Vestal Virgins – Part 1/3: A Roman Cult

Women in general had fewer rights in the past, but let us look at a group of women, who while still struggling with high expectations and major restrictions, still had more rights than the average female population of the time. Vestal virgins in the Roman times were more than just virgins; they were the light and spirit of Rome, and were believed to hold the prosperity of the Empire in their hands. That is power for you!

What are Vestal Virgins?

On 1st March, the Pontifex Maximus extinguished the fire of Rome and rekindled it with the help of the Vestal Virgins in the locus intimus of the temple. This was the annual ritual designed to protect Rome.

The Vestal virgins were an order of six priestesses whose main purpose was to keep the fire in the centre of Rome burning. It was believed that this fire, if it went off, would destroy Rome. The Vestals tended to this fire and kept it burning and brought it to the temples for sacrifices or other holy rituals.

They also had other religious duties, though tending the fire was their main duty. The Vestals were connected to temples and one of their main duties was to draw and carry all the water needed for ritualistic purposes. It was also their duty to provide mola salsa (a type of salty wafer) and the salt to be sprinkled over the sacrifices. The corn for this was picked by three elder Vestals from the first harvest and an offering made of this cake was generally seen as a bloodless sacrifice, just as effective. They were invested with the care of the Palladium and other sacred objects and along with the priests, kept them safe and in good order.

Another main duty was maintain their virginity. Remaining a virgin was seen as an essential part of the sisterhood and any man who desecrated one of the Vestals was leaving himself open to a very painful death, as it meant he was attacking the sanctity of Rome. They were invited to attend State ceremonies and were usually a hallowed part of the procedure. In some of these ceremonies, and sometimes even when there were no State ceremonies, the Vestals would offer public prayers for the well-being of Rome, as part of their duties. In State processions, the Vestals came in the rear because ‘all prayer and sacrifice alike come last’.

The Vestals were expected to attend major Roman festivals as well. There was one interesting event that took place on 6th March,  a sacrifice to the Vestals. During the Festival of Fordicidia, the Vestals burnt the calves of the sacrificial cow to purify the people.

A festival was dedicated to the Vestals on the 9th of June.

How the system worked

Do not understand Vesta as anything other than a living flame;
You see that no bodies have been born from a flame.
Therefore, she is a virgin by right, who yields no seeds,
Nor receives them and she loves companions in virginity.

Little girls between the ages of six to ten were chosen to be trained to be the priestesses of Vesta, and once initiated into the Vesta cult, these girls remained Vestal Virgins and fulfilled their sacred duties for a tenure of 30 years. The girls were not normal girls, but children from most highly patrician families.

These girls were separated from their families and went to live in a house with the other priestesses, called the Atrium Vestae, which was located just behind the Temple of Vesta, making it easier for the virgins to fulfil their duties and go to and from the temple.

At its height, the Vestal Virgins were 18 women separated into three categories: one, the novices who learned about their duties, ceremonies and appropriate behaviour for ten years; two, the actual life of a Vesta; and three, the elders who spend ten years instructing the youngsters and maintain discipline. After this period of thirty years, the Vesta may marry and be a normal citizen, but unlike other women, will never be subject to the men in her life.

The Vestals were dressed differently in the dresses of priestesses. They wore their hair in a style that was similar to the traditional hairdo of brides on their wedding day known as sex crines.

Brides are adorned with six braids, because this was the most ancient style for them. Which indeed the Vestal Virgins also use, whose chastity for their own men / brides from others.

They used vittae, bands of cloth to tie up the hair and then covered their head with a white cloth called suffibulum. Their shoes were white and made from the skin of the animals that were often sacrificed at the temple. Much of the Vestal Virgins’ clothing and everything they did as part of their duty, depicted their sanctity.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. scribblehappy
    May 29, 2012 @ 04:31:52

    So they were allowed to get married after they’d been Vestal virgins for thirty years–but by that time they’d already be pushing forty. Wasn’t that considered too old for marriage in those days? And weren’t men intimidated by the thought of marriage to a woman who would never be subject to them?

    • Fem
      May 29, 2012 @ 07:53:11

      Indeed! Most probably did not get married, but there are known instances of a couple of women who did marry for love. But hey, any day this than being the property of a man with no rights of any sort.

  2. Aditya Kane
    May 29, 2012 @ 12:59:26

    Considering Roman views on marriage – there were quite a few instances of women getting married around 40. Divorces were not a big deal and at some points in their history even married women were not exactly expected to remain chaste. This of course existed in the elite roman society and not the plebs.

    Vestals usually were the lucky ones as they were not married off at a early age or were bearing several children (which was quite life threatening). They also were probably better of than their male counterparts who almost compulsorily were required to enlist.

  3. Sruti
    Jun 03, 2012 @ 07:09:01

    Eagerly waiting for the next part!

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