“It was when I was preparing this lecture that I discovered that roboticists have a god: Hephaestus. In Greek mythology, Hephaestus was an ingenious, talented craftsman, known for the remarkable weapons he made. But he also made wheelchairs that moved about on their own (basically, mobile robots) and golden servants that helped him to move about (basically, helper robots), and he even made Pandora, a clay statue to whom Athena gave life. He had a tumultuous love life, as attested by the following passage by Apollodorus, a chronicler from the second century BCE:
Athena visited Hephaistos, wanting to fashion some arms. But Hephaistos, who had been deserted by Aphrodite, yielded to his desire for Athena and began to chase after her, while the goddess for her part tried to escape. When he caught up with her at the expense of much effort (for he was lame), he tried to make love to her. But she, being chaste and a virgin, would not permit it, and he ejaculated over the goddess’s leg. In disgust, she wiped the semen away with a piece of wool and threw it to the ground. As she was fleeing…
While Hephaestus is the god of doing, Athena, who appears here as the one who calls the tune, is the goddess of knowing or —to protect me from reprimands from the exegetes, especially in this assembly— let me consider her as such for the purpose this lecture. Hephaestus was thus seeking to possess Athena. He was unable to do so. Could the doing not aspire to the knowing? A hard blow for the roboticist.
Robotics stems from this tension. Although the myth contradicts a current tendency to confuse science and technology, it does nevertheless reflects my own experience regarding innovation —experience that I might sum up as follows: even though doing is not understanding, understanding enables one to do, but unfortunately, not always. And even though one may very well do without understanding, doing also enables one to have tools —sometimes surprising ones— for understanding.
Hephaestus is starting all over again with new Pandoras. They are no longer of clay, but mecatronic. And they are animated. The roboticist keeps on asking the question of autonomy: what adaptability can we hope to give these new machines? The analogy between humans and machines has to be made23; it cannot be avoided. In the end, does Hephaestus have the keys to knowledge? With his machines that adapt, that “decide” on their actions, what can he tell us about our own “functioning”? The question is both dangerous and beautiful.
Let us bear in mind the image of the myth —and it is only an image, for even if the roboticist can identify with Hephaestus and can shape Pandora out of clay, he is neither Athena nor Geppetto. He will never give any humanity to clay or wood. A robot is a machine controlled by a computer; nothing else. Although animated, it remains and will remain an inanimate object without a soul that becomes attached to our soul [and without] the power of lovei. Let us allow the demi-gods to talk, let us enjoy works by Fritz Lang and Mary Shelley, and let us not be afraid. But are we actually anxious? That is not so sure. In any case, our Japanese friends aren’t, they who are so different from us; they for whom union is possible.”
“As the proletarian worker is seen by the Marxist to be the workhorse of industrial society, so is Hephaistos the only Olympian God who works…
Hephaistos is a quintessential fringe-person on Olympus…
Hephaistos-consciousness drifts a bit toward the Frankenstein phenomenon: his brother is the monster Typhon, but that goes beyond the fringe of Olympian society.
…The feet of Hephaistos tell volumes: they are turned back to front, and when he walks he goes with a rolling gait that strikes the other Gods as somehow hilarious…On this particular occasion his buffoonery has the effect of keeping the Gods from each other’s throats.
The island of Rhodes, Samothrace, Delos, Lemnos were much associated with a race of cretaures variously called Dakyloi, Telchines, Kouretes, Korybantes, or Kabeiroi; on Lemnos they were called Hephaistoi, in the plural. These names refer to dwarf-like servants of the Great Mother Goddess. Invariably, they occupy themselves with metallurgy at subterranean forges, deep in the body of the Mother herself, for the islands were in earliest times identical with the Great Goddess. As the Idaean Daktyloi (‘Daktyloi’ meaning ‘fingers,’ thus as the ‘fingers’ of the Great Goddess), these smith-dwarfs learne dtheir matallurgic arts originally from the Great Mother herself.
…Hera, the Olympian mother of Hephaistos, preserves associations from earlier, pre-Olympian times with beings of Dactylic nature. The importance of this incestuous pattern in the Hephaistian configuration is central.
