The Roman goddess Vesta is the virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family. She was purported to be the daughter of Saturn and Ops, and the sibling of Jupiter, Neptune, Juno, Ceres, and Pluto. In the Roman religion she resided in the Forum Romanum and her official festival was the Vestalia, celebrated annually June 7-15. Her Greek counterpart was Hestia, or Ἑστία.
Although the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome are the objects of innumerable representations, both pictorial and sculptural, the Roman goddess Vesta and Greek Hestia are surprisingly lacking in imagery.
In Ovid’s account, there are neither simulacra or effigies. Nothing but a perpetual fire occupies the central, circular enclosure of her temple. It seems that the absence, or rarity, of images consecrated to Vesta (or Hestia, her parallel) in a culture which is otherwise so iconophilic is a conundrum. Why the secrecy of such an important figure as she was surrounded by a throng of statues? Neither the Greeks or Romans put a limit of the cult of images; nevertheless, they kept, right in the center, a temple without images.
Vesta-Hestia is, above all, a goddess of the hearth. She is in the center, the navel, of the home. The hearth is a symbol of permanence , of immutability, of centrality, all equally characteristic of Hestia.
Hestia, the Greek Goddess
Without going into much detail, let’s recall the principal traits of Hestia, this imageless goddess, whom few stories define and who seems to stand apart from the quarrels of the Olympians.
Hestia is the daughter of Cronus and Rhea (their first child according to Hesiod’s Theogony). She begged Zeus, after his defeat of the Titans, to grant her the privilege of always remaining a virgin. She was courted in vain by Poseidon and Apollo, according to the Homeric Hymns to Aphrodite. Zeus granted Hestia her request which gave her unique status in ritual. In each ceremony, she was to receive from mortals the first and last invocation, the first and last sacrifice. She would also take her place at the center of the home, in the hearth (Greek Estia) which her name denotes.
Thus, Hestia is the goddess of the hearth, whose temple was found in the center of the city. The perpetual fire, the ignis Vestae, constituted a hearth for Rome, just as Hestia koin was the political center of Athens. Additionally, the political symbolism of the common public hearth expressed the center as a common denominator of all the dwellings which constituted the polis.
Unlike all other temples, which are quadrangular, Vesta’s sanctuary is round. All the goddess’ power is, in effect, on earth. Because the hearth and earth were symbols of the home, the sanctuary consecrated to Vesta, due to the sacredness of its origin, did not need to be inaugurated. It is aedes sacra rather than templum.
There is a primacy attached to Vesta, both in time and place. Ovid recalls, “In praying we begin by addressing Vesta, who occupies the first place (quae loca prima tenet)” (VI, Lines 303-304, p. 343). She is assigned primacy in place, and also, especially in Greece, primacy in the very time of ritual. Hestia was always invoked first, no matter which god or goddess was the main object of the ceremony. Hesiod, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Euripedes, and Plato are unanimous in indicating that every meal and every ritual should begin with a prayer or sacrifice to Hestia.
The first Homeric Hymn to Hestia says that without her it would be impossible to have feasts or festivals because neither could be started nor brought to a close.
In Rome, if the Vesta’s sacred fire went out the very existence of the city would be endangered. It’s as if the sense of time were assured by perpetuating the sacred, feminine, fire of Vesta. When a new household was founded, the bride’s mother used to light a torch at the domestic altar in her own home and carry it before the couple to their new dwelling, kindling the first domestic fire with its flame. Likewise, when a colony set out from the mother city to establish itself it also carried along a fire from the central fire for the new city’s altar.
All these traits have to do with the conformity of time, as well as fixity in space. Above all, Hestia signifies stability and permanence.
The trait which best defines Hestia-Vesta is chastity or virgnity. The principle, above all, has to do with the prohibition of all sexual relations. In the passage from the Fasti, Ovid invokes the goddess with trepidation and respect as he prepares himself to sing her hymn.
A man was not allowed to see this goddess. And it is impious to represent her, even by means of the poetic imagination. Ovid becomes aware of the goddess’ numinous emanations, but he doesn’t see her: “Not indeed that I saw thee, O Goddess…” She’s a presence, not a vision. What Ovid respectfully expresses is a prohibition against representing Vesta. This ritual counterpart is expressed in the sanctuary without images.
The denial of access to men is thus the guarantee of Vesta’s virginity or chastity. Any form of penetration by a man into the sacred sanctum of the purely virginal goddess was a profanation. Not only the seen image, nor the imagined image, was acceptable by men. Men were not supposed to cast their gaze on Vesta, or to form images in their minds.
Hestia-Vesta is not considered a mother goddess because she has not mothered a god; however, she is the precondition for the temple, which is the house of a god. It’s thanks to her that the gods have a dwelling place on earth, a sacred locality, a holy place for communal celebration.
So it is said of Hestia that “in all the temples of the gods she has a share of honor.” Therefore, if Hestia is at home in all the temples, “the hearth in a dwelling is sacred to all the gods.”
Philo’s account of the qualifications of Vesta-Hestia states: the soul cannot become the “House of God” except by becoming a virgin. He insists in the metaphor of building a house as purification of the soul preparing itself to receive god, cleansing itself of the influence of the external world in order to focus strictly on the internal. In essence, the hearth is the center of this interior, where the divine flame burns.
Cicero emphasizes this sense of interiority connected to Vesta. It’s in such terms that he explains why prayers and sacrifices must ritually conclude with her invocation.
