Vulcan: The Roman God of Fire and Volcanoes

Imagine being the god of fire and volcanoes, the ultimate dream of every teenage kid lying down on their bed and staring at the ceiling.

Fire is one of the most important discoveries of mankind. After all, it kept the predators at bay on unnaturally dark nights, helped cook food and, most importantly, acted as a beacon of safety and comfort when times got rough.

However, the same discovery that once promised safety also brought with it the ravages of danger. Fire’s destructive capacity and the fact that it seared human meat when it came into contact with it made it a polarizing force. 

Whatever fire brought, it sure wasn’t biased towards being advantageous or disadvantageous to whoever wielded it. It was neutral, an amber cosmogonical metaphor. Safety and danger dance in flawless harmony. Hence, the personification of fire was imminent.

For the ancient Romans, it was Vulcan, the god of fire, forges and volcanoes. But unbeknownst to many, Vulcan suffered the most out of all other gods simply due to his appearance and how he was born. 

What Was Vulcan the God Of?

In Greek and Roman mythology, Vulcan was the god of all the essential things in life. 

No, we aren’t talking about Netflix and chocolate milk.

Rather, Vulcan reigned over fire, which was the maker of every steadfast civilization. After early civilizations, ancient Rome and Greece were next in line to reap the benefits of this secret of the gods. This obviously occurred right after Prometheus stole the cheat code to fire straight from the vault of the gods and leaked it to humankind. 

Ever since that, Vulcan was dispatched to regulate the use of fire. His watch not only included making sure that candles burnt at all times, but he was also the god of metalworking and the raging personification of volcanoes. 

Both of these were equally distinct in their own ways in Roman mythology. 

For instance, blacksmithery was the backbone of every war, and the unpredictability of volcanoes was revered and feared by the Roman people (just think about Pompeii, that should do). Hence, Vulcan’s distinguished fame and volatility are well justified in this context. 

Meet Vulcan’s Family

Vulcan’s Greek counterpart is actually none other than Hephaestus. As a result, he is the direct offspring of Juno and Jupiter, the king of all gods with insane amounts of stupid libido. 

There’s a depressing myth about Vulcan’s birth involving him and Juno, but we will come to that later. Vulcan’s siblings in Roman mythology included the star-studded lineup of Mars, Bellona and Juventas. In case you are wondering who they are in Greek tales, they are Ares, Enyo and Hebe, respectively. 

Vulcan was also involved in a particular incident revolving around his half-sister Minerva. Turns out, Jupiter had accidentally swallowed Minerva whole while she was still inside the womb. Fearing that Minerva would one day grow up and usurp him just like Jupiter had once done by slaying Cronus, he fell into a midlife mental crisis. 

Jupiter rang up Vulcan’s number and asked him to aid him in this highly depressing situation. The god of fire understood that it was his time to shine, so Vulcan pulled out his tools and split open Jupiter’s head with an axe. 

Don’t worry, though; he did it to ultimately pull Minerva’s grown-up body out of Jupiter’s food pipe with tongs. 

It is unknown if he had a thing for things covered in phlegm and blood, but Vulcan fell in love with Minerva right after pulling her out. Unfortunately for the god of fire, Minerva was quite serious about her commitment to being a virgin goddess.

No wonder the man explodes volcanoes all the time. Poor guy didn’t even get to live life one female companion he so dearly wanted. 

Origin of Vulcan

You won’t believe this, but Vulcan was one of Jupiter’s legitimate children. That statement is fascinating, thanks to Jupiter’s raging desire to flex the male fertilizing power on all other beings besides his wife. 

Vulcan’s natural life origins actually tie back to another god in an entirely different culture. Though there are many disputes regarding this theory, the etymology matches up as Vulcan’s name sounds suspiciously similar to Velchanos, the Cretan god of the nether and nature. Both of their names converge to form the word “volcano.” 

