A Kink in His Armor Jun 3, 2013

Our take home message about Hephaestus is the same message we glean from hearing stories about others with disabilities. That hard work, diligence and support will prevail.

by Rick Rader, M.D.

Working in the field of disabilities, one quickly becomes sensitive to the prevailing "myths."

In fact, one of the missions of Exceptional Parent magazine is to dispel the myths. Myths that insist that people with
disabilities are burdens, menaces, drains,victims, outcasts, pitiful, sweet, clowns and inspirations. They can be all of those and none of those... not unlike the "rest of us." In all probability, there are more myths about the "rest of us," but you need to be reading People magazine or other supermarket rags to learn about those.

These myths are fallacies, untruths, falsehoods and misconceptions. But they linger. Myths come in another flavor; myths also serve as stories. In fact the Greek word "mythos" means "story." When I was a student in a mythology class, we learned that myths provided explanations before science was an established and accepted field. The assumption was that as science prevailed along with other rational and logical ways of thinking, we jettisoned the idea of myths. In reality, myths have prevailed as an effective way to relate to one another, as well as to the natural world.

Our language is peppered with mythological references. The names of the planets, the stars, NASA space programs (Project Mercury, Atlas rockets, Project Gemini, Apollo, Titan rockets) sports teams (Titans, Senators, Trojans), companies (Nike, Amazon, Pandora, Saturn, Trident, Venus) and the endurance race known as the marathon. We even tap the myths to describe body parts as in the Achilles tendon, and rare disorders such as Ondine's Curse (congenital central hypoventilation syndrome), a condition in which one lacks the autonomic control for breathing (you must remember to breathe, or die).

Myths, like the day time soaps, were pretty much scripted. Christopher Blackwell describes the story line of creation (popular mythological theme) as follows: "Scary old gods came first; they got stomped down by their kids, who were better looking, younger gods, who then created humans; humans and gods jockeyed for advantage; humans won a few rounds, but got more and more miserable." The majority of the mythological gods had it all, looks, strength, stamina, power, endurance, intelligence, magic, immortality, omnipotence and influence; the very characteristics and traits that our prevailing myths about people with disabilities, lack. So what can we possibly learn about the disability experience from the gods that not only created the heavens and the earth but dictated what transpires in them.
Many of my reports (as a physician journalist) begin with the sentence, "A review of the literature demonstrates ..." Most of us would lose our reserved parking spots if we began, "A review of the myths demonstrates..." But this is one time when I can get away with it so I'm chafing at the bit to use it.

A review of the myths demonstrates that there is one god with a disability. If you count "ugly" (and this god was) as a disability (and a "review of the literature demonstrates that ugliness does have disabling characteristics"), then he had two disabilities.
Hephaestus was the god of fire and the forge (the fiery blacksmith's pit used to make metal implements such as weapons and armor). He was ugly and "crippled," not exactly Hollywood's version of a demigod, let alone a full blown god. He was a gifted blacksmith and could create anything he wanted, to perfection. There was a waiting list for the gods to have armor made by him (gods, like the rest of us, don't like to have to take a number). Like all gods, his parents were gods—big ones. His father was Zeus ("A" list god) and his mother was Hera, queen of the gods (As they used to say in Brooklyn, "He has good parents you should go out with him, looks aren't everything.").
Turns out, all was not "ideal" on Mt. Olympus. Zeus produced a child by himself (all in a day's work for a god) and this miffed his wife who did the same, resulting in Hephaestus. In the Greek male dominated society, it was seemingly acceptable for a god to produce a child without a woman's participation, but if the same trick was attempted by a woman the child would be inferior. One version of the story is that Hephaestus was born with both ugly facial features, and a congenital malformation of his foot, resulting in his being lame. The other version (which may have come out during couple counseling with Zeus and Hera) was that Hephaestus was an ugly baby, and this infuriated Hera that she tried to abandon him by throwing him out ofheaven. His foot deformation was a result of the trauma resulting from that action.

By the time Mt. Olympus was up and running Hephaestus returned to heaven with the other deities and earned a certain amount of respect. In a demonstration of overcoming his "disabilities" he wound up marrying a "10" – the beautiful Aphrodite. Talk about the revenge of the nerds.
Of particular interest to readers of Exceptional Parent Magazine and those engaged in meaningful employment for people with disabilities, Hephaestus was the only god with a real job. He found his niche in competitive employment making armor and weapons for his fellow gods, including the famed Shield of Achilles.

Our take home message about Hephaestus is the same message we glean from hearing stories about others with disabilities. That hard work, diligence and support will prevail.

Author Christopher Blackwell (Assistant Professor of Greek, Furman University) describes the other attractive characteristics of Hephaestus that endeared him to others. "The Olympian gods like Hephaestus, who worked hard to keep everyone happy and to stop arguments among the gods. Homer describes how, when quarreling broke out during a feast of the gods, Hephaestus grabbed the wine pitcher and went around the table refilling everyone's cup; the sight of the gentle, ugly god hobbling around busily made all the gods laugh and forget their fight. The Athenians loved Hephaestus, too, because he was peaceful, kind, and a patron of craftsmen. A large temple in ancient Athens was built in his honor and called the Hephaestion."

Once in a while, the "mythology" about the disabled rings true.

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