Vesta (mythology)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Vesta was the virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family in Roman religion. Vesta's presence was symbolized by the sacred fire that burned at her hearth and temples. Her closest Greek equivalent is Hestia.

Contents

Etymology

According to Georges Dumézil (1898–1986), a French comparative philologist (quoting glottologist Emil Benveniste) the name of the goddess derives from Indoeuropean root *(e)eu- amplified to *(e)uee and with an addition of an 's'. This amplified root has two possible forms: *(e)eu-s, to be found in Greek 'heuei', Lat. 'urit', 'ustio' and Vedic 'osathi' all meaning to burn, burning. The second is *(e)u-ee to be found in 'Vesta', Greek 'Hestia'. See also Gallic Celtic 'visc' fire.

Theology

Vesta was the goddess of the hearth of the city of Rome.

Dumezil draws a comparison between Roman religious conceptions and rituals and the relevant aspects of Vedic religion. Sacrificial ritual in Vedic India, required the presence of three fires, two of them being essential.

The so called hearth of the landlord that marks the connexion to Earth of the offerer, i.e. is the marker of the origin of everything in the ritual act. In Vedic ritual such kind of fire must be round as Earth itself is round and also because on Earth there is no distinction in direction without reference to Heaven.

The sacrificial fire that on the contrary must be quadrangular as it is intended to convey the sacrificial offer to Heaven in the form of smoke.

These two fires were laid on a West-East line.

The third fire had the function of protecting the offerers from attacks of evil spirits and was placed to the South, considered a dangerous direction.

Dumezil elaborates that in Rome the whole site of the city itself was considered as an extended sacrificial ground,< with the temple of Vesta performing the function of hearth of the landlord and other temples that of sacrificial fires. He remarks that the temple of Vesta was the only ancient temple in Rome to be built in a round shape and covered with a dome to protect the sacred fire from rain, other temples being quadrangular. Ancient Romans as well as other Indoeuropean people believed Earth is a sphere. Every temple however had to have two fires of which one was a hearth (foculus) and the main was the sacrificial ara.

In this conception the function of defensive fire was performed by the temple of the god Vulcanus that was situated to the South of the city wall, this being in accord with what could be expected from the omology with the Vedic situation.

The Aedes Vestae and the Ignis Vestae being indeed the Hearth of the city of Rome guaranteed its connexion to Earth and its permanence in history. It did not need to be inaugurated as other temples since it was an aedes, not a templum, its power and function being totally limited to Earth and bearing no relation to Heaven and its directions. In other words its function was exclusively terrestrial, implying stability and lasting over time.

It is noteworthy that the sacred fire standing for and representing the terrestrial origin could be lit only by the friction of two pieces of wood, one of them being necessarily an arbor felix auspicious tree (probably an oak) and cave in shape. Water was not allowed into the inner aedes or could stay for longer than indispensable on the nearby premises. It was carried by the Vestales in vessels called futiles which had a tiny foot that made them unstable.

Quite a number of rules of the aedes Vestae we know about can be explained with the comments to omologous rules in Vedic rituals concerning the hearth of the landlord.

In conclusion, Vesta is a symbol and a protector of Rome and its site, the hearth of the great Roman family.

According to Ovid Vesta was indeed the Earth itself, the sacred sphere (orbs) that makes life possible as we know it: "Vesta is the Earth itself, both have the perennial fire, the Earth and the sacred Fire show their see."

The space within which men lived had to be marked and protected by a sacred fire. The sacrality of fire is related to the belief that it is the element at the origin of Earth (the central fire within), of life on Earth and that connects our world with the divine one.

The sacral function of fire is reflected by the peculiar relationship of the Vestals with the rex whom they ritually apostrophated once a year with the phrase: "Vigilasne rex? Vigila!" and their accompanying the Pontifex Maximus in various rites. The atrium Vestae too is frequently called regal.

This connection between fire and Earth is also the reason why the Vestals guilty of unchastity were condemned to be buried alive, an expiation conceived as a token of their belonging and a reparation to Earth.

The Aedes was solemnly swept once a years, on June 15, the last day of the Vestalia. That day was named Q(uando) S(tercum) D(elatum) F(as): since the temple site in historic times was obviously kept clean, this expression is an heritage of high antiquity, an archaic fossil ritual reminiscent of a time when really the sweeping implied the removal of animal droppings.

