I should probably start by saying that I’m neither a metalworker, a fireman, or an engineer of any kind. Nor is anyone in my immediate family, though both my paternal and maternal grandfathers were veritable handymen and would do things in metal and wood at home, out of hobby or everyday need. I also don’t have any physical disabilities and the closest thing of the sort in my family is one of my uncles’ slight limping. I do work with clay as a hobby (hence the presence of Khnum in my religious life), but I don’t fire my pieces because I don’t have the means to do so and instead I just let them dry before I paint them. I’m also more of the mental than physical jobs kind of person. I do enjoy physical activity on a daily basis and take on a new challenge every now and then, but out of athleticism, not work. It has more to do with Mercury and the Dioscuri who, by the way, have been tapping on my shoulder recently. So I guess you can say that there’s not much in common between me and Hephaestus. Except that I have a soft spot for the underdog, especially when he rises high through honest hard work, in this case as high as Olympus, while managing to stay humble and loving. So I guess that means I have a soft spot for Hephaestus, even if our common activities are limited. He’s a good source of inspiration: persistence, dedication, and willingness to get your hands dirty to do an honest job are precious things. Even awe-inspiring, since we’re talking about a god. Actually, scratch that: especially since we’re talking about a lame god! I guess you could say He has the ability to inspire the best hard-working qualities in us.
As soon as these ideas settled, there came a wind bearing another question: so what about Vulcan? They’re the same, right? At which point I entered a several days-long mind storm (like I said, I’m a mental work kind of guy).
Though some will no doubt accept the interpretatio romana with little or no hesitation, I tend to be critical of it. It’s not that I don’t believe that some gods are the same, but there’s more to the problem than similar names, symbols, or functions. Just like several farmers are not one farmer because they all do the same thing or have similar tools and techniques, not every deity is the same simply because they share a few or even many things. At least that’s the way I see it and I don’t claim to own the ultimate truth. This is just me. I prefer a case by case approach and look for the perceived nature of the gods as opposed to Their outer look, which may be taken from one culture to another. Consider the bodhisattva Vajrapani, who’s depicted as Hercules in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara (see here). I wouldn’t say They’re the same, even if They do share some traits, but that it’s more of a use of Greek artistic conventions on Hercules to represent another deity. Just like the Japanese wind god Fujin wears the same wind bag as the Greek Boreas. It doesn’t mean They’re the same god, but it does indicate how iconography can move around from one culture to another, in this case from Greece to Asia via Alexander the Great (see here) and then to China and Japan via the Silk Road. In the end, you get the same symbol being used by different deities. Similarly, the pottery depicting Hephaestus found in the shrine to Vulcan in the Roman forum, dating back to the sixth century BCE, may be an early case of Greek art being employed to represent a Roman god.
Of course, whether or not you believe They’re the same deity is up to you. I’m just pointing out that what we usually see as evidence of “oneness” may simply be a case of imported clothing for a native god, so to speak. I wouldn’t take the interpretatio romana or any other at face value (more on that here). But regarding Hephaestus and Vulcan, what makes me suspect that They’re not the same, even if They are close, is what I perceive as Their nature.
Hephaestus comes across as having a more docile temperament. He may be a hard worker with rough hands, but I get the feeling that He’s very approachable and down to earth, deeply in tune with human lives and needs. Which makes sense considering His background: lame, cast out of Olympus, honest, and persistent. He has an idea of what it’s like to be one of us. And He’s also a peacemaker and broker of deals, which adds to my impression of Him as a very practical and well tempered god. Hephaestus also has a dark side, but that’s true for most of the Powers: He can produce works of art and tools of war and it goes without saying that a red-hot piece of metal can be deadly and painful. He’s a fire god and fire can both nurture and destroy you; and His is not the virginal flame of the hearth, but that of the tough forge. But, again, there’s a sense of inner peace about Hephaestus: even when He acts on Aphrodite’s love affair with Ares, He exposes it for everyone to see, but does not take violent vengeance. Instead, He is satisfied with a settlement. His fire does not burn uncontrollably.
Vulcan, on the other hand, comes across as a darker and more chthonic kind of god. Originally, He may have been something along the lines of Vertumnus and presided over the inner warmth of the earth. And we all know where that comes from: lava! Which in turn means volcanoes and earthquakes. A necessary and even vital force of nature for life on this planet, no doubt about it, but it’s also a much less peaceful and human-friendly Power. At least that’s the impression I get. Whereas Hephaestus seems to be in tune with our needs, which work on a time-scale of a few decades to one hundred years, Vulcan, I’d say, sees things from the Earth’s perspective, which works on cycles of five hundred to thousands of years. The slow drift of the planet’s tectonic plates, the forming of new land from the ocean floor, the life cycle of volcanoes. That speaks less to human needs and more to those of the Earth, which will sacrifice scores of individual lives for the sake of long-term balance. Vulcan’s connection to wild fires reinforces that idea and it goes without saying that earthquakes and volcanoes are not the best example of docile temperament.
Maybe these are two opposing sides of the same god. Maybe They were originally two different entities who picked up each other’s traits at some point. Or maybe their worshipers did it, given their culture and geographical proximity. In the end, it all boils down to what you feel and my feeling tells me that, even though They are both fire gods with the ability to melt and mould things, there’s a difference in nature that hints at two different deities. But don’t take this as gospel: I may be wrong and may change opinion in the future. Otherwise this would just be hubris.