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1636 painting by Peter Paul Rubens which depicts Vulcan forging thunderbolts for Jupiter.

Vulcan (Latin: Vulcanus) is the god of beneficial and hindering fire,[1] including the fire of volcanoes in ancient Roman mythology and religion. Vulcan is usually depicted with a thunderbolt.[2] He was worshipped at an annual festival on August 23 known as the Volcanalia.

The god belongs to the most ancient stage of Roman religion: Varro citing the Annales Maximi, recalls that king Titus Tatius had dedicated altars to a series of deities among which Vulcan is mentioned.[3]

Vulcan was identified with the Greek god of fire and smithery, Hephaestus.


The origin of the name is unclear and debated. Roman tradition maintained that it was related to Latin words connected to lightning (fulgur, fulgere, fulmen), which in turn was thought of as related to fire.[4] This interpretation is supported by Walter William Skeat in his etymological dictionary as meaning 'lustre'.[5]

It has been supposed that his name was not Latin but related to that of the Cretean god Velchanos, a god of nature and the nether world.[6] Wolfgang Meid has refused this identification as phantastic.[7]

Christian Guyonvarc'h has proposed the identification with the Irish name Olcan (Ogamic Ulccagni, in the genitive). Vassilij Abaev compares it with the Ossetic -waergon, a variant of the name of Kurdalaegon, the smith of the Nart saga. Since the name in its normal form Kurdalaegon is stable and has a clear meaning (kurd smith+ on of the family+ Alaeg name of one of the Nartic families), this hypothesis has been considered unacceptable by Dumezi].[8]


Vulcan's oldest shrine in Rome, called the Vulcanal, was situated at the foot of the Capitoline in the Forum Romanum, and was reputed to date to the archaic period of the kings of Rome,[9][10] and to have been established on the site by Titus Tatius,[11] the Sabine co-king, with a traditional date in the 8th century BCE. It was the view of the Etruscan haruspices that a temple of Vulcan should be located outside the city,[12] and the Vulcanal may originally have been on or outside the city limits before they expanded to include the Capitoline Hill.[1] The Volcanalia sacrifice was offered here to Vulcan, on August 23.[9] Vulcan also had a temple on the Campus Martius, which was in existence by 214 BCE.[1][13]

The Romans identified Vulcan with the Greek smith-god Hephaestus, and he became associated like his Greek counterpart with the constructive use of fire in metalworking. A fragment of a Greek pot showing Hephaestus found at the Volcanal has been dated to the 6th century BCE, suggesting that the two gods were already associated at this date.[10] However, Vulcan had a stronger association than Hephaestus with fire's destructive capacity, and a major concern of his worshippers was to encourage the god to avert harmful fires.


The festival of Vulcan, the Vulcanalia, was celebrated on August 23 each year, when the summer heat placed crops and granaries most at risk of burning.[1][14] During the festival bonfires were created in honour of the god, into which live fish or small animals were thrown as a sacrifice, to be consumed in the place of humans.[15]

It is recorded that during the Vulcanalia people used to hang their cloths and fabrics under the sun.[16] This habit might reflect a theologic connection between Vulcan and the divinized sun.[17]

Another custom observed in this day required that one should start working at the light of a candle, probably to propitiate a beneficial use of fire by the god.[18]

In addition to the Volcanalia on August 23, the date May 23, which was the second of the two annual Tubilustria or ceremonies for the purification of trumpets, was sacred to Vulcan.[14][19]

A flamen, one of the flamines minores named flamen Volcanalis was preposed to the cult of the god. The flamen Volcanalis officed a sacrifice to goddess Maia, held every year at the Kalendae of May.[20]

The Ludi Volcanalici, held just once on August 23, 20 BCE, within the temple precinct of Vulcan, were used by Augustus to mark the treaty with Parthia and the return of the legionary standards that had been lost at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE.

Vulcan was among the gods placated after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE.[21] In response to the same fire, Domitian (emperor 81–96) established a new altar to Vulcan on the Quirinal Hill. At the same time a red bull-calf and red boar were added to the sacrifices made on the Vulcanalia, at least in that region of the city.[22]


The nature of the god is connected to religious ideas concerning fire.

