Worshiping the Gun: The Evolution of Vulcan from Roman Mythology to ‘American Gods’

The essential conflict of STARZ’s American Gods is between the Old Gods, who are being weakened as fewer people worship them, and the New Gods of modernity and technology who are rising to dominance. To retain relevance and a source of worship in this rapidly-changing world, Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalworking, adapts himself to American culture by “franchising” his faith and transforming from the god of fire into the god of firearms.

The following post contains potential spoilers for “A Murder of Gods” (season 1, episode 6 of American Gods).

In the episode “A Murder of Gods,” Vulcan manifests as the owner of Vulcan Munitions, an industrial factory specializing in the manufacture of guns. His worship is powered by human sacrifice: not only the deaths of workers at the factory (settlements are cheaper than closing down to replace faulty railings), but also the blood spilled every time someone is gunned down.

The episode uses the concept of human sacrifice to critique two interconnected American ideologies: first, the capitalist pursuit of productivity and profit in America, which, sadly, often occurs at the cost of human lives; and second, the ideology of gun culture, fueled by a desire to defend American ideals of liberty as well as the mass shootings–what Vulcan calls “prayers in my name”–that will cause people to “pray” even more, as they turn in fear to the security and comfort of their guns to protect themselves. If the point of the episode is to critique these aspects of American society and the deaths required to sustain them, then human sacrifice is certainly an intriguing parallel.

For the most part, however, the Romans did not perform human sacrifice (Kyle 36-7Schultz 534-6) and looked down on cultures that did so, like the Celts or Carthaginians, as barbaric and uncivilized (Schultz 520-2). To discredit Christians, Roman pagans falsely accused them of human sacrifice (Kyle 37, 40; Schultz 522-3). Using the concept of human sacrifice makes sense for the episode’s themes, but a Roman god seems to be the wrong choice to associate with such a ritual.

There are some caveats. For one, the Romans did perform a specific type of human sacrifice, but only three times ever in their history: in 228 BC, 216 BC, and 113 BC, two Greeks and two Gauls were buried alive in the Forum Boarium. This, though, was considered an unusual ritual prescribed by the Sibylline Books in response to specific omens (Kyle 37-8Schultz 531-3)

Secondly, many Roman authors write that the Romans performed human sacrifices long ago, but that this practice was abandoned as human victims were replaced with other types of sacrifices. Vulcan is said to have received human victims at some point in the distant past (it is unclear if this is true), but these were later replaced with live fishes tossed into a flame instead (Schultz 525-6).

Finally, they may not have considered it human sacrifice, but the Romans placed a ritualized institution of violence and death at the center of their society: the gladiatorial games, a form of entertainment that endorsed martial valor and an imperial, militaristic ideology (Kyle 43-9), similar to today’s sports competitions.

File:Jean-Leon Gerome Pollice Verso.jpg
Famous painting by Jean-Leon Gerome from 1872 depicting gladiatorial combat. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean-Leon_Gerome_Pollice_Verso.jpg

In American Gods, belief alters reality, the roles of gods can change, and ideas of what constitutes worship are malleable. Therefore, if it is believed that Vulcan once accepted human victims, then that idea becomes true, according to the logic of the series. If gods can change, as Vulcan himself did when he began receiving fish sacrifices, why shouldn’t he be able to return to human sacrifice in order to adapt to a new source of worship?

Besides, if this portrayal was meant to critique ritualized American ideologies that revolve around the loss of life, then a Roman deity may not be such a bad choice: rituals of violence and death in support of a larger ideology were a central part of Roman culture in the form of the gladiatorial games. It’s interesting that as a form of popular entertainment, like TV and the Internet are today, gladiatorial combat would, in the logic of American Gods, take on the “religious” connotations of modern deities like Media and Technical Boy.

Turning away from the human sacrifice angle, let us now examine whether being the American god of guns aligns with mythological depictions of Vulcan and his role in Roman religion.

Statuette Vulcanus MBA Lyon A1981.jpg
Roman statue of Vulcan. Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2008-12-26, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5628268

By the sixth century B.C., the Romans identified Vulcan as their version of Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and the forge. As a result, Vulcan was linked to concepts of industry that were associated with Hephaestus, and their mythological backgrounds became essentially the same. So his manufacturing connection in American Gods is fitting.

Originally, however, he was a god of destructive fire. To keep him at arms’ length, his shrines were placed outside the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city of Rome. During the Volcanalia festival in August–the middle of the dry season–the Romans attempted to ward off Vulcan’s destructive fires by sacrificing to him; specifically, they tossed the live fish I mentioned earlier into a fire (perhaps considered a “special” gift because fish are normally safe from fire, but the exact reason is unclear.)

Vulcan’s workshop was located beneath a number of different volcanoes, such as Mt. Aetna in Sicily, and it was believed that the fires of his forge were responsible for eruptions and other volcanic activity. Famously, in Iliad book 21, Hephaestus fights the river god Skamander with blasts of fire (330-82).

Vulcan/Hephaestus represents fire as a violent, destructive force, and so, it makes sense for him to continue being a god of fire and volcanoes in the modern age, except now fire becomes “firepower” and the volcano transforms into a device you can hold in the palm of your hand–definitely a clever metaphor that accurately recalls Vulcan’s original role in Roman religion.

Another aspect of Vulcan more directly links him to guns: he is a god of weaponry. Two of the most well-known mythological episodes involving Vulcan or Hephaestus have to do with the forging of weapons.

