Friday, 14 June 2013

Vulcan – Fire God

"Red hot fire blowers" by dislexicpalindrome (2011)
If you want to understand the Roman attitude to deified fire, understanding Roman ideas about the nature of Vulcan (or Vulcanus, as the Romans knew him) is essential. Vulcan is the fertile, creative and yet potentially ugly and destructive side of fire. On the one hand he is propitiated – for his scorching fires, which threaten to burn and destroy forests, homes and harvests, are feared. On the other hand, he is honoured as a master metalworker who creates the finest armour, weapons and any other object forged in fire. Thus Vulcan is the God of fire and of metalworking, and one of the major Gods in the Roman pantheon.

The antiquity of Vulcan’s cult in Rome
Not only was Vulcan one of the Dii Consentes (one of the 12 major Gods of ancient Rome), he was also one of only 15 Gods to have a State appointed priest (flamen) and he is known to have had a shrine in the Roman Forum since at least the 6th century BCE – the Volcanal, which appears to have consisted of:
“an altar … next to it a column … which probably held a statue … [a] fragment of a Greek (Athenian) pot, 570-560 B.C., is the most ancient of the objects to be found associated with the Volcanal. It depicts the Greek god Hephaestus – who (as has always been known) was eventually ‘identified’ with the Roman Vulcan, as the god of fire and metalworking – returning to Olympus, riding on a donkey. The presence of this fragment at the site suggests that the identification of the Roman with the Greek god, far from being late or literary, was made already in the sixth century B.C. [Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook at 21-22].”
He was associated with a number of festivals in ancient Rome, in particular, the Tubilustria on 23 May (when the “trumpets he makes are ritually cleansed”: Ovid, Fasti, book 5) and, more importantly, the Volcanalia, which fittingly took place during the hottest time in the Roman year, possibly to avert the danger of the harvest being consumed by fire. Robert Turcan writes:
“A written fragment from the Arval Records stipulates this day (23 August) for sacrificing, not only to Vulcan, but also to the Nymphs, Juturna and Ops Opifera. The deities of water, so necessary in case of a blaze, were thus propitiated at the same time. But the Volcanalia were chiefly singled out by a substitution rite. On 23 August, small live fish were thrown on to the fire pro se (‘to redeem oneself’ or ‘for one’s well being’) wrote Varro … ‘in place of human souls’ says Festus more precisely … They could be bought on the area Volcani (at the foot of the Capitol) where perhaps the sacrifice took place. In this way people contented the god of fire so that they did not have to suffer from its effects [Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome at 77].” 

Myths relating to Vulcan
"Venus at the forge of Vulcan" by Le Nain (1641)
While the cult of Vulcan is especially ancient, so too is Vulcan associated with early Rome in myth, for one of his most famous sons was said to be Cacus, a fire breathing giant – whom Hercules eventually killed – who was said to live in a cave deep within the woods of the Aventine Hill, before the founding of Rome. Another of Vulcan’s sons was said to be Servius Tullius, who was either the 6th or the 7th king of pre-republican Rome (578-535 BCE). By another tradition he was also thought to be the father of Apollo (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, book III) – though myths of greater popularity emphasised Vulcan’s marriage to Venus and consequent cuckolded state. This latter tale saw him thus posited as either the enemy of Venus (see Plautus, Rudens – wherein the villain of the play threatens to “bring Vulcan … an enemy of Venus … I’ll burn both of these [slave-girls] alive here upon the altar …”) or as one who is “chained by immortal love” to mighty Venus (Virgil, Aeneid, book VIII). Roman poets were fond of proclaiming the power of love (and thus of Venus), and Ovid most of all, who makes light of Venus’ adultery:
“‘Love even takes Sol prisoner, who rules all the stars with his light. I will tell you about his amours. He was the first God they say to see the adulteries of Venus and Mars: he sees all things first. He was sorry to witness the act, and he told her husband Vulcan, son of Juno, of this bedroom intrigue, and where the intrigue took place. Vulcan’s heart dropped, and he dropped in turn the craftsman’s work he held in his hand. Immediately he began to file thin links of bronze, for a net, a snare that would deceive the eye. The finest spun threads, those the spider spins from the rafters, would not better his work. He made it so it would cling to the smallest movement, the lightest touch, and then artfully placed it over the bed. When the wife and the adulterer had come together on the one couch, they were entangled together, surprised in the midst of their embraces, by the husband’s craft, and the new method of imprisonment he had prepared for them.  
The Lemnian [of Lemnos, the Greek island which was said to be sacred to Vulcan’s Hellenic counterpart, Hephaestus], Vulcan, immediately flung open the ivory doors, and let in the Gods. There the two lay shamefully bound together, and one of the Gods, undismayed, prayed that he might be shamed like that. And the Gods laughed. And for a long time it was the best-known story in all the heavens’[Ovid, Metamorphoses, book IV].”
Significantly, this tale is not just a lascivious tale of Venus, it is also, more importantly, one of the many Roman myths that emphasise the ingenious craftsmanship of Vulcan. Ovid, Apuleius and Virgil, inter alia, wrote of Vulcan’s skill at making weapons, armour and precious objects wrought with metal. Ovid states that the golden crown famously given to Ariadne by Bacchus (Ovid, Fasti, book III) was made by Vulcan and that the chariot of the sun itself was:
“Vulcan’s work. It had an axle of gold, and a gold chariot pole, wheels with golden rims, and circles of silver spokes. Along the yoke chrysolites and gemstones, set in order, glowed with brilliance reflecting Phoebus’ own light [Ovid, Metamorphoses, book II].”
In the same vein Apuleius records Venus’ carriage:
“that Vulcan the goldsmith God had lovingly perfected with cunning workmanship and given her as a betrothal present – a work of art that made its impression by what his refining tools had pared away, valuable through the very loss of gold [Apuleius, The Golden Ass, book VI].”
So we see that Vulcan is no mere God of destruction – on the contrary, he is a creative genius. As Virgil has him saying to Venus:
“I can promise in my craft, whatever can be made of iron and molten electrum, whatever fire and air can do [Virgil, The Aeneid, book VIII].”
And it is for this reason that the metalworkers of ancient Rome revered him and prayed for his favour:
“Burning Vulcan watches over the workshops [Horace, Ode 1.4].”

