Aug 232013


Today is the Vulcanalia, the ancient celebration of the god Vulcan in the Roman pantheon.  Vulcan was the son of Jupiter and Juno, and brother of Mars. He is the god of fire, including the fire of volcanoes , and the god of craftsmen who use fire, such as blacksmiths.  He is often depicted as a craftsman with a hammer and forge.  He has analogs in many ancient cultures, including Greece and Egypt, so tales about him are often muddled and contradictory.  Here’s my pastiche that accords with some of the threads. In all the tales he is depicted as deformed and brutal (especially in his sexuality), yet capable of producing the most wondrous things – thrones for the gods, exquisite jewelry, and powerful weapons.  As such he represents the twin aspects of fire: production and destruction.  All cooks know this about fire!!!

Vulcan was the son of Jupiter and Juno.  He was so ugly at birth that Juno flung him from Mt Olympus in disgust.  He fell for a day and a night, landing in the sea and breaking his leg in the fall. Ever after he had a limp.  Vulcan sank to the depths where the sea-nymph, Thetis, found him and took him to her underwater grotto, raising him as her own son. Vulcan had a happy childhood with dolphins as his playmates and pearls as his toys. Late in his childhood, he found the remains of a fisherman’s fire on the beach and became fascinated with an unextinguished coal, still red-hot and glowing.

Vulcan carefully shut this precious coal in a clamshell and took it back to his underwater grotto and made a fire with it. On the first day after, Vulcan stared at this fire for hours on end. On the second day, he discovered that when he made the fire hotter with bellows, certain stones gave up metals: iron, silver, and gold. On the third day he beat the cooled metals into shapes: bracelets, chains, swords and shields. Vulcan made pearl-handled knives and spoons for his foster mother, he made a silver chariot for himself, and bridles so that seahorses could transport him quickly. He even made slave-girls of gold to wait on him and do his bidding.


At one point, Thetis left her underwater grotto to attend a dinner party on Mount Olympus wearing a beautiful necklace of silver and sapphires, which Vulcan had made for her. Juno admired the necklace and asked where she could get one. Thetis became flustered causing Juno to become suspicious and, at last, the queen god discovered the truth: the baby she had once rejected had grown into a talented artisan. Juno was furious and demanded that Vulcan return home. He refused. However he did send Juno a beautifully constructed chair made of silver and gold, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Juno was delighted with this gift, but as soon as she sat in it her weight triggered hidden springs and metal bands that sprung forth to hold her fast. The more she shrieked and struggled the more firmly the mechanical throne gripped her. For three days Juno sat fuming, still trapped in Vulcan’s chair. She could not sleep, she could not stretch, she could not eat. This was Vulcan’s revenge for her rejection.

Jupiter finally saved Juno by promising Vulcan that if he released her, he would give him a wife, Venus the goddess of love and beauty. Vulcan agreed and married Venus. He later built a smithy under Mount Etna on the island of Sicily. It was said that whenever Venus is unfaithful (usually with Vulcan’s brother, Mars), Vulcan grows angry and beats the red-hot metal with such a force that sparks and smoke rise up from the top of the mountain, to create a volcanic eruption. Having ascended Etna during a particularly active period I can understand the origin of this tale. You can see the lava flows in pictures, but no one tells you about the noise. As rocks fly out of the cone there is an almost deafening banging like the hammering of a god on his forge.

Mt Etna

Mt Etna

With the assistance of the Cyclops, Vulcan made Jupiter fresh thunderbolts when the old ones decayed. He also made a helmet for Pluto, which rendered him invisible and a trident for Neptune, which shook both land and sea. At the request of Thetis he fabricated the divine armor of Achilles (her son), whose shield is so beautifully described by Homer, and also the invincible armor of Aeneas, at the entreaty of Venus. These tales may well be Greek and Roman versions of the same story.

Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan circa 1710 by Sir James Thornhill 1675 or 76-1734

When Jupiter was angry at mortals for stealing fire he requested a special revenge from the gods.  Vulcan fashioned Pandora out of clay, and Jupiter gave her the secret box that was not to be opened. You know what happens when you tell humans not to do something.


It was the custom in the Roman Empire, after gaining a victory in war, to pile the arms of the enemy in a heap on the field of battle, and make a sacrifice of them to Vulcan. His principal temple was in a consecrated grove at the foot of mount Etna, in which a fire continually burnt. According to legend, Romulus built Vulcan a temple outside the walls of the city, the augurs being of the opinion that the god of fire ought not to be admitted within the city. But in historic times he had two temples within Rome, one of which was used as a meeting house when Rome was in grave danger.

Vulcanalia was part of a cycle of four agricultural festivities in the second half of August (Consualia on August 21st, Vulcanalia on 23rd, Opiconsivia on 25th, and Volturnalia on 27th). Two of them, Consualia and Opiconsivia, concerned the blessing of harvesting and storing grain, and two, Vulcania and Volturnalia, concerned threats to the harvest, fire and flood respectively.  Almost nothing is known about how the Vulcanalia was celebrated except that bonfires were lit outside the city and small animals were sacrificed and eaten.  It is also said that farmers began their work by candlelight on that morning.


According to some ancient sources the first intimations of the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii, began on the Vulcanalia of 79 CE, although it is now impossible to date the event precisely.  Maybe this was no more than poetic license on the part of early historians.  Nonetheless I will take this fanciful historical note as an excuse for my recipe of the day, Chicken Vesuvius. This is a Neapolitan dish, but is rather unusual in that it uses potatoes for the starch rather than pasta. Peas are the most common vegetable, but I am partial to artichoke hearts.


Chicken Vesuvius


3 tbsps extra virgin olive oil
1 2 lb (1 kilo) chicken
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ lbs (750 g) small red-skinned potatoes, halved
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
¾ cup dry white wine
¾ cup chicken broth
1 ½ tsps dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
1 cup peas (or 8 oz artichoke hearts quartered)
2 tbsps unsalted butter


Preheat the oven to 450°F/230°C.

Cut the chicken into 8 pieces (2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 4 breast pieces). Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven over high heat.

Working in batches, sauté the chicken until golden on all sides.  Transfer the pieces to a bowl when browned.

Add the potatoes to the pot and sauté until they are golden brown. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Do not let it take on color.

Add the wine and stir to scrape up any brown bits on the bottom of the pot.

Add the broth, oregano, and thyme. Return the chicken to the pot. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Cover and bake in the oven until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a platter. Arrange the potatoes around chicken. Keep warm.

Add the peas (or artichoke hearts) to the sauce in the pot. Cover and simmer over high heat until the peas are cooked, stirring often, about 4 minutes. Turn heat to low. Stir in the butter. Pour the sauce over chicken and potatoes, and serve.

Serves 4