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Am J Med Genet. 1999 Mar 5;83(1):53-63.

From Horus the child to Hephaestus who limps: a romp through history.

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Department of Biology, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada.


The question of why Hephaestus, the Greek god of smiths, limped has been the subject of much debate, mainly on mythological grounds. This debate extended also into the field of medical diagnosis, with attempts at defining the nature of the deformity that made the crippled Hephaestus the buffoon of the other Olympic gods. One problem encountered in these debates was the changes to which the ugly young Hephaestus was subjected with the passing of time-from a limping deformed youth to the later dignified and normal man. While some authors, largely influenced by poetic Greek texts and vase paintings, attributed the limp to talipes (club-feet), others pointed to certain features suggestive of achondroplasia. Since the image of the early Hephaestus is based mainly on the much earlier concept of the Egyptian god Ptah, who as the triune god of the resurrection sometimes is depicted as an achondroplastic dwarf (Ptah-Pataikos), the suggestion of the possible achondroplastic dwarf-like nature of the early Hephaestus is not implausible. It is supported by similarities in the image of Hephaestus to some features in other Egyptian gods, such as the domestic god Bes, the guardian of the new-born, and the Horus the Child or Harpocrates (Greek), yet another protector of youth and "the symbol of everything that is young and vigorous" [Budge, 1969: The Gods of the Egyptians, or Studies in Egyptian Mythology. Volume I.]. The characteristic feature of this child-god is the "lock of Harpocrates" on the right side of his head. That this lock can sometimes also be seen not only on the head of Ptah-Pataikos and of Bes but also on the young Hephaestus is highly suggestive of the Egyptian influence on his image. Recently, however, another interesting explanation of Hephaestus's limp has been suggested that may explain why the Egyptian influenced image of the early achondroplastic Hephaestus changed to the later, more Grecian view of the smith-god who hobbled because of club-feet. Improvements in composition-analysis of samples from antique statues and various utensils have led to the suggestion that the introduction of new smelting techniques in antique times may have exposed ancient metal workers to the effects of various toxic metals causing, for instance, chronic lead poisoning or, more relevant here, chronic arsenic poisoning causing peripheral neuritis with weakness and lameness of one or both lower extremities. Later changes in smelting technique, and recognition or guess-work of a possible connection between these techniques and toxic effects, may explain the change from the buffoon-like achondroplastic walk to the club-footed limp and eventual normal behaviour of Hephaestus, the Smith. In other words: Did Hephaestus limp because of his arsen-neuritis?

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