Vesta, the Roman Goddess of Sacred Fire

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Vesta is a Roman Goddess who represents sacred fire and her name is cognate with the names of other Goddesses of the hearth fires who are reconstructed as having the Proto-Indo-European form *Aeusos. Vesta was a very important Goddess to the Romans and we have a great deal of information about her including an invocation and descriptions of the festivals, temples, and other elements that represent the cultus of this Goddess.

Vesta is addressed directly by Ovid in the Fasti, (lines 249-250 in Book 6), using the following invocation:

Vesta, fave! tibi nunc operata resolvimus ora,
ad tua si nobis sacra venire licet.

“O Vesta, grant me thy favor! In thy service now I open my lips, if it is lawful for me to come to thy sacred rites.” Ovid was concerned that he would not be permitted to attend because he was not a woman.

An imaginative representation of the process of feeding the fire of Vesta from a steel engraving by the Illman bros. of 1886. The process of keeping the sacred fire going is shown in this engraving titled “School of the Vestal Virgins” from Museum of Antiquities. This is a typical Victorian style of image, although the original picture caption says that it is based on a wall painting at Pompeii. In any case, it shows clearly how olive oil was poured into the sacred fire periodically to keep it going. Ghee (clarified butter) is used in the same way in India. However, in India, girls learn this at home from their mothers.

Sacred Space
The Temple of Vesta was the heart of Rome and the continuance of her sacred fire was considered essential for the continuance of the city of Rome. The temple was round and probably had a double roof covered with tiles in classical times.

Sacred Time
The Goddess Vesta is honored on about the 15th of every month, which would have coincided with the Ides or Full Moon, originally. She is especially honored at three major holidays in the year, the Vestalia in June, on the Ides (the 13th) of September, and at the Lupercalia on February 15th.

As the Roman Goddess of sacred fire, Vesta was worshiped with offerings of spelt, the most sacred grain of the Romans. For these three festivals, the Vestal Virgins offered meal or a cake of spelt which they had prepared in a special way, according to Frazer’s notes on his translation of Ovid’s Fasti. This was prepared in May, presumably following the May Harvest. The recipe for Mola Salsa, or “meal with salt” is discussed by Frazer on pp. 174-175 in Vol. 4. Frazer was not certain whether the mola salsa was made into cakes, or offered as loose grain, but it was clearly made from spelt which was roasted, pounded and ground, and then mixed with salt. #vestalia

Vestalia

The best known Vestalia festival fell on June 9th-15th according to Ovid and other sources. Vesta is the Goddess of bakers since she is a manifestation of the hearth fires that are used to bake bread. Her holiday in June was a baker’s holiday, and the little donkeys were honored for all the work they did for humans, especially for turning the mills that ground the grain. Ovid describes the Vestalia in detail (see Ovid’s Fasti, for June 9-15, Book 6, esp. lines 311-312).

The Feast of the Ass was celebrated by the Roman Pagans during the classical period of Rome to honor their hard-working donkeys. The connection between the grain which was used to make bread, the donkeys who were used to grind the grain and the hearth fire which was used to bake the bread, represented what the Romans considered to be minimally necessary for survival, along with wine of course. This festival is described by Ovid in the Fasti, Book 6, for June 9. As he tells it: “loaves are hung on asses decked with wreaths, and flowery garlands veil the rough millstones.”

Vestalia from a wall painting at Pompeii, published as an engraving in 1898. A fresco in the public market in Pompeii shows little cupids celebrating the Vestalia. The donkeys are decorated with flower wreaths while one of the hourglass-shaped mills stands in the background. The identification of this painting with the Vestalia, or Festival of Vesta is made by Helen Tanzer in The Common People of Pompeii, A Study of the Graffiti and also by J. G. Frazer who prints the picture as plate No. 75 in his translation of Ovid’s Fasti. The engraving of it was published on p. 111, in Pompeii, Its History, Buildings and Antiquities, in 1898, and the picture closely matches the description in Ovid.

It is possible that the Feast of the Ass was a somewhat later development in classical Rome. Cato, writing in the second century BCE, says: “There is no holiday for mules, horses or donkeys, except the family festivals,” in Chapter 138 in De Agri Cultura. But Cato was rather hard-hearted and it may have been that he just didn’t celebrate it but other people did at the time. The Romans had a number of celebrations for their animals including the Summer Solstice for the Goddess Diana, when they decorated their hunting hounds with flower garlands and had a general party.

This brief description indicates the importance of the worship of Vesta in Roman religion, and as the Roman form of one of the Great Goddesses of the Indo-Europeans, she represents the hearth fires which are considered essential both for ritual and for survival. [fuggle26]

References

The Calendar of the Roman Republic by Agnes Krisopp Michels, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1967.
Fasti of Ovid, see Publi Ovidi Nasonis, Fastorum Libri Sex,
The Golden Bough by James George Frazer, MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1919-1920 (12 vol. edition).
M. P. Cato on Agriculture with English translation by W.D. Hooper, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1936, Loeb Classical Library dual edition. The usual title of the Latin text is Cato’s De Agri Cultura.
Museum of Antiquities by L. W. Yaggy and T. L. Haines, Law, King & Law Publishing House, Chicago, 1886.
On Roman Time: The Codex-Calendar of 354, by Michele Renee Salzmann, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1990.
Oxford Latin Dictionary ed. by P. G. W. Hare, Oxford, at the Clarendon Press, 1982.
Pompeii, Its History, Buildings and Antiquities, ed. by Thomas H. Dyer, George Bell & Sons, London, 1898.
Publi Ovidi Nasonis, Fastorum Libri Sex, ed. with translation by J. G. Frazer, MacMillan and Co. Ltd., London, 1929. Ovid’s Fasti, as it is usually called, is available on the net in the Loeb Classical Library dual language edition.

Good External Links
Religio Romana is an excellent (and scholarly!) source for information about Roman Pagan religion.
Muses Realm is a little less scholarly but still has a lot of good information and better insight than a lot of supposedly more scholarly sources.
link with pictures of the temple and of Vestal Virgins but no pictures of the Goddess.

© 2007, last updated 3/1/2015, piereligion.org/vesta.html