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Object Report 3: The Hephaisteion

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The Hephaisteion, also known as the Thesion, is the best-preserved 5th century temple in the Mediterranean.  It is located on the west side of the Athenian Agora, on a hill called the Kolonos Agorais.  It is dedicated to two gods: Hephaistos, the god of metalworking, and Athena, the goddess of craft and the patron goddess of Athens.  Dr. Toumazou of Davidson College points out the interesting fact that both of these deities come from one parent: Hephaistos from Hera, and Athena from Zeus.*  Therefore, in combination with their connection to craft, it is natural that they would be paired together, especially overlooking the Agora, contributing to the identity of the Athenians as a hard working and creative society.


Floor plan of the Hephaisteion

Unfortunately, in his discussion of the Agora, Pausanias skips the Hephaisteion, so what is known of it today is from later studies (generally 19th century) and architectural and sculptural remains.  Based on pottery fragments from the construction fill, the style of sculpture and architecture, and the shapes of the letters found in masonry marks indicate a building date around the middle of the 5th century.  Construction must have begun around 450 BC, with the metopes following in the 440’s BC and the frieze in the 430’s BC.  This was around the same time the Parthenon was being built on the Acropolis, which most likely took priority; the Hephaisteion was not completed for almost thirty years.

Evidence of bronze working pits and foundries have been discovered on the Kolonos Agorais, suggesting the presence of workshops.  Therefore, the temple was appropriately placed to worship these patron gods of craft.  Furthermore, it is understandable to have Athena overlooking the center of the city and the heart of democracy, as she is the patron goddess of the city.

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View of the stereobate and stylobate. Note how the lowest stair is more weathered.

The temple is conventionally Doric with a few Ionic features.  The columns are slightly more slender than canonical Doric columns and contain a slight entasis, and the plan has a hexastyle façade and is flanked by 13 columns on either side.  The entire temple is made from marble with the exception of the lowest step of the stereobate (limestone), the ceiling beams (wood), and the roof tiles (terracotta).  The durability of marble is a large reason for why this temple is still in the condition in which we find it today.  The interior of the temple would have had a double layer of Doric columns to support the high ceiling.  Like many temples, the ceiling of the Hephaisteion contains coffers, but unlike other temples, each coffer in this temple was made individually, has a slightly unique shape, and is removable.  This choice would have been a very expensive one, making the temple more detailed overall, more magnificent.


Section of the Hephaisteion

The architectural sculpture from this building is not well preserved.  As is typical with a Doric temple, sculpted metopes were present, but instead of surrounding the entire building (like in the Parthenon), only the East side of the temple and the first four metopes the North and South sides contain sculpture.  The ten metopes on the East side of the temple depict the labors of Herakles, and the North and South sides show labors of Theseus.  The presence of these metopes has led to the temple being nicknamed the Thesion.

From visiting the temple, one cannot see any of the pedimental sculpture.  However, fragments can be found in the museum at the Stoa of Attalos.  The east pediment depicts the Deification of Herakles and the west, the battle of Lapiths and Centaurs.

The most noticeable Ionic feature of this Doric temple is its Ionic frieze.  Just like in the Parthenon, this frieze is located on the outside of the cella, in a not-so-visible location.  The high relief of this sculpture suggests great skill and a higher price of commission.  The west frieze portrays a centauromachy while the remaining sides simply show combat scenes witnessed by the gods.

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View of the East Metopes from below

Interestingly, this architectural sculpture does not relate to either of the two gods to whom the temple is dedicated.  The only presence of gods besides Herakles, who was mortal to begin with, is in the frieze, when the gods’ attention is turned toward the present combat.  Clearly, there is an emphasis on the achievements of the human race instead the grandeur of the gods.  However, this theme seems appropriate.  With the temple overlooking the Athenian Agora, the center of culture and politics, a reminder of the successes of humanity seems natural.  The secularity of the agora seems to have extended in a very subtle way into the religious realm of this temple.

