Vesta (mythology)

Summary

Vesta (Latin pronunciation: ) is the goddess of the hearth of the Roman people and, by extension, of the home and family in Roman religion. Her presence was symbolized by the sacred fire that burned in her home and temples.

The importance of Vesta in the Roman religion was such that the cult dedicated to her in Rome was the only one to have a full-time college of virgin officiants, the Vestals, recruited between the ages of six and ten as “priestesses of eternal fire” to keep the flame of the temple dedicated. The Roman religious festival of Vesta, observed from June 7 to 16, was held during the Vestalia.

There are several female deities of the home in the Indo-European world. It seems that the Indo-European peoples who became sedentary, such as the Romans or the Greeks, preferred a goddess (of the) hearth to a god (of the) fire, the hearth being an everyday reality, graspable and always beneficial, whereas the fire is ambiguous and can be fearsome.

The cult of Vesta is not limited to Rome and it is likely that it existed among other Italic peoples, notably among the Vestini judging by their name and among the Umbrians. The Umbrian verb vestikā- “to make libations” evokes Roman coins of Vesta pouring libation. These Italic parallels make a borrowing from Greece unlikely, even if this idea is shared by several Roman authors (Cicero, Servius). There is no evidence for the existence of a *westā doublet in Greece.

Nevertheless, the fact that Vesta originally had no place in the cult of the family hearth suggests a borrowed cult: that of the hearth of the Sabine king Numa which would have become the cult of the public hearth. Moreover, there seems to have been an earlier perpetual fire, that of Caca. This explains how Romulus and Remus could have been born of a Vestal, whereas the college of Roman Vestals was instituted by Numa.

According to the Aeneid, she was honored in Troy, long before the ruin of this city, and it was Aeneas who, it is believed, brought her cult and her symbol to Italy: he had her among his penate gods.

Several Roman authors report that her cult was brought from Alba to Rome by the mother of her founder, Rhea Silvia. According to tradition, it was the son of Romulus, Numa Pompilius, who, as a sign of gratitude to the goddess, established her cult in Rome, which lasted until the end of paganism, by building a temple to Vesta.

Daughter of Saturn and Ops and sister of Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto, Juno and Ceres, her closest equivalent in Greek mythology is Hestia, a word that designates the “hearth of the house”, although the Roman cult took on more importance. According to some myths about the founding of Rome, Vesta is said to have interceded on behalf of Rhea Silvia, who was raped by Mars while sleeping and became pregnant with the twins Romulus and Remus.

It is important not to confuse the virgin Vesta, goddess of fire or fire itself, with the ancient Vesta, i.e. Titeia or Gaia (the Earth goddess), even if, in the poets, these two divinities often seem to be confused.

Under her well attested denomination of Vesta P(opuli) R(omani) Quiritium, she presides over the national home. Cicero specifies that her cult is celebrated “in the interest of the Roman people, of the Quirites” Her essential place for the State explains the location of the aedes Vestae and the atrium Vestae near the Regia of Numa.

His worship consisted mainly in maintaining the fire that was dedicated to him and in taking care that it never went out.

It was in the middle of his temple, whose access was forbidden to all except the Vestals and the Great Pontiff, that the sacred fire was maintained with all the more vigilance as it was considered to be the reflection of the central fire of the Earth. If this fire was extinguished, the vestal was beaten with rods by the pontiff and the fire was rekindled by rubbing two pieces of wood taken from an auspicious tree (arbor felix) – probably an oak tree – whereas in Greece it was only rekindled by the rays of the sun, by means of a sort of mirror. Even if not extinguished, the fire was renewed every year, on the first day of March. The vestibule, where the fireplace used to be (but this explanation and etymology is debated), probably takes its name from Vesta, who was always invoked last in the sacrifices.

Each city had its Vesta and its Penates; and each colony lit the fire of its Vesta at the hearth of the metropolis. Thus Rome honored especially the Vesta and the Penates of Albe-la-Longue, then, after the destruction of Albe, those of Lavinium, considered as the very Penates of Troy, Sacra principia populi romani, i.e. the sacred objects to which the origins of Rome and all the Latin nation were linked. A time came, when Vesta, without ceasing to reside in the fire, and not only in that of the national hearth, but also in the fires lit on the altar of any divinity, took a human figure, and presided in person over the worship that one rendered to her in her atrium, become her temple.

A temple of Vesta built in Tibur in the first century BC, is still present in Tivoli.

Vesta is the protective goddess of the domestic home, of families, of cities, of colonies, of religious serenity and of fire. Goddess of the home, she is the symbol of purity, honor of family life; to tarnish this purity is to offend Vesta and to expose oneself to her just anger.