In the Iliad (18.368-616), the sea goddess Thetis asks Hephaestus to forge for her son Achilles a new set of armor and weapons, so that he may re-join the fight and avenge his friend Patroclus. Hephaestus creates a glorious set of arms for Achilles, the centerpiece of which is a wondrous shield displaying the beautiful details of life and human society that Achilles will miss out on, because in returning to battle he has chosen a path that will lead to his glorious death at a young age. Achilles, with this set of arms, brings terrible destruction against the Trojans and brutally slays the hero Hector.

File:Hephaistos Presents Achilles Armor to Thetis.png
Hephaestus presents Achilles’ arms to Thetis. Image from an ancient Greek drinking cup. 490-480 BC.

In the Aeneid (8.370-4548.608-731), Venus, the mother of the hero Aeneas, asks her husband Vulcan to forge a set of arms for her son (side note: it would have been quite interesting to see Vulcan’s wife in this episode). Like for Achilles, he creates a beautiful set of armor and weapons, and the shield again receives the most attention. It portrays the destiny of Rome, which is to bring peace and order as it spreads its empire across the known world, and the ascent of emperor Augustus as he defeats his enemies Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Aeneas brings this shield with him as he devastates the Italian armies and violently slays his rival, Turnus.

Vulcan/Hephaestus is also known for forging Jupiter/Zeus’s thunderbolts that allow the father of the gods to control the universe. As a forger of devastating weapons and a master of fire, surely Vulcan in his American incarnation would lay claim to firearms and the destruction they can cause.

In these examples, Vulcan is not closely associated with the death and destruction caused by weapons. Instead, his domain is the craftsmanship involved in forging them. He is an artist, creating these incredible shields that each tell their own story: in the Iliad, the universality of human experience, causing us to ponder the value of life in the face of death (be sure to visit this excellent site that goes into all the details behind Achilles’ shield and includes a beautiful artistic rendering of it), and in the Aeneid, the narrative of Rome’s imperial order–a hopeful image for the Romans, after decades of civil war.

John Flaxman’s 1821 interpretation of Achilles’ shield, on view in the Huntington Library. Image by Thad Zajdowicz: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thadz/31680177383

Vulcan is a god of skilled artistry, craftsmanship, and beauty, but the ominous, violent deity portrayed in American Gods conveys none of that. Due to its role in causing death, suffering, and destruction in today’s world, it is incredibly difficult to think of the modern firearm as an object of beauty. Add to that Vulcan’s comments regarding movie theater shootings, his veiled threats of racial violence (he taunts Shadow about the “hanging tree”), and the insular fear and suspicion of the gun-toting citizens, and we end up with an ugly symbol and sinister American obsession far removed from any idea of beauty or craftsmanship.

I could continue to be critical of this “inaccurate portrayal,” except that the episode itself makes that criticism of Vulcan, with Mr. Wednesday suggesting that in switching to mass manufacture of guns, Vulcan has stepped away from his origin as god of craftsmanship. In the end, true to his mythological background, Vulcan forges a magnificent sword for Wednesday as he prepares to fight against the new gods.

Close-up of the blade Vulcan forges for Wednesday.

Why is it, though, that the modern gun seems to produce such uncomfortable associations, yet it is possible to look at all kinds of weapons from throughout history and admire their beauty? Think of the Japanese katana wielded by samurai, the well-crafted blades of the Bronze Age, or the swords of the Viking Age: great skill and artistry were required to create these weapons.

Katana Masamune.jpg
Japanese katana created by renowned swordsmith Masamune in the 14th century. Image by CT Snow from Hsinchu, Taiwan – Tokyo National Museum at UenoUploaded by bamse, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8755516
Reconstructions of Mycenean Greek swords from the Late Bronze Age (1600–1100 BC). Image by Janmad – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5049628
Viking swords closeup.jpg
Hilts of the Viking-style swords from the 10th century AD. Image by viciarg ᚨ (photograph) – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=788617

In a similar sense, advanced firearms like sniper rifles do have a sort of “beauty,” at least in terms of the technical skill of the gun’s designer in creating such a complex piece of machinery. And it is true that there is a push in modern manufacturing to produce sleek, well-designed items of all kinds, from phones to cars to coffee machines, and yes, even guns and other weapons.

By Sonaz – „own work“, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1319128

The drive for excellent, technical craftsmanship would be a great fit for a modern Vulcan, but beyond that, there seems to an unhealthy obsession in America with weaponry and firepower, especially in media and entertainment. Action movies are filled with exciting shoot-outs and chase scenes involving explosions and bullets, and we are impressed when a character pulls out a large weapon to fight his enemies. The media, meanwhile, seemed a bit overexcited by the US military’s recent use of a massive bomb, nicknamed the “MOAB” or “Mother of All Bombs,” against terrorists in Afghanistan.

Perhaps, then, this is the modern concept of “beauty” Vulcan has laid claim to in American culture: the drive for technological development on one hand, and, on the other, the fetishization of big guns and firepower, which is actually not so far removed from Vulcan’s mythological background, because the American usage of superior weaponry to (attempt to) project order and authority around the world is not so different from Jupiter’s use of thunderbolts, forged by Vulcan, to control the universe. Similarly, Aeneas’ shield, created by Vulcan, looks to Roman military might as a vehicle for bringing peace to the empire.

All this brings us back to Vulcan’s origin as god of fire. The flame is a symbol of light and knowledge, of humanity’s mastery over nature, and of civilization and technology, but it also signifies the potential for great destruction, especially if it slips beyond our control or is misused. American Gods, in linking Vulcan to the modern firearm, conveys the same tension inherent in the original Roman deity between fire as a force of destruction and fire as a tool of creation. Ultimately, the use of Vulcan is an excellent choice by the creators of American Gods to explore the complex issues of violence and death, of manufacturing and profit, and of security and liberty that lie behind American gun culture.


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