Within the temple, there were two bronze statues: one of Hephaistos, and one of Athena.  Alkamenes, a pupil of the great sculptor Phidias, created both of these dedications.  Inscriptions date the two pieces between 421 and 415 BC, revealing that the cult statues were not added to the temple until after it was finished, which was a common course of action.  Because the sculptures were bronze, they were most likely melted down for their metal, so the only information known about them is from inscribed receipts during their building.  From these inscriptions many archaeologists have attempted estimates as to what the two figures would have looked like.  (To read more about the speculations on these sculptures, read Evelyn Harrison’s article “Alkamenes’ Sculptures for the Hephaisteion: Part I, The Cult Statues”).

On the south side of the site, Dorothy B. Thompson found evidence of planting pits in 1936, suggesting the presence of a garden surrounding the temple.  This garden is known as the Garden of Hephaisteion.  The garden would have existed on three sides of the temple, the north, south, and west sides.  The holes for the plants are irregularly spaced but have a common width of .65m.  Evidence of terracotta vases were found in the holes (some vases were found complete), implying that the plants were placed in the vases and then put into the ground.

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Frieze depicting centauromachy

Though some things were spared to save money, like the metopes, the inclusion of an exquisitely executed frieze and individual ceiling coffers create a good argument for a large amount of money spent on this temple.  As was previously stated, this temple was built at the same time as the Parthenon, so more focus – and more money – was placed on the Acropolis.  During his rule during this era, Pericles moved the Panhellenic treasury from Delos to Athens, so there would not have been a shortage of money.

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The cut doorway in from the west side of the temple; done in the 7th century

In the 7th century AD, the Hephaisteion was converted into a church.  A door was cut in the rear of the temple (can be seen today).  There is another door in the north side of the temple that could be from the same time period.  In addition, there are interesting carvings out of the bases of the columns that may be from attempts to move large objects in and out of the temple, though we are not certain.  The use of this building as a church has both positive and negative effects.  It led to the destruction of much of the pagan sculpture, but helped with overall preservation of the building.  However, looters did manage to steal the metal clamps from within the walls.  In the early 19th century, the temple was used as a Protestant cemetery during the Greek War of Independence.  The later use of this land continues an idea seen in other places: the reuse of sacred ground by different religions.




*Some myths differ: according to Homer, an early source, Hephaistos is the son of Zeus and Hera.  The later traditions tell the story of Hephaistos being born from the thigh of Hera after Zeus gives birth to Athena independently of Hera.





Harrison, Evelyn B.  “Alkamenes’ Sculptures for the Hephaisteion: Part I, The Cult Statues.” American Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 81, No. 2, Spring (1977): pp. 137-178. Jstor. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.

“Hephaestus: Greek God of Fire and Metalworking.” Theoi Greek Mythology: Exploring Mythology in Classical Literature and Art. Ed. Aaron J. Atsma.  The Theoi Project, 2011.  Web. 20 Feb. 2013.

“Hephaisteion.” Athenian Agora Excavations. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, N.d., Web. 20 Feb. 2013

Loth, Calder.  “Classical Comments: The Hephaisteion and its Adaptions.” Web long post.  The Classicist Blog. Institute of Classical Architecture and Art.  3 Oct. 2011.  Web.  20 Feb. 2013.

Mee, Christopher and Antony Spawforth.  Greece: An Oxford Archaeological Guide.  Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2001. p. 68. Print.

Pedley, John Griffiths. “The High Classical Period.” Greek Art and Archaeology, 5th Edition.  Touborg, Sarah. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.  2012. pp. 270-271.  Print.

“Temple of Hephaestus and Athena Ergane.”  Virtual Reality Digital Collection: The Ancient Agora of Athens. Foundation of the Hellenic World, 2006.  Web.  20 Feb. 2013.

“Temple of Hephaistus.” GreekLandscapes. N.p., 2013.  Web. 21 Feb. 2013.

Thompson, Dorothy B. “The Garden of Hephaistos.” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.  Vol. 6, No. 3 (1937): pp. 396-425. Jstor. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.

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