The Roman concept of the god seems to be connected to the destructive and fertilizing powers of fire. In the first aspect he is worshipped to avert its potential danger to harvested wheat in the Volcanalia and his cult is located outside the boundaries of the original city to avoid its causing fires in the city itself.[23]

This power is however considered useful if directed against enemies and such a choice for the location of the god's cult could be interpreted in this way too. The same idea underlies the dedication of the arms of the defeated enemies, as well as those of the survived general in a devotion ritual to the god.

Through comparative interpretation this aspect has been connected to the third (or defensive) fire in the Vedic theory of the three sacrificial fires.[24]

Another meaning of Vulcan is related to male fertilizing power. In various Latin and Roman legends he is the father of famous characters, such as the founder of Praeneste Caeculus, Cacus, a primordial monstrous being that inhabited the site of the Aventine in Rome and Roman king Servius Tullius. In a variant of the story of the birth of Romulus the details are identical even though Vulcan is not explicitly mentioned.[25]

Some scholars think that he might be the unknown god who impregnated goddesses Fortuna Primigenia at Praeneste and Feronia at Anxur. In this case he would be the father of Jupiter.[26] However this view is in conflict with that which links the goddess to Jupiter, as his daughter (puer Jovis) and his mother too, as primigenia, meaning "primordial".

In all of the above-mentioned stories the god's fertilizing power is related to that of the fire of the house hearth.

In the case of Caeculus, his mother was impregnated by a spark that dropped on her womb from the hearth while she was sitting nearby.[27] Servius Tullius's mother Ocresia was impregnated by a male sex organ that miraculously appeared in the ashes of the sacrificial ara, at the order of Tanaquil, Tarquinius Priscus's wife.[28] Pliny the Elder tells the same story, but states that the father was the Lar familiaris.[29] The divinity of the child was recognized when his head was surrounded by flames and he remained unharmed.[30]

Through the comparative analysis of these myths archaeologist Andrea Carandini opines that Cacus and Caca were the sons of Vulcan and of a local divine being or a virgin as in the case of Caeculus. Cacus and Caca would represent the metallurgic and the domestic fire, projections of Vulcan and of Vesta.

These legends date back to the time of preurban Latium. Their meaning is quite clear: at the divine level Vulcan impregnates a virgin goddess and generates Jupiter, the king of gods; at the human level he impregnates a local virgin (perhaps of royal descent) and generates a king[31]

The first mention of a ritual connection between Vulcan and Vesta is the lectisternium of 217 BCE. Other facts hinting to this connection seem to be the relative proximity of the two sanctuaries and Dionysius of Halicarnassus 's testimony that both cults had been introduced to Rome by Titus Tatius to comply with a vow he had made in battle.[32] Varro confirms the fact.[33]

Vulcan is related to two equally ancient female goddesses Stata mater,[34] perhaps the goddess who stops fires and Maia.[35]

Herbert Jennings Rose interprets Maia as a goddess related to growth by connecting her name with IE root *MAG.[36] Macrobius relates Cincius's opinion that Vulcan's female companion is Maia. Cincius justifies his view on the grounds that the Flamen Volcanalis sacrificed to her at the Kalendae of May. In Piso's view the companion of the god is Maiestas.[37]

According to Gellius too Maia was associated to Vulcan and he backs his view by quoting the Roman priests's ritual prayers in use.[38]

However Maiestas and Maia are possibly the same divine person: compare Ovid's explanations of the meaning of the name month May.[39]

The god is the patron of trades related to ovens (cooks, bakers, confectioners) as it is attested in the works of Plautus,[40] Apuleius (the god is the cook at the wedding of Cupid and Psyche)[41] and in Vespa's short poem in the Anthologia Latina about the litigation between a cook and a baker.[42]

Sons of Vulcan

According to Hyginus' Fabulae, sons of Vulcan are Philammon, Cecrops, Erichthonius, Corynetes, Cercyon, Philottus and Spinther[43] aka Hephaestus.


