Vesta, Lady of the Flame, Guardian of the Hearth, was the preeminent goddess of Rome. Her name may derive from a root word meaning “to burn.” Although Vesta is identified with the Greek hearth goddess, Hestia, and they possess much in common, they are not the same. Vesta was venerated in Italy long before her identification with Hestia and played a far more significant role in Roman religion than Hestia did in Greece. Vesta was included in virtually every Roman sacrifice. She was consistently the last deity invoked during ceremonies: the polar opposite of Janus.
Vesta’s small circular temple in the Roman Forum was the epicenter of Roman life and religion. Its round shape marked it as architecturally unusual, in comparison to standard quadrangular Roman temples. Vesta’s temple was designed to recall the round huts of the earliest Romans. Vesta was the goddess of Rome’s origins, so sacred and powerful that her archaic traditions could not be changed, even when they fell from fashion elsewhere. Vesta was the last and ultimately only Roman deity served exclusively by a female priesthood.
Vesta’s fire priestesses, the famed Vestal Virgins, lived next door to her temple in a large building arranged around an atrium. Six Vestal Virgins were chosen in childhood by Rome’s high priest, the Pontifex Maximus, from among the daughters of Rome’s most noble families. It was considered an exceptional honor to be asked to serve. Compared to the average Roman woman, the Vestal Virgins possessed many legal and economic privileges, although they also lived under severe restrictions and threat of penalty.
Vestal Virgins served Vesta for thirty years: ten spent learning the Mysteries of Vesta, ten in service to Vesta, and ten training their replacements. They were sworn to celibacy for the thirty years of their service but could marry afterwards. (Because they entered Vesta’s service so young, they were not old women at its conclusion.) If a Vestal broke her vow, she was whipped, then buried alive within the boundaries of Rome. Her lover was publicly whipped to death.
The Vestal Virgins were considered so sacred that if they walked past a condemned man, he was instantly pardoned.
The primary role of the Vestal Virgins was ensuring that Rome’s sacred flame never went out. (If it did, the Vestals were scourged.) If the fire ever went out, it could only be relit the old-fashioned way: by rubbing two sticks together. The fire could not be brought from elsewhere. Vestal Virgins were also responsible for creating mola salsa, sacred ritual salt cakes. Mola salsa was offered to Vesta as a sacrifice; it was also sprinkled on animals before their sacrifice to other deities and used to purify space. Mola salsa was prepared with water drawn exclusively from Juturna’s Well and carried in vessels that were impossible to set down without spilling the contents. Specially prepared salt was pounded with a mortar and then sliced with an archaic iron saw. The salt was mixed with farro wheat gathered on May 7, 9 and 11 only.
Roman Emperor Gratian (ruled 367–378 CE), hostile to Paganism, stopped paying the Vestal Virgins their established salary, diverting funds to the imperial postal service instead. Vesta’s official fire was finally extinguished in 394 CE when Emperor Theodosius banned all devotion to Pagan spirits.
Vesta was also venerated in homes. She is present in all flames. Offerings to Vesta are placed directly into the fire. She is an oracular spirit: information is obtained from Vesta via flame-gazing.
• Vesta Powder is a highly combustible, mass-produced occult powder used to honor Vesta and to dispel general negativity, including gossip, evil spirits, and disturbing auras. It is sometimes sprinkled but more frequently burned in a fireplace, cauldron, or incense burner. Handle with care: it lights with a bang, producing a sudden leaping, flashing flame followed by lots of white smoke.
Vesta was rarely portrayed and even then usually veiled. Instead, she is represented by fire.
saltpeter (Potassium nitrate)
• Her festival, the Vestalia: 9 June-15 June. From the seventh to the fifteenth of June, her sanctuary was open to women exclusively. Women entered her shrine barefoot. The fifteenth was the day for cleaning her shrine. Dirt was disposed of in the Tiber River.
• 1 March, the first day of the Roman year, when Vesta’s fire was ritually re-lit (the New Year was moved to 1 January in 153 BCE honoring Janus).
• Vernal Equinox: branches of bay laurel before the Temple of Vesta were discarded.
- Roman Mythology
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.