Vesta

Landscape with Vesta temple in Tivoli, Italy, c. 1600.

Vesta was the virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family in Roman mythology, analogous to Hestia in Greek mythology. She has no distinct personality, plays no part in the myths and is never depicted: the sacred flame was her numinous presence.

Deity

Vesta was introduced in Rome by King Numa Pompilius. She was a native Roman deity (some authors suggest received from the Sabine cults), sister of Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hera and Demeter, and presumably the daughter of Saturn and Ops (or Rea). However, the similarity with the cult of Greek Hestia is notable. Vesta too protected familial harmony and the res publica. Apollo and Neptune had asked for her in marriage, but she refused both, preferring to preserve her virginity, whose symbol was the perpetually lit fire in her circular fane next to the Forum which the Romans always distinguished from a temple by calling it her "house".

As Goddess of the Hearth she was the symbol of the home, around which a newborn child must be carried before it could be received into the family. Every meal began and ended with an offering to her:

Vesta, in all dwellings of men and immortals
Yours is the highest honor, the sweet wine offered
First and last at the feast, poured out to you duly.
Never without you can gods or mortals hold banquet.

Each city too had a public hearth sacred to Hestia, where the fire was never allowed to go out. If a colony was to be founded, the colonists carried with them coals from the hearth of the mother-city with which to kindle the fire on the new city's hearth

Vestales

The fire was guarded by her priestesses, the Vestales. Every March 1 the fire was renewed. It burned until AD 391, when the Emperor Theodosius I forbade public pagan worship. One of the Vestales was Rea Silvia, who with Mars conceived Romulus and Remus (see founding of Rome).

The Vestales were one of the few full time clergy positions in Roman religion. They were drawn from the patrician class and had to observe absolute chastity for 30 years (they were also called the Vestal virgins). They could not show excessive care of their person, and they must not let the fire go out. The Vestal Virgins lived together in a house near the Forum (Atrium Vestae), supervised by the Pontifex Maximus. On becoming a priestess, a Vestal Virgin was legally emancipated from her father's authority. If a Vestal broke her vow of chastity before the 30 years were up, she was condemned to be buried alive in the Campus Sceleris ('Field of Wickedness'); this is what probably happened to Rhea Silvia.

The Vestales wore a tunica, a simple dress that they used for both the temple and everyday life (people in Rome usually dressed one way at home and another for the outdoors). In Italian, the vestaglia (dressing-gown) is named after the clothes worn by the Vestales.

Vestalia

Vesta was celebrated at the Vestalia, June 7 to June 15. On the first day of the festivities the penus Vestae (the curtained sanctum sanctorum of her temple) was opened, for the only time during the year, for women to offer sacrifices in.

Household Worship of Vesta

Vesta was the god of the hearth at the centre of atrium and home. In house Vesta was particularly important as goddess of hearth and fire. Vesta particularly important to women of household as hearth was where food was prepared and next to it the meal eaten with offerings being thrown in to it seeking omens (the future) form the way it burned.

References

Hamilton, Edith (1942). Mythology, Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0316341142.

See also

Roman religion: Roman festivals, Roman mythology, Founding of Rome, Hestia, Caca, Juturna, Vestal Virgin, Similarities between Roman, Greek, and Etruscan mythologies

Other: Rhea Silvia, Romanian mythology, Pontifex Maximus, List of deities, Amulius

The asteroid 4 Vesta

Roman mythology series

Major deities

Apollo | Ceres | Diana | Juno | Jupiter | Mars | Mercury | Minerva | Venus | Vulcan

Divus Augustus | Divus Julius | Fortuna | Lares | Pluto | Quirinus | Sol | Vesta

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