What Was the Vulcanalia?

Vulcan was the god of the forge, honored during the Vulcanalia festival. Image by DC Productions/Photodisc/Getty Images

In ancient Rome, Vulcan (or Volcanus) was well known as the god of fire and volcanoes. Similar to the Greek Hephaestus, Vulcan was a god of the forge, and renowned for his metalworking skills. He was also somewhat deformed and is portrayed as being lame.

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 (who 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.

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 – this gave Roman citizens some degree of control over the powers of fire. Sacrifices of small animals and fish were devoured by the flames, 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 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. 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, the wrath of Vulcan. 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. Nero, in turn, blamed the local Christians.

Following the Great Fire of Rome, the next emperor, Domitian, decided to build an even bigger and better shrine to Vulcan on the Quirinal Hill. In addition, the annual sacrifices were expanded to include red bulls as offerings to Vulcan’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 Vulcanalia. Pliny was in the nearby town of Misenum, and witnessed the events first hand. He said, "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. If you decide to hold a Vulcanalia bonfire of your own, you can make sacrifices of grains, such as wheat and corn, since the early Roman celebration originated, in part, to protect the city’s granaries.