Like most Greek gods, Hephaestus was adopted into the Roman pantheon under a new name.
While some of the Roman gods were almost completely identical to their Greek fore-bearers, others seem to have retained many more pre-Roman features. Their myths were taken from the Greek tradition, but the ways in which they were worshipped showed different functions.
This was the case with the Roman equivalent of Hephaestus. Vulcan was given the mythology of the smith god, but his festivals and the stories unique to Rome show that he did not originate as a smith god of the same type.
Hephaestus was the Greek smith god. In Rome he was known as Vulcan.
Vulcan carried on the role of Hephaestus in mythology, including his physical characteristics. Unlike the other classically attractive gods and goddesses, Hephaestus and Vulcan were noted to be unattractive and in some way disabled.
Like most Roman gods, Vulcan took on the mythology of his Greek counterpart. He married Venus, the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite, helped to make Pandora, and forged the weapons and armor of the other gods.
Vulcan, however, had some attributes that were unique from the Greek sources.
While both gods were associated with fire because of their role working in a forge, Vulcan’s connection to the element was much more clear. He was the god of both fire’s destruction and its benefits.
In Greek mythology, volcanic eruptions were often attributed to giants who were imprisoned under the earth. The Romans, however, saw Vulcan as the god of volcanoes.
While the Greeks placed the earthly home of Hephaestus on the island of Lemnos, the Romans said that he built his forge beneath Mount Etna. The Sicilian peak is the tallest volcano in Europe.
Like many cultures, the Romans created their own folklore to explain the smoke and magma that came from Mount Etna. According to a popular story, whenever Venus was unfaithful Vulcan grew so angry in his forge that the sparks and smoke from his forge billowed out of the mountain.
In addition to volcanoes, the Romans also associated Vulcan with fire in general. In this, he could take on a benevolent role.
The Romans believed that Vulcan could protect them from fire and control its spread. The Vulcanalia, his chief festival, revolved around the power over flames.
His festival was held in mid-August, the time of year when Italy was hottest and driest. This made fields, homes, and grain stores most susceptible to fire.
The Romans prayed to Vulcan to protect them and their land from destructive fire. During the Vulcanalia, fish and small animals were thrown on bonfires to appease the hot-tempered smith god.
Fire was not only a destructive force, however. It could also be used for defense and even to fertilize the earth.
Volcanic soil is exceptionally rich in nutrients, and the people of the ancient world recognized that food crops grew well in volcanic regions. Wine grapes in particular thrived near Mount Etna and other European volcanoes.
Vulcan thus took on aspects of a fertility god because people saw that ash and volcanic soil were both beneficial to crops. While fire could destroy food stores, it could also improve their production when the god was pleased.
In Roman myths, Vulcan even used his fire in human fertility. In stories of his children, he often impregnated his lovers as a spark that flew toward them from their household hearth.
While the Greek Hephaestus was much more narrowly defined in his role, Vulcan’s role expanded in Rome. The smith god of Rome was one of fire, protection, defense, and fertility.
For many Roman gods, the source of their name and function is fairly obvious. While they adopted the specifics of Greek mythology, the gods were often derived from earlier Italian cultures.
It is less clear, however, exactly how Vulcan originated. One of the more prominent theories holds that the inspiration for Vulcan was not originally that of the familiar smith archetype.
The ancient people of Crete worshipped a god they called Velchanis. He was one of their chief deities and was the consort of their mother goddess.
Velchanis and the goddess made their home under Mount Ida on Crete. In later Greek culture, this would come to be known as the birthplace of Zeus.
In most aspects, Velchanis seems to have influenced the development of the king of the gods in Greek mythology. His symbolism, including bulls and eagles, were attributed to Zeus when the culture of Crete influenced that of the early Greeks.
In Italy, however, it seems as though the figure of Velchanis was interpreted differently.
The Cretan Velchanis was likely associated with the element of fire rather than with air or thunder. While the Greeks held the sky god as their chief deity, the god of fire had that position among the Minoans.
There is no definitive link between Velchanis and the god of the early Italians, but the linguistic similarity between their names makes it seem highly likely that the Latins were influenced by the Minoan god.
Vulcan, too, made his home beneath a prominent mountain. On Sicily this was Etna, which would have furthered the link between the Cretan god and the element of fire.
The extent to which the pre-Roman Italians were influenced by the religion of Crete is debatable, but the characterization of Vulcan makes it clear that his source was not of the same type as that of Hephaestus.
The worship of Vulcan in Rome centers far more around elements of protection, fertility, and the land than Hephaestus did in Greece. These aspects of his cult likely stem from an earlier Italian fire god who, when Roman religion became Hellenized, was conflated with the only loosely-related Hephaestus.
There is no evidence that the pre-Hellenized Vulcan had the typical attributes of a smith god. He had no limp or other deformity and was not depicted in the same negative way that Hephaestus often was.
These elements of Vulcan’s mythology are taken from the Greek stories of Hephaestus. It seems likely that the earlier version of Vulcan was a god of fire and was connected to the Greek smith only because of the fires of the forge that Hephaestus oversaw.
In Rome, the god Vulcan was identified with the Greek Hephaestus. When the religion was Hellenized, he was given the features and myths of the Greek smith god.
Outside of those myths, however, Vulcan clearly did not share the same function as Hephaestus had.
His worship was focused on fire rather than just his craft. Hephaestus had been connected to fire because of the forge in which he worked, but Vulcan was seen more as a master of the element in all its forms.
Vulcan was the god of volcanoes. He was worshipped as an entity that could protect against fire and use it to promote fertility.
It is unclear whether or not Vulcan was directly influenced by the similarly-named Velchanis, the pre-Greek chief of the Minoan gods, and if so to what extent.
It can be seen, however, that in his origins Vulcan was not the lame smith god of Greece. He was a fire god who could both create and destroy, connected to Hephaestus by the element of fire rather than exact function.