Hephaistos, the Latin Vulcan, was the god of brawny industry, but especially of the art of working metals by the hammer. Though few temples or altars were raised to him, he was worshiped by all smiths and artisans, and his miniature image stood among the Lares and Penates on the hearth of nearly every house in Greece and Italy.
Vulcan is commonly represented as a bearded, muscular man, with a serious, homely, and somewhat sullen countenance, his unkempt hair curling from beneath the pointed cap on his head ; he is usually garbed in the short tunic of a workman, which leaves the brawny right arm bare, and free to carry the traditional hammer. The whole figure is somewhat crooked, the left leg being slightly shorter than the right; in general, he presents a somewhat ludicrous appearance, lacking the proper dignity of a god, but in the most ancient representation that we have, on a cylix in the British Museum, he is depicted as a godlike youth, without any deformity whatever, the fitting companion of Minerva, who is assisting him in the creation of Pandora.
The name "Hephaistos," is, like "Vulcan," admittedly of unknown origin. The former, it has been asserted, means "the brightness of the flame," though we have been unable to discover any evidence for this etymology. It is certainly pre-Hellenic in formation, and has a decidedly Semitic appearance, (like Herakles, from Harokel, the Phenician god). Vulcan, on the other hand, has been compared to the Sanscrit ulka, a firebrand, but we would suggest, instead, a comparison with the Assyrian Vul, the god of the thunderbolt, and also with the Hebrew Tubal-cain. The name Tubal, like his ancestors Jabal and Jubal (Gen. 4:20-22), is a form of the verb Jabhal, to sound, to make a loud noise, and, since b and v are radically one, we have here also the origin of Vul. The name "Cain" means simply "a smith," and we would be obdurate, indeed, were we to refuse recognizing a connection between Vul-can and Tubal-cain, "the instructor of every artificer of brass and iron."
The modern interpreters of the "physical" school will have it that Vulcan is simply a personification of fire, elementary and subterranean, and that the history of the god simply describes the production of fire. "Like Vulcan, the spark is small and weak at its birth; like him, it is cast down from heaven in the form of lightning," etc.,—the analogists forgetting that fire, unlike Vulcan, by itself produces nothing but only destroys. As the writer on "Hephaistos" in the Encyclopedia Britannica Ninth Ed. admits, "though the word Hephaistos is used by Homer in the sense of fire, yet in the Hellenic god no elemental idea is at all prominent. The Hellenic religion had raised itself far above such [merely physical] conceptions of the Divine power, and its gods were moral powers."
If, therefore, we turn from dead naturalism to the living Word of God, from which all religion has proceeded, we shall find the key to the spiritual significance of Vulcan in the same Tubal-cain who was mentioned above, and who was "the doctrine of natural good and truth" in the New Church which succeeded the Most Ancient dispensation. (A. C. 421).
According to Homer, Hephaistos was the younger son of Zeus and Hera, but according to Hesiod he was the son of Hera alone, the goddess having vowed that as Zeus produced a daughter, Athene, out of his own head, so could she, by her own power, beget and bring forth a son. This curious myth seems to mean that as the Divine doctrine of spiritual good and truth springs immediately from the Divine Wisdom itself, so the human doe-trine of natural good and truth is the product of the Church, acting as of itself,—or in the evil sense, it springs from the self-intelligence of the perverted Church. Hephaistos, like all the other pagan gods, may thus be interpreted in an evil as well as a good sense; and we often find him associated with Athene, sometimes co-operating, some times contending with her: the doctrine of natural good and truth may be turned either into harmony with or opposition to the spiritual doctrine.
One story has it that he was born ugly and lame, and that Hera in disgust flung the poor little creature out of Olympus. Another legend states it was Zeus who thrust him out, because he had attempted to interfere in one of the numerous quarrels between the royal partners; he fell through space for a night and a day, until he finally struck on earth on the island of Lemnos; on striking he slightly injured his left leg, leaving him permanently lame and halting. This, also, is in fitting correspondence to Hephaistos with the doctrine of natural good and truth, which, being merely natural, has no place among the celestial and spiritual truths and goods of Heaven. Being natural, moreover, Hephaistos also represents those who are in simple good, such as gentiles and the good but ignorant people within the Church, who in the Word are called "lame" and "halting."
As the right leg represents the will-faculty, and the left the faculty of the understanding, Hephaistos is represented as halting on the left leg, that is, his intelligence is shorter than his willingness to work and be of use to gods and men.
Usefulness is the chief characteristic of Vulcan, and use resides in and depends upon ultimates. In the Iliad, when Thetis comes to see him, she finds him ''busy, covered with sweat, limping from anvil to anvil, for he is forging at once twenty tripods which are to decorate the outer walls of his firm-built palace" (18:372). His forge or iron-furnace signifies the good will in which burns the fire or love of performing uses. The hammer and anvil signify the reasonings and confirmations by means of which the brass and iron, or goods and truths of the natural, are made strong and coherent and are fashioned into useful and intelligible shape.
All the celestial and spiritual things of Heaven and of the whole spiritual world are formed in and by the ultimate natural. It is in the natural world that our mind and spiritual character are formed, and after death remain fixed in that form, and every thought or affection is similarly shaped and fashioned in and by the natural alone. And therefore it was Vulcan, and he alone, who built the palaces and manufactured the household furnishings of the gods; he it was that forged the thunderbolts of Jove, the darts of Cupid, the throne of Helios, the crown of Ariadne, the girdle of Venus, the armor of Achilles and the shield of Hercules. And it was his sturdy arm and heavy ax which cleft open the head of Jove in order to let Minerva spring forth into the light of day, full grown and glistening with golden helmet, shield and spear. Minerva is the spiritual doctrine of good and truth, but this doctrine is to be drawn from the fountain-head of Divine Wisdom,—by means of the genuine doctrine of the letter of the Word,—in other words, by the doctrine of natural good and truth. To illustrate: the whole Word is full of the spiritual doctrine of the New Church concerning the Lord. But this doctrine is hidden in the letter, until opened and revealed by means of a genuine natural understanding of such teachings as "I and the Father are one;" "he that seeth Me, seeth the Father."
Hephaistos is variously reported as having married Eos, Aphrodite, or Aglaia, the youngest of the three Graces, but the most common tradition gives him Aphrodite for wife, even as Wieland, the German Vulcan, (who figures as "Wayland Smith" in Scott's Kenilworth), married the beautiful "Swan-maiden." Discarding the scandalous interpolation respecting the adultery of Venus and Mars, we find this union of Vulcan and Venus highly significant, representing, we think, the union of Conjugial Love with the Love of Use.