The Smith: God of Male Fertility

May 6, 2010 at 4:01 pm Leave a comment

Once upon a time, King Aegeus of Athens asks Jason’s wife Medea, known for her knowledge in witchcraft, to help him engender a son. She tells him to sleep with a woman in Troizen. He does and orders the woman, that if the child is a boy to send him to Athens, but not before he is strong enough to lift the stone, below which Aegeus has hidden his sandals and a sword.The baby is named Theseus and one day he lifts the stone and goes to his father.

In Athens people are upset. They expect the ship from Crete that arrives every nine years to take seven girls and seven boys as sacrifice to the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Theseus convinces his father to let him be one of the boys. In Crete the king’s daughter Ariadne falls in love with him and decides to help him. She gives him a ball of flax and a sword and as the first victim he enters the labyrinth, kills the feared bull-man and returns with the help of the thread.

Ariadne gives Theseus the ball of flax

Now they must all flee.  The fourteen young people and Ariadne take the Athenian ship and set off to the island of Naxos, where Theseus “forgets” to wake up Ariadne and she is left on the island. In Delos they dance the Crane in front of Apollo’s altar and then leaving for Athens, Theseus “forgets” his promise to change the black sails for white ones. Aegeus seeing the black sails and sure that his son is dead, in desperation and sorrow throws himself down the cliffs. Thus Theseus becomes the new king.

Why on earth do I tell this story and where is the link between Theseus and the new symbolic image of the male fertility?  What has this story to do with the fire that transforms stones into shining metal?

Well, this is how symbols do. They hide the important fact, in this case the Crane Dance. During the Bronze Age, the crane became the symbol of male fertility slowly replacing the old female fertility symbol, the wild goose. Thus, in order to understand the role of the crane we must begin with the symbolism of the wild goose.

The earliest image of a wild goose

The earliest, absolutely certain figurine of a goose has been found in Vinça and is dated in the fifth millennium. However,  I am convinced that the ten thousand years older figurines from Mezin in Ukraine and the much older, similar miniatures that are very common all over Europe, already represent the wild geese.

The ethologist Konrad Lorenz having observed geese for most of his life, considered  the wild gray goose the most intelligent of all birds and with most affinities towards humans. They are rather small with legs longer than those of swans, their necks taller than those of the ducks.  They are easy to recognize even as abstract images on their horizontal, plumb bodies, big circular eyes and flattened beaks. Living as much on land as in the water they symbolize earth, water and air.

To this we must add that being migratory birds, they also constitute analogies to the moon.  Like the moon that arrives and leaves every month, they fly between the Polar circle and Africa every year. They come to Europe in the spring when everything wakes up and turn south in the autumn before the long sleep of the winter sets in. They always return, and they always leave – like the moon.

Woman with a bird mask

We have now wings; we cannot fly.  However,among some people, for example the Kwakiutl (British Columbia, Canada), certain important persons, are permitted to wear bird masks at certain celebrations in the same way as the figurines in Vinça wear masks of wild geese. The masks are abstract images; they are symbols and not portraits. The goddess and the dancers that represent her for a short time take the shape of a wild goose. The bird is a symbol through which we catch a glimpse of the divine.

Around the year 1000 BC, abstract images of geese appeared in nearly all the European tombs. They are made in pottery and bronze, painted on vases and incised on bronze objects. Perhaps they are symbols of pregnancy as the gift from the goddess through her symbolic image, the wild goose – indicating that the tomb was the womb of the Earth pregnant with the dead.

Images of the crane appear a thousand years later than the images of the geese in Vinça.  We find it in Susa in the late fourth millennium, then a thousand years later in Crete.  In the beginning of the first millennium BC, the crane appears on the rocks in north Italy, where it proudly stands above six labyrinths–but the only written testimony that has come down to us in which both the crane and the labyrinth appear, is the Greek story about Theseus.

The male cranes make a limping, complicated “dance” to attract the females at the time of mating and the ancient crane dancers of course represented the birds. The problem is that it is inconceivable that Theseus, the young hero, could be the Crane.  He is kalós k’agathos (“beautiful in mind and body”),  the opposite of kalós being aischrós, “ugly, shameful,” which in the Iliad is used in superlative about Thersites, who not only limps, but dares oppose the leaders. Theseus does not limp. He can only lead the dance as a representative. The dance itself was much older and was lead by the divine Crane. Who was he?