Dedicated to the ritual, Vesta is not or is not represented any more at old date. She had no other image or symbol than the sacred fire. Ovid says that Vesta is nothing else than the living flame. But she was later represented, notably on coins.

When she was represented, it was in the garb of a matron, dressed in the stola, holding in her right hand a torch or a lamp, a vase with two handles, called capeduncula or a small Victory. Sometimes, instead of the patera, she holds a haste, javelin without iron, or a cornucopia. On medals and monuments, the titles given to her are Vesta the holy, the eternal, the happy, the ancient, Vesta the mother, etc.

Like her counterpart Hestia who belongs to the first divine generation, Vesta is an old “white-haired” goddess

His attributes are the sacred fire and the horn of plenty.

Virgin mother?

Vesta has for common trait with Hestia the chastity, but the virginity is specific to the latter. In Rome, virginity is only valid for the servants of the cult, the Vestals, whereas Vesta is qualified as a virgin only later by assimilation to Hestia, and on the model of the Vestals. In fact, this alleged virginity does not fit in well with the description of “mother” attributed to Vesta and confirmed by the iconography. Moreover, the presence of a phallus in the aedes Vestae constitutes an additional difficulty. Finally, Vesta has for attribute the donkey which is the animal of Priape and the satyrs.

The comparison with the Indian world allows us to understand that fire was conceived in ancient times as the son of virginal mothers and nurses. It is these figures that explain the virginity of Hestia and the fact that young girls are assigned to the maintenance of the perpetual fire of Vesta.

Phallus

The virile member (fascinus) whose representation was preserved in the temple of Vesta is a symbol of the divine Fire. It represents the auger used to produce the fire in the hearth of the fire drill.

This presence of the divine Fire explains the obligation of chastity made to the Vestals. The Fire is described as a jealous husband, because mothers and nurses of the Fire, they are also its wives. It is the same for Hestia and Vesta who are not divine Fires but the wives of an ancient Fire god who has disappeared.

Vesta does not embody the focus home in general nor any other home than the “home of the City”. The deities of the domestic hearth are the Lares, the Penates and the Genius of the householder. The Latin name of the vestibule does not attest a domestic Vesta. Besides, the hearth was not in this room. Unlike Hestia, her theonym is only a proper name.

Vesta was particularly important to women because the hearth was the place where food was prepared, and the meal was eaten while offerings were thrown into the fire to predict the future by the way it burned. The importance of Vesta and the hearth in Roman times lives on in the modern language, through the various uses, both scientific and metaphorical, of the term focus in Latin.

The cult of Vesta is attested in Bovillae, Lavinium and Tibur. Bovillae hosted the (Albanae Longanae Bovillenses), supposed to continue the Albanian vestals. Lavinium had the vestals of the Laurentes Lavinates. These two orders were rooted in the most ancient of traditions before Rome. The epigraphy attests that Tibur also had its own vestals.

Vestals were perhaps present in the sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis near Aricia.

Vesta was celebrated during the Vestalies or Vestalia, period, in Rome, from June 7 to 15, during which the temple of Vesta was opened to the matrons. On the first day, the penus Vestae was opened, the sanctuary of the temple of the goddess usually hidden by curtains. As long as the curtain remained open, the matrons could come, barefoot and disheveled, to make offerings to the goddess in exchange for her blessing on them and their families. These offerings included the sacrifice of a calf fetus removed from its mother”s womb. On the 15th, day noted QSDF (the Flaminica Dialis observed the mourning, and the temple was the object of a purification called stercoratio: the filth was swept of the temple to transport them then, by the way known as clivus Capitolinus and to throw them in the Tiber.

Among the Romans, the sacred fire of Vesta was kept and maintained by virgin priestesses, the Vestals. They were chosen from the greatest families of Rome, at the age of six to ten years. They remained in the service of the goddess for a period of thirty years. They then returned to Roman society, with permission to marry. But, during their priesthood, the Vestals who let the fire go out were severely and even cruelly punished: the one who violated her vows of virginity was put to death, walled in a tomb or between two walls.

In compensation for all these rigors, the Vestals were the object of a universal respect: like the high dignitaries, they were preceded by a lictor, depended only on the pontifex maximus; they were often called to calm the dissensions in the families: one entrusted them the secrecies of the private individuals and sometimes those of the State. It was in their hands that the wills were deposited. The vestals had such a power that, when they crossed a condemned to death, this one was released.

They had their heads girded with white woolen bands, which fell gracefully on their shoulders and on each side of their chest. Their clothes were very simple, but not without elegance. Over a white dress they wore a kind of ratchet of the same color. Their cloak, which was of purple, hid one shoulder and left the other half naked. At first they cut their hair, but later they wore all their hair. When the luxury was spread in Rome, one saw them walking in sumptuous litter, even in a magnificent chariot, with a numerous suite of women and slaves.

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