First, let me share my all time birthday song favorite:
Now then, on to the business of the day. Armitageday that is. I was going to talk about how the ancient Romans were among the first to celebrate the birthdays of the regular folk (of course only the regular male folk), but then I remembered that there are big things afoot on and around this day in Roman history.
The Romans were a thoroughly pagan, excessively polytheistic people for much of their history. Their calendar was packed full of days that were sacred to one or another deity, days on which legal proceedings and economic transactions were suspended in favor of religious observance. The month of Augustus (named after the 1st Emperor of Rome, the adopted son of Julius Caesar) was fairly typical, with festivals dedicated to various deities scattered throughout.
Among the most ancient and most important of the August festivals was the VULCANALIA…the festival dedicated to the god Vulcan. Vulcan was the deity associated with fire…especially the destructive, devastating aspects of fire in the form of conflagration or volcanic eruption. Fire was a profoundly important element to the ancients. In a period before electricity, the presence of fire could mean the difference between life and death in both a positive and a negative sense. Fire provided light and heat, but using it was an enormous potential hazard in cities built largely of timber frame structures. The Romans believed that keeping Vulcan happy was the key to avoiding devastating fires. The festival of Vulcan was celebrated in the hottest part of the summer, which was also harvest time, so prayers not only sought to protect the settlements, but also the fields and grain stores from Vulcan’s fire. The Vulcanalia was celebrated by athletic competitions dedicated to the god and by building large bonfires onto which small animals were thrown as offerings.
The Romans also associated Vulcan with the destructive fire power of volcanoes. Italy is littered with dozens of volcanoes…many of them dormant for thousands of years, but several of them, like Mt. Etna on Sicily regularly active. Passages from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History illustrate that the Romans were quite familiar with the concept of volcanoes and other geothermal phenomena. One volcano though, Mt. Vesuvius, near modern Naples was not mentioned by Pliny, suggesting that the Romans were completely unaware that this mountain, with it’s fertile slopes which produced some of the finest Roman vintages was only biding it’s time. Apparently the Vulcanalia of 79AD didn’t do the trick, because the very next day…August 24th* Vulcan’s displeasure was evident when Vesuvius exploded, beginning a massive 25 hour eruption cycle. This is the eruption that buried the now famous towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, along with a large part of the Bay of Naples area under a thick layer of ash and pyroclastic flow.
The devastation wrought by what many Romans interpreted as an unhappy Vulcan was enormous. In an attempt to placate the god, the Emperor Domitian ordered the construction of a new altar to Vulcan in Rome and upped the ante on sacrifices from fish and small animals to a red calf and a red boar – nobody was messing around with Vulcan.
Soooo, since the day is conveniently blank on the Roman festival calendar, in honor of the Birthday Boy with the trademark incendiary smolder, and The Crucible which is “too hot to handle,” I hereby deem August 22 as ARMITAGALIA….any objections from the ancient Romans in the crowd?????
No? Excellent!! It’s official then!!! ARMITAGALIA it is. Now, what to do in celebration?
HAPPY BIRTHDAY RICHARD ARMITAGE!!
PS…I’ll be offering up extra pink bunny PEEPS to stave off the Iceland volcano for all those flying to London to see The Crucible….can’t hurt right?!