Invariably the mythical smiths were set apart by some defect or oddity…
…But the fire of Hephaistos is fundamentally not a daytime, Olympian fire but a subterranean fire.
…Baccaccio argued that Greek imagination gave Hephaistos to the apes because apes imitate nature by practicing the arts and crafts.
…The furnace itself is an ‘artificial uterus,’ as Eliade has pointed out; the smith stands in the service of the metallurgic processes that occur in the furnace just as the Idaean Daktyloi served the Great Mother in her labor. Whereas the heroes o fsolar masculinity perform great tasks to free themselves from bondage to the maternal background, Hephaistos remains always in the service of the feminine. And the Hephaistian passion for creative work is deeply of the Mother.
This intimacy between Hephaistos and the feminine world finds mythic expression through an incident of his boyhood. When Hera flings him in disgust from the gates of heaven, the crippled child falls into the sea and is rescued from drowning by the sea-nymphs Thetis and Eurynome, who take him home and nurture him for nine years.
…To the feminine ego the Hephaistian constellation may appear perhaps even more problematical and threatening. Hephaistos connects to her deepest feminine-maternal impulses, yet wants something other than simple maternity….Hephaistos goes contra naturam (his feet turned the wrong way round!) in a way that profoundly threatens to undermine or rechannel the essence of purely natural feminine creativity. Hephaistos may be, therefore, a monstrous offense to feminine naturalism, a sick-making disharmony in the tones that vibrate between feminine ego=consciousness and the Great Mother.
…And yet, in a subtle way unseen by Hera, Hephaistos is a precise response to Athene, from hermaphroditic femininity to hermaphroditic masculinity. If as W. F. Otto says ‘Athene is a woman, but as if she were a man,’ Hephaistos is a man, but as if he were a woman.
Because she sees in Hephaistos a failure, Hera tries again and produces, finally, Ares. Whether or not Ares satisfies her is not said, but he certainly does reflect his mother’s ferocious, battle-crazy animus…
In temperament, too, the brothers are very unlike, Ares thriving on strife and drinking too deeply of the bloody waters of mortal combat, Hephaistos rather the peace-maker who tends to shy away from conflict.
Hephaistos, it is told, won the hand hand of Aphrodite as reward for freeing Hera from the chains with which he had bound her. What sort of marriage this was remains in the dark, but it seems quite clear that Hephaistos spent much of his time on Lemnos with his smithy-friends, leaving the voluptuous Aphrodite home alone to mind the house. Her affair with Ares, begun during these interludes and carried on while Hephaisots was introverting at his underground forge, is marked by high erotic intensity: it is a as through in the coming together of Ares and Aphrodite two sexual opposites meet which were simply not present tin the Hephaistos-Aphrodite combination.
Not that Hephaistos is at all effeminate and soft. The many drawings and paintings of him show generally a robust specimen of the masculine sex with heavily muscled arms and thick neck. And he is, after all, God of smiths and craftsmen (‘hardhats’!), probably the least effeminate elements of the population.
Even more than Hephaistos, Dionysos is ‘a man but as if he were a woman.’ But whereas Hephaistos tends to tie down and fixate (a kind of compulsion to ‘show them’), Dionysos is the God of dismemberment, dissolution, and loosening.
The mythic ties between Hephaistos and Athene show, both in their quantity and profundity, a deep-going association between these two figures. More than Aphrodite, Athene is the ‘soul-mate’ of Hephaistos. Yet a kind of cloudy mysteriousness shrouds their relationship; no single tradition was ever clearly established on this subject, and so what confronts us is a blurred image based on rumors and conflicting reports…Whether, as in some reports, he marries her or not, the outcome is the same: Hephaistos seeks impetuously and passionately to make love to Athene: at the moment of climax she pushes him aside, and his semen falls to the earth where it impregnates Gaia…” – James Hillman, “Hephaistos: A Pattern of Introversion,” from Facing the Gods.