It is noteworthy that Vesta is invoked as the last in all ritual formulas concerning one or more gods (Vesta extrema). This use is comparable to Agni's in the Rig Veda. Agni is invoked first or last or in both places. In Iranian rituals Atar is always invoked at the end.

Comparative interpretation

Dumezil hints to the significance of fire as the origin and bearer of life in connection to Vesta. Its talismanic value was the reason that caused the accumulation of signa fatalia or pignora harboured in the innermost part of the penis. Servius gives a list of seven, three of which from Troy. The earliest collection was limited and kept secret, though according to Pliny the function of fertility was represented by the image of a male sex organ.

The correspondence of Vesta with Vedic god Agni was noted long ago. Dumezil recalls that in the Indian epic poem Mahabharata in the episodes of Karttikeya, god of war and son of Agni and of Agni and the daughters of Nila is to be found the same theme of the flames as the sex organ of the god.

The fecondating power of sacred fire is testified in Latin mythology by one version of the birth of Romulus, that of the birth of king Servius Tullius (in which his mother Ocresia becomes pregnant after sitting on a fallus appeared among the ashes of the ara of god Vulcanus, by order of Tanaquil wife of king Tarquinius Priscus) and that of the birth of Caeculus, the founder of Praeneste.


All these mythical or semilegendary characters show a mystical mastership of fire. E.g. Servius's hair was kindled by his father without hurting him, his statue was unharmed by fire in the temple of Fortuna Primigenia after his assassination. Caeculus kindled and exstinguished a fire at his will.

In Vedic India the same complex appears as a quality of the divine twins, the Nasatya: they allowed a hero to survive in a basin of fire into which he had been thrown and enjoy as pleasant the bathing.

A much later episode of Roman history has been detected as a revised replication of the same early mythologem. In the fire of the temple of Vesta of year 241 BC L. Caecilius Metellus, consul, dictator and at the time pontifex maximus, saved the pignora Vestae by entering the penus, to which men were not allowed, and according to tradition was blinded in the incident.

Modern scholars have speculated that it would be impossible to cover offices as pontifex and consul for a blind man for more than twenty years. It has been suggested that this episode should be interpreted in the light of the connexion of the gens Caecilia with Caeculus the founder of Praeneste. The use of the story of this incident is paradigmatic of how archaic mythologems common to Indoeuropean heritage were over time reused applied to later history.

Vestales

Vesta's (in some versions she is called Vestia) fire was guarded at her Temples by her priestesses, the Vestales. Every March 1 the fire was renewed. It burned until 391, when the Emperor Theodosius I forbade public pagan worship. One of the Vestales mentioned in mythology was Rhea Silvia, who with the God 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. It was from this that the Vestales were named the Vestal virgins. They could not show excessive care of their person, and they were not allowed to 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 and swore a vow of chastity for 30 years. This vow was so sacred that if it were broken, the Vestal was buried alive in the Campus Sceleris ('Field of Wickedness'). It is likely that this is what happened to Rhea Silvia. They were also very independent and had many privileges that normal women did not have. They could move around the city but had to be in a carriage.

The Vestales had a strict relationship with the rex sacrorum and flamen dialis as is shown in the verses of Ovid about their taking the februae (lanas: woolen threads) from the king and the flamen.

Their relationship with the king is also apparent in the ritual phrase: "Vigilasne rex, vigila!" by which they apostrophated him. The sacrality of their functions is well compounded by Cicero's opinion that without them Rome could not exist as it would not be able to keep contact with gods.

A peculiar duty of the Vestals was the preparation and conservation of the sacred salamoia muries used for the savouring of the mola salsa, a salted flour cake to be sprinkled on sacrificial victims (hence the Latin verb immolare, "to put on the mola, to sacrifice"). This dough too was prepared by them on fixed days. Theirs also the task of preparing the suffimen for the Parilia.

Vestalia

Vesta was celebrated at the Vestalia which took place from 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. Such sacrifices included the removal of an unborn calf from a pregnant cow.

Household worship

Vesta was the goddess of the hearth at the centre of atrium and home. It was in the house and home that Vesta was most important because she was the goddess of the hearth and of fire. Vesta was particularly important to women of the household as the hearth was the place where food was prepared and next to it the meal was eaten with offerings being thrown into the fire to seek the future from the way it burned.

See also





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