Other postulations connect his name to Indo-European languages, associating his presence with Sanskrit cognates. However, one thing remains certain: Vulcan made his way into Roman legends and solidified his position through the Roman conquest of Greece. This merged the two cultures as the Romans identified Vulcan as his Greek counterpart of Hephaestus.  

Nonetheless, the Roman concept and need of a deity looking over fire, blacksmithery and volcanoes were much needed in the pages of mythology. This caused Vulcan to snowball further as a Roman god and contribute to his fame in the tales as he provided watch over the most basic amenities. 

Vulcan’s Appearance

Now, this is where your jaw is going to drop.

You’d expect a god of fire to be a hunk of man, right? You’d expect him to be like Adonis or Helios in appearance and swim in the high jacuzzis of Olympus and roam around with multiple girls simultaneously, correct?

Prepare to be disappointed because Vulcan was nowhere near the definition of beauty as both a Roman and a Greek god. Even though he was the local divine being among mankind, Vulcan was described as the ugliest deity among the other Roman gods

This reflects Hephaestus’s appearance in Greek mythology, where he is the only god described as horrendously ugly. In fact, he was so ugly that Hera even tried disowning him the day he was born (more on that later in the Roman context of the myth). 

However, Vulcan was still portrayed as a chiseled and bearded man holding a blacksmith’s hammer to signify his role in metalworks. In other works, he was also seen working the hammer on an anvil, possibly forging a sword or some kind of divine tool. Vulcan is also portrayed gripping a spearhead and pointing it toward the sky to signify his rampant position as the Roman god of fire. 

Vulcan and Hephaestus

We can’t just talk about Vulcan without taking a closer look at his Greek equivalent in Hephaestus. 

Like his Roman counterpart, Hephaestus was the Greek god of fire and blacksmithery. His role was to primarily regulate the use of fire and act as the divine craftsman to all the gods and as a symbol of endurance and rage to mankind. 

Unfortunately, Hephaestus also shared the same ugliness as Vulcan, which impacted his life more often than not (sometimes directly involving his wife, Aphrodite). Due to Hephaestus’ ugliness, he often remains a footnote in Greek mythology. 

He appears only when there’s some severe drama involved. For instance, when Helios, the sun god, informed Hephaestus of Aphrodite’s affair with Ares, Hephaestus set up a trap to expose them and turn them into laughingstocks of the gods. 

While Hephaestus was busy punishing his wife for cheating on him, Vulcan was blowing up mountains simply because he was angry. The critical difference between the two is that Vulcan’s royal descent is actually known as his father is none other than Jupiter. However, Hephaestus’ father seems to be unnamed which makes his backstory all the more depressing. 

Regardless, both Vulcan and Hephaestus are masters of their craft. Their premium work in providing high-quality shields and weapons for Greeks and Romans can’t go unnoticed, as they’ve helped win countless wars. Though Vulcan gets the last laugh here as his Roman weapons of war proved effective enough to shut down the Greeks in the end. 

Worship of Vulcan

The Roman god of fire has had his fair share of prayers and chants. 

Due to the existence of volcanoes and other heated hazards in Roman realms, the destructive nature of fire had to be calmed through intense worship sessions. Shrines dedicated to Vulcan were not uncommon, as the most ancient of these was the Vulcanal at the Capitoline in the Forum Romanum.

The Vulcanal was dedicated to Vulcan to pacify his violent mood swings. In fact, it was built away from villages and out in the open because it was “too dangerous” to be left near human settlements. Such was the volatility of the Roman god of volcanoes; yet another ode to his unpredictability. 

Vulcan also had his own festival. It was called the “Vulcanalia,” where the Roman people arranged huge BBQ parties with flaring bonfires. All to honor Vulcan and plead the god not to start any unwanted hazards and avert harmful fires. To be even more particular, the people threw fish and meat into the heat and turned them into a sort of sacrificial fire. A god’s cult indeed. 

