Hephaestus and How Brokenness Contributes to Creativity

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Synopsis

What can the Greek god Hephaestus teach us about creativity? Hephaestus was the god of the forge, and he created some of the most beautiful objects, jewellery and weapons that appear in Greek myth. However, he was lame, and his lameness is an integral part of his archetypal qualities as the most creative of Greek gods.

In examining the world's myths for clues to creativity and living a more creative life, it can be helpful to look at the archetypal qualities of gods and goddesses from different cultures, and how the creative impulse manifests itself in the stories of those gods. I've recently spent some time with the Greek god Hephaestus, and I've come to believe that he has, in his myths, some interesting things to teach us about how to use all the parts of ourselves, the whole and the broken, in bringing new ideas into the world.

Hephaestus is the god of the forge for the Greeks, of metalworking and fire, particularly volcanic fire. He is known as Vulcan to the Romans, and his name is used as a synonym for fire by both Greek and Roman poets, particularly fire in service of the creation of art. His origin story is told differently by different poets. He is either the son of both Hera and Zeus, or is the son of only Hera, a retaliation for the solitary birth of Athena from Zeus' head. In any story about Hephaestus, however, he is lame. He becomes lame by being thrown from Mount Olympus, and he is often shown in later myths or mythic images being supported in some way.

He is also, for the Greeks and their poets, one of the gods who fill the role of culture hero for humans, teaching them how to make art and the importance of doing so. He is the patron god of those who work with their hands to form metals, making art and weapons. He does the same himself, creating beautiful and clever objects. We have several myths in which Hephaestus uses his skill at the forge to create a trap for another god or goddess (the fine chain he makes to hang over his wife Aphrodite's bed to catch her with her lover is an excellent example).

For the Greek aristoi that many myths were written for, Hephaestus was, like the many artisans who worked in classical Greece, an object of scorn and ridicule. It was not uncommon for the lame to become metalworkers, and Greek citizens loved the beautiful Apollo, and denigrated the ugly and lame Hephaestus and those who followed him. (Classical Myth, Powell, page 175)

He was scorned, but he still had a place among the twelve Olympians. As a culture hero, he "taught men work that was noble for men to do on the earth, men who formerly lived in caves in mountains like animals" (Homeric Hymns, The Hymn to Hephaistos). In the last lines of the hymn Homer prays to Hephaestus to "give us excellence".

The most defining characteristic of Hephaestus, other than his creativity, is his lameness. He is the only one of the Pantheon who is not physically perfect, yet he is still included among the twelve, despite the Greek's revulsion for the ugly and lame. Why is this? It is no accident that he represents fire, which is a symbol in cultures worldwide of purification and regeneration, of passing through an ordeal and coming out the other side stronger. Hephaestus has done this. He becomes lame through an act of violence committed against him by his family, but still he returns to Olympus, bringing beauty and useful tools to that world. He does not allow his infirmity to stop him from making art, he uses it to transform. His brokenness is the catalyst for the creation of his art, and the vehicle of his clever approach to problem solving. He doesn't let the fact that he is imperfect keep him from using his skills in service to his world, and it would be a lesser place if he had done so.

The same is true for us. I've talked to many people over the years who believe that imperfection is a reason to keep themselves from creative expression. They compare their work to masters in their chosen field, and, feeling they come up short, choose not to try. Being creative can be a scary endeavor, and it can be tempting to excuse ourselves from the attempt by blaming our brokenness, our imperfection, our scars. However, Hephaestus shows us that our strongest and best work can grow out of that very imperfection, that our very brokenness is one of the strongest tools available to us. Out of that brokenness the most beautiful art can grow.

Tags: allison stieger, brokenness, creativity, hephaestus, imperfection, mythology

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