This article is made with very few pretenses. I’m just reporting a quote from Paracelsus and some commentaries on this, that explain his conception of Vulcan.
Readers of my blog knows that the Smith God is a central figure to this project. In the renaissance, due to the interests in classical mythology and alchemy, there is some renewal of interest about this god. The reason is that alchemists found parallels between their art and that of Vulcan, making it a symbol of their work.
Yet, being Vulcan a bit far from the theurgical, upper-class, high-magical tendencies that take firm root in the “occult arts” of that time, granted him a marginal position.
His links to the common people, to crafts such as bakery, cooking, pottery, brick-making, to elements such as soot, limping, ugliness, couldn’t be polished enough to make him a God of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy.
As a final note, let me remark that I’m both glad and sad about this. Sad because even in antiquity the sources about this god aren’t so numerous, compared to other divinities. Glad because he’s an outsider, without doubts. He’s outside the logic of war and conquest, of rule and hedonism, of terrible killings and mystical rhetoric. He can teach, among other lessons, that behind every enterprise, there’s hidden and yet essential labor, often exploited by those who shine in the spotlight.
From Paracelsus’ Labyrinthus Medicorum Errantium:
“Now alchemy is an art which is necessary and must exist. Because it represents the art of Vulcan, it is important to know what Vulcan can Do.
Alchemy is an art, Vulcan is its artist…
Now God created all things; He created something out of nothing. That something is a seed, which contains within itself its appointed end, its determination, its office, its task. Just as all things have been created from nothing, there is yet nothing which is completely perfect; that is to say, it has not been finished, but Vulcan must complete it.
All things are created as far as we know them, but not as far as they should be. Wood grows, but not into coals or logs; clay grows, but not into earthen pots. Thus it is with all growth, and one should understand the significance of Vulcan.
Take an example: God has created iron. but not what can be made from it, namely horseshoes, rods, sickles; he simply gives us iron ore. He then tells the fire and Vulcan what to do: the iron must be separated from the dross and then whatever is to be made should be forged. That is alchemy and the foundryman is called Vulcan; whatever the fire does is alchemy – likewise in the kitchen and in the oven.
Thus it is also with medicine: it is created by God but incomplete and buried in the dross… the dross must be removed and then the medicine is available. That is alchemy and the office of Vulcan.
Nothing is created as ultimate matter. But all things are created as prime matter and Vulcan converts them through the art of alchemy into ultimate matter. The Archeus, the inner Vulcan, follows suit; it knows how to distinguish parts and to circulate and distribute them according to the arts of sublimation, distillation, and reverberation. These arts are also within man just as they are present in external alchemy, which is its model.
Thus are Vulcan and the Archeus to be distinguished from each other.
God ordained it so. A physician must consider — as God has created nothing in its final form, but simply ordered Vulcan to do his part — how to bring these things to their [appointed] end and not to mix up the dross and the iron. For instance, bread is created and given to us by God, but not as it comes from the baker, but through the three Vulcans, the peasant, the miller, and the baker; they make bread out of it.
Thus must medicine operate with the inner Vulcan. Therefore no physician should be ashamed of alchemy. For what I have described can only be achieved by alchemy. Wherever this does not occur, no physician can be present.”
Commentary from Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke Paracelsus Essential Readings
Paracelsus generally “spiritualized” matter, in claiming that such spiritual forces are the true elements and principles, while the Elements and chemical substances are only the crystallized deposits of such forces. Taking the notion of Prime Matter (Arche or Ousia) from ancient Stoicism, Paracelsus regarded the visible Elements as the results of an interaction between the qualities of heat, cold, moisture, and dryness and this Prime Matter, a kind of vital matter-spirit.
According to Paracelsus, God created things in their “prime”, but not in their ‘ ultimate ’ matter. Paracelsus viewed all Nature as in process of transformation, whereby all objects are being perfected. He personalized the principle responsible for this process as Vulcan, an immanent virtue or power which works in the matrices (the traditional Elements) of Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. In this task Vulcan is assisted by two further powers or principles.
Firstly, it needs to draw upon a reservoir of energy, which is necessary for the nourishment, growth, and preservation of all natural things. Paracelsus called this general reservoir the Iliaster, a type of primordial matter-energy which essentially is and expresses the entire potential of all nature. Secondly, since Vulcan draws upon a general resource, it requires a specific agent to impress the specific and individual attributes upon the elemental material world.
