Vesta was the Roman goddess of the hearth and home. If it had anything to do with the hearth such as baking or a tavern that served food, for example, then Vesta was its goddess. The hearth was very important in ancient Rome, because food was cooked there. The family gathered there for warmth and companionship. Today, the hearth is called the kitchen and serves the same purpose. It is the most popular room in a house.
In Greek Mythology she is known as Hestia.
Vesta was the oldest child of the Titans Saturn and Ops. Dad had a habit of eating his children. Jupiter, Vesta’s brother, outran Saturn and freed his siblings. Vesta was the last to be freed, as she was the first to be consumed. This made her both the oldest and youngest among the gods.
She was so beautiful that she became the object of both Apollo’s and Neptune‘s request for her hand. She begged her brother to be allowed to remain a virgin, which he granted. She was so happy that her brother let her remain a virgin that she oversaw his home and hearth. Thus, she became the goddess of home and hearth.
A Word About Fire
All we have to do today to get a fire going is to strike a match. In ancient times, fire was difficult to make, much less to transport. This made fire sacred. It was the manner of making offerings to the gods. People tossed their offerings into the fire, knowing that the gods would then keep the fire going. When people went on a trip, they took a small portion of the fire along. This kept the home fire burning wherever they went.
Being A Goddess
Vesta had a shrine of her own. She was the guardian of the flames, and a fire was kept burning perpetually in her shrine. The shrine was only open to the public once a year, and then only to women. Although popular with both sexes, women were domestic, and Vesta was their personal goddess.
Vesta’s feast days were called Vestalia and lasted for eight days, beginning on March 7. Women would go to the shrine barefoot. This denoted humility.
The fire was relit on March 1. When the feast ended, the shrine was swept clean. The ashes and dirt were then dumped into the Tiber or in a special spot outside the city. It meant bad luck until the ashes were discarded.
It is interesting to note that Vesta’s shrine was rumored to be located atop or very near the cave in which Romulus and Remus, the twins, were raised by a she-wolf. When they grew to manhood, they founded Rome. In ancient Rome, this rumor made the people even more dedicated to Vesta.
The Vestal Virgins
What’s a goddess without priestesses to serve her? Vesta chose children ten years old and under from the best families to be her priestesses. They served for 30 years: ten years studying, ten serving, and the last ten as teachers. The priestesses were sworn to celibacy for the length of their service.
Following their term of service, the Vestal Virgins were paid for their service and allowed to marry. Many chose to remain virgins and lived lives of comfort. The high priest, Pontius Maximus, arranged marriages for the Vestal Virgins within the highest families in Rome. It was considered quite an honor to marry a Vestal.
Many benefits accorded the Vestal who chose to live alone. She could vote, own property, keep documents for the highest families, and she was escorted to games and rode in carriages. The Vestal sat in special boxes with the best view at these games. Death was prescribed for any who would harm a Vestal.
The Vestal Virgins were considered married to Rome. If the Vestal should break her vow of celibacy, she was punished with death for treason to the state. Since it was death to harm a Vestal, she was walled up alive in the shrine. She was given food and water to last only a few days. After that, she was on her own. Over a period of 1,000 years, this offense didn’t happen often, but a few Vestals did die this way.
Icons Of Vesta
You won’t see many busts or other representations of Vesta. Just as Neptune rose from the sea, fire didn’t have a physical representation. However, Vesta is often pictured with her favorite animal, a donkey. She is sometimes pictured with flowers or bread. The donkey in the picture arose from its job turning the wheel that ground wheat into flour. All representations are reminiscent of the hearth and home.