Men and disability – Part 3: Self respect

Men and disability – Part 1
Men and disability – Part 2
Men and disability – Part 3

Hephestus blacksmith

Hephaestus – Greek God of The Forge

In part one of this series we looked at men with disabilities who achieved greatness. In part two we looked at an emerging culture of gynocentrism in the disability sector, along with the impoverished and at times hostile “support” extended to men in need of assistance. In this third and final part we look at a new kind of man with a disability – a man who says “No” to bigotry and other forms of mistreatment, and who gears his life toward the cultivation of self-respect.

To illustrate this new kind of man we will turn to the Greek myth of the goddess Hera and her disabled son Hephaestus – a son who has to challenge his mother’s ableism and bigotry before he can take his rightful place in the Olympian society. In this myth Hephaestus plays a role not unlike the hero Perseus who must stop Medusa’s hostilities before men can go about their lives again in safety and dignity.

The son of Hera and Zeus, Hephaestus was born parthenogenically – ie. from Hera alone and not from the result of a sex act with Zeus. We are told that she planed to give birth to a son after Zeus went and gave birth to Bright Eyed Athena who became a golden child of the gods. Hera was incensed that Zeus would give birth to Athena without her sexual aid, and her creation of Hephaestus was carried out in revenge. Hera’s message was essentially “You give birth without me, well I can do that too!”

Some myths suggest her son was born disabled, and others say he became disabled after his mother (or father) threw him from Mt. Olympus whereupon he landed hard on the earth and damaged his legs. In any case the dominant legend is that Hera gave birth to him already disabled, for which she was mightily disgusted in his lack of perfection.

Hera was angry and spoke thus among the assembled gods:

 “Hear from me, all gods and goddesses… my son Hephaestus whom I bore was weakly among all the blessed gods and shrivelled of foot, a shame and a disgrace to me in heaven, whom I myself took in my hands and cast out so that he fell in the great sea. But silver-shod Thetis the daughter of Nereus took and cared for him with her sisters: would that she had done other service to the blessed gods!”

Relief stone

Zeus gestures to his daughter Athena, while Hera hurls her disabled son from Mt. Olympus circa 200-150 B.C.

Hera was ashamed of her son’s disability, one which caused him to limp on both feet since the soles and heels were turned back to front and were not fitted for walking but only for a forward-rolling motion of the whole body.4 This ‘difference’ made Hephaestus a fringe person on Olympus, and threatened to put his mother on the fringes too, so she hid the secret by throwing her son to what she assumed would be his death. Fortunately he was saved by some kindly goddesses who nurtured him back to health.

After his fall from the heavens Hephaestus grew up on a secluded island and there learned the art of blacksmithing. He devoted himself to the task with such discipline that his artisan skills became the finest in the world. Despite the pride he took in these achievements he would not forget the cruel treatment of Hera who dismissed him as ugly and lacking in usefulness. Like so many men today who wish to be seen as something other than utilities for women and society, Hephaestus remains angry;

Hephaestus says: “Thetis saved me when I suffered much at the time of my great fall through the will of my own brazen-faced mother, who wanted to hide me for being lame. Then my soul would have taken much suffering had not Eurynome and Thetis caught me and held me… With them I worked nine years as a smith, and wrought many intricate things; pins that bend back, curved clasps, cups, necklaces, working there in the hollow of the cave, and the stream of Okeanos around us went on forever with its foam and its murmur.” 2

Classical sociologist Philip Slater suggests that Hera despises her son’s masculinity and his disability, preferring instead to have a son of heroic proportions who could provide her with utility and glory. Hera’s attitude provokes, in later myths, a kind of self-abasing buffoonery from Hephaestus that Slater interprets as “an appropriate response to his mother’s narcissistic resentment of males–she cannot deflate him if he is already deflated–but it is therefore all the more inappropriate for dealing with her contrary desire for him to be a display piece and an agent for the expression of her masculine strivings. It is for this reason, after all, that she threw him down from Olympus.”3

Like Hephaestus, many men with disabilities are angry. They realize that they are being doubly marginalized due to the curse of having a penis yet being unable, or perhaps unwilling, to perform as utilities for women and society – they know they are being negatively judged for it.

In her mythos Hera provides the quintessential example of gynocentric feminism, along with ableist and misandrist attitudes to boot. Her attitude represents much that is wrong with the disability sector today – an underlying bigotry that men must reject if they are to enjoy freedom, dignity and self-respect.

Challenging that bigotry is precisely what Hephaestus does. He gains redress against Hera for rejecting him by making her a magical golden throne which, when she sat on it, did not allow her to stand up. None of the other gods could release her and they begged Hephaestus to return to Olympus to let his mother go, but he refused, saying “I have no mother.”4

The gods were impressed with his rebuke of Hera and agree accept him back into Olympian society as one of their own. This may be viewed as a positive reappraisal of his disability – Hephaestus possesses previously unrecognized skills, is sharp of mind, humbles Hera, and is accepted by the other Olympians. Here is a synopsis of the story thus far;

After his abandonment, Thetis found him and took him to her underwater grotto and raised him as her own son.

Hephaestus had a happy childhood with dolphins as his playmates and pearls as his toys. Late in his childhood, he found the remains of a fisherman’s fire on the beach and became fascinated with an unextinguished coal, still red-hot and glowing.