Hephaestus in his crane automobile

The only god in Greek mythology who limps is the divine smith, Hephaestus. Long before the story about Theseus and the labyrinth was born, the divine smith being stepmother and midwife of the metals performed the male fertility dance in the very center of the sea; in the place where the Cyclades make a “circle” (kúklos) around Delos.

Hephaestus is the Crane. He is the midwife of Zeus, opening the god’s skull so that Athena, dressed in glittering armor that reflects the light, can be born. He performs the operation with the Minoan double-axe (lábrus, “double-axe,” and labúrinthos, “labyrinth,” are both foreign words in the Greek language).

The old labyrinth is a complicated spiral, but still a spiral, and it is impossible to lose one’s way in it. In the center we find ourselves–the half human, half animal Minotaur. The story tells us that to meet oneself without embellishment is an experience as frightening as death.

Reading the Iliad one gets the feeling that Hephaestus is the god that Homer prefers above all the other Olympians, not out of pity with the deformed limping god, but of wholly different reasons. He dedicates most of the chapter eighteen to the god. No other god or goddess is given that much space.

Hephaestus is not only intelligent, but the empathic god that tries to calm the quarrels between the Olympian gods and goddesses. He is not only a smith, but an architect, who has built all the houses on the Olympus including his own “full of stars” and made of glittering bronze. He has invented three kinds of robots: big tripods on wheels that go to the assemblies of the goddesses and gods at his order, two female servants of gold that support him when he walks, and bellows that begin working at his command. He was at least three thousand years before his time. Two images painted on vases around 500 BC, show Hephaestus in his “automobile” fashioned from different parts of cranes.

He is the smith, the god of fertility, the Crane.  It is logical that he is married to Aphrodite – not at all the ugliest god to the most beautiful of all goddesses – but the god who creates life with the goddess of sexual passion. Together they fuse the egg with the spermatozoon.

Homer may not have written the Iliad in the way we intend with being an author, but he brought the different oral poems together into a whole, imprinted by his personality. The oral poems are earlier than the Iliad and many of them may even go back to the Mycenaean period or not long after its downfall. This is also the period when a new symbol appears in the tombs in Italy and Switzerland where all of a sudden the pottery vases are decorated with metal strips.

I think this is the same symbol that is shown in the story about the marriage between Hephaestus and Aphrodite. The feminine pottery, a symbol of the goddess embracing the god, is separated from the metal, the child of the smith, a symbol of masculinity, but at the same time united with it. The One diminishes when the Two have been born; the feeling of being an individual has come into the world. This is the last time the androgyny is represented in Europe, then the image goes to sleep and even the alchemists are not able to revive it.

Cranes below the bier

Cranes below the bier

The discovery that the fire could change certain stones into copper revolutionized our world. It changed our thinking – our analogies, the symbols living in us. With the heating of the stones, with the hammering of the copper, humanity entered into its heredity. Earlier we did what the goddess had taught us, now we were able to create by ourselves – and what a discovery that was. We could create light out of stones. This was the discovery that enabled Neil A. Armstrong to place his foot on the Moon, that memorable day of July 20, 1969.

Bronze combs with geese

The combs of bronze reflect all this. In the darkness of the tomb there now is light. In these combs, the goddess who combs her flaxen hair of nettles unites with the god who creates light, but the symbolism is new. The smith has arrived.



Ariadne gives Theseus the ball of flax. Detail from the “Tragliatella pitcher”, ca 600 BC, from Caere, Italy.  Drawing K.B.

The earliest image of a goose. Bird Goddess’ mask from Vinca, ca 4 000 BC. After M. Gimbutas, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 1982, pl. 123. Drawing K.B.

Bird woman from Vinca. After M. Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, 1989, fig. 39.

Cranes. Photo J. Lindström

Hephaestus in his crane automobile. Detail of e red-figured vase from Saturnia, Italy. ca. 500 BC. Drawing K.B.

The cranes blow the bier. Detail of a Geometric Amphora from Athens, ca 700 BC.

Bronze comb with geese from Denmark, ca 1 000 BC. Drawing K.B.


Entry filed under: Androgynous symbol, bronze, Combs, Homer, Vinca.

Combs of Bronze or the Fascination with Metal The Dark Side of Transformation

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