This agent was known as the Archeus. Paracelsus described both Vulcan and the Archeus metaphorically as workmen, craftsmen, and alchemists perfecting prime matter into ultimate matter, whether in Nature at large or in the human body. These concepts show again how Paracelsus was not interested in identifying units of matter, but was searching for the “intelligences” or semina (seeds) in matter, which as archei are responsible for all specificity in Nature.
Paracelsus accorded a central importance to Sulfur, Salt, and Mercury as the Three Principles of which all bodies consist. One would be mistaken if one thought that Paracelsus was referring here to the chemical substances known as sulfur, salt, and mercury. He used these terms to denote principles of constitution, representing organization (Sulfur), mass (Salt), and activity (Mercury), all varieties of the specific forms achieved by the immanent intelligences and semina of matter.
But Paracelsus also used the terms in a chemical context: Sulfur represents the combustible. Mercury the smoky or volatile, and Salt the unchangeable component in any natural object. These principles are disclosed when the elemental cover is removed.
For instance, when a piece of wood is burned one sees flame (Sulfur) and smoke (Mercury), while only ash (Salt) remains. These principles of constitution, together with the complex scheme of intelligences and semina, the Vulcan, the Iliaster, and the Archeus, are the dominant concepts in Paracelsus’ theory of matter-energy and the process of life, while the ancient Elements are relegated to a secondary function as matrices, vehicles, or even mere covers for the active spiritual forces.”
Commentary from the Treasures of Treasure, an italian collection of Paracelsus hermetical and magical writings.
[Disclaimer: Couldn’t find much on the origin and compiler of this collection. It seems to have been circulating from a long time in Italy, and no indication on who wrote the long introduction, so if you readers will find some mistakes in it, or can find the source, feel free to get in touch with me.]
An artificer is hidden in nature, symbolic expression of the virtues and natural forces, and roughly corresponding to the modern concept of a vital spirit. There is no one who does not see the kinship with Aristotelian entelechy on the one hand and with the Bergsonian concept of “évolution créatrice” and “élan vital” on the other. The Archeus is endowed with magnetism and attracts magnetic forces. The weaker a man is, the more he will be exposed to magnetic, cosmic and magical influences.
The archeus resides mainly in the stomach, as the abode of the vital principle; dominates the processes of assimilation (digestio Archei); he presides over the physical transformations, as alchemist of the body. It is conceived as a kind of demon, also called architect spirit by the followers of Paracelsus and corresponds to the vital spirit of the vitalists. Current physiology has a not very different conception in the hypothesis of the protective forces of the organism, opposing the deleterious external influences (antitoxins, etc.).
The Archeus is not limited to the body, but can radiate from a distance; it harmonizes the various factors of the organism, working through the Vulcans. Every digestion is due to Vulcan. Digestion is natural transformation, Vulcan is the trasformative will, both natural and spiritual. When the digestion is addressed by man to a specific, artificial purpose, it is alchemy (modus praeparandi rerum medicinalium).
Alchemy is an art, the Vulcan the artist in it.
The alchemist begins where nature ends. In its specific and traditional meaning, alchemy, preparation of gold, constituted for Paracelsus one of the most important problems, since he conceived it as a symbol of the trasformative process of nature and as a means to penetrate the secret correlation between life and the forces hidden in matter.
As we said in the introduction to the Labyrinthus medicorum errantium, “every agent who transforms one thing into another is an alchemical artificer, a Vulcan”, that is, a transforming energy; it takes the work of the Vulcan to make everything capable of satisfying our needs.
Alchemy will have to find and prepare the medicine to be administered to the patient by means of the Archeus (vital principle), proceeding through a profound examination of the mysterious life of natural processes; the medic will reach this examination through the development of his own faculties, since “all the arts are found in man, even that of external alchemy that prefigures them”; “Alchemy removes what is useless and brings the useful to its ultimate matter and essence”.
The Vulcan is therefore the non-spiritual being that lives in fire. This hypothesis is broadened in the sense of conceiving the Vulcan as the fabricator inherent in all the elements and transforming the original chaos. We note that Paracelsus uses the term chaos in a sense almost corresponding to gas, but with a broader meaning than that of a state of aggregation of matter. Chaos can be understood as the essence of the prima materia and it is frequently equivalent, in the obscure Paracelsian terminology, to Limbus Maior and Mysterium Magnum.
