4/05/2008

Goddess of the week - Vesta

Name: Vesta
Location: Rome
Sphere of influence: Home and hearth
Famous statues/portraits: None

Vesta is a very Roman goddess, the safe-keeper of homes and families and a virgin who was not connected with other gods in any relationship drama.

Very little is known about Vesta. There are no great myths about her, there are actually none that has survived to our time. We do not know how she was supposed to look like, her personality or very much else about her. She has sometimes been seen as analogous to the Greek goddess Hestia, but the resemblance apart from being goddesses of the hearth is very slight. And the Vesta cult is too old to have been influenced from Greece.

Her cult was based around the sacred fire, and offerings could be made in the homes by throwing things into the fire. She was particularly venereated by women as the household was considered their sphere.

Her most famous temple, located at the Forum Romanum, Rome, was said to be have been founded by the ancient Roman king Numa and it was also he who, according to legend, founded the pristesshood of the vestals. The temple contained the sacred fire, a fire that was never to go out since that would mean a great catastrophy for Rome, but also a wooden statue of Palas Athena that Aeneas, also according to legend, had brought with him from Troy. The premisses also contained important, stately documents like public treaties and imperial wills. It continued to be used as a city altar, with the fire burning, until emperor Theodosius ordered it to be extinguished and the vestals banned, in about 395 A.D.

The Vestals were one of the few full-time orders of priesthood that existed in Rome. The Vestals were, of course, all women and they were supposed to be chaste. They were taken from the highest families in the city - it was a great honour, and they were sworn to 30 years of chastity. The first ten years were spent in training before becoming full-fledged Vestals. They all lived in a house close to the Temple of Vesta and their main purpose was to look after the fire so it didn't go out (or burn the building down, which archaeological evidence has shown actually happened). They were supervised by the Pontifex Maximus.

(That title is still present in today's Rome, it's the pope that has it - though that is not a task he still carries out.)

The Vestals was a group of women that had rights that few other women in Rome had. They had been emancipated from their father, but had no husband in his place. They were also allowed to travel in a carriage in Rome - which was forbidden for the rest of the population - and they had some of the best places at the Colosseum (where women otherwise were placed far away from the centre of the action), and they were generally held in great respect. After their 30 years of service they were free to marry - and many did so since though they were old (by Roman standards) they were quite wealthy and looked up to.

A Vestal that didn't obey the rules were punished the hard way with being buried alive at Campus Sceleris. This is what supposedly happened to Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, who was a vestal virgin seduced by the god Mars.

The main festivities of the Vesta cult were one on March the 1st when a new fire was lit and the Vestalia, which was a festival celebrated on the 7th to 15th of June every year. It was then that the Roman women could go to the temple to make apporopriate sacrifices.

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