Goddess of the Month - Vesta


Vesta by Sandra Stanton
Vesta by Sandra Stanton from goddessmyths.com

Vesta is the central Goddess of Roman culture. Maiden and whole unto Herself, She is Goddess of Hearth and Home. She embodies the family and the state in Roman thinking. She is represented most frequently by the central fires which burned in every home and temple. There are comparisons between Her and the Greek Hestia, but while there are similarities, Vesta is much more a part of the Roman societal fabric both in the home as well as publicly. The fire in Her temple in Rome was considered the Hearth Fire of the City Herself. Without Vesta, the Roman daily life falls apart, since Her temple and Her priestesses form the anchor of the City and the people. Vesta was worshipped on the Italian peninsula in pre-Roman times as the center of the home and family. Her fires were always part of the sacred and mundane life of every person. Her worship continued to be integral to Roman life until the usurpations of the Christians became complete in the late Roman Empire when Theodosius I ordered the order of the Vestals disbanded and had the Sacred Flame of Her temple extinguished. It was not lost upon those who came later that the City fell and the empire began to disintegrate after that time. This knowledge and its murmurings were part of what prompted the Christian Augustine to write his famous work, The City of God.

Vesta in Roman Culture

Vesta was worshipped everywhere within the sphere of Roman life but, the most famous place connected with Her is the Temple of Vesta at the center of Rome, which was built to honor Her by Augustus Caesar, and which contained one of the very few statues of Her anywhere. This temple replaced a much older one, which was described by Ovid as being the same in shape and function. Unlike most Roman temples, which were square and open to the sky, Her temple was round and covered to ensure that Her sacred Flame never went out due to the weather. This was because in shape and function Vesta's temple represented an aedes, home, not a templum, temple. In fact it was known as the Aedes Vestae. Her Sacred flame, the Ignis Vestae, was renewed on March 1 every year and had to be generated using friction on two pieces of wood, one type required to be an arbor felix,or auspicious tree, which were trees that bore fruit or nuts. The Vestal Virgins, Her priestesses, had special restrictions on the carrying and use of water inside the Aedes Vestae and on the surrounding temple grounds, which included having to carry it into the temple in special vessels called futiles that had a tiny foot to make them inherently unstable. Water was not permitted at all in the innermost part of the Aedes Vestae, and could only be used on the grounds when absolutely necessary and for no longer than needed.

The Temple of Vesta was ritually and culturally identified with the permanence and sanctity of the Roman state. Because of this, within the penus, inner sanctum, was housed the most sacred objects of Roman cultural life, the Palladium (a statue of Athene) and Penates (gods of the household) rescued by Aeneas and brought to Italy after the fall of Troy. It also was used as a storehouse for all important legal documents, including wills and treaties. The security and trustworthniess of the temple and its priestesses was proverbial. No men were allowed within the Aedes except the Pontifex Maximus, the High Priest of Rome.

Vestal Virgin with Flame
Statue of a vestal virgin, with a flame, from the Uffizi Museum, Florence.
The Priestesses of Vesta

The Priestesses of Vesta were the only full-time priestesshood in Rome. Known as the Vestals, their famed virginity was a sacred thing, since it mirrored the virginity of Vesta Herself and ritually symbolized the sanctity and safety of the Roman state. They were supported by the state so that they could focus all their time and attention on the temple and its functions. Housed in what was basically a convent near the Forum in Rome, they lived, ate, and breathed the life of a Priestess from the time they were children until they either retired from the Priestesshood to marry after their required minimum service was fulfilled, or until they died. The number of active priestesses varied during history until the number six was finally settled upon during the early republic. When a new Vestal was needed, a girl of between 6 and 10 years of age and of a patrician family would be chosen by the Pontifex Maximus. The minimum term of service was 30 years. For the first portion of their service they would be Novices, who learned from the elder Priestesses the functions of the temple and the ceremonial duties they would be expected to perform. The second portion of their service was as active Priestesses carrying out the ritual and ceremonial work. Their final portion of service was as teachers to the Novices. The seniormost Vestal was the Virgo Vestalis Maxima, who presided over the Vestals and served on the Collegium Pontificum with the other chief priests of Rome. Other senior Priestesses could serve as part of the fifteen- member College of Augurs, which interpreted omens and also performed diplomatic and judicial functions as needed when divine help was sought in cases where there was doubtful evidence or other reason to be unsure of the advisability of a public decision; or as part of the collegium quindecemviri sacris faciundis a group of fifteen Priestesses who kept the Sibylline Books and interpreted them when asked and were responsible for the supervision of the worship of any foreign deities introduced into the state religion, since these were usually brought in upon recommendation of the Sibylline Books.