After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, Vulcan was again honored by having his very own altar erected at Quirinal Hill. People even threw some extra meat into the sacrificial fires to ensure Vulcan wouldn’t throw another temper tantrum. 

Ugliest God or the Hottest?

Greek myths and Roman tales might describe Vulcan/Hephaestus as the most horrendous-looking gods. 

But some of their actions seem to surpass their own appearance in terms of raw heroics. In fact, they are befitting a god generating and controlling fire and volcanoes. Some of the myths in Roman and Greek mythology provide a deeper perspective on Vulcan and how his skills have benefited all who have availed it.

That includes Jupiter himself. 

As a result, even though Vulcan is described as extremely ugly, he is actually the hottest (pun intended) in raw talent. 

Vulcan’s Gruesome Birth

However, one depressing story revolves around Vulcan and his mother, Juno. When Vulcan was born, Juno was repulsed at claiming a distorted baby as her own. In fact, Vulcan was born limp and had a disfigured face, which was Juno’s last straw. She yeeted the poor god off the summit of Mount Olympus to get rid of him once and for all. 

Fortunately, Vulcan ended up in the caring hands of Tethys, the Titaness, daughter of Gaia and Uranus, in charge of the sea. Vulcan ended up on the island of Lemnos, where he spent most of his childhood tinkering with different gadgets and tools. As puberty began to seep in, Vulcan solidified his position as a highly skilled craftsman and a blacksmith on the island. 

However, that was also when he realized that he was no mere mortal: he was a god. He realized he was no unknown god either; he was the legitimate son of Jupiter and Juno. Learning of the circumstances of his birth, Vulcan boiled with anger at the thought of his divine parents ditching him for something he had no control over.  

Vulcan smiled as he began to plot the perfect comeback.

Vulcan’s Revenge 

Being a master craftsman, Vulcan forged a flashy throne for Juno, finished with gold. But hold up, did you think it was a normal throne meant to honor the Olympians?

Think again because the throne was actually a trap set by Vulcan for his beloved mother. After a religious ceremony, Vulcan called upon the gods to come to take his gift to Mount Olympus with the sly pretense of plastic honor on his face. 

When the throne reached Juno, she was impressed by the work that went into it, for it was clear that the seat wasn’t made by any ordinary blacksmith. Smiling with glee, Juno sat on the throne. 

And that was precisely when all hell was let loose.

The throne trapped Juno right where she sat, and she couldn’t break free even though she had that goddess-tier endurance. Juno finally figured out that the ensnaring mechanism was made by none other than her son. The same one she had cast off Mount Olympus all those years ago. 

As Vulcan rose up to Mount Olympus like embers, he smirked at his mother; revenge was a dish best served cold. Juno urged him to set her free and apologized for what she did. However, Vulcan was in the mood to make an offer so good that she wouldn’t be able to refuse.

He wanted his immediate marriage to Venus, the most beautiful god in Olympus, in exchange for setting Juno free. She accepted this offer, and Vulcan released Juno from her prison throne. 

Once it was done, Vulcan married Venus, bringing him up to the level of all the other gods. He was also given the office of being the god of fire and the forge, thanks to his remarkable skill of trapping goddesses through mere tools.

A true rags-to-riches story, indeed. 

Vulcan and Venus

Short-tempered and quick to draw the trigger, Vulcan’s anger has been the center of attention in many myths in Roman mythology. 

One of his most famous ones involves Venus, his wife (an ironic pairing indeed, considering how Venus was the goddess of beauty and Vulcan was thought to be the ugliest god). 

Unfortunately, the god of fire was subject to an act of adultery committed by Venus with none other than his brother Mars, the Roman god of war.

Venus Cheats

Due to Vulcan’s sheer ugliness (which she used as an excuse), Venus began to look for pleasure in other forms by looking outside their marriage. Her search led to Mars, whose chiseled physique and raging attitude fit the goddess of beauty. 

