Vulcan originally was an Italian fire-god, particularly associated with destructive fire. He was worshipped primarily to obtain his protection in averting fires, so there were numerous shrines dedicated to him where fires were most feared, such as areas near volcanoes and where grain was stored, especially at the port of Ostia. An interesting note is that his shrines stood outside of the walls of cities.
In the Roman pantheon Vulcan was the son of Jupiter and Juno; in this role he was the counterpart of the Greek god Hephaestus, and later assumed many of the latter’s characteristics. He normally was depicted as a grotesque figure with one leg shorter than the other, a deformity that resulted from being thrown from heaven by Jupiter while attempting to protect his mother from the god’s wrath. Afterwards, being determined to shun the company of the other gods Vulcan established his home in the heart of Mount Edna, where he fashioned a giant forge. His workers were the one-eyed Cyclopes. He created a golden throne for Juno, and fashioned Jupiter’s magical thunderbolts and Cupid’s arrows.
He was links with several primary goddesses including Maia (the Earth Mother), and Vesta, in her role as earth goddess. Also, he had short-termed relationships with Venus and Minerva, and with one of the Graces. His offspring seemed generally to have been monstrous. He is said to have fathered Servius Tullius, one of the kings of Rome, who proved his parentage by the useful talent of being able to cause fire to descend on his enemies.
Perhaps the most curious custom of Vulcan was the sacrifice of live fish, which were thrown onto fires lit on the banks of the Tiber in order to persuade the god to spear more vulnerable objects.
It was only in the classical period that Vulcan was truly associated with Hephaestus. He became the patron of artisans and blacksmiths. In these late times he was depicted as a smith in a tunic that freed his right arm and shoulder, and with an anvil, tongs and hammer.
His festival was the Vulcanalia, falling on August 23, the period of greatest drought and highest fire risk in Italy. A.G.H.
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, p. 179-180
Jordan, Michael, Encyclopedia of Gods, New York, Facts On File, Inc. 1993, p. 285