Through his identification with the Hephaestus of Greek mythology, Vulcan came to be considered as the manufacturer of art, arms, iron, jewellery and armor for various gods and heroes, including the thunderbolts of Jupiter. He was the son of Jupiter and Juno, and husband of Maia and Venus. His smithy was believed to be situated underneath Mount Etna in Sicily.

As the son of Jupiter, the king of the gods, and Juno, the queen of the gods, Vulcan should have been quite handsome, but, baby Vulcan was small and ugly with a red, bawling face. Juno was so horrified that she hurled the tiny baby off the top of Mount Olympus.

Vulcan fell down for a day and a night, landing in the sea. Unfortunately, one of his legs broke as he hit the water, and never developed properly. From the surface, Vulcan sunk like a pebble to the cool blue depths where the sea-nymph, Thetis, found him and took him to her underwater grotto, and raised 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 sweated iron, silver or gold. On the third day he beat the cooled metal 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.

Later, 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 as to 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 blacksmith.

Juno was furious and demanded that Vulcan return home, a demand that 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 sprung forth to hold her fast. The more she shrieked and struggled the more firmly the mechanical throne gripped her; the chair was a cleverly designed trap.

For three days Juno sat fuming, still trapped in Vulcan's chair, she could not sleep, she could not stretch, she could not eat. It was Jupiter who finally saved the day, he promised that if Vulcan released Juno he would give him a wife, Venusthe 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, 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.

According to Virgil, Vulcan was the father of Caeculus.[44]

To punish mankind for stealing the secrets of fire, Jupiter ordered the other gods to make a poisoned gift for man. Vulcan's contribution to the beautiful and foolish Pandora was to mould her from clay and to give her form. He also made the thrones for the other gods on Mount Olympus.


Vulcan's main and oldest sanctuary in Rome was the Volcanal, located in the area Volcani, an open-air site at the foot of the Capitolium, at the North West corner of the Roman Forum, where stood an ara dedicated to the god, with a perennial fire.

According to Roman tradititon the sanctuary had been dedicated by Romulus. He had placed on the site a bronze quadriga dedicated to the god, a war pray of the Fidenates. According to Plutarch though the war in question was that against Cameria, that occurred sixteen years after the foundation of Rome.[45] There Romulus would have also dedicated to Vulcan a statue of himself and an inscription in Greek listing his successes. Plutarch states that Romulus was represented crowned by Victory. Moreover, he would have planted a sacred lotus tree[46] in the sanctuary that was still alive at the time of Pliny the Elder and was said to be as old as the city.[47] It has been hypothesized that the sanctuary belonged to the porch when the Forum was still outside of town. The Volcanal is mentioned twice by Livy in connexion to the prodigium of the rains of blood happened in 183 and 181 BCE.[48]

The area Volcani was probably a locus substructus. It was five meters higher than the Comitium[49] and from it the kings and the magistrates of the beginnings of the republic addressed the people before the building of the rostra.[50]

On the Volcanal there was also a statue of Horatius Cocles[51] that had been moved here from the Comitium, locus inferior, after it had been struck by lightning. Aulus Gellius tells that some haruspices were summoned to expiate the prodigium, and they had it moved to a lower site where sunlight never reached out of their hatred for the Romans. The fraud though was uncovered and the haruspices executed. Later it was found that the statue should be placed on a higher site, thence it was placed in the area Volcani.[52]

In 304 BCE a temple to Concordia was built in the area Volcani: it was dedicated by aedilis curulis Cnaeus Flavius.[53]

According to Samuel Ball Platner in the course of time the Volcanal should have been more and more encroached upon by the surrounding buildings until it was totally covered over. Nonetheless the cult was still alive in the first half of the imperial era, as is testified by the finding of a dedica of Augustus's dating to 9 BCE.

