The goddess Vesta is an important and interesting goddess from ancient Roman mythology. The daughter of the supreme god, Jupiter, she would influence both men and women throughout the Roman Empire.
Vesta was the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Hestia; like her Greek counterpart, Vesta was considered to be the goddess of the domestic hearth as well as the personification of the ceremonial flame.
Ceremonies in Vesta’s name were conducted by the Vestal Virgins. The Vestal Virgins have been of great interest to historians for decades; these women and their sexual status have been at the centre of debate for decades. It seems that consensus has generally been reached over the view that the holiness of the priestesses is to be directly related to their virginity and purity (Beard, p.12).
These women, young girls from noble families, would honour the goddess by serving Vesta in her temple for 30 years and taking a vow of chastity. The analogy with the Vestals is clear: they were in constant contact with the deity and therefore had always to abstain from sexual contact with men. Thus their sacred and virginal status was defined (Beard, p.13). It has been suggested that the priestesses were the living copies of the goddess herself. The chief occupation of these priestesses was to tend the sacred fire. If by mischance the flame should be extinguished, it must be rekindled by glasses from the sun itself, and the unfortunate Vestal was severely chastised by the Pontifex Maximus, who, under the Republic and the Empire, selected the Vestals, and had general oversight of them (Bennett, p.36).
A festival held in Vesta’s name (the Vestalia) was held on the 9th of June (Bennett, p.35) and a theory emerged regarding the origins of this festival. It is believed that the Vestalia was a “primitive ritual in which the goddess was viewed as the patroness of the home, not of its reverend hearth, but of its welcome and sustaining loaf. It was the feast of the bread-makers, when all the millstones were crowned with wreaths and the poor asses that turned them had a holiday, being, indeed, the very celebrants in the procession around the city” (Bennett, p.35).
In art, Vesta is usually shown draped in a long robe, wearing a veil on her head, and sometimes carrying in one hand a lamp, in