash Fiction Magazine today. It is a very short piece, just 400 words but some encouraging things have been said about it.

“I didn’t see that ending coming. I think our readers will enjoy this to brighten a Monday with some humour.” Camille Gooderham Campbell , Editor, Every Day Fiction.

The piece will continue to be findable at Every Day Fiction thereafter.

The subject is not mythological but I have definitely subverted a metaphor!

Yes, a toothbrush!

Yes, a toothbrush!

Meet the Amesbury Archer

In May 2002 archaeological investigations were being carried out in advance of  building a housing estate at Amesbury, near Stonehenge, in Britain. An ancient grave was discovered with a fascinating collection of artefacts. There were five pots of the type known as Beaker ware, that immediately dated the grave to the early Bronze age. A skeleton was revealed wearing a stone wrist-brace, designed to protect the arm from the snap of a bowstring, and there was another such wrist-brace in the grave, along with sixteen barbed flint arrowheads. This lead to the occupant of the grave being dubbed the Amesbury Archer.

There were other objects in the grave as well. In fact, it contained the largest collection of artefacts ever found in any Bronze Age burial in Britain. They included three copper knives, two gold hair ornaments and a collection of tools for both flint knapping and metal working. The Amesbury Archer actually appears to have been a smith, and a high status one at that. Radiocarbon dating sets the burial at around 2300 B.C.E., making the gold objects the earliest ever found in Britain.

Scientific investigation of the bones and teeth revealed even more information about the Archer. He was about forty when he died and had not originated in Britain but had grown up in an Alpine region of Central Europe. Furthermore, he had suffered a serious injury to his leg which involved the loss of his kneecap. He had obviously survived some considerable time after this injury, though it may well have left him lame and possibly needing the support of a crutch to walk.  An abscess in the jaw indicated that he was suffering from a painful and dangerous bone infection, probably originating with the injury to his leg, and it may well have been this that eventually killed him.

The Amesbury Archer on display at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum Photo  Pasicles CC0

The Amesbury Archer on display at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum
Photo Pasicles CC0

Excellent detailed photos of the Amesbury Archer’s grave goods are also among those on Wessex Archeology’s Flickr page.

The discovery of an actual lame smith, one of the earliest metalworkers in Britain, sent shivers down my spine when I first heard of it. It brought up again the question of the Persistence of Folk Memory and how much of folklore is actually based on memories of real events and people. Of course, it must be said that there is no obvious, immediate connection between a lame smith in Britain and the archetype of Hephaestus in the Greek Aegean. The date of 2300 B.C.E. is not particularly early in the context of the Aegean Bronze Age, which is generally agreed to begin about 3200 B.C.E.

However the Early Bronze Age is characterised as much by developing urbanisation and exchange, including trading for bronze objects, as by local metal working. Many of the metal objects associated with the Early Bronze Age in Greece and Crete are copper or copper/arsenic alloys rather than true bronzes. As I have argued in my post The Chemical Marriage, I believe that Hephaestus was very much associated with the technology of making true bronzes by deliberate alloying of copper and tin. This technology would have taken time to be fully developed. The myths of Hephaestus, the god that embodies both the tin and the technological secrets of the master bronzesmith, could well have been taking shape around 2300 B.C.E.

Then there is the much debated question of from where the tin for the bronze came. Tin is much less readily available than copper and there are no known sources in the Aegean, or indeed through much of the Near East. It is now believed that tin for the bronze made in ancient Mesopotamia was traded from Afghanistan. Some of this tin, or bronzes made from it, may have eventually reached the Mediterranean but it is generally agreed that Aegean bronzesmiths must have developed alternative supplies. Extraordinary as it may seem, given the distances involved, at least some of the tin used by smiths at Knossos or Mycenae came from Britain, from sources in Devon and Cornwall.

Long distance trade in ancient times need not have always involved individuals making long journeys. It is perfectly possible for goods to pass through a long chain of middle men, as people trade with neighbours in one direction, acquiring goods that they know will be valued by neighbours in the other. It is believed that tin came to Mesopotamia from Afghanistan along trade networks originally developed for lapis lazuli and that British tin followed, at least in part, the Amber Route to the Mediterranean. Amber and lapis however are often worn as ornaments, instant adverts that you have access to such trade goods. It is much harder to see how people in Britain would know that there was a demand for their tin in Greece – unless, at least initially, some people made long journeys in search of it.

