Chapter 9. Vulcan (Metals)

 

And Vulcan answered, "Take heart, and be no more disquieted about this matter; would that I could hide him from death's sight when his hour is come, so surely as I can find him armour that shall amaze the eyes of all who behold it."

When he had so said he left her and went to his bellows, turning them towards the fire and bidding them do their office. Twenty bellows blew upon the melting-pots, and they blew blasts of every kind, some fierce to help him when he had need of them, and others less strong as Vulcan willed it in the course of his work. He threw tough copper into the fire, and tin, with silver and gold; he set his great anvil on its block, and with one hand grasped his mighty hammer while he took the tongs in the other.

First he shaped the shield so great and strong, adorning it all over and binding it round with a gleaming circuit in three layers; and the baldric was made of silver. He made the shield in five thicknesses, and with many a wonder did his cunning hand enrich it.

He wrought the earth, the heavens, and the sea; the moon also at her full and the untiring sun, with all the signs that glorify the face of heaven—the Pleiads, the Hyads, huge Orion, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain and which turns round ever in one place, facing Orion, and alone never dips into the stream of Oceanus.

 — Homer, The Iliad, Book XVIII, ca. 1100 BC [1]

9.1.

Nothing in the history of humankind, save for the cultivation of noble fire itself, can compare to the discovery of metal. It is a most wondrous substance, born of the earth, purified by the air, nurtured in the fire it flows like water. Poured in dazzling brilliance, it takes on the shape of its container. Struck, it yields to the hammer, becoming wand, sword, chalice or shield. Drawn, it becomes as a thread. Polished, it contains the whole world in its reflection. Honed, its edge cuts lesser materials without violence. There are few objects which would not be more durable, more beautiful, and more useful if fashioned by art and ingenuity from metal.

The discovery of metal is as ancient as any other, for it can be found from time to time scattered among the stones and pebbles. Native metals, pure and uncontaminated, separate naturally from molten rock just as quartz does. Freed by rain and flood from their subterranean nurseries, copper, silver and gold wander from mountain to gully to river to fluvial plain. Catching the Sun, they attract the eye of hunter, farmer and shepherd, becoming trinket or talisman.

Only Athanor knows how to transform these trinkets into more deliberate forms. Submitted to the intense heat of the pottery kiln, the native metals become fluid and may be cast into shapes familiar to the potter but made more precious by the scarcity and novelty of the material. Such was the world of my youth, some 8,000 years ago. I began life as Athanor, my business being to heat the bejeezus out of things. Clay and limestone and gypsum were my stock in trade, punctuated by the occasional acquisition of native metals for casting into ritual objects. The world remained unchanged for two millennia, and might have remained so for another six had I not made two crucial observations.

The first thing that I noticed was that copper jewelry changes colors as it ages; bright copper metal acquires a red patina which eventually becomes a blue-green scale. It is as if the metal putrefies, as meat and bread do. The second observation was that the blue-green mineral malachite, used as a pigment for paint, becomes red when fired in a reducing kiln, that is, one deprived of air. This might have been chalked up to coincidence, except that the blue-green of malachite is exactly the same as that of decrepit jewelry and the red of fired malachite is identical to that of the red patina.

It was my habit to throw rock in with the metal when preparing to cast it. The molten rock acts as a flux, that is, a material which, in melting, assists in the melting of other bodies. One day I decided to use common malachite as a flux for the melting of copper, thinking that there might be some sympathy between these two materials. And it appeared to me that the malachite nourished the copper, fattening it like a calf. In time I found that the smallest seed of copper could grow to an enormous size given this fodder. Eventually, I dispensed with the seed altogether, finding that simply melting malachite in a reducing kiln, that is, smelting it, was sufficient for producing copper ingots to dwarf any native nugget. That was the day I became Vulcan. I have been glorified by every culture of any consequence, and rightly so.

Notes

[1]

Reference [15].