In summary: Vesta is the Goddess of ritual fire, hearth-fire and home; associated with purity and virginity. Suitable offerings include small plates of food, and likely incense and milk as well. Scroll down for more.
Vesta – Fire Goddess
Of all the Goddesses, Vesta is most frequently invoked during prayers at my household shrine; she is inevitably a highly important Goddess in the context of (Roman oriented) domestic worship. Likewise she was a vitally important Goddess in the State religion of ancient Rome. Despite her importance, scholars have relatively little to say of her, though they have a great deal to say of her priestesses. I will not look too much at the intriguing Vestal Virgins as there is already a wealth of information on them scattered across the internet and in books.* I want to look directly to Vesta herself – she seems to me a most comforting and benevolent Goddess. Scholars tend to describe her as a Goddess of the sacred hearth fire, guardian of the home, and as a virgin Goddess who is inviolable and pure.** Perhaps the best contemporary description I have come across comes from Shelton, who writes:
“Vesta was the deity of the hearth fire. Fire for cooking and heating was a necessity of life, and the Romans were therefore conscientious in their worship of Vesta. In private homes of early Rome, where the hearth was a central element, all family members [which included slaves] gathered … for a sacrifice to Vesta [the sacrificial items were usually salt and flour]. In a sense, then, every private home was a temple of Vesta [J Shelton, As the Romans Did at 385].”
In another edifying description of Vesta, Beard et al write:
“The significance of the flame … in at least one of its aspects, lie in its link with the foundation, generation and continuation of the race. The goddess Vesta herself encapsulated all the elements; she was the flame itself, she was the virgin, she was Vesta the Mother [M Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History at 53].”
Ancient descriptions of Vesta
Ancient authors, or perhaps we should say ancient intellectuals, tended to emphasise Vesta’s purity:
“They [stoic philosophers] … esteem Vesta to be a virgin, inasmuch as fire is an incorruptible element; and nothing can be born from it, since it consumes all things, whatever it has seized upon [Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, book I, Ch XII].”
And, illuminating the symbolic importance of the communal hearth of Rome, as well as the pure and incorruptible nature of Vesta’s fire, Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote:
“the guardians of the sacred fire … are called Vestals by the Romans, after the Goddess whom they serve … Numa, upon taking over the rule [of Rome], did not disturb the individual hearths of the curiae, but erected one common to them all in the space between the Capitoline hill and the Palatine … and he enacted, in accordance with the ancestral custom of the Latins, that the guarding of the holy things should be committed to virgins. There is some doubt, however, what it is that is kept in this temple and for what reason the care of it has been assigned to virgins, some affirming that nothing is preserved there but the fire, which is visible to everybody. And they very reasonably argue that the custody of the fire was committed to virgins, rather than to men, because fire is incorrupt and a virgin is undefiled, and the most chaste of mortal things must be agreeable to the purest of those that are divine. And they regard the fire as consecrated to Vesta because that Goddess, being the earth and occupying the central place in the universe, kindles the celestial fires from herself. But there are some who say that besides the fire there are some holy things in the temple of the Goddess that may not be revealed to the public, of which only the pontiffs [high priests of Rome] and the virgins have knowledge [which may have included the Palladium – a wooden statue of Minerva regarded as a sacred relic from Troy – as well as a divine phallus] … For my part, I find from very many evidences that there are indeed some holy things, unknown to the public, kept by the virgins, and not the fire alone; but what they are I do not think should be inquired into too curiously, either by me of by anyone else who wishes to observe the reverence due to the Gods [Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book II]”.
“To Numa is … ascribed the consecration of the Vestal Virgins [in his capacity as Pontifex Maximus – high priest of the State religion of Rome], and in general the worship and care of the perpetual fire entrusted to their charge. It was either because he thought the nature of fire pure and uncorrupted, and therefore entrusted it to chaste and undefiled persons, or because he thought of it as unfruitful and barren, and therefore associated it with virginity … Furthermore, it is said that Numa built the temple of Vesta, where the perpetual fire was kept [Plutarch, Numa, IX and XI]”.
