Hephaestus, a.k.a. Vulcan, a.k.a. the god of the forge, is basically the nerd god. He’s the quiet, introverted one that spends most of his time in his garage, alone, playing with his toys, building machines and armor and jewelry. He believes in reason over all (there’s a reason Spock’s people are named after him). He’s overshadowed by his jock brother Ares, god of war. Notably, he’s the only Greek god who’s unattractive.
Often the myths present Hephaestus as an innocent victim who has done nothing to earn his ill treatment. But Hephaestus is also a classic “nice guy”: a self-centered, entitled, bitter schmuck who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else and then doesn’t understand why people don’t want his advice (see also: Nice Guys of OKCupid). The kind of guy who can’t understand why girls prefer “handsome jerks” like his brother to “nice guys” like him. Hephaestus, while demonstrating the good sides of being a nerd (he’s super good at making shit), also demonstrates a lot of nerdom’s fatal flaws.
Most of the myths about him, as hilariously recounted in the new book Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, show Hephaestus getting dicked around. A lot. Either his parents are chucking him off Olympus, or his wife—Aphroditite, goddess of love—is cheating on him. With his brother. In his own bed. Basically, Hephaestus is Jerry from Parks and Recreation, the schlimazel of the Olympians. He exists to be shit upon.
On BetterMyths.com, Cory O’Brien recounts the myth of Hephaestus’s birth—he was born crippled, and his horrible parents, Zeus and Hera, threw him off Olympus for being ugly. In that version, Hephaestus was literally an innocent baby. But there’s another version of the myth that says the fall is what crippled Hephaestus, and he fell because he inserted himself in the middle of an argument between his parents. All of the other gods understood that when the king and queen fought, the best thing to do was run and hide for a few days. But Hephaestus thought he was so smart, and that he could prove to Zeus that Zeus was wrong, and then Mommy and Daddy would stop fighting and everyone could go out for ice cream. Or whatever the Olympian version of ice cream is. Ambrosia? Greek yogurt?
Anyway, it didn’t work. For one thing, Hera didn’t really need someone to defend her. She could take care of herself, thank you very much. And for another, of course approaching the RULER OF ALL CREATION at his angriest and telling him “um, actually, you made a mistake” was going to end in disaster. Yes, being thrown off Olympus, falling for somewhere between a day and a week, and then being crippled for the rest of his immortal life were excessive punishments, well beyond what Hephaestus deserved, but Hephaestus was not entirely innocent here. He made a classic nerd mistake: he believed being right was enough to make him persuasive, and that people should and would just listen to him because he’s smarter than them.
At least in this myth, Hephaestus’s heart was in the right place; he was trying to help, to make peace between Zeus and Hera, even if his interference only made things much much worse. He does not come across so well in the story of Aphrodite...
The story goes that Zeus married Aphrodite off to Hephaestus to keep the other gods from fighting over her. But while Hephaestus worked at his forge all day, she slept with half of Olympus, including Hephaestus’s brother Ares. When Hephaestus found out, he laid a net on his bed to trap Ares and Aphrodite in the act, then hung the net in front of all the other gods so they could laugh at the naked pair.
You know what’s missing from that story? Any sign that Hephaestus actually loved Aphrodite, or even liked her, or thought of her as an autonomous being, at all. He didn’t woo her, Zeus simply handed her over. Hephaestus made jewelry for her, but did nothing with her, because they had no shared interests. He spent most of his time away from her, playing with his toys. And when he found out she was sleeping with Ares, did he go to her directly, to talk about their relationship, to fix the problem? Nope, it was straight to the public embarrassment and slut-shaming.
Or, rather, attempted slut-shaming. Because, it turned out, Ares and Aphrodite had no shame about what they were doing, so they just kept right on fucking there in the net in front of the other gods.
This is classic “nice guy” nerd behavior. Hephaestus is “nice,” so he thinks he deserves a wife. He gives his wife pretty things, so he thinks she should be happy. When it turns out she, the literal goddess of sex, has desires outside his own, rather than asking himself what he could do to meet those desires, he gets angry at her. It’s not surprising that she prefers Ares, who gives her what she actually wants, over Hephaestus, who gives her what he presumes she should be happy with.
And those are just the more famous myths. There are other, darker myths that reveal the depths of Hephaestus’s misogyny. For example, one time he tried to rape Athena.
If Hephaestus is the nerd god, Athena is certainly the nerd goddess; they share a love of intelligence, craftsmanship, and cleverness. But when Athena came to Hephaestus’s forge for some weapons, instead of bonding over their mutual interests, Hephaestus was overcome with lust and tried to seduce her. When she saw through his weak game and politely refused him, he assaulted her. Athena fought him off, because she is the goddess of war and he is crippled, but not before he came on her leg. (Athena then wiped the rape semen off onto the earth, where it accidentally impregnated Gaia, Hephaestus’s great grandmother, who then birthed Erichthonius of Athens from the soil. Greek myths are weird, yo.)
Isn’t this the most dramatic version of many women’s experience entering a male dominated nerd space, whether it be a comic book store or a gaming convention? It doesn’t matter if they know their shit, if they sincerely love superheroes or fighting games, or if they’re interesting, creative people in their own right. Some lonely man-child sees a woman, reduces her to her sexual characteristics, and then tries to have sex with her. When the woman turns him down, the troll then gets angry at her, sometimes abusively so.
And like those trolls, Hephaestus is never directly punished for his abuse of Athena. He suffers because he interfered in his parents’ fight, he is embarrassed by Aphrodite because he ignored her, but he faces no consequences for trying to rape a goddess. He may have received some undeserved abuse in his life, but he never receives the punishment he deserves for the worst sin he commits, and so never learns he did anything wrong.
Like many myths, like many people, like nerd culture itself, Hephaestus is complicated. He’s brilliant, but also myopic. He’s pathetic, but also remarkably un-empathetic. And he’s deeply, deeply flawed. Yes, he’s smart, but that doesn’t give him rights to enforce his solutions. Yes, he’s suffered, but that doesn’t give him rights to inflict suffering on others. Yes, he’s given women beautiful gifts, but that doesn’t give him rights to their bodies.
Hephaestus is almost a perfect model of everything a male nerd could be. He just isn’t a model of what a male nerd should be.