“The name Vesta comes from the Greeks, for she is the goddess they call Ἑστία. Her power extends over altars and hearths, and therefore all prayers and sacrifice end with this goddess, because she is the guardian (custos) of the innermost things (rerum intumarum).”
Plato, in his plan for the city, situates in its center the temples of Hestia, Zeus, and Athena (specified in that order) and indicates that these three divinities should also have temples in the twelve districts of the State, in addition to the temples of each district’s special god. Plato assigns a special role to Hestia’s altar with respect to the laws. It’s before her altar that the judges must find the honesty and internal purity which enables them to administer justice. Thus, it’s Hestia the feminine principle in its purest form (which is also to say the principle which requires of the man the sublimation of sensual desires). This guarantees ethical integrity and ensures the moral chastity of the souls of the judges who are about to pronounce sentence. According to Aristotle, in Politics, it’s on the altar of Hestia that magistrates are invested with their authority. The “conscience,” in a sense which touches the most intimate ethos of the psyche, is the altar of Vesta internalized.
The priestesses of the goddess Vesta in ancient Rome are called the Vestals (Latin: Vestales). They cultivated the sacred fire and were ordered to never allow it to go out. Each vestal was to remain unmarried and childless, and to take a 30-year vow of celibacy so that they could remain devoted to studying and observing the State rituals.
The creation of the State supported Vestals priestesshood is attributed to King Numa Pompilius, who reigned 717-673 BC, according to Livy, Plutarch, and Aulus Gellius. Livy states that Numa assigned the Vestal salaries from the public treasury. Aulus Gellius claims that the very first Vestal was taken from her parents and led away by Numa.
The first Vestals, according to Varro, were named Gegania, Veneneia, Canuleia, and Tarpeia.
Over time the Vestals became very powerful and influential in the Roman state. Augustus included the Vestals in all major dedications and ceremonies. Magical powers were even attributed to the Vestals, according to Pliny the Elder.
The chief Vestal (Virgo Vestalis Maxima, “greatest of the Vestals”) oversaw all the efforts of the Vestals, and was present at the College of the Pontiffs. The Vestalis Maxima Occia presided over the Vestals for 57 years, according to Tacitus. The last known chief Vestal was Coelia Concordia, who stepped down when Theodosius disbanded the College of the Vestals.
The Vestalium Maxima was the most important of Rome’s high priestesses. Each Vestal was committed to the priestesshood before puberty (6-10 years old) and sworn to celibacy for 30 years. After her 30-year term of service, each Vestal retired and a new Vestal replaced her. Once retired, a former Vestal was provided a pension and given permission to marry. The Pontifus Maximus, acting as father of the bride, would arrange marriage with a Roman nobleman. It was considered a high honor to marry a former Vestal.
The duties of the Vestals included the maintenance of the fire sacred to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home, collecting water from a sacred spring, preparation of food used in rituals and caring for sacred objects in the temple’s sanctuary. By maintaining Vesta’s sacred fire, from which anyone could receive fire for household use, they functioned as “surrogate housekeepers,” in a religious sense, for all of Rome. Their sacred fire was treated, in Imperial times, as the emperor’s household fire.
The Vestals were put in charge of keeping safe the wills and testaments of various people such as Caesar and Mark Antony. In addition, the Vestals also guarded some sacred objects, including the Palladium, and made a special kind of flour called mola salsa which was sprinkled on all public offerings to a god.
The dignities accorded to the Vestals were significant.
- In an era when religion was rich in pageantry, the presence of the College of Vestal Virgins was required for numerous public ceremonies and wherever they went, were transported in a carpentum, a covered two-wheeled carriage, preceded by a lictor, and had the right-of-way;
- At public games and performances they had a reserved place of honour;
- Vestals gave evidence without the customary oath, their word being trusted without question;
- Vestals were, on account of their incorruptible character, entrusted with important wills and state documents, like public treaties;
- Their person was sacrosanct: death was the penalty for injuring their person and they had escorts to protect them from assault;
- They could free condemned prisoners and slaves by touching them – if a person who was sentenced to death saw a Vestal on his way to the execution, he was automatically pardoned;
- Vestals participated in throwing the ritual straw figures called Argei into the Tiber on May 15.
Allowing the sacred fire of Vesta to die out was a serious dereliction of duty. It suggested that the goddess had withdrawn her protection from the city. Vestals guilty of this offence were punished by a scourging or beating, which was carried out “in the dark and through a curtain to preserve their modesty.”
The chastity of the Vestals was considered to have a direct bearing on the health of the Roman state. When they entered the collegium, they left behind the authority of their fathers and became daughters of the state. Any sexual relationship with a citizen was therefore considered to be incestum and an act of treason. The punishment for violating the oath of celibacy was to be buried alive in the Campus Sceleratus (“Evil Field”) in an underground chamber near the Colline Gate supplied with a few days of food and water.
The College of the Vestals was disbanded and the sacred fire extinguished in 394, by order of the Christian Emperor Theodosius. It’s said that a niece of Theodosius, named Serena, entered the temple and took from the statue of the goddess Rhea Silvia a necklace and placed it upon her own neck. An elderly Vestal, the last of them, saw Serena and rebuked her and called down upon her all just punishment for her act of impiety. According to Zosimus, Serena was then haunted by dreadful dreams predicting her own untimely death.