By far the most prolific writings on Vesta come from Ovid’s Fasti, where he variously describes Vesta as the “guardian of the flame”, whose flame is “sacred”. She is “chaste” and she speaks from her “pure hearth”; her gifts “purify”. Hers is the “virgin’s altar”, and yet she is “Mother Vesta” – this latter description appears to, at least partly, derive from the story that Romulus, mythical founder of Rome, was mothered by a Vestal Virgin, Silvia, who was impregnated by Mars [Ovid, Fasti, book III]. Vesta is not just a mother Goddess in that sense though; she is also an earth Goddess, as Ovid states “Tellus and Vesta are the same divinity”. Expanding on this point, Ovid wrote:
“Vesta’s identified with earth: sleepless fire underlies both: earth and the hearth are both symbols of home … You ask why the Goddess is served by virgins? I’ll reveal the true reason for that as well. They say that Juno and Ceres were born of Ops [Goddess associated with the abundance of crops] by Saturn’s seed, Vesta was the third daughter: the others married, both bore children they say, the third was always unable to tolerate men. What wonder if a virgin delights in virgin servants, and only allows chaste hands to touch her sacred relics? Realise that Vesta is nothing but living flame, and you’ll see that no bodies are born from her. She’s truly a virgin, who neither accepts seed nor yields it, and she loves virgin companions. I foolishly thought for ages that there were statues of Vesta, later I learnt there were none beneath her dome [ie, within the temple of Vesta in Rome]: an undying fire is concealed with the shrine, but there’s no image of Vesta or of fire. The earth’s supported by its energy: Vesta’s so called from ‘depending on energy’ (vi stando) … But the hearth (focus) is named from its fire that warms (fovet) all things: formerly it stood in the most important room. I think the vestibule [entrance way] was so called from Vesta too: in praying we address Vesta first, who holds first place [Ovid, Fasti, book VI, 9 June].”
So we learn that Vesta was traditionally represented as the living flame of the hearth, rather than in anthropomorphic form – although anthropomorphic statues of Vesta did exist in ancient Rome (M Lipka, Roman Gods: A Conceptual Approach at 89). We also see that domestic prayers address Vesta first – or do they? Cicero suggested the reverse:
“Since, moreover, in all things the beginning and the end are of most importance, they assigned the first place in sacrifice to Janus, whose name is derived from ire, to go, the word from which a through way of passage is called janus, and the doors at the entrance of private houses januæ. As for Vesta, her name is taken from the Greeks, for she is the Goddess who is styled by them Ἑστία. Her functions relate to altars and hearths, and consequently, as she is the guardian of what is most closely domestic, it is with her that all prayer and sacrifice conclude [Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, book II].”
So perhaps she was first in domestic rituals and last in all other rituals? For elsewhere Ovid stated:
“… me: ‘Why, though I propitiate other Gods, Janus, do I offer you wine and incense first?’ ‘So you can obtain access through me, the doorman’, he says ‘to any of the Gods you please’ [Ovid, Fasti, book I, 1 January].”
Or perhaps, and this is my favourite interpretation, Vesta was invoked first, but the first offering went to Janus (while the last went to Vesta)?
Another possibility is that, as Wiseman suggests, Janus was sacrificed to first (and Vesta last) in republican Rome, when Cicero wrote, but by Augustus’ time it was Vesta who received the first sacrifice.*** If this interpretation is accepted then Ovid’s reference to Janus receiving the first offering refers specifically to Janus receiving the first sacrifice of the year, rather than the first sacrifice in every ritual.
We do know that her Hellenic counterpart – Hestia – received the first victim at every public sacrifice, in recognition of her role as Olympian peacemaker, when she took her vow of virginity and thus averted an escalation of a dispute that had arisen between her Godly suitors; or perhaps it was because she was the first born of Cronus (R Graves, Greek Myths at 32). For my part, I suggest that in contemporary domestic ritual it makes sense to address Vesta first (though we may make the first offering to Janus), as the flame on the household shrine is ignited; the lighting of Vesta’s flame thus marks the commencement of the ritual. Obviously in ancient times it was a different matter, for her flame was meant to burn continuously (except when it was ritually renewed – for example the Vestal flame of Rome was rekindled annually: Ovid, Fasti, book III) and its extinguishment marked ill fortune. This fact was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated by the ultimate extinguishment of Vesta’s flame at her temple in Rome in 394 CE by order of the Christian Emperor Theodosius I – during his reign “the temples of the Gods were every where violated, nor was it safe for any one to profess a belief that there are any Gods, much less to look up to heaven and to adore them” (Zosimus, New History, book III) – a mere 16 years later Rome was sacked and the fall of the western Roman Empire was essentially complete. Dionysius of Halincarassus became a kind of prophet when he wrote:
“whatever the cause of the extinction [of the fire in Vesta’s temple], it is a sign warning of the destruction of the city [Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book II].”
