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