Vesta, the virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family

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In Roman mythology, Vesta was the virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family.

Vesta was daughter of Saturn (Chronos) and Opi, sister of Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto, Ceres and Juno. Rarely did Vesta appear in human form; instead, the flames of her temple in the Forum Romanum more frequently served as representations of her. Only the Vestal Virgins, who served as her priestesses and guarded certain precious things within her temple, prepared flour and sacred salt (mola salsa) for formal sacrifices, and maintained Vesta’s sacred fire at the temple hearth were allowed entry. Because it was believed that their virginity was crucial to Rome’s existence, if they were found to be unchaste, they were sentenced to be buried alive. The Vestalia (7–15 June), which celebrated Vesta, was regarded as one of the most significant Roman celebrations since she was seen as the people of Rome’s protector.

Privilege matrons traveled barefoot through the city to the temple during the Vestalia, when they made food sacrifices. Due to Vesta’s significance to Roman religion, her cult survived the emergence of Christianity and continued to exist until it was brutally suppressed by Theodosius I, the first Christian emperor, in AD 391.

Cornelia, the Vestal Virgin, entombed alive surrounded by bones in the dungeon. Line engraving by G. Machetti after B. Pinelli (source)

The few traditions that existed about Vesta and her priestesses were famous for the miraculous conception of a virgin priestess by a phallus that materialized in the holy hearth’s flames. This was a manifestation of the goddess as well as a masculine supernatural entity. According to certain Roman myths, Romulus and Remus, as well as the kind-hearted monarch Servius Tullius, were created in this manner.

Vesta was one of the twelve most revered gods in the Roman pantheon, the Dii Consentes. Hestia is her equivalent in Greek. Tradition holds that the first place where the Trojan refugees settled after fleeing the fall of Troy was Lavinium, the mother-city of Alba Longa. They were brought there by Aeneas and guided by Venus. The belief that Vesta worship was transferred from Lavinium to Alba Longa is demonstrated by the practice of Roman magistrates traveling to Lavinium upon being appointed to positions of greater responsibility in order to offer sacrifices to both Vesta and the household gods of the Roman state, known as Penates, whose images were kept in Vesta’s temple.

Vesta was an equivocal deity at times because of her conflicting link with the phallus, yet being portrayed as a well-mannered divinity who never got involved in the disputes of other gods. The only story associated with Vesta, according to mythographers, was that she was one of the earliest gods and hence entitled to preferential devotion and sacrifices above all other gods. Vesta was rarely directly represented, unlike other gods. Nevertheless, she was represented by her flame, the flaming stick, and a ceremonial phallus (the fascinus).

Young Vestal, by Pauline Auzou
Young Vestal, by Pauline Auzou (source)

Featured image: 2nd-century AD Roman statue of a Virgo Vestalis Maxima. National Roman Museum, Rome

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