By the 5th century BCE, a collection of fables featuring a cast of personified animals with moral tales to tell became associated with a legendary figure called Aesop. One of the few pieces of information that the ancients could agree upon about Aesop was that the storyteller likely lived in the 6th century BCE and that he supposedly was born in some Greek-associated region. Because of Aesop’s vague or unknown background, he is widely regarded as a semi-legendary, or possibly purely-mythical, figure. Whatever the case, somebody (or some people) wrote the timeless stories. These scattered fables, like the collected works attributed to so many of the ancient sages in East Asia, were probably compiled by students and fans, eventually resulting in a collection of Aesop’s Fables often called the Aesopica.
Of Aesop’s many fables, the tale of the hare and the tortoise is one of the most popular. In the story, a slow tortoise challenges a speedy hare to a foot race. The hare, confident in the disparity of quickness between the two animals, eagerly accepted the challenge. After the race began, the tortoise fell so far behind in the race that the hare decided to take a nap on the side of the path. The clever tortoise, however, calmly kept crawling along the race path, eventually surpassing the sleeping hare to win the race.
Interestingly enough, Homer wrote a similar story centuries before Aesop. Homer’s tale, however, did not feature animals, but instead pitted the lame-legged god, Hephaestus, against the spry and lusty god, Ares. The story in question takes place in book VIII of The Odyssey, beginning around line 260.
As the story goes, Odysseus met an incredibly talented bard named Demodocus in the blessed community of Phaeacia. While Odysseus was staying in the region, Demodocus took up a lyre and began to perform a song about an embarrassing scandal that occurred at the home of the gods on Mount Olympus. This was Demodocus’ story:
According to the bard, Hephaestus, the talented craftsman of the Greek gods, won Aphrodite’s hand in marriage after producing a series of wondrous presents. These gifts, however, were sent to Zeus, not Aphrodite, and the resulting union was an arranged marriage. Consequently, Aphrodite did not return Hephaestus’ affection and was predisposed to extramarital affairs, especially with handsome Ares, the god of war.
Unfortunately for Aphrodite and Ares, one of the ablest informants in the Greek pantheon, the sun god Helios, was a close friend of Hephaestus. Helios spotted the two lovers fooling around in broad daylight while he was doing his daily rounds. Helios immediately sent this information to Hephaestus, who, upon receiving the news, stormed off to his workshop with revenge on his mind.
Channeling his rage and sense of betrayal, Hephaestus constructed a metallic masterpiece of a net. It was made of chains so fine that they could not be easily seen by the naked eye, while also being strong enough that even the gods could not pull the links apart. With this net in hand, Hephaestus returned to his home and marched into his bedroom. There, he threw the net around the feet of the bed, and also hung other sections to the rafters. When the trap was set, the invisible spider web of chains weaved all around the bed, just waiting for some unsuspecting prey to enter the room.
With his preparations done, Hephaestus loudly announced to his wife and neighbors that he was leaving on an impromptu vacation to Lemnos. Hephaestus, however, did not go very far. Instead, he found a hiding spot and contacted Helios to keep an eye on his house.
Ares, for his part, was completely fooled by Hephaestus’ sudden departure from town. When he could no longer see Hephaestus, the god of war quickly rushed over to Hephaestus’ house, where he eagerly found his beloved Aphrodite. Within moments of their clandestine encounter, the two flushed lovebirds inevitably fluttered over to the bedroom. Yet, as soon as they lay down on the bed, their hearts, which had been beating with longing and anticipation, suddenly began to thump with a cadence of terror. As soon as they hit the bed—in whatever state of dress they were in—the trap was triggered and the net caught its prey. Like the tortoise from Aesop’s fable, Hephaestus caught his rival sleeping.
By now, Helios had already informed Hephaestus that Ares was in the house. Accordingly, the craftsman of the gods returned home where he triumphantly found his wife and her lover entangled in his net, which was so tight that the two inside where stuck exactly as they were the moment the net fell. After seeing that his trap had worked, Hephaestus sent word to all of the gods, calling them forth to witness the sad creatures he had caught in his net. The goddesses, who had an inkling of what they would find, decided not to go to Hephaestus’ house. Zeus and Hades also interestingly ignored the craftsman’s call. Yet, many other important male gods curiously wandered over to the house to see why Hephaestus was shouting.
Poseidon, Apollo and Hermes were mentioned by name as having entered the home to see the spectacle inside. The gods in attendance, all except Poseidon, immediately began laughing at the chained lovers on the bed and started cracking jokes about the situation. Between these eruptions of laughter, one of the observers commented:
“The tortoise catches up the hare. See how our
slow-moving Hephaestus has caught Ares, though no god on
Olympus can run as fast. Hephaestus may be lame, but he has
won the day by his cunning.”
(The Odyssey, Book VIII, approximately line 330)
After the other gods had made their jokes, the unimpressed Poseidon finally convinced Hephaestus to release the captives. After the net was undone, the lovers fled Mount Olympus in disgrace, with Ares huffing and puffing off to Thrace and Aphrodite going into self-exile at Cyprus, where the Graces tried to comfort the distressed goddess with gifts of new clothing and oils.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, painted by Alexandre Charles Guillemot (1786 – 1831), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Odyssey (Book 8) by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.