Sunday 7 December 2014

Vulcans Ancient and Modern

As an ardent teenage Trekkie, I became obsessed with Spock’s planet, Vulcan.  In the 4th century AD, while the Roman Empire fragmented, the Vulcans had subordinated their competitive impulses to cooperative ones, and built a reason-based communitarian society where humanoids’ basic needs were universally fulfilled.

Vulcan Collaborates (Dirck van Baburen)
Yorkshire Vulcan
Spock’s Vulcan has this week haunted my investigation of the shifting role of the Greco-Roman deity Hephaestus / Vulcan.  In antiquity he was the proletarian of Olympus, the ugly, lame god who had been brought up on a human island and trained to work in a forge as a manual labourer. He was the butt of Olympian laughter, although receiving sympathy when his wife Venus slept with the handsome war-god Mars. He made fabulous objects—the first robots and Achilles’ armour. But he acquired a reputation as a cowardly collaborator with the top gods, even obeying Zeus when ordered to shackle his own Titan comrade, Prometheus, to the mountain.

Yet Vulcan always had his fans amongst smiths and metalworkers, as a dapper Roman bronze Vulcan found in North Yorkshire implies. And exactly coincidental with the industrial revolution, a heroic, un-comic, non-lame, non-cowardly and inspirational Vulcan suddenly emerged. At first he was adopted by the owners of foundries, as in this cheque issued by Dowlais Ironworks in South Wales in 1813. On the right stands Britannia, but on the left, a near-naked, muscular Vulcan stands with his anvil and hammer in front of the works, leaning on one foot and modelled on the ‘Farnese Hercules’. 

Vulcan was soon adopted by the organised working class, appearing by 1825 on the membership tokens of Mechanics Institutes alongside Minerva (representing education) and Mercury (trade & communications). Vulcan also revealed his progressive face in the campaign to stop small children being forced up chimneys by lighted coals when Lemuel Wellman Wright’s mechanical brushes were marketed as instruments in the campaign against the use of children by adult sweeps: ‘Wright's Patent Vulcan Chimney Sweeping Machines: the only efficient supporters of the law against climbing boys’. Plural Vulcans appeared on Godfrey Sykes’ class-conscious adaptation of the Parthenon frieze for the Sheffield Mechanics Institute in 1854.

The Parthenon Frieze re-imagined for Sheffield Steel Workers
But my favourite class-conscious Vulcan is Paul Lafargue’s revolutionary god who abolishes all labour in The Right to Idleness (1880). Lafargue demanded a THREE-HOUR working day made possible through modern machinery, and illustrated what he meant by Vulcan’s robots, so ‘when the weavers looms were weaving automatically, the master would not need assistants and the bosses no slaves.’ Whether or not Lafargue was actually an expatriate Vulcan, I can’t help thinking that the rational Mr Spock would have approved.

1 comment:

  1. My favourite Vulcan is on Croydon College's 1950s building, along with a Minerva: