Myth – Why Hera Helped Hephaestus and Dionysus

Hephaestus on Donkey.  Athenian red-figure skyphos (drinking cup), 5th century BC, Toledo Museum of Art. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Hephaestus on Donkey.
Athenian red-figure skyphos (drinking cup), 5th century BC, Toledo Museum of Art. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus are immortal, but they are not omnipotent. Each has an impressive skill set, but if he wants something else, he has to barter for it with another god. Free from the need to work, they enjoy the high life, drinking, dining, and cavorting, oblivious to the havoc they wreak on others. Divine right of kings has nothing on divine rights of divine beings.

Whenever Hera, queen of the Olympians, has had enough of her husband’s attitude, she tries getting even with him. When Zeus produced a daughter, Athena, from his own head, she wanted to show him that she was his equal, so she bore a son, Hephaestus.

Now, Athena, although sprung from her father with no mother in sight, had had a mother. Her father had disposed of her by swallowing her, so Athena had all the necessary genes to be a full woman. Not so with Hera’s parthenogenic son. Hephaestus was pretty good, considering there was no one to provide him with his y-chromosome, but his mother thought him hideously ugly.

Exposure of infants is a familiar topos of ancient history and mythology. The child was “exposed to the elements” to die or be picked up by someone else in need of a baby [Oedipus, Romulus and Remus, Moses, and Cyrus the Great] or slave. Among the gods, death isn’t a possibility, but nevertheless, Hera (or possibly Zeus) threw her deformed son from their home, high atop Mt. Olympus.

The plunge took more than a day, so when lame Hephaestus landed, he needed help. Thetis, the future mother of the Trojan War hero Achilles, tended him, incurring his obligation to make the fantastic set of armor described in the Iliad.

When Hephaestus healed, he plotted revenge against his mother. His divine gift is metallurgy. Known to the Romans as the blacksmith god Vulcan, he is associated with volcanoes, his smithies set up under the craters and vents.

Hephaestus made a special type of metal throne that could permanently trap a person. He sent one of these to his mother, who, assuming her son wanted to buy her love, accepted it. Not only did she accept the gift, but she sat in the chair, and so was stuck.

Hephaestus refused to unstick Mommy Dearest. None of the gods who rushed to help their queen could do anything. Hephaestus’ brother Ares tried to talk with him, but Hephaestus threw firebrands at the war god.

Eventually, another parthenogenic child of Zeus offered to help. This was Dionysus, unique among the gods in having at one time had a mortal mother. Zeus had impregnated a Theban maiden named Semele. When Hera learned of this infidelity, pretending to be a friend, she tricked Semele into making Zeus reveal his full grandeur. Seeing the brilliance of the god, the mortal burst into flames, but before everything was gone, Zeus scooped up the not yet-born Dionysus and sewed the fetus in his thigh, whence it was born in due time.

Hera, desperate, accepted Dionysus’ condition: He wished to take a throne as the youngest Olympian.

Hephaestus didn’t want to free his mother, but Dionysus’ special gift is the intoxicating grape vine. Sufficiently drunk, Hephaestus accompanied his stepbrother. He returned to Olympus seated on the back of a donkey [but see note below], accompanied by Dionysus and his companions, the ass-riding Sileni (satyrs).

In a position of power, however absurd he looked, Hephaestus demanded a price for his rescue services. He would only free his mother if he could marry the most beautiful of all the goddesses, the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite. It was agreed.

Hera could not one up her husband. Her attempts just made things worse. Although her son got what he wanted, he didn’t fare much better than his mother. His wife is flagrantly unfaithful to her husband who spends his days toiling away, something the other gods are free to avoid.

Hephaestus on Foot in the Ceramicus
Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-)
Vol. 139, No. 2 (Autumn 2009), pp. 275-324
Fineberg notes that in the black figure painting from the early sixth century, Hephaestus, lame, rides, but in slightly later red figure painting, he walks. Fineberg discusses symbolism of the return in terms of youths joining the society of men and fulfillment of the Freudian Oedipal complex.

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