There is one more important point about the Amesbury Archer. The injury to his knee was not the only way in which he was lame. He also suffered from a condition called calcaneonavicular coalition, in which some of the bones of the foot are fused together. This means the foot does not flex properly, and pain and inflammation can develop, making it hard to put weight on the foot. This condition is hereditary. Indeed, there is another burial close by the Amesbury Archer, a younger man, aged about twenty and also suffering from the same condition. The obvious conclusion is that he is a close relative of the Archer’s, quite possibly his son, though the younger man apparently grew up in Britain.

So, let us suppose that one of the first smiths working effectively with tin/copper bronze suffered from this condition. As a successful man, he may well have had many children, about half of whom would inherit the condition – it is caused by a dominant gene. His sons would likely also have become smiths and other smiths may have married his daughters. If, as often happens, smiths continued to intermarry with other smiths, the result may well have been a smith clan who all had a tendency to painful feet, that caused them to limp, especially when tired or as they got older.

Is that why the Smith God is lame?

So Why is Hephaestus Lame?

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?

Much worn sculptures of Athena and Hephaestus from the East Frieze of the Parthenon You can just make out a crutch beneath the arm of the bare-chested figure of Hephaestus Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen CC2.5

Much worn sculptures of Athena and Hephaestus from the East Frieze of the Parthenon
You can just make out a crutch beneath the arm of the bare-chested figure of Hephaestus
Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen CC2.5

The Riddle of the Fire-Breathing Bulls

In the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Jason sails to Colchis seeking the Fleece, which hangs on a sacred tree, guarded by a dragon. The King of Colchis, Aeetes, promises to give Jason the Fleece. if he can complete a number of seemingly impossible tasks. The first of these tasks is to yoke a pair of fire-breathing bulls and use them to plough a field. He must then sow the field with dragon’s teeth and reap a harvest.

Jason ans the Bulls of Aeetes Wikimedia commons

Jason ans the Bulls of Aeetes
Wikimedia commons

In the myth Jason manages the first task with the help of Medea, daughter of the King of Colchis, who has fallen in love with him. She gives him a magic ointment made from the colchium or Autumn Crocus which protects him from the breath of the bulls. He is then able to yoke them, plough the field and plant the dragon’s teeth. These then spring up as armed men who rush to attack him. This is the incident, which lead to the famous scene in the movie Jason and the Argonauts, where the hero is attacked by armed skeletons. The original myth however makes no mention of skeletons, and Jason defeats his attackers relatively easily by throwing a stone into their midst, which causes them to fall on each other.

Robert Graves and other commentators regard this story as a typical ‘marriage task’ motif, which has in this case got associated with winning the Fleece, rather than the more usual winning the hand of the princess. There are a number of stories in Celtic mythology where the hero must harness monsters, plough, sow and reap a harvest all within a single day. We tend to view all such tales  as fantastical, stories of fabulous monsters and the supernatural heroes who overcame them and not requiring any more explanation.

There is another way of looking at such tasks however. Not as tests of strength, bravery and luck but as tests of intelligence. The task that has been set is actually a riddle. Solve the riddle and any reasonably competent person could complete the task. There are a number of explicitly riddle-solving ‘marriage tests’ in other cultures. Often, it is a woman, who is told she will only be accepted as a wife if she can come to her prospective husband ‘neither naked nor clothed, neither on foot nor horseback, having tasted food but not having eaten’ and so on. Conditions which she then meets by such expedients as arriving on the back of a goat, draped in nothing but a fishing net and with a mouthful of food that she hasn’t swallowed. Similar riddles surround the manner in which the Welsh hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes can meet his death.

If the task that Jason is set is a riddle, how are we to understand it? The fire-breathing bulls are perhaps the easiest to explain. These bulls are said to have brazen feet and mouths, and, moreover, to have been creations of Hephaestus. Thus it is clear, these bulls are bull-hide bellows with bronze nozzles. If you harness and use them their breath will stoke the forge fire. The rest of the riddle and task may have got somewhat mangled. Perhaps the task was to create a weapon – or a ploughshare – or even to make the right choice between a weapon or a ploughshare. For, while a weapon may be turned against its maker, a ploughshare can do nothing but good.

The fire-breathing bull is yoked? Viking re-enactors with forge bellows Photo by Ardfen CC 3.0

The fire-breathing bull is yoked?
Viking re-enactors with forge bellows
Photo by Ardfen CC 3.0

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.


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.”