What other rituals are recorded regarding Vesta in her domestic (as opposed to State) context? Ovid wrote:
“It was once the custom to sit on long benches by the fire, and believe the Gods were present at the meal … Something of ancient custom has passed to us: a clean dish contains the food offered to Vesta. See, loaves are hung from garlanded donkeys, and flowery wreaths veil the rough millstones. Once farmers only used to parch wheat in their ovens (and the Goddess of ovens has her sacred rites): the hearth baked the bread, set under the embers, on a broken tile placed there on the heated floor. So the baker honours the hearth, and the lady of hearths, and the donkey that turns the pumice millstones [Ovid, Fasti, book VI, 9 June].”
Here we see that donkeys are associated with Vesta – in practice (because the donkey grinds the corn which Vesta traditionally plays a hand in baking) and in myth also, as Ovid charmingly records:
“Red-faced Priapus [a fertility God commonly depicted with a red face and enormous erect phallus] shall I tell of your shame or pass by? It’s a brief tale but it’s a merry one. Cybele, whose head is crowned with towers, called the eternal Gods to her feast. She invited the satyrs too, and those rural divinities, the nymphs, and Silenus [a companion of Bacchus] came, though no one asked him. It’s forbidden, and would take too long, to describe the banquet of the Gods: the whole night was spent drinking deep. Some wandered aimlessly in Ida’s shadowy vales [a region associated with Cybele], some lay, and stretched their limbs, on the soft grass. Some played, some slept, others linked arms and beat swift feet threefold on the grassy earth. Vesta lay carelessly, enjoying a peaceful rest, her head reclining, resting on the turf. But the red-faced keeper of gardens chased the nymphs and Goddesses, and his roving feet turned to and fro. He saw Vesta too: it’s doubtful whether he thought her a nymph, or knew her as Vesta: he himself denied he knew. He had wanton hopes, and tried to approach her in secret, and walked on tiptoe, with a pounding heart. Old Silenus had chanced to leave the donkey he rode by the banks of a flowing stream. The God of the long Hellespont was about to start, when the donkey let out an untimely bray. Frightened by the raucous noise, the Goddess leapt up: the whole troop gathered, and Priapus fled through their hands. The people of Lampsacus [located in Turkey – known as a centre of the cult of Priapus] sacrifice this animal to him, singing: ‘rightly we give the innards of the witness to the flames.’ Goddess, you deck the creature with necklaces of loaves, in remembrance: work ceases: the empty mills fall silent [ie, bakers and millers cease work and celebrate the Vestalia on 9 June] [Ovid, Fasti, book VI, 9 June].”
