Classical Mythology: Three's a Crowd: The Olympian Love Triangle

Three's a Crowd: The Olympian Love Triangle

At times, Mount Olympus bore a resemblance to that later hotbed of intrigue and betrayal: Dawson's Creek. Start with Zeus, who fathered five of the Olympians—with four different mates! Add Hera, the archetypal jealous wife, constantly trying to catch her husband and plotting against his mistresses and his children by them. Don't forget the sibling rivalry between the three brothers—or that Hera's sister Demeter also slept with Zeus.

The second generation of Olympians was not exempt from participating in this soap opera. Hermes would steal from his half-brother Apollo. Hephaestus would immobilize his mother, Hera. And Aphrodite would make love to no less than four of the six gods on Olympus. Naturally, this created some tension—especially between her and her husband, Hephaestus.

The Heavenly Castoff: Hephaestus

Mythed by a Mile

Some storytellers contend that Hephaestus landed in the sea. But, unknown to Hera, the sea goddess Thetis and the Oceanid Eurynome rescued him and brought him up in an underwater grotto. There he established his first smithy. In forging countless gifts to show his gratitude to his rescuers, he became a master craftsman.

A third version of his origins holds that Hephaestus was born hale and healthy. But when Zeus once punished Hera for opposing him, the boy ran to her defense. Zeus angrily threw Hephaestus out of Olympus. The boy fell from the sky for a full day before landing on the island of Lemnos. Only after this fall did Hephaestus become lame. But the islanders took good care of him and thus Lemnos became his favorite place on Earth.

Hephaestus, the god of smithing, metalworking, and craftsmanship, was born of the rivalry between Hera and Zeus. Hera, furiously jealous when Athena burst out of her husband's head, decided that if he could do it, so could she. So Hera resolved to bear her own child without his help. Sadly, the child, Hephaestus, was born sickly and lame. Hera, disgusted and embarrassed by her creation, threw the child out of heaven. Hephaestus landed on the Greek island of Lemnos, where he worked at his craft and became a brilliant artisan.

What a Life!

Ares, who killed Halirrhothius, a son of Poseidon, was the first defendant ever tried for murder. During the trial, Ares claimed that Halirrhothius had tried to rape—or had indeed raped—his daughter Alcippe. Since Alcippe confirmed her father's story and no other witnesses came forward, the court acquitted him, ruling the killing a justifiable homicide. The hill at Athens where this trial took place—and later the Athenian court of law—was forever after called the Areopagus, the “hill of Ares.”

Having become a master craftsman, Hephaestus won his way back into heaven by forging a magnificent golden throne for his decidedly unmaternal mother. Hephaestus was not hoping to win her favor, however, but rather to punish her for her ill treatment of him. As soon as she sat in it, the chair held her tight.

The gods and goddesses pleaded with Hephaestus to forgive his mother and even invited the exile back to Olympus. Still he would not release her. Finally, Dionysus (see Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Dionysus) got Hephaestus drunk and persuaded him to let his mother go.

Welcomed back to Olympus, Hephaestus quickly made himself indispensable. An ingenious artist and artisan, he created countless beautiful, intricate, and often indestructible objects. The hands of Hephaestus created (among many other works):

  • All the palaces of the Olympian gods
  • The shield of Achilles
  • Pandora, the first woman

Some say that Hephaestus constructed many mechanical creatures of gold—including the world's first robots!—to help him in his work. He also built three-legged tables with golden wheels that moved themselves around his workshop. Whenever the Olympians met, these wondrous tables would run to the meeting place and then run back again afterward.

Fear and Loathing on Mount Olympus: Ares

Hera had another son—this one by Zeus—who became one of the exalted of Olympus: Ares, the god of war. But Ares was the most hated among the gods. All of the immortals loathed him, with three notable exceptions:

  • Eris, the goddess of discord, appreciated the way he took her work to a new level.
  • Hades didn't necessarily like Ares, but recognized that he was good for business in the Underworld.
  • Aphrodite loved him.

True, Ares was brave and strong—but he was also argumentative, impulsive, bloodthirsty, and destructive. In conflicts, the god of war chose sides capriciously and sometimes switched sides in the middle of a war. Ares simply took pleasure in the bloodshed, slaughter, and wanton destruction of war.

Ironically, the god of war was not so skillful as a warrior:

  • Level-headed, disciplined Athena bested him twice.
  • Otus and Ephialtes, the giant sons of Poseidon, also defeated him. Indeed, they humiliated him, trapping him inside a bronze jar for over a year before Hermes managed to release him.
  • Heracles (see The Labors of Heracles) knocked the god of war off his feet four times in a single battle and ultimately forced him to flee from the battlefield.
  • Diomedes stabbed him with a spear and sent him running from the battlefield outside Troy.

Ares never married, but he fathered dozens of children with both mortals and immortals. The most notable of these many mistresses was the goddess of love: Aphrodite.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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