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10/1/1995 | 2 MINUTE READ

The Ugliest Olympian

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The classical mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans tells stories of gods and goddesses, but the lessons are about human nature and the mysteries of life. Here is a myth about a hero who had the greatest machine shop of all time.

He was born ugly and deformed. His own mother was so ashamed of his looks that she threw the baby off the mountain and into the sea. Rescued and allowed to grow up on a remote island, the boy eventually went back home. There, he took his mother's side in a domestic quarrel, which made his father so angry that he threw the son out of the house again. The fall to earth injured the boy, leaving him with a bad limp. He found himself on the island once more, but this time he discovered his marvelous gift for metalworking.

With a forge and machine shop filled with equipment of his own invention, he soon learned to make the most amazing things such as self-propelled furniture, impenetrable armor, winged shoes that flew. He even designed and built three golden robots to assist him, the first automation.

Finally, his family invited him to return. Home at last on Mount Olympus, he continued to ply his metalworking skills. Although peaceful and almost shy himself, his most glorious achievement was learning how to forge the horrendous thunderbolts that became his father's most famous trademark. Yet he was most contented in his shop, where neither his lameness nor his bad looks made a difference.

To the ancient Greeks, he was Hephaestus, god of fire. The Romans knew him as Vulcan, the celestial blacksmith. His parents, so the myth goes, were Jupiter and Juno, king and queen of all the gods.

Then one day a new goddess appeared. Some say she arose mysteriously out of the sea foam and was carried to land by the wind on a seashell. However she came to be, she was the most beautiful of creatures. Her name was Venus.

All of the gods wanted to marry her, but Jupiter, who was looking for a way to reward the inventor of his thunderbolts, suggested that the lame and ugly machinist-god might be the best match. When she saw him for the first time, Vulcan was hunched over his lathe, the only Olympian not strutting about trying to look glamorous. He was her choice. Venus saw that his heart would always be in his work, and that he would be the least jealous and troublesome husband for a goddess of love and passion.

I've known this story since I was a kid and whenever it seems that metalworking has no poetry or romantic lore, I think of Vulcan and his famous machine shop.