However, their coupling was spied on by the one and only Mercury, the Roman messenger of the gods. Mercury’s Greek equivalent was Hermes, in case you were wondering. 

Though in some myths, it is said that Sol, the Roman personification of the sun, spied upon them. This reflects the Greek myth equivalent of Helios, the Greek sun god, finding about the sinful intercourse of Ares and Aphrodite. 

When Mercury caught wind of this extremely serious extramarital affair, he decided to let Vulcan know. At first, Vulcan refused to believe it, but his anger started to swell so much that sparks began to fly off the summit of Mount Etna.

Vulcan’s Vengeance (Part 2)

So, Vulcan decided to make life a living hell for Mars and Venus; they would realize precisely how explosive an ugly god could be if angered. He picked up his hammer and forged a divine net that would trap the cheater right before all the other gods. 

The famous Roman poet Ovid captures this scene in his “Metamorphosis,” which does a fantastic job of expressing how angry the ugly god had actually become after hearing the news of his wife’s affair. 

He writes:

Poor Vulcan soon desir’d to hear no more,

He drop’d his hammer, and he shook all o’er:

Then courage takes, and full of vengeful ire

He heaves the bellows, and blows fierce the fire:

From liquid brass, tho’ sure, yet subtle snares

He forms, and next a wond’rous net prepares,

Drawn with such curious art, so nicely sly,

Unseen the mashes cheat the searching eye.

Not half so thin their webs the spiders weave,

Which the most wary, buzzing prey deceive.

These chains, obedient to the touch, he spread

In secret foldings o’er the conscious bed.”

What ensued was the eventual capture of Venus and Mars in the net. As the other gods came out one by one to see Vulcan’s female companion caught red-handed in the act, the end was nigh. 

Seeing Venus suffer from such public humiliation only brought a smile to Vulcan’s face as he recalled the pain she had caused him and the fury that followed.  

Vulcan, Prometheus, and Pandora

The Theft of Fire

The next arc of Vulcan’s importance as a god begins with theft.

Yes, you heard that one quite right. You see, the privileges of fire were restricted only to the gods. Its vitalizing traits were not to be redeemed by the mortals, and the Olympians guarded this rule with an iron fist. 

However, one specific Titan named Prometheus thought otherwise.

Prometheus was the Titan fire god, and from his heavenly abode, he saw how greatly human beings were suffering from the lack of fire. After all, domestic fire was essential for cooking, heat and, most importantly, survival. Having developed sympathy for mankind, Prometheus decided to defy Jupiter and trick him into gifting humanity fire.

This action put him on the list of the most famed trickster gods in all mythology.

As human beings cherished the gift of fire, Jupiter was enraged. He exiled Prometheus and tied him to a rock where gulls would pick at his liver for all eternity. 

As a countermeasure to the gift, Jupiter decided to nullify the vitalizing effects of fire on Earth.   

Vulcan Creates Pandora

Jupiter decided to punish humanity for the theft of fire as well. As a result, he turned to Vulcan to craft something that would plague them for days to come.

Vulcan pitched the idea of creating a foolish woman that would start a chain reaction of releasing pure evil into the world of men. Jupiter loved how it sounded, so he approved the notion, and Vulcan started crafting a woman from scratch using clay.

This woman was none other than Pandora, a name you might’ve often heard while scrolling through your history research.

The entire story will require a lot of time to tell. But Jupiter ended up sending Pandora to Earth with a box that contained all sorts of evil: plague, hate, envy, you name it. Pandora opened this box due to her foolishness and curiosity, unleashing pure raw villainy upon the realms of men. Vulcan’s creation worked just fine.  

All this because of the fact that mankind stole fire.

Vulcan’s Craftsmanship

Vulcan’s skills as a forger and a blacksmith can’t be underestimated. After all, he prefers quality over quantity, and his trademark is famed in Olympus and on Earth.

