The actual story of ignominious Periphetes

Similar to many ancient societies who followed pagan religion, ancient Greeks worshiped a large number of Gods. Even if you are unfamiliar with Greek mythology, you would have heard about Zeus (King of the Gods, God of lightning, thunder and justice),  Apollo (the God of music), Eros (the God of love)  and Ares (the God of war). For our story, the important God is Hephaestus, the God of fire, metalworking, and sculptures. 

Who forged Achilles’ armor? Hephaestus did. Who forged Hermes’ winged helmet and sandals? He did. Who crafted Eros’s bow and arrows? He did. Basically, he crafted much of the magnificent equipment of the Greek Gods with the help from his one-eyed assistants Cyclopes. As you can imagine, he had a lot of wealth. He lived in a large palace in Olympus with his family.

Hephaestus did not have a particularly large friend circle among the divines of Olympus, but he went along fine with almost everyone except Prometheus. As you may know, Prometheus, the God who created mortals, stole fire from the gods and gave it back to mankind. He is revered even today by mankind as the harbinger of civilization. Why fire was taken away from humans in the first place is a story for another day.

Zeus, the God of justice, got really upset and his punishment of Prometheus is known widely. However, as far as Hephaestus was concerned, it was a mockery of justice. If his mother were on better terms with her ex-husband Zeus, then he could have got Prometheus far more severe punishment. He thought that his assistants Cyclopes suffered way more pain while working with fire than Prometheus who suffered just once in a day when an eagle came to eat away his liver. Mortal Cyclopes couldn’t heal their burnt limbs as fast as immortal Prometheus. Herphaestus felt that Prometheus not only stole fire but also all the recognition that belonged rightfully to him. You see actually Prometheus stole fire from Herphaestus’s hearth. And keeping that hearth lit eternally was no easy task. Four of his greatest Cyclopes worked hard around the clock so that forging of metals didn’t stop even momentarily. What Prometheus did interfered with the plan of Hephaestus. Mankind would have got back the fire eventually once he taught them how to control it properly. 

Like any Greek God, he had many wives and along with them, many sons and daughters. Let us focus today on two of his sons: Erichthonius and Periphetes. King Erichthonius, as his subject in Athens used to call him, grew up in the palace with all the royal comforts fitting for a king. Periphetes, on the other hand, didn’t inherit much from his father except his limp. It goes without saying that Periphetes felt jealousy towards Erichthonius because he thought everything came easy to him. Compared to his older illustrious half-brother, we don’t know much about Periphetes. We know so much about King Erichthonius — there are detailed stories about how he was born, how he ruled Athens and how he died. But the only thing ancient texts mention about Periphetes is that he was a one-eyed robber, who tormented travelers on the road between Athens and a nearby town Troezen with his bronze club. And he died at the hands of Theseus, a later King of Athens. A popular depiction is shown below.

peri_greek

Periphetes has always stuck out to me like a sore thumb. After all, a son of a God can’t just be a robber in a patriarchal society. All of his siblings (like King Erichthonius) are rich and influential while he is described as a monster. The craftsmen of the ancient Greek society, like the European societies of the Middle Ages, were highly organized among the guilds and they were regulated heavily by the norms of craft guilds. Generally, a specific trade would remain confined to the specific guild and families which were part of it. So, one would expect Greek mythology to mirror ancient Greek society’s social structure. However, King Erichthonius was definitely not practicing metal craftsmanship. In fact, we don’t have any record of any of the children of Hephaestus who carried forward the family business, which seems really strange to me. 

I believe Periphetes was actually not a robber but a metal craftsman like his father. Of all the children, only Perihetes share the sound phe with his father’s name. Secondly, it cannot be just a coincidence that only Periphetes inherited his father’s limp. What must have been lost through passage of time was that he was his father’s true son. I suspect he lost his one eye while forging metal in the hot furnace for long hours with his father. That’s why he looked like Cyclopes. 

Let’s go back to the story of Prometheus giving fire to mortals, which I believe is telling us something real about ancient Greek society: it could have been a reference to someone violating the strict craft guild rules which would have allowed access of valuable trade secrets to everyone. In turn, it would have led to greater innovation in the society and probably, that’s why Prometheus was revered. Of course, the Gods, which were analogues of the rich class of the society, were bitter about the whole episode as they no longer had an exclusive access to fire. Thus, after Prometheus gave fire to everyone, it must have been available for everyone to do metal works. Now it’s Economics 101: more is availability of a commodity, lower is its price. Hence, the metal craftsmanship was no longer as valuable as it used to be during his father’s time. This explains why Periphetes, unlike his siblings, was not rich even when he was born in a divine family. I guess that Periphetes maintained a workshop somewhere between Athens and Troezen. It’s possible that he must be charging highly for his brilliant craftsmanship. However, his customers might have thought him as a robber who was almost ripping them off.

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