She was beautiful and alluring. He was ugly and crippled. Their marriage had been arranged and she resented it. She began sleeping with his brother, and he caught them in a net — literally. Having caught them, he exposed them to public shame.
In rough outline this was the story of Greek god and goddess, Hephaestus and Aphrodite. He was variously associated with blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, metallurgy, and fire. In short, he made tools and weapons. He was a god of technology. She was the goddess of beauty, love, and sexuality. She was the goddess of desire. Her affair had been with Ares, god of war and Hephaestus’ own brother. Although sorting out the different accounts on this point is difficult, in some versions of the story Eros, god of sexual desire and love, is born of the union of Hephaestus and Aphrodite; in others he is the child of Aphrodite and Ares. Hephaestus is also regarded as the creator of Pandora and her infamous box. It was also out of Hephaestus’ furnace that Prometheus stole fire to give to humanity and it was Hephaestus in turn who is called upon by Zeus to forge the chains that bind Prometheus to his eternal fate.
Say what you will about the Greeks and their gods with their sordid sex lives and petty rivalries, their stories certainly had a way of touching the universal. In the stories surrounding Hephaestus there is laid out for us a vision of technology in its various relationships to love, sex, beauty, war, disaster, hubris, death, and desire.
It was no doubt the image of Hephaestus, crippled from birth, that inspired the quip, “Technology is a god that limps.” And while I would be stretching the details of the story to say that he fashioned a prosthetic for himself — he was technically missing no limbs — he did nonetheless fashion crutches and other instruments to help him move about when needed, certainly extensions of himself in some sense. In the image of Hephaestus then, my posts “A God That Limps” and “Prosthetic Gods” are linked. I did not set out to write a triptych of thematically linked posts, but having written the first two and then recognizing the symbolic significance of Hephaestus, I felt compelled to tie them together with this last reflection.
Embedded in these ancient myths is another answer to the question that began these reflections: “Why do we react so defensively when we hear someone criticize our technologies?” The metaphor of technology as prosthesis suggests that our defensiveness has its roots in our identification with our technologies. The best of them become a part of us. The network of myths surrounding Hephaestus suggests that our defensiveness lies in the complicity of our technologies with our most deeply and passionately held desires.
The marriage Hephaestus and Aphrodite suggests that the genesis of technology sometimes lies in a desire for beauty and love. That Ares steals away Aphrodite reminds us that the warrior, whole in body and virile, is more apt to have the desire fulfilled (whether justly or not). That Hephaestus is a maker of armor and shields and other implements of war suggests that the origins of technology are sometimes implicated in the military-industrial complex. One here need only think of the Internet. The Internet, might otherwise be linked to Eros; the tool fashioned as an aid to war famously becomes a site for the generation of sexual desire. That Hephaestus is the maker of Pandora calls to mind the sight of oil-dark seas, rather than Homer’s wine-dark seas. That he fashions the chains that bind Prometheus, the ancient symbol of human hubris, suggests a fruitless cycle wherein we turn to ever more sophisticated technologies in order to solve the problems engendered by our earlier technologies. We create our technologies to fulfill our desires, and yet it may be that our technologies fan rather than fulfill, intensify rather than satisfy those same desires.
It was to Hephaestus that Thetis, mother of Achilles, came seeking a shield and armor for her son. That scene inspired W. H. Auden’s mid-20th century poem, “The Shield of Achilles.” In its lines Auden poignantly captured the sense of profound disappointment that attended a generation which having placed its hopes in Hephaestus found those hopes smoldering in the ashes of smoking cities from London to Hiroshima. In its closing stanza we read,
The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.
To avoid the same fate we would do well to resist technologies that discourage us from fashioning a world where, as Auden put it, “promises were kept” and “one could weep because another wept.”