“Indeed, what is regarded asthe first example of the ekphrasis of an artistic object in Western literature, the shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, is a description of an object that did not and could not physically exist…
Thetis, Achilles’ goddess mother, approaches Hephaestus for new armor
made by the divine craftsman himself. Upon entering Hephaestus’
workshop, Thetis sees him putting handles on a set of twenty automated
tripods on wheels, mechanical servants able to move back and forth to the
Olympian feasts. These automatons give the audience a foretaste
of an even more dramatic set of the god’s creations. As Hephaestus puts
away his work and leaves his forge to speak with Thetis, he is assisted by attendants made of gold who are like living young women in appearance (zo\e\isi nee\nisin eioikuiai). Unlike the tripods, however, the poet says these automatons possess intelligence (noos), sense (phrenes), voice (aude\),
vigor (sthenos), and have been taught skills (erga) by the gods (417–20).
The passage is curious. The only roughly similar instance in Homer is
the gold and silver dogs Hephaestus made to guard the palace of king
Alcinous in Odyssey 7.91, but these are not described as animate…
At the request of Thetis, Hephaestus sets about making Achilles’
new armor. Although he does make a corselet, helmet, and greaves, these
are tersely mentioned in only a few lines at the very end of Book 18. The
principal focus of the poet’s descriptive energy is on the shield, and the
context of the description is not a static appreciation of the completed
work but rather the dynamic process of the god fabricating it. The emphasis
is on the making, yet it is not even so much the making of the shield per se
as it is the god’s creation of the images ornamenting it.24 First mentioned
is Hephaestus’ depiction of the earth, sea, and heavenly bodies (483–89).
Then follow the three dominant scenes: a city at peace (490–508), a city
at war (509–40), and a bucolic harvest scene (541–605). Lastly, two lines
specify that the river Ocean is depicted around the outermost rim of the
shield (606–7). Starting with the city at peace, the description becomes
immediately and intensely detailed, presenting the motivations of individuals
and the sequential action of the stories that would be difficult if
not impossible to convey by solely visual means. In the city at peace,
we know that two men involved in a dispute are arguing over restitution
for someone one of them accidentally killed and that the aggrieved
party refuses compensation. We know that they take turns laying their
cases out before a council of elders and that two talents lying before the
elders are to go to the one among them who gives the best counsel. In
the city at war, an army marches out from the city, takes up its ambush
and attacks. Yet the action is not described as a series of vignettes but as
a continuous moving narrative, as if the shield were running some sort
of movie in animated metal. Hephaestus even depicts the divinities Ares,
Athena, Hate, Confusion, and Death as present in the scene.
The description in these major scenes is not limited to the visual.
In the city at peace, the poet describes the song of a marriage procession
passing by in the scene, the bystanders speaking up in the manslaughter
dispute, the speakers taking turns, and in the harvest scene, singing,
whistling, and the music of the lyre. In one striking image in the harvest
sequence, the absence of sound is described: the king stands behind his
workers in silence—a condition paradoxically easy to describe in words
but difficult to do in mute images. The cast-metal images on the shield
recapitulate the metallic maidens. The images are presented as vigorous
and moving; they can sense, reason, and argue. Like the maidens, they
are endowed with speech. They know the crafts of peace and war. In the
ambush scene, the soldiers “battle like living mortals” (ὡμίλευν δ’ ὥς τε
ζωοὶ βροτοὶ ἠδ’ ἐμάχοντο, 18.539) similar to the way the “golden maidens
scuttered about their master like living women” (ῥώοντο ἄνακτι / χρύσειαι,
ζωῇσι νεήνισιν εἰοικυῖαι, 18.417–18).26 The use of the simile here underscores
both the lifelikeness of these images and their nature as representations.
Both the figures themselves and their poetic descriptions make them both
real and representational at the same time…
Homer’s description is embedded in Hephaestus’
action of laying out the metals and placing the sculpted scenes, while at
the same time Hephaestus’ work of creating images in the visual realm
parallels Homer’s in the verbal realm. This adds further depth to one
aspect of the poem that has been long recognized: the scenes on the
shield are emblematic of the story of the Iliad itself, so that the shield is
a multilayered image of the poem, created by and embedded within the
Although the god’s skill makes the figures so
realistic they (seem to?) move and speak, and although the poet aims at
vivid realism, the audience is deliberately reminded that these are but
images, representations in metal.32 In the next example, however, we shall
examine an image that actually becomes alive: Hesiod’s Pandora.