The essence of Vesta
A pattern emerges among ancient and contemporary scholarly descriptions of Vesta; she can be described as the Goddess of sacred fire that protects the people who gather around her. Hers is the hearth fire, the fire of home, of families, of tribes and of united peoples (such as the ancient Romans). Her fire is pure, sterile and incorruptible; as it is clean, it cleanses, it sterilises, it purifies. She is a Goddess of sacred fire and a Goddess of the earth – for fire lies at the centre of the earth (this was the belief in ancient times and in our own times scientists estimate that the centre of the earth is circa 4000 degrees Celsius). Aside from the ritual hearth fire of homes and united communities, she is associated with bakers, bread, donkeys and virginity, which was perhaps regarded as the very highpoint of sacred ritual purity – hence the strict requirement that Vesta’s priestesses be virgins so that:
“they may keep the sacred flame [of Rome] ever burning and inviolable, and that women may learn that the purest chastity constitutes the perfection of their nature [Cicero, On the Laws, book II]”.****
Contemporary rites in honour of Vesta
Today, contemporary realties mean that keeping a continuous hearth fire burning, or at least smouldering when not burning, is both impractical and possibly dangerous. I have seen electric or battery operated faux flames that can run more or less continuously but the flame is false and hence surely devoid of the spirit of great Vesta. The regular lighting of a candle and the invocation of her name is, I confess, as close as I can practically get to bringing Vesta’s presence in my home (although I do light a more complete fire in her honour from time to time on my balcony, when I – infrequently – engage in more elaborate rituals to honour the Gods). I do not even have a fireplace, though I would love one, and that is surely the most proper altar to Vesta. Regardless, she is still core to my interpretation and practice of Roman polytheism, one could even say that she is at the centre of it.*****
The last Vestal Virgin
Although I have avoided detailed discussion of Vestal Virgins – because they are so well and so plentifully discussed elsewhere – I do want to mention a poignant though melancholy story about the last Vestal Virgin, as movingly recorded by Zosimus – who was himself one of the last great polytheistic historians of the classical world:
“When Alaric [a Visigoth king who would eventually sack Rome in 410 CE] was near Rome, besieging its inhabitants, the [largely Pagan] senate suspected Serena [favourite niece of diehard Christian Emperor Theodosius and wife of Stilico/Stilicho – a Christian general who is said to have ordered the sacrilegious burning of the Sibylline Oracles in 405 CE] of bringing the Barbarians against their city … she suffered justly for her impieties toward the Gods, which I am now about to relate. When the elder Theodosius … arrived at Rome [in the 380s/390s], and occasioned in all persons a contempt and neglect of divine worship … the priests of both sexes were dismissed and banished, and the temples were deprived of sacrifices. Serena, insulting the deities with derision, was determined to see the temple dedicated to the mother of the Gods [generally thought to have been the temple of Magna Mater – I believe Rhea is referred to in the original manuscript, which is in Greek]. In this perceiving some ornaments around the neck of the statue of [Magna Mater], suitable to the divine worship that was paid to her, she took them off the statue, and placed them upon her own neck. An aged woman, who was the only one remaining of the Vestal Virgins, upbraided her severely for so impious an action. Serena not only returned very violent language, but commanded her attendants to drive or carry her away. Notwithstanding, the old woman, as she was leaving the place, prayed that whatever was due to such impiety might fall on Serena, her husband, and children. Serena did not notice what she had said, but left the temple pleased with the ornaments she had obtained. Yet afterwards she was frequently visited by an appearance, not only imaginary, in her dreams, but real, when she was awake, which predicted her death. Other persons likewise beheld the same appearance. So far did that just power of vengeance, whose office it is to punish the wicked, discharge its duty, that although Serena knew what would happen, she was without caution, and submitted that neck which she had decorated with the attire of the Goddess, even to a halter [ie, she was executed in 409 CE]. It is likewise said that [her husband] Stilico, for an impiety not much unlike this of which Serena was guilty, did not escape the secret hand of vengeance … for he indeed died in the most wretched and miserable manner [Zosimus, New History, book V].”
* For discussion of Vestal Virgins see, inter alia, S Takács Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons at 81 and following, M Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History at 51 and following; romereborn.virginia.edu and penelope.uchicago.edu.
** For example see M Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History at 53; Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Penguin ed) at 450; glossary in Oxford World’s Classics edition of Ovid’s Fasti at 184; R Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome at 39 and 74; J Tatlock, Greek and Roman Mythology at 98-100; C Littleton (ed), Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology, Volume 6, at 773.
*** In the notes to Ovid’s Fasti as published by Oxford World Classics (translated by Anne and Peter Wiseman) at 145.
**** I acknowledge that in stating this Cicero almost certainly proceeds, at least partly, from a sexist viewpoint, however I tend to agree that chastity (or sexual fidelity) is a commendable virtue.
*****Postscript (July 2014): since writing this post I have bought a statue of Hestia (thus Vesta) for my household shrine – as I cannot keep a continuous flame burning in my home. I also composed a couple of prayers to Vesta, which can be seen in a subsequent post – Prayer to Vesta.