Today’s factismal: Volcanoes are named for the Roman god of fire and the forge, Vulcan.
Just off the coast of Sicily, there is a little island known as Vulcano. For more than 3,000 years, it has been regarded as the chimney leading down to the fireplace of the Roman god Vulcan (hence the name). According to legend, whenever Vulcan was down at his forge smoke would rise from the top of the mountain. And whenever Vulcan cleaned out his chimney, ashes would fly out the top. Because iron smithing and fire were so important to the Romans, they put up temples to Vulcan wherever they went, from the shores of France to the deserts of Africa. And wherever they saw a smoking mountain, they declared it to be another home of Vulcan – another volcano.
Every year, the Romans would hold two festivals honoring Vulcan. One took place in the spring to thank him for providing fire and light to get them through the winter. And one took place in the early fall/late summer, around August 24, to ask Vulcan for more light and heat through the winter to come. In 79 CE, the Romans had just finished their celebration of Vulcan when the mountain of Pompeii known as Vesuvius began to smoke and rumble. Their offering had been refused and Vulcan was angry.
An eruption took place, one so immense that all other eruptions like it are called “plinian” for the most famous person it killed: Pliny (the elder). Over the course of the next 24 hours, Pompeii would spew out enough ash to cover the area nine feet deep and have enough earthquakes to destroy buildings through the region and even shake parts of Rome. But that wasn’t the worst of the eruption. The worst was the nuée ardente (glowing clouds). Imagine a mass of super-hot air and ash, rumbling down the side of the volcano at 60 miles per hour, burying everything that it passes in a noxious mixture of poisonous gas and fine ash. The 16,000 people caught in it didn’t stand a chance. If they didn’t die from the hydrogen sulfide turning their lungs to jelly, then they were buried under red-hot ash that cooked them to death even as it suffocated them.
The eruption was so great that everyone avoided the area for the next thousand years. It wasn’t until 1738 that people rediscovered the mighty cities that had once been Pompeii and Herculanum. But the danger posed by volcanoes has never been lost to time as those cities were. And now we are doing more to prevent damage from volcanic eruptions than just propitiating the gods; we’re using citizen science to predict them. If you’d like to take part, head over to the USGS’ NetQuakes website and volunteer to host a seismometer!