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Vulcanalia: appeasing the God of fire

5 min read

Originally written on August 23, 2021, updated 2023

In ancient Rome, Vulcan (or Volcanus) was well known as the god of fire, both beneficial and hindering fire, particularly in its destructive aspects as volcanoes.
Similar to the Greek Hephaestus, he was a god of the forge, and renowned for his metalworking skills, and he is portrayed as being lame. He was patron also of those occupations having to do with ovens such as cooks, bakers, pastry makers and pizza makers.

Vulcan is one of the oldest of the Roman gods, and his origins can be traced back to the Etruscan deity Sethlans, who was associated with beneficial fire.
The Sabine king Titus Tatius, died in 748 b.c.e., declared that a day honoring Vulcan should be marked each year.
This festival, the Vulcanalia, is celebrated around August 23.
Titus Tatius also established a temple and shrine to Vulcan at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, and it is one of the oldest in Rome.

As a son of Jupiter, Vulcan was the creator of his father’s powerful lightning bolts, but he also forged armor, weapons, and jewelry for the gods and heroes of Rome.
According to the legend, when he was born he was so hideously ugly that his mother, Juno, flung him off a mountaintop into the sea. When he landed, one of his legs was broken and never quite healed correctly, leaving him somehow deformed.
Vulcan was found in the depths of the ocean by a water nymph, Thetis, who raised him as her own and, during his childhood, he figured out how to make beautiful things with fire and metal.
Thus he crafted a magnificent silver and sapphire necklace for Thetis. When she wore it to a dinner party, Juno spotted it and was immediately envious.
When she pressed Thetis for the name of the craftsman, she was shocked to learn it was the boy she had cruelly discarded years earlier.
Later, Jupiter offered Venus as a wife to Vulcan and, apparently, he constructed his smithy beneath Mount Etna in Sicily. However, Venus was regularly unfaithful and It was said that, any time her husband learned of Venus’ infidelities, he grew angry and pounded the red-hot metal of his forge with such ferocity to create a volcanic eruption (Mount Etna has been in continuous eruption for 3,500 years. Poor Vulcan!)
Servius Tullius, the legendary sixth kings of Rome, was considered the son of Vulcanus because he was born from a servant struck by the sparks of a flame and, as a child, he was sometimes surrounded by a sort of fire aura. And apparently her mother was impregnated by a male sex organ that miraculously appeared in the ashes of the sacrificial altar.

Because Vulcan was associated with the destructive powers of fire, his celebration fell each year during the heat of the summer months, when everything was dry and parched, and at higher risk of burning.
After all, if you were worried about your grain stores catching fire in the August heat, how better to prevent this than to throw a big festival honoring the fire god?
The Vulcanalia was celebrated with large bonfires, and this gave Roman citizens some degree of control over the strong powers of fire.
Sacrifices of small animals and fish were devoured by the flames as offerings presented in place of the burning of the city, its grain stores, and its residents.
There is some documentation that during the Vulcanalia Romans hung their cloths and fabrics out under the sun to dry, although in a time without our modern washers and dryers, it seems logical that they would do this anyway.

In 64 c.e., an event took place which many saw as message from Vulcan: the so-called Great Fire of Rome burned for nearly six days, in which several of the city’s districts were completely destroyed, and many others damaged irreparably.
When the flames finally died down, just four of Rome’s districts (fourteen in all) were untouched by the fire and, apparently, by the wrath of Vulcan himself.
Nero, who was emperor at the time, immediately organized a relief effort, paid for from his own coin. Although there is no hard evidence as to the fire’s origins, many people blamed Nero himself who, in turn, blamed the local Christians.
Following the Great Fire of Rome, the next emperor, Domitian, decided to build an even bigger shrine to Vulcan on the Quirinal Hill. In addition, the annual sacrifices were expanded to include red bulls as offerings to the god’s fires.

Pliny the Younger wrote that the Vulcanalia was the point in the year in which to begin working by candlelight.
He also described the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Pompeii in 79 c.e., on the day after the celebrations of Vulcanalia. Pliny was in the nearby town of Misenum, and witnessed the events first hand.
He said that “Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames…Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp.”

Today, many modern Roman Pagans celebrate the Vulcanalia in August as a way of honoring the fire god with bonfires with sacrifices of grains like wheat and corn, because the early Roman celebration originated, in part, to protect the city’s granaries.

Images from web – Google Research

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