Thanks to his time in Lemnos, Vulcan developed his skills as a blacksmith to the maximum and became a master of his craft. As a result, his services were redeemed by all the other gods.

It is said that Vulcan had a workstation right in the center of Mount Etna. If anything angered Vulcan (for example, Venus cheating on him), he would vent out all his rage on a piece of metal. This would make the mountain erupt every time it happened.

Vulcan is also said to have created thrones for all the other deities on Mount Olympus, as he never compromised quality.

Another myth links Vulcan to crafting the winged helmet that Mercury wears. Mercury’s helmet is a well-known symbol of agility and heavenly velocity.

However, the most famous of Vulcan’s creations are the lightning bolts that Jupiter uses to deliver absolution. The lightning bolts of Jupiter are essential objects in ancient lore as it has been (on many occasions) the bringer of justice/injustice depending on how aroused the king of gods was on that particular day. 

Pompeii and Vulcan

The story of an entire city getting eradicated by an eruption and the subsequent volcanic ash is no stranger to the pages of history.

The bustling city of Pompeii was tragically buried in ash and dust following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Though a total of 1,000 people is said to have died in the tragedy, the exact numbers are not really known. However, in letters dispatched by Pliny the Younger, he puts forward some interesting details that tie the Vesuvius eruption to Vulcan. 

Remember the Vulcanalia? The great festival which Roman priests dedicated to Vulcan? Turns out, the eruption of Vesuvius took place right after the day of the festival. Interestingly, the volcano itself began to stir on the day of the Vulcanalia, further blurring the border of history and mythology.

Regardless, Vulcan’s rage and Vesuvius’ immediate eruption caused hundreds of innocent deaths and forever marked mother nature’s might upon the pages of history.

Forever.

How Vulcan Lives On 

The name “Vulcan” might consist of two syllables. Still, the name has been popularized amidst stories and epics of thousands of words.

Vulcan has appeared in quite a lot of places across history. Thanks to his fiery personality, he makes a more imposing presence than his Greek equivalent. From popular culture to being immortalized through statues, this badass blacksmith is no stranger to fame.

For instance, the famous TV franchise “Star Trek” features the planet “Vulcan.” This has leaked onto other franchises as well, where other fantastical worlds carry his namesake. 

The largest cast iron statue is one portraying Vulcan, located in Birmingham, Alabama. This merely solidifies his popularity amongst the North American population, far away from the realms of Rome. 

Vulcan is also a character in the popular video game “SMITE” by Hi-Rez studios. We can confirm he’s got some fiery moves for you to try out. 

Speaking of games, Vulcan is also reimagined in the world of “Warhammer 40,000” as Vulkan. The latter also revolves around the concept of volcanoes. 

Safe to say, Vulcan’s legacy lives on as his name continues to branch out more and more. Undoubtedly, his impact on modernity surpasses any mythological primordial being. That is not too bad for a so-called ugly god.  

Conclusion

Vulcan is a deity born imperfect, looking to pursue perfection through his craft. With a story like no other, Vulcan is a living example of how one’s appearance doesn’t decide one’s future.  

With the might of fire in one hand and the malleability of iron in the other, you can count on this hortative handyman to build the perfect home for your future.

But beware, he is infamous for his anger issues.

References

https://www.learnreligions.com/the-roman-vulcanalia-festival-2561471

Pliny the Younger Letters III, 5.

Aulus Gellius Noctes Atticae XII 23, 2: “Maiam Volcani”.

Thomaidis, Konstantinos; Troll, Valentin R.; Deegan, Frances M.; Freda, Carmela; Corsaro, Rosa A.; Behncke, Boris; Rafailidis, Savvas (2021). “A message from the ‘underground forge of the gods’: history and current eruptions at Mt Etna”. Geology Today.

“Hephaestus and Aphrodite”. theoi.com/Olympios/HephaistosLoves.html#aphrodite. Retrieved December 4, 2020.

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