The duties of the Vestals were many. These included caring for the sacred objects stored within the temple as well as those used for their Rites; preparing the food used in rituals; making the mola salsa, sacred cakes made from the first harvesting of grain used at important religious ceremonies; carrying water for temple use from a sacred spring; presiding over and participating in many religious festivals for all the deities; and most importantly, tending the Sacred Flame. The penalty for a Vestal who allowed the Flame to go out was extremely severe, since it was either a sign of negligence on the part of the Priestess, or worse, a sign that the Priestess had done something to earn the disfavor of the Goddess. Such cases were investigated by the Pontifex to determine the cause. The punishment for negligence or other minor offenses was up to the discretion of the Pontifex Maximus. For the crime of impurity causing divine disfavor, which, though rare, was usually the breaking of the vow of virginity, the penalty was to be entombed alive within a sacred chamber under the Campus Sceleratus outside the city walls. This was only invoked a very few times during the history of Rome. It is interesting to note that the man with whom the Vestal had sexual relations was also charged with impiety and put to death, so this was one of the few times that the penalty of a sexual crime was not only laid upon the head of the woman involved.

The Vestals had a great many privileges and rights that the average Roman woman did not enjoy. One of the most visible was that they were accompanied whenever they left the temple by bearers of the Fasces, which were symbols of authority otherwise reserved for consuls, praetors and the most important priests. They also had prominent and honored places at all public gatherings, including games and performances. Vestals were not subject to the authority of any man save the Pontifex Maximus, and that was only exercised at specific ritual times. They were free to write their own wills, own property, and vote. They could give evidence without taking an oath. They could free both slaves and condemned prisoners simply by touching them, and their person was considered absolutely inviolate. The penalty for harming a Vestal was death.

Feasts of Vesta

Festivals important to Vesta included Lupercalia, Matronalia and Vestalia. The Vestalia was the central one to the Temple, and was one of the most important Holy Seasons of the Roman Calendar. During the period from 7 Iunius to 15 Iunius the penus would be open to the women of Rome. After this time the temple was ritually swept as part of the Quando Stercum Delatum Fas, which translates as "the day of lawful removal of dung", and harkens back to a more ancient time when the sacred space for a flame would need to be cleansed of animal droppings before the flame could be kindled. The penus was then closed for another year. During Vestalia no marriages could be performed, and the Flaminica Dialis (High Priestess of Juno and wife of the High Priest of Jupiter) wore ritual mourning clothes, did not comb her hair nor cut her nails, and was not allowed to have sexual relations with her husband. The Vestalia was a holy time especially for those involved in the making of flour and baking of bread, since that act is very much tied to the hearth functions of Vesta. During Vestalia millstones and the donkeys whose labors turned them would be bedecked in garlands of violets and hung with small loaves of bread.

Hymn to Vesta by Tinnekke Bebout from The Dance of the Mystai, 2009

Hail Lady Vesta
Lady of Hearth and Home
Jewel of Civilization
Lady of the White Robe
Sing to Her in Praise!

Hail Lady Vesta
Center of the Family
Bright Lady of the Flame
Lady of the White Robe
Send us Your Blessings!

Hail Lady Vesta
Guardian of the Maidens
Burning Flame of Truth
Lady of the White Robe
Thank You for Your Blessings!
All Hail Great Vesta
Burn her sweet perfumes
Give Her offerings of bread and herbs
Sing for Her pleasure
We thank You, Great Lady

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