The Temple of Hephaestus in Athens

The temple of Hephaestus is a Doric temple and it is the best kept temple in Greece. You find it on the west area of the Agora archeological site in Athens. The temple was dedicated to Hephaestus, god of fire and metallurgy, and it was surrounded by foundries and smith shops. It was built in 449 BCE following the architect Ictinus’ plan, who worked on the realization of the Parthenon as well, has thirty-four columns and a frieze on its east side depicting nine of the famous twelve labors of Heracles. The style of the figures is vigorous and aims at showing the movements of the contracted muscles of the fighters, while still following the strict teachings of the great Greek schools of sculpture. The temple is also known as Theseion because it was believed that Theseus was buried inside. In the 1300's the process of transformation of the temple began as it was turned into Saint George's church after deep changes in the layouts and in the decorations (it is believed that it is around this period that the heads of the statues were cut off). In 1660, during the Ottoman domination of Greece, the site was about to be torn down and rebuilt as a mosque but a last-minute decree by the Sultan stopped the operation. The temple was then used as a stable by the Ottoman cavalry during the Greek war of independence, as a holy site once the war was over, to celebrate the new king, and as a temporary museum while the National Museum was being built up.

Picture credits © iStock/LaraIrimeeva

The god to which the temple is dedicated to, Hephaestus, deserves some attention too, as the god’s mythological life is filled with stories worth knowing something about. For example: Hephaestus had a limp, lots of writings agree on this, but the origin of it is up for debate. Some legends say that he was born with it along with a deformed body and that the sight of these features made his mother, Era, throw him down Mount Olympus moments after his birth; he was then rescued and raised by nymphs in an under-water cave.  Other stories tell that it was actually his father, Zeus, who cast him away from the god's home, because he tried to free his mother after she was tied up by Zeus with a golden chain for some unclear reasons. The fall lasted for an entire day and the hard landing, on the island of Lemnos, caused him to start limping. Here he stayed for nine years, learning from the locals the art of metal crafting, opening a smith, and creating outstanding golden, silver, copper, and steel objects. Hephaestus' dream was to go back where he felt he belonged, Olympus, and to do so he decided to trick the gods into calling for his help: he built a magnificent golden throne and sent it to Era, his mother. The goddess, amazed by the work, immediately sat on it and, as she was doing so, a pair of arms carefully carved out of the throne’s legs magically grabbed her making it impossible for her to get free. Other gods tried to get her out of it but failed so they had no other chance but to turn to the throne’s creator. Hephaestus asked to be re-admitted into Olympus and to take Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, as his spouse. His plan worked and he kept on doing his smith job up on Olympus, creating armor, shields, and whatever other objects the gods needed.

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