"Apollo in the forge of Vulcan" by Velazquez (1630)
If we are to summarise the attributes of Vulcan we see that on the one hand he is a God of swift and scorching fire (“May Vulcan scorch those songs now, with swift fire”: Tibullus, Delia (IX Treacherous Love)), who may be sensibly feared and propitiated. However, he is also the fire that consumes bodies upon cremation (Ovid, Metamorphoses, books 9 and 12), cooks food (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, book VI) and, most importantly, transforms metal into any manner of useful, beautiful and/or essential objects. The importance of his flame in metalworking cannot be overstated – the Roman army was never better than the blacksmiths who made its weapons.**

Of course, Vulcan is not the only important fire divinity in the Roman pantheon – Vesta’s sacred flame lay at the very heart of ancient Rome, guarded by her virgin priestesses. Together, we can say that Vulcan and Vesta represent alternate aspects of fire. As Vesta’s virgin flames are sterile and pure, so Vulcan’s flames forge – they create. As Vesta’s domestic flames comfort and protect, so Vulcan’s flames may scorch and destroy. Thus Vulcan’s fire is one of fertile and potentially aggressive masculinity and Vesta’s flames are essentially the opposite of this – one might even say that Vulcan is the masculine aspect of fire while Vesta is the feminine.

A final note
A final attribute of Vulcan that perhaps needs mentioning is that unlike most other Gods Vulcan is sometimes described as “lame and crippled” (Minucius Felix, Octavius – note that Minucius Felix was an early Christian who was hostile to the Gods). The origin of this portrayal may come from:
“a much admired statue of Vulcan by Alcamenes [in Athens], a draped, standing figure, in which a lameness which does not amount to deformity is slightly indicated … therefore, since we have received that account of Vulcan, [we] think of the God as lame [Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, book I].”
Traditional Hellenic tales about Vulcan’s Greek equivalent, Hephaestus, entrench popular notions of Vulcan as being less than physically perfect.  Whereas Minucius Felix mocked the Gods for including one who is disabled I applaud it. I see the Greek stories of Hephaestus as essentially lessons in tolerance and compassion – Hera was said to have been so ashamed of Hephaestus when he was born that she abandoned him, only to later learn of his astonishing powers as a smith, whereupon she became so proud of him that none other than Aphrodite herself would do as a bride for her beloved son (Graves, Greek Myths at 38).  To my mind, a society that honours a so called disabled God is a tolerant and open minded society that accepts seeming imperfection and acknowledges the multifaceted nature of divinity – and that is the kind of society I want to live in.

* For example, one of Vulcan’s cult titles was Mulciber, which may have derived from the word “mulcere”, which means to soothe, appease: glossary to the Penguin edition of Ovid’s Fasti at 344 and 360; note that it is said that Vulcan received red victims: Rupke, A Companion to Roman Religion at 264)
** For an insight into just how important blacksmiths were in Europe before the age of guns, see Secrets of the Viking Sword, which gives an excellent insight into the great skill involved in sword making.

Written by M. Sentia Figula; find me at and Roman Pagan on Facebook

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