The Old Gods in American Gods have roots in the past and in mythology. While we might know the ins and outs of the New Gods, like Media and Technical Boy, there’s probably a lot we can still learn about their predecessors. For those of you hoping to get a better understanding of these characters before you continue on with American Gods, we have you covered. Get to know the history that inspires the characters in our American Gods History Primer series.
Vulcan, a.k.a. Hephaestus in Greek mythology
In the Series
Vulcan is the first god we’ve encountered in American Gods specifically created for the television series. He’s unique in how he’s found a way to adapt his needs and what he stands for to modern sensibilities. He has a comfortable life and is surrounded by a small town that works for and adores him–or at least what he’s about, which is guns.
Maybe it’s because he’s made an easier and fulfilled life for himself, but Vulcan is one of the most charming and happy Old Gods we’ve met. He doesn’t seem to carry the same bitter taste in his mouth as the others. He’s climbed to where is because he’s essentially franchised himself; what the New Gods tried to talk Mr. Wednesday into doing in the last episode. We saw Vulcan-brand bullets being used in the opening of the episode, and as Mr. Wednesday meets with who he believes to be one of his allies, you can see the extent of Vulcan’s empire. Any violence committed with bullets stamped with Vulcan mean he’s receiving belief and worship.
Put simply, Vulcan is the Roman god of fire. That applies to the obvious kind of fire–flames, burning, the whole shebang–but also volcanoes (the name volcano is derived from Vulcano, which is derived from Vulcan) and the forge. As such, Vulcan is connected with metalworking. When he’s part of art, the god is usually depicted holding a blacksmith’s hammer. Given that background, it’s easy to move Vulcan into a contemporary setting and associate him with the manufacturing of bullets.
When you have a Roman god, you usually have an equivalent Greek god. Vulcan was known as Hephaestus in the latter mythology. Hephaestus shared some of the same areas as Vulcan, but the god was more well known for his blacksmithing skills and the crafting of art such as jewelry and thrones for gods on Mount Olympus. But he only did this after returning from being outcast. Vulcan/Hephaestus was thrown into the sea from the heights of Mount Olympus after birth because his mother Juno regarded him as hideous. Yeah.
At least he went on to marry Venus?
Vulcan statue in Birmingham, Alabama; photo by Dystopos
Vulcan’s connection to fire meant he was worshipped for reasons of gratitude and fear. People thanked him for the power of fire and its role in crafting items that helped them work more efficiently. Since fire is dangerous, they worshipped him in order to keep spreading flames from wrecking their villages and crops. They went all out on Vulcanalia, the festival of Vulcan. It happened annually on August 23, a time of year when the lack of rain and blazing summer sun put crops at a higher risk of burning. To pay respects to Vulcan on his festival day, humans created large bonfires and sacrificed live fish to the flames.
As I mentioned earlier, art featuring Vulcan usually has the god pose with a blacksmith’s hammer. That’s the case in an iron statue of Vulcan in Birmingham, Alabama (pictured above). The city grew as industrial locale because of the iron and steel industry, and they decided to embody the city’s growth by calling it out with a 50 ton statue of Vulcan, erected in 1904. Neil Gaiman mentioned passing a small town in Alabama and seeing a statue of Vulcan, so though Birmingham isn’t a small town, this could be the statue that helped inspire the creation of the character.