Moreover, every student of the history of chemistry knows that von Helmont, himself pervaded by a mystical spirit, coined the word gas and made it derive from chaos and designated with it a specific will.
The Paracelsian concept of chaos also recalls the state of the cosmic nebula in the Kant-Laplacian conception of the formation of solar systems.
Some personal comments:
First, let me say that I’ll address as Vulcan both him and its greek counterpart, Hephaestus, treating them as one. There were differences between these gods, but our knowledge of these are very limited. I’m not trying to do an historical essay, and since our general knowledge of certain aspects of these gods are fragmented or absent, I find it counterproductive to split these two.
The general aspects of what Paracelsus calls Vulcan are certainly not his invention. In antiquity, the god had a clear and affirmed domain over destructive fire.
This is assumed since Homer, when, in Iliad XXI, Hephaestus is called by Hera to protect Achilles against the river Scamander.
He unleashes his flame, and the term used is “kakon phlegma”. The adjective kakon means bad, evil. Later its attack is described as a “grim inhuman blaze” (21:389).
Such words would fit a creature such as Typhon, not certainly an Olympian. There are scholars who believe indeed that here Homer substituted Hephaestus, a more orderly choice, to his brother Typhon, and yet they both could fit into the scene, where the wind-powered heat wave is described as burning everything in his passage: dead bodies, vegetation, living beings, and even drying the god-river.
While certain gods can claim a partial domain over fire, such as the Lightning of Zeus, or the hearth of Hestia, none represent the ambivalent aspects of fire as Hephaestus. It’s name was also used in common language to address fire, and even Empedocles, in one of his fragments, confirms this equation.
And earth, anchored in the perfect harbors of Kypris,
chanced to come together with them in almost equal quantities
with Hephaestus and rain and all-shining air,
either a little more, or less where there was more.
From these came blood and the forms of different ﬂesh.
Here, the fragment is speaking about the four elements. Earth is equated with Aphrodite, rain and air are addressed directly, and fire is mentioned through the name of our god.
Another fragments speak of this equation:
And the kindly earth received into its broad hollows
of the eight parts two of the brightness of Nestis and four of Hephaestus;
and these come to be white bones,
marvelously held together of Harmony.
Again, the term is used to address the elemental composition of bones. Of eight parts, four are constituted by fire (Hephaestus), two by water (Nestis, a Sicilian water nymph), the other two part by earth itself.
Many gods are related to fire, yet their links to the element are tangent at best. Zeus wield the lightning, yet it’s not made by him. Hestia owns the hearth, which is the place surrounding and protecting the fire, more than the fire itself. Helios drives the chariot of the Sun. Dionysus and Ares are connected to fire through the fury, the rage, the ecstatic and wild temperament. Hermes discovers the fire through his cunning, yet he needs sticks to produce it.
Hephaestus and Vulcan embody the more genuine aspect of fire. Something that is not derived by theology, but by human experience. It accompanied humanity since the dawn of his age: its trasformative power. The transformation of something necessarily implies that its actual structure and essence must be altered. When this happens, in the majority of cases (chemical transformations), it’s something irreversible. Through the action of fire, its present mode of existence is destroyed, to be replaced by something different. So we can easily see how destruction and transformation go hand in hand.
Also the generative power of Vulcan is rooted in the myths of antiquity.
He’s a builder and a maker, of implements, weapons and even cosmic structures. He can create life, both mortal and divine through the cunning of his Art, and he can even create and entire world on the surface of a Shield.
Even Plato mention his role as a Demiurge, and Proclus, in his commentary on Timaeus, confirmed this, even though all his qualities are presents in previous myths.
Yet, in accord with platonic thinking, he was assigned a lower role, rooting him in the last processes of demiurgic action, those related to fabrication and generation. His main role was of being the “heat”, the spermatic, generative power, at the end of the chain of creation.
Still, this places him very near us, and maybe could explain why Paracelsus found in him an affordable metaphor, he not being very fond of the upper classes, and preferring the company of miners to noblemen.
However, it’s probably this Neoplatonic conception of Vulcan was the base upon which our alchemist derived his idea of the Vulcan as the trasformative agent in nature, as the digestive, consuming and altering fire.