Though not often singled out as an example of ekphrasis of art, the
creation of “woman” in the poems of Hesiod, Theogony 570–615 and
Works and Days 60–109, where she is given the name Pandora, echoes
themes and language seen in Homer.33 Like Achilles’ shield, Pandora is
made by Hephaestus, but from clay instead of his usual medium, metal
(Theog. 571; WD 60–61, 70). The god, in effect, makes an archaic terracotta
statue in a form “like that of a modest maiden” (παρθένῳ αἰδοίῃ
ἴκελον, Theog. 572; ἐίσκειν / παρθενικῆς καλὸν εἶδος, WD 63; παρθένῳ αἰδοίῃ
ἴκελον, WD 71).34 In Works and Days, the gods then bring the statue to
life specifically by giving it powers that Homer says were given to Hephaestus’
metallic maids: voice (aude\) and vigor or strength (sthenos, WD
61–62, 77–79; cf. Il. 18.417–20). Just as the maids “were taught their skills
by the gods” (ἀθανάτων δὲ θεῶν ἄπο ἔργα ἴσασιν, Il. 18.420), so “Athena
teaches her skills” to Pandora (Ἀθήνην / ἔργα διδασκῆσαι, WD 63–64).
Goddesses bedeck her with glittering raiment, jewels, and flowers.35 Works
and Days then goes on to detail at length the gods’ gifts of Pandora’s
interior character: craftiness, deceit, shamelessness, and irresistible allure.
…Faraone rightly notes that Hesiod never her calls her the first woman—or
even a woman, period. He merely states that her shape, vigor, and voice
are like that of a mortal woman and that all women descend from her
In one sense, Hesiod appears to exalt verbal representation, since his
words can describe Pandora’s true nature and belie her deceptive visual
appeal. But if this is true, then Hesiod’s words are also exposed as weak
and unavailing, for Pandora’s—and hence all women’s—attractions are
insuperable. Aphrodite herself instilled cruel longing within Pandora (WD
65), and no amount of words can prevent men from desiring women.
Moreover, Pandora’s appeal is purely visual. When she is led out in
public for the first time, both gods and men are awestruck as soon as
they lay eyes on her.To emphasize the visual dynamic, Hesiod equates
seeing Pandora with springing Zeus’ trap: θαῦμα δ’ ἔχ’ ἀθανάτους τε θεοὺς
θνητούς τ’ ἀνθρώπους, / ὡς εἶδον δόλον αἰπύν, ἀμήχανον ἀνθρώποισιν· (“The
immortal gods and mortal men were struck with amazement (thauma)
at this marvel, as soon as they saw this utter snare which men are helpless
against,” Theog. 588–89). Though given speech, she does not speak
in either of Hesiod’s poems. Given that speech is elsewhere a particular
quality of the living, that Pandora has this quality but does not use it
makes her even more of a contradiction and raises further questions as
to what kind of being she is.
…As Hephaestus’ metallicmaids demonstrate, there is no clear line between an image of life and life
itself. What keeps an image in human form, endowed with power, ability,
and speech, from being alive? At the same time, the images portrayed in
these passages are not only looked at, they also look back. Seeing and
being seen are active processes here. The scenes in Homer reach out to
the audience of listeners/readers/viewers and engage them emotionally
and viscerally. Pandora exerts her irresistible power simply by being seen.
…By the nature of his description, Homer invites comparison between the
visual image of the shield and the words he uses to describe it, which
communicate knowledge that the images cannot. Yet both images and
words are the poet’s creations, so that the result is a complex mirroring
not only of the visual and verbal representation of the shield but also of
the making of the shield and the making of the poem itself. In Hesiod,
the powerful reality of the vision of Pandora is actually the counterpart
to the words which describe her character; rather than compete with
one another, both the visual and verbal are necessary to describe her
completely. Artists and poets both create images, and one form of imagemaking
can, or perhaps inherently does, reflect the other. Visuality and
narratology are two sides of the same coin.”
-James A. Francis, “Metal Maidens, Achilles’ Shield, and Pandora: The Beginnings of ‘Ekphrasis.’
That one time Hephaestus had a circus act made in his honor because he clearly must really like the circus as theme. 2008.