August 23: Festival of the Vulcanalia
Here in Napoli there are plenty of opportunities to celebrate the Vulcanalia on August 23.
The Vulcanalia was the annual festival held in the Roman religion to honor Vulcan (Latin: Vulcanus), the god of both beneficial and hindering fire, particularly in its destructive aspects as volcanoes or conflagrations.
Vulcan’s oldest shrine in Rome, the Vulcanal was located at the foot of the Capitoline in the Roman Forum. There was also a temple to Vulcan on the Campus Marius. The early Etruscan priests (haruspices) advised the Romans that the shrine to Vulcan should always be located outside the city limits.
Vulcan was similar to gods found in other religions. His Greek counterpart was Hephaestus, the god of fire and blacksmiths. In the Etruscan religion he is identified with Sethlans.
The Roman concept of the god seems to be connected both to the destructive and fertilizing powers of fire. Since the holiday occurred during the harvest season, the temples and celebrations were held outside the city limits not only to avoid fires in the city itself, but also to pray that the grain and other stored foodstuffs would not be destroyed by fire and the fields not harmed. Conversely, Vulcan was also invoked because of his powers to make the fields productive, by being a powerful masculine fertility symbol. During the Vulcanalia festival, games were held and bonfires were created in his honor into which live fish or small animals were thrown as sacrificial offerings.
The Romans associated this time of year with earthly phenomena for which they had no scientific explanation: earthquakes, fires, and volcanic eruptions. Vulcan had to be placated after the Great Fire in Rome in 64 A.D. In response to that fire and the eruption of Vesuvius, the Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.) established a new altar to Vulcan on the Quirinal Hill. He also added a red bull-calf and red boar to the sacrifices made on the Vulcanalia.
And indeed populace had reason to believe in the power of Vulcan, as the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum occurred just one day after the August 23, 79 A.D. Vulcanalia. Perhaps the offerings made were not pleasing to him?
His help with the constructive use of fire in the blacksmith trade was also sought. Vulcan was their god of fire and metal working, idealized in his sky-bound forge where the stroke of his massive hammer caused lightning’s terrifying bolts.
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. After he married Venus, he constructed his smithy beneath Mount Etna in Sicily. It was said that whenever Venus was unfaithful, Vulcan grew angry and beat the red-hot metal with such a force that sparks and smoke rose up from the top of the mountain, to create a volcanic eruption. (Mount Etna has been in continuous eruption for 3,500 years! Poor Vulcan.)
Vulcan kept pretty busy as he was also patron of those occupations having to do with ovens: cooks, bakers, pastry makers, pizza makers…yum,yum!
Vulcan is patron of the ovens that produce all these goodies.
Other rites and associations with Vulcan and the Vulcanalia are:
Ceremonies for the purification of trumpets which were sacred to Vulcan were held. These ceremonies were called Tubilustria.
Vulcan is also patron of the fire of the house hearth, bringing warmth, protection and sustenance to the household. As for Vulcan’s male fertility reputation, it is said that Vulcan’s son Caeculus was conceived when his mother was impregnated by a spark that dropped on her womb from the hearth while she was sitting nearby. And Servius Tullius’s (legendary sixth king of Rome) mother was impregnated by a male sex organ that miraculously appeared in the ashes of the sacrificial altar.
Another custom observed on this day required that one should start working by the light of a candle, probably to propitiate a beneficial use of fire by the god.
Now here is a good tradition that exists in Napoli today. During the Vulcanalia people used to hang their cloths and fabrics under the sun. Tell that to all your visiting friends who ask you about the wash hanging everywhere.
Places to go, things to do to celebrate the Vulcanalia.
*Take a hike to the top of Mount Vesuvius
*Visit the Virtual Museum at Herculaneum which lets you experience the earthquake virtually. Awesome!
*Take a hike in the Astroni Volcano Nature Reserve
*Dine in a volcanic crater!!
*Eat and drink the wines of the Campi Flegrei in the volcanic crater Lake Averno.
*Climb a rock wall, go rappelling, swing from the trees in a volcanic crater on Ischia.
*Go on a boat trip from Ischia to see whales and dolphins
The submarine Canyon of Cuma between the Island of Ischia and Ventotene is the home to 7 types of whales and dolphins (cetaceans), the Stenella coeruleoalba, Tursiops turncatus, Gampus griseus, Balaenoptera physatus, Plyseter macrocephalus, Globicephala melas and Delphinus delphis, who live just in Ischia and near the Greek Island of Kalamos. The reason why so many cetaceans live around Ischia is because the submarine Canyon of Cuma that starts near Lacco Ameno and finishes near the Island of Ventotene is formed like a tunnel. A large amount of plankton accumulates in this area, which is the favorite food of all the cetaceans who reproduce and live here all year long.
* Visit a fabbro (blacksmith) for some ferro battuto (wrought iron). There are still plenty of them in Napoli.
Please make sure your offerings and ceremonies are pleasing to Vulcan.
Ann Pizzorusso is a geologist and Italian Renaissance scholar. After many years of doing virtually everything in the world of geology (drilling for oil, hunting for gems, cleaning up pollution in soil and groundwater) she turned her geologic skills toward Leonardo da Vinci. See her work on Leonardo’s Geology. You can find Ann on Facebook at Leonardo da Vinci Virgin of the Rocks and on Twitter @VirginoftheRock.