Hephaestus carefully shut this precious coal in a clamshell, took it back to his underwater grotto, and made a fire with it. On the first day after that, Hephaestus stared at this fire for hours on end. On the second day, he discovered that when he made the fire hotter with bellows, certain stones sweated iron, silver or gold. On the third day he beat the cooled metal into shapes: bracelets, chains, swords and shields. Hephaestus made pearl-handled knives and spoons for his foster mother, and for himself he made a silver chariot with bridles so that seahorses could transport him quickly. He even made slave-girls of gold to wait on him and do his bidding.

Later, Thetis left her underwater grotto to attend a dinner party on Mount Olympus wearing a beautiful necklace of silver and sapphires that Hephaestus had made for her. Hera admired the necklace and asked where she could get one. Thetis became flustered, causing Hera to become suspicious; and, at last, the queen god discovered the truth: the baby she had once rejected had grown into a talented blacksmith.

Hera was furious and demanded that Hephaestus return home, a demand that he refused. However he did send Hera a beautifully constructed chair made of silver and gold, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Hera was delighted with this gift but, as soon as she sat in it her weight triggered hidden springs and metal bands sprung forth to hold her fast. The more she shrieked and struggled the more firmly the mechanical throne gripped her; the chair was a cleverly designed trap.

For three days Hera sat fuming, still trapped in Hephaestus’s chair; she could not sleep, she could not stretch, she could not eat. It was Zeus who finally saved the day: he promised that if Hephaestus released Hera he would give him a wife, Aphrodite the goddess of love and beauty. Hephaestus agreed and married Aphrodite.5

After his mother rejects him for having a mobility impairment he becomes angry and he ensures that her mobility is impaired by trapping her in a throne. The gesture can be read as forcing Hera to experience a mobility challenge that she seemed utterly unable or unwilling to sympathize with.

Commenting on the story, disability advocate William Ebenstein states;

In the Hephaestus myth we can discern a positive psychology of anger that is grounded in the experience of disability. The disabled deity refuses to play the role of the passive victim. Instead he is an active creator in forging his future place in society. Hephaestus’ revenge is accomplished in such a clever and artful way that, in the end, it is enriching for the entire Olympian community.

In Hephaestus we find a character who is motivated by his anger to confront a world that has discarded him. He stages what amounts to a non-violent demonstration, an act of civil disobedience that completely shuts down Olympus. His stubborn anger does not lead to acceptance, adjustment or passivity. On the contrary it lifts him up to reclaim his dignity and civil rights. The story depicts a community that must adjust to someone who has been stigmatized, segregated, and discriminated against. It is the disabled character himself who creates the humorous situation as an effective tool to confront his oppression and challenge the existing order.6

Hephaestus’ anger energizes his expression of outrage in place of squashing it as a male character flaw. The problems he sees are in the world and Hephaestus takes action there, where it counts. His demonstration of outrage in response to an ugly world, or over acts of mistreatment, is mental health at its finest and similar expression needs to be encouraged and supported for all people with disabilities. In fact, speaking out of one’s anger is a perfect example of what is intended by the disability-related term self-advocacy.

Like our mythical protagonist, the ‛Hephaestus man’ understands where the problem lies and will not have his concerns silenced.

Too often we see psychotherapists and rehabilitation counsellors engage in gender stereotyping, viewing positive anger as ‘male aggression,’ ‘patriarchy,’ or ‘toxic masculinity’ that in disabled and nondisabled men supposedly needs correcting. However killing the outrage is a misandric move, one that leads to a loss of personal agency in the world for men.

Thus far Hephaestus’ story has been one of rejection and redress. However the story is far more than a one-dimensional recounting of an “angrycrip” who ends up exacting revenge against his tormentors. It involves the larger vision of forging self-respect, the beginnings of which were long stirring before he sought to challenge the ableist culture among the gods.

Following his story from beginning to end we see the goal of self-respect is something Hephaestus cultivates quite independently from the respect he has won from the gods.7 After rejoining the Olympian hierarchy as dignified contributor – craftsman of the gods – he continues the inner work he started as a child when he located value in his own eyes, and not in the shallow eyes of others.

The key principle, one given in an incisive article by Paul Elam, is “self-respect isn’t earned, it’s taken.”8 When Hephaestus engages with the Olympian community, he doesn’t need to wait around for their validation, he has already wrested it by his own self-assessment.

The Hephaestus man is the one who expresses his outrage at offensive behavior, and who chooses to cultivate self-respect. By respecting himself and demanding the same from others, Hephaestus demonstrates exactly what these things mean for men in today’s world, disabled or not.

References

[1] Evelyn-White translation, Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo (1914)
[2] Richmond Lattimore translation, The Iliad by Homer (1951)
[3] Philip E. Slater, The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and The Greek Family (1968)
[4] Karl Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks, pp.155-158 (1951)
[5] Wikipedia, Greek myths of Hephaestus, (Roman name Vulcan changed to Hephaestus above)
[6] William Ebenstein, Toward an Archetypal Psychology of Disability Based on the Hephaestus Myth (2006)
[7] Murray Stein, Hephaistos: A pattern of introversion, in The Selected Works of Murray Stein (1973).
[8] Paul Elam, Self-respect isn’t earned, it’s taken (2015)

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