Sunday, January 06, 2019

Greek Technology Gods: Hermes, Hephaestus, Prometheus

As I wrote recently, Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology prompted me to think of Loki as a god of technology. However, it’s not so simple in Greek mythology where there are many candidates, notably Hephaestus, Hermes and Prometheus. Their similarities and differences offer new perspectives on how to think about tech as a supernatural force.

The artisan: Hephaestus

One can make a good argument that the dwarves are the technologists in Norse mythology, not Loki – after all, they’re the ones who make all the treasures of the gods, and Loki’s just the impresario. The case is even stronger in Greek mythology where the deformed blacksmith Hephaestus is a full-fledged deity. Just like the Norse dwarves, Hephaestus is associated with fire and metalworking. Kerényi (from whose authoritative The Gods of the Greeks I’ve taken most of my material) writes that Hephaestus “limped and … was a skilled master-craftsman.”

Hephaestus was an unhappy figure. He was conceived by Hera – a virgin birth, by some accounts – “to compete with Zeus by [producing] the most gifted master-craftsman of all the descendants of Ouranos.” In disgust at his deformity, though, Hera cast him to Earth from Olympus. He fell for a whole day, and was raised by two sea-goddesses for whom he made “clasps and buckles, ear-rings and necklets.”

Gods come in clusters, and Hephaestus is part of a complex of deities tied to motherhood and crafts. The Daktyloi are another example. When Rhea (in one of the many appearances of the Great Mother) gave birth to Zeus, she  gripped the ground in her agony, bringing forth as many spirits, or gods, as she had fingers (daktyloi). Their numbers varied, though. According to Kerényi, “it was told that there were twenty right-hand and thirty-two left-hand Daktyloi; that the right-hand ones had been smiths and the left-hand ones magicians; or that the left-hand ones had laid spells and the right-hand-ones had broken spells; or that the right-hand ones were men who discovered iron and invented metallurgy, and the left-hand ones were their sisters.” (The association of craft and magic reminds me of Loki.)

Hephaestus is associated with nets, though ones that bind rather than ones that communicate (see Hermes for that). In one story, the master-craftsman was tasked to make thrones for all the Olympians. Out of resentment and shame at being disowned by Hera, he sent her a beautiful throne that bound her with invisible chains as soon as she sat on it, and then soared into the sky. As the price for freeing her, Hephaestus demanded marriage with Aphrodite. It didn’t work out very well, like most of his amorous attempts (he tried and failed to rape Athena). Aphrodite had an affair with Ares, his brother. When Hephaestus learned of this he “wrought chains that could be neither torn asunder nor unfastened, but were invisible, delicate as cobwebs.” He hung them over the bedposts and pretended to depart. When the cheating couple went to bed, they were bound by the net, and Hephaestus called all the gods to witness this shameful act. (A link with Loki: the Norse trickster was finally trapped in a net by the outraged gods of Asgard, who copied one he had made, i.e., invented.)

Hephaestus is credited with making many automata (a perennial theme; cf. the “In Our Time” program on Automata), usually on commission for Zeus. According to Kerényi he “created young virgins made of gold, who moved as if they were alive, and thought and talked and worked.” It is said that he made Talos, a bronze giant that defended the island of Crete; two mechanical, immortal dogs made of gold and silver to guard the palace of King Alcinous of the Phaeacians; automatic tables that obeyed the voices of the gods, who called the tables to provide them with food and drink; and two wild bulls with bronze feet, with voices coming out of their nostrils and fire coming out of their mouths, for Aeëtes.

The tricksters: Hermes and Prometheus

Hephaestus isn’t cunning like Loki, though; for that, we need to turn to Hermes, the trickster god of the Greeks. According to the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, he was born at sunrise; by noon he had invented and played the lyre; and by evening he had stolen Apollo’s cattle, and bought him off next morning with the lyre. The hymn characterizes him as wily, flattering and cunning, a robber and cattle thief, and a bringer of dreams, awake all night.

Like Loki, whose daughter is the queen of the dead, Hermes is linked with the underworld; he conducted souls into the afterlife. As messenger of the Olympians, he moved freely between the gods, the living and the dead. There are etymological arguments (see Wikipedia) linking him to boundary markers, another sign of moving between realms. Again like Loki, Hermes was playful, though more mischievous than malicious. Perhaps as befits a son of Zeus and one of the twelve Olympians, Hermes was happy-go-lucky rather than reckless.

Hermes is also linked to fire. Though the elemental force was associated with Hephaestus, Hermes was the first to kindle fire as humans do (to roast the stolen beef). That links him with the third Greek patron of technology: the Titan Prometheus, who’s also a trickster, thief and creator.

Prometheus was Zeus’s cousin, though he was not involved in the war between Zeus and the other sons of Ouranos. Zeus was the son of Cronus, and Prometheus the son of Cronus’s brother, Iapetus. Thus, Prometheus was not in the Olympian lineage, just like Loki was an outsider at Asgard. (See below for a genealogy.) Prometheus is portrayed as an inventor and creator: according to Aeschylus, he taught humans writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science; according to Ovid, he made humans from clay. He employs his cunning on the side of humans, against Zeus. He tricked Zeus at Mekone, placing a choice of sacrifices before him: delicious beef hidden inside the stomach, and bare bones wrapped in appetizing fat. Zeus chose the fat-wrapped bones, setting the precedent by which humans would keep meat for themselves in sacrifices. This infuriated Zeus who withdrew fire (and in some tales, all sustenance) from humanity, leading to Prometheus’s theft to restore fire to them.

In the Western classical tradition, Prometheus became associated with “human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences” (from an excellent Wikipedia article). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was subtitled The Modern Prometheus. The classical view is that the name Prometheus signifies "forethought" or “the foresighted”, while his brother Epimetheus’s name denotes "afterthought" or “he who learns only from the event” or “the heedless.” There are also theories that the name derives from the Proto-Indo-European root that also produces the Vedic pra math, "to steal," hence pramathyu-s, "thief", and associations with the Vedic myth of fire's theft; pramantha was the tool used to create fire.

Prometheus created humanity (in one version), and certainly gave it the gifts of civilization. He stood on humanity’s side – and paid the price of perpetual torture – in the struggle with Zeus, who represents the power of nature as well as patriarchy and the ruling order. Technology has done much the same for us. If Prometheus is a good metaphor for technology, we can learn something about tech’s characteristics from his attributes: crafty, thieving, doomed, and both foresighted and heedless (if we take the brothers as two sides of a coin).

Genealogy is often the only remaining clue to a lost world of stories. It suggests a link between Prometheus and Hermes. Both were descended from Iapetus in some versions; Prometheus as his son, and Hermes as the son of Maia, Iapetus’s granddaughter, and Zeus. Hermes is the “legitimate” trickster, and Prometheus the one from the bad branch of the family.

There are also links with Hephaestus. To further punish humans after Mekone, Zeus commissioned Hephaestus to make Pandora, the first woman (the human race was all male up to this point) and bearer of the jar that contained all  the evils of the world. (Every god gave Pandora a gift; Hermes's gifts were lies, seductive words, and a dubious character.) Athenian artisans regarded both Prometheus and Hephaestus as their patrons, according to Wikipedia.

The portrayal of Prometheus as a canny ally of the weak against superior forces certainly resonates with the self-image of the technorati. Almost everything they invent, from the telegraph to social media is supposed to make the world a better place. They like to see themselves as helping the underdog fight state power and patriarchy, whether through movable type, the Pill, pirate radio, encrypted peer-to-peer chat, bitcoin, or distributed power generation.

Like Hephaestus (and unlike his trickster-kin Hermes), Prometheus is an unhappy, indeed tragic figure. Together, they represent the dark side of tech in both its origins and consequences.

(Based on graphic at

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