At the beginning of 20th century behind the Arch of Septimius Severus were found some ancient tufaceous foundations that probably belonged to the Volcanal and traces of a rocky platform, 3.95 meters long and 2.80 meters wide, that had been covered with concrete and painted in red. Its upper surface is dug by several narrow channels and in front of there are the remains of a draining channel made of tufaceous slabs. The hypothesis was made that this was Vulcan's ara itself. The rock shows signs of damages and repairs. On the surface there are some hollows, either round or square, that bear resemblance to graves and were interpreted as such in the past,[54] particularly by Von Duhn. This scholar after the discovery of cremation tombs in the Forum, maintained that the Volcanal was originally the site were corpses were cremated.[55]

Another temple was erected to he god before 215 BCE in the Campus Martius, near the Circus Flaminius, where games in his honour were held during the festival of the Volcanalia.

Vulcan outside Rome

At Ostia the cult of the god, as well as his sacerdos, was the most important of the town. The sacerdos was named pontifex Vulcani et aedium sacrarum: he had under his jurisdiction all the sacred buildings in town and could give or withhold the authorisation to erect new statues to Eastern divinities. He was chosen for life, perhaps by the council of the decuriones, and his position was the equivalent of the Pontifex Maximus in Rome. It was the highest administrative position in the town of Ostia.

He was selected among people who had already held public offices in Ostia or in the imperial administration. The pontifex was the sole authority who had a number of subordinate official to help discharge his duties, namely three praetores and two or three aediles. These offices were only religious and different from the omonymous civil ones.[56]

On the grounds of a fragmentary inscrption found at Annaba (ancient Hippo Regius) it is considered possible that writer Suetonius had held this office.[57]

From Strabon[58] we know that at Pozzuoli there was an area called in Greek agora' of Hephaistos (Lat. Forum Vulcani). The place is a plain where many solphurous vapour outlets are located (currently Solfatara).

Pliny the Elder records that near Modena fire came out from soil statis Vulcano diebus, on fixed days devoted to Vulcan.[59]


Vulcan is the patron god of the English steel making city of Sheffield. His statue sits on top of Sheffield Town Hall.

A Vulcan statue located in Birmingham, Alabama is the largest cast iron statue in the world.[60]

