The Vestalia: Celebrating Vesta and Purifying Rome

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17th century picture by Wenceslas Hollar depicting Vesta and the sacred flame in the inner sanctum of her shrine. In the public domain.

This is a 17th century picture depicting Vesta and the sacred flame in the inner sanctum of her shrine. Painting by Wenceslas Hollar, Image courtesy of University of Toronto.

Vesta was an ancient Roman goddess of the domestic and civic hearth fire. Romans held her annual festival of the Vestalia between the 7th and 15th of June.

The Vestalia marked a pause in everyday life as the Romans honoured Vesta and  purified her shrine. It was a time to commemorate the benefits she had brought to the city — and to ensure the continued safety and well-being of Rome and her people.

Who Was Vesta?

Vesta was an Italic deity whose cult was popular in Pompeii and Latium before either Romulus or the legendary King Numa introduced her to archaic Rome.

According to  Roman mythology, Vesta was the third daughter of the god Saturnus. Unlike her sisters Juno and Ceres, she did not marry but remained a virgin. She represented the life force of the earth; its ‘vital force’ from which she took her name and which her sacred flame represented.

The Domestic Cult of Vesta

Along with the Penates, Vesta was one of the guardians of the home. According to Ovid, the term vestibule, the forecourt of the home, reputedly derives from her name. This room was traditionally the location of the domestic hearth fire which provided heat and light to the household. Followers believed that Vesta guarded this fire.

Here, in the earliest times, the family would have cooked, worked and socialised. Even when the family carried out these functions elsewhere in the Roman house, it was traditional to leave an offering to Vesta on a special plate on a low altar in the atrium of the house.

Vesta later became associated with the greek goddess Hestia.  Hestia was also a goddess of the hearth. But Vesta was more than simply a domestic goddess. She was also one of the twelve Di Consentes, the state gods whose statues stood in the forum. She was also the guardian of the ‘vital force’ of Rome, its undying flame. This made Vesta the protector of the Roman state.

The Public Cult of Vesta

This sacred flame had, from the earliest times, burnt in the heart of the city of Rome, in the shrine of Vesta in the southeast corner of the Forum Romanum. This was not a temple as it was never consecrated but instead an aedes sacra or  sacred building.

Originally a thatched hut with ‘walls woven from pliant wicker’ Vesta’s shrine was re built several times, until its last incarnation in the late republic by which time the Romans replaced the straw with ‘roofs of bronze.’ The shrine was then relocated to the palatine hill by the emperor Augustus.

But one constant was the shape. The shrine of Vesta was always a circular building, to emulate the earth, according to Ovid. There was no statue of Vesta in her shrine, but in its inner sanctum, along with the sacred flame were certain archaic sacred objects.

One was the  palladium, the ‘pledge of Rome’s fate’ which, according to legend, Aeneas rescued from Troy. The second was the fascinum, an erect phallus that averted evil.

Rome’s only female priesthood, the vestal virgins, guarded  and protected the sacred flame and sacred objects until the abandonment of the cult of Vesta in 394 AD.

The Time of the Vestalia

Romans observed the Vestalia between the 7th and 15th day of June. During this period, the Romans honoured Vesta as the guardian of Rome with ceremonies and processions before purifying her shrine on the last day of the festival.

Followers considered the period of the Vestalia as nefastus  or ‘unlucky.’ They conducted no public business and celebrated no marriages until after the festival was over and ‘fiery Vesta gleams with a clean floor,’ as Ovid describes the act of purification.

From the 7th June onwards, women were allowed to enter the inner sanctum of the goddess to make offerings to Vesta. It was customary to approach the shrine barefoot, not as a sign of humility but in remembrance of the time when the forum area was a was a marsh that ‘ none would approach in shoes.’

Offerings and Processions on the 9th of June

The 9th of June was the a day of holiday and celebration. For one of only three times in the year,the vestal virgins would prepare mola salsa, a sacred bread used as an offering to their goddess. They made mola from spelt  gathered on specific days in May, mixed with salt and water from the sacred spring of Juturna which was near the goddesses’ shrine. The vessels containing this water were not allowed to touched the ground, to preserve the sanctity of the liquid.

The bread was then offered, along with oil and wine to  Vesta in her innermost shrine. This was an offering of thanksgiving, commemorating the time of Rome’s siege by the Gauls in 390 BC when Vesta saved the city by making the city’s dwindling corn appear plentiful.’

In the city itself, the day was a holiday-at least for Rome’s millers and bakers. Donkeys garlanded with violets and loaves of bread headed the processions in honour of the goddess, while their abandoned mill wheels were hung with ‘chains of flowers.’

According to Ovid, bakers had the day off because in the early days of Rome, bread was not baked in ovens but in the sacred ashes of the hearth-Vesta’s domain,  ‘hence the baker respects the hearth and the hearths mistress.’  The donkey was a favourite animal of Vesta’s. According to legend, a donkey’s braying saved her from ravishment by the god Priapus. For this reason, Romans honoured the beast at her festival.

The Purification of the Shrine – and Rome

Sweepings and impurities from Vesta's shrine were carried safely away from Rome to the sea in the waters of the River Tiber. Picture by Delbene. In the public domain.

The waters of the River Tiber safely carried the sweepings and impurities from Vesta’s shrine away from Rome to the sea. Image by Delbene.

On the final day of the Vestalia, the shrine of the goddess was ritually swept out and cleansed. The resulting ‘scourings’ were carefully collected and deposited in the River Tiber so they would be carried away from the city and out to sea.

This cleansing at one time no doubt served a practical purpose but it was also symbolic; a spiritual cleansing, with the resulting impurities removed and neutralised by a fast flowing body of water.

Rome’s guardian had been honoured and the purity of its sacred flame ensured. Normal life could now resume.

© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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