Vestal Virgins – Part 2/3: Origin, Festivals & Downfall

Origin

Daughter of Saturn, venerable dame,
Who dwell’st amid great fire’s eternal flame,
In thee the gods have fix’d their dwelling place,
Strong stable basis of the mortal race.

Vesta is the Latin form of the word Hestia, who was the daughter of Chronos (Time) and Rhea (Earth) in Roman legend. It is believed that the cult originated in B.C. 715 at the time of the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius. However, this is just the recorded history. The history of Vestal virgins goes back much further, possibly to the times of Romulus.

There is even a legend that Romulus sprung from the sacred fire, birthed by the union of a ‘pure’ virgin (Ilia) and the God of Mars by way of rape (!). When it was discovered that she was unable to perform her official duties due to pregnancy, she and her unborn sons were condemned to be put to death. The story of Remus and Romulus could be found here, but it is astounding that some legend has rape as a basis. Or perhaps not. Even the best of stories is often misogynist. This day came to be known as the Lupercalia and was later turned into St. Valentine’s day, reaffirming that there is nothing new under the sun.

A text from Cicero quotes:

They held, he says, that the highest and ethereal nature of heaven, that is, of fire, which by itself produced all things, was without that part of the body which contained the productive organs. Now this theory might have been suitable to Vesta if she had been called a male. For it is on this account that they esteem Vesta to be a virgin, inasmuch as fire is an inviolable element; and nothing can be born from it, since it consumes all things, whatever it has seized upon.

The belief was that there was no need for a statue of Vesta, since the fire and Vesta were one. Her depiction varied with time. On some Roman coins she was depicted with a veil, while there are also pictures of her as a beautiful woman. Both the Goddess Vesta and the Vestal Virgins had statues scattered throughout Rome, in a tribute to their importance.

Festival of Vesta

As seen in the previous post, the Vestals had a festival all to themselves. Though the date was 9th June, the ceremonies would start on the 5th and last until the 15th of June. According to Propertius, “Vesta was then poor, and content with a procession of wreathed asses.” The legend behind this has to do with the protection of the virginity of Vesta. The ass brayed loudly and woke up Vesta, who then saved herself from the attentions of Priapus. In return for this help, the grateful Vesta adorned the ass with a garland made of loaves and freed it from the millstone to which these animals were often tethered.

The women had access to the inner sanctum of the temple of Vesta, which opened every year on 7th June. On the 9th, women started walking barefoot to the temple to make offerings of salted grain cakes and this lasted for another eight days. On 15th June, after all the ceremonies had been conducted, the temple is swept completely, and closed again. The garbage generated was traditionally swept down into the Tiber. The donkeys were released from work and decorated with flowers.

Downfall

It was only in around 380 AD, when Christianity gained power that the worship of the Vesta and other Roman gods and goddesses were banned, following the suppression of all other religions other than Christianity, a tactic which was to continue for a few centuries in the region.  Except for around 400 temples retained to avoid a public outcry, all others were demolished. Since 376 AD, the Vestal Virgins did not receive any State support and the fires of Vesta were finally extinguished in 394 AD. Rome had fallen.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. scribblehappy
    Jun 08, 2012 @ 06:18:48

    Ah, Lupercalia! It’s a pleasure to be suddenly reminded of long-forgotten words. The feast of Lupercalia found a mention in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which was part of our course in class 10th, so we got to study it in some detail. Had completely forgotten about it, though!

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