The word volcano is derived from the name of Vulcano, a volcanic island in the Aeolian Islands of Italy whose name in turn originates from Vulcan.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Georges Dumézil (1996) [1966]. Archaic Roman Religion: Volume One. trans. Philip Krapp. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 320–321. ISBN 0-8018-5482-2 (hbk.); ISBN 0-8018-5480-6 (pbk.). 
  2. Corbishley, Mike "Ancient Rome" Warwick Press 1986 Toronto
  3. Varro ling. Lat. V, X: "...Et arae Sabinum linguam olent, quae Tati regis voto sunt Romae dedicatae: nam, ut annales dicunt, vovit Opi, Florae, Vediovi Saturnoque, Soli, Lunae, Volcano et Summano, itemque Larundae, Termino, Quirino, Vortumno, Laribus, Dianae Lucinaeque..."
  4. Varr. Ling. Lat. V, 10: "Ignis a gnascendo, quod huic nascitur et omne quod nascitur ignis succendit; ideo calet ut qui denascitur cum amittit ac frigescit. Ab ignis iam maiore vi ac violentia Volcanus dictus. Ab eo quod ignis propter splendorem fulget, fulgur et fulmen, et fulguritum quod fulmine ictum."
  5. W. W. Skeat Etymological Dictionary of the English Language New York 1963 (first published 1882) s.v. volcano: "cf. Sanskrit varchar-s: lustre".
  6. A. B. Cook Zeus: a study in Ancient religion 1925 Vol. II, pp. 945 ff.
  7. W. Meid "Etr. Velkhans- Lat. Volcanus" Indogermanische Forschugungen, 66 (1961)
  8. G. Dumezil La religion romaine archaique Paris, 1974, part I, chap.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Samuel Ball Platner; and Thomas Ashby (1929). "Volcanal". A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 583–584.*/Volcanal.html. Retrieved 2007-07-28. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Beard, Mary; John North and Simon Price (1998). Religions of Rome Volume 2: A Sourcebook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. no. 1.7c. ISBN 0-521-45015-2 (hbk.); ISBN 0-521-45646-0 (pbk.). 
  11. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, II.50.3; Varro V.74.
  12. Vitruvius 1.7; see also Plutarch, Roman Questions 47.
  13. Livy, Ab Urbe condita 24.10.9.
  14. 14.0 14.1 W. Warde Fowler (1899). The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co.. pp. 123–124, 209–211. ISBN 0548150222. Retrieved 2007-07-28. 
  15. Sextus Pompeius Festus, On the Meaning of Words, s.v. "piscatorii ludi"; Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language 6.3.
  16. Paulinus of NolaLetters XXXII, 139
  17. G. Dumezil Fetes romaines d'ete' et d'automne Paris 1975; It. transl. p. 70
  18. Pliny the Younger Lett. III, 5
  19. Ovid, Fast] 5.725–726.
  20. Macr. Sat. I,12,18; A. Gell. Noct. Att. XIII, 23, 2
  21. Tacitus, Annals 15.44.1.
  22. Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 4914, translated by Robert K. Sherk (1988). The Roman Empire: Augustus to Hadrian. Translated Documents of Greece and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. no. 99. ISBN 0-521-33887-5. 
  23. Plutarch Questiones Romanae 47; Vitruvius De architectura I,7,1
  24. G. Dumezil La religion romaine archaique Paris, 1974, part 2, chap. 2
  25. Plutarch Rom. 2, 3-6
  26. J. Champeaux Fortuna, I, Fortuna dans la religion romaine archaique Rome, 1982; A. Mastrocinque Romolo. La fondazione di Roma tra storia e leggenda Este, 1993
  27. Verg. Aen. VII, 680
  28. Ovid Fas. VI, 627
  29. Pl.the Elder Nat. Hist. XXXVI, 204
  30. Ovid Fas. VI, 625-636
  31. A. Carandini La nascita di Roma Turin, 1997, p. 52
  32. Dion. Ant. Rom. II, 50, 3
  33. Varr. Ling. Lat. V, 73 see above
  34. CIL VI, 00802, found in Rome
  35. A. Gell. Noct. Att. XII, 23, 2: "Maiam Volcani"
  36. H. J. Rose A dictionary of classical antiquities It. transl., Turin, 1995
  37. Macr. Sat. I, XII, 18
  38. A. Gell. Noct. Att. XIII, 23, 2
  39. Ovid Fas. V, 1-52 Maiestas; 81-106 Maia.
  40. Plaut. Aulularia 359,
  41. Apul. Metamorph. VI, 24, 2
  42. Iudicium coci et pistoris iudice Vulcano.
  43. Hyginus Fabulae 158
  44. Virgil, Aeneid 7.678–681; Servius on Aeneid 7.678.
  45. Plut. Romulus 24
  46. The Italic lotus, diospyrus lotus, melilotus ,Columella De Re Rustica VII 9; Galen.
  47. Pliny the Elder Nat. Hist. XVI, 236.
  48. Livy Ab Urbe Condita XXXIX,46; XL, 19, 2
  49. Dion. of Hal. Antiq. Rom. II, 50, 2
  50. Dion. of Hal. Antiq. Rom. XI, 39, 1
  51. Plutarch Publicola, 16
  52. A. Gell. Noct. Att. IV, 5; Gellius writes that the episode was recorded in the XI book of the Annales Maximi and by Verrius Flaccus Memor. I
  53. Livy Ab Urb. Cond. IX, 46
  54. Richter BRT iv 15-16
  55. Von Duhn Italische Graeberkunde i. 413 sqq.
  56. C. Pavolini La vita quotidiana a Ostia Roma-Bari ,1986
  57. AE 1953, 00073; G. Gaggero Introduction to Suetonius's Life of the twelf Caesars Milan 1994
  58. Strabone Geografia. L'Italia V,4,6, Milan 1988
  59. Pliny the Elder Nat. Hist. II, 240
  60. "History of Vulcan Park". Vulcan Park. Archived from the original on 2008-02-15. Retrieved 2008-02-24. 

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This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Vulcan (mythology). The list of authors can be seen in the page history.