In Praise of the Lame God, Who with Limping Strength Moves the Worlds
Today when I returned from a few errands in the city, I logged online to find that a colleague of mine, artist and Dionysian the Gargarean, was getting attacked (both viciously and stupidly as these things usually are) by a troop of folks on Tumblr because he dared refer to one of his Gods – Hephaistos – as “Lame.” It took me a bit to understand what all the fuss was about. Of course, I practice a tradition that has many impaired and disfigured Gods: Odin is missing an eye, Heimdall by some accounts his ears, Hodr is blind, Tyr lost a hand, and other Gods are scarred and so on and so forth. There’s power and tremendous wisdom in each account of how these Deities became as They are. Sometimes, as with Odin, the act of disfigurement is a hugely important part of His mythos, one of the defining moments of His nature as a God. So when I come upon a Deity that has specific epithets that refer to, as in this case, lameness, I pay attention.
The qualities teased out in the ritual naming of Gods, in their by-names, epithets, and cultic titles provide crucial information on the nature of a Deity’s mysteries. For us to disregard a title because it offends our sensitivities or makes us uncomfortable, or even because we haven’t taken the time to search its meaning in our own practices is not only short-sided but potentially hubristic as well. Many cultic titles were in use for generations. When Homer, for instance, refers to Hephaistos as lame, which he does multiple times, he’s employing a set formula to tell us something very important about this God. I’m not sure why people would want to discard these epithets so unthinkingly. They are worth both examination and meditation.
Of all the sobriquets used with Hephaistos, the most common is “lame.” The word in Greek is actually “Κυλλοποδιων” which means “of the crooked foot, halting, club-footed” or “lame.” There are conflicting stories of how He became lame. This is likely do to regional variants within His cultus. Homer makes Hephaistos lame from birth whereas other stories have him becoming lame when Zeus, in a fit of anger, hurled him from Mt. Olympus for taking Hera’s side in an argument a bit too vociferously. It is not impossible that there were other variants on this story too.
It’s perhaps significant that He is the God of smiths, smithcraft, and metallurgy. In many sacred stories smith Gods are quite often lame (the Northern Tradition has Wayland the Smith, who was hamstrung by a greedy king who wanted to own the smith and His talents). To hobble someone, to lame them, even to hamstring as in the case of Wayland is to bind them to earth. It is an incredibly kinetic tie to the powers of earth. To hobble a God in this fashion, is to bind heaven to earth and this is a particularly fitting metaphor when that God controls the powers of deepest earth: to smelt gold, forge iron, craft beautiful things from silver, work with gemstones, and perhaps even meteor ores. In the polytheist world, and this is one of those odd commonalities across cultures, the smith was a magician supreme. The lameness was a sign of their power.
The Gargarean, in one of his posts also pointed out a very prosaic reason that lameness of some sort was associated with smithing: the chemical processes used in early smithcraft were very damaging to practitioners, particularly to the feet. For the Deity to be marked in the same way as those wielding His power on earth were marked is a very potent connection. To my mind this is heightened by the fact that Hephaistos, with Athena is credited with teaching crafts to mortals. From His hands (and Hers) come the building blocks of civilization.
We are dealing with Gods here, not people. That certain attributes are highlighted is cause for contemplation not hysteria. one of the most profound things about the corpus of Hephaistos’ stories is that His very lameness spurs Him on to ever more magical creations. Homer presents Him as having crafted delicate, almost sentient automatons (the first AIs!) for instance, and almost never refers to Him as the “lame God” without also referencing His strength and vigor. It’s as though the two are inextricably linked. For this reason, not to mention simple respect for these Gods, we ought to be careful before we strip those holy titles away.
That’s precisely what those attacking the Gargarean are trying to do. They’re trying to strip away the cultic titles of a God, to erase a verbal conduit of praise and veneration that connects us not only with Hephaistos but with all the polytheists who have honored Him for eons before monotheism scoured the world clean of faith. And they’re doing this because they’re uncomfortable with those cultic titles, they take offense when He is hailed in this ancient manner —instead of seeing it as an empowering thing, as a place wherein His power most vigorously resides.
Would it have been so difficult to foster a conversation about why this was such an important, oft-repeated epithet of Hephaistos? Would it have been so difficult to express contemporary discomfort with the term, while at the same time, respecting a man’s right to honor His God as our ancestors did? Would it have been so hard to act like reasoning adults?
I for one and grateful that we have a lame God. Here’s a small personal fact: I am lame. As a result of a failed ballet career, I have extensive back and knee injuries. I’m in chronic pain and have a visible limp. there are days I must use a cane and some days even with that, walking is very painful. For the past quarter century, this has defined my waking life. Lameness is a bitch. I’m glad there’s a god Who raises it to something sacred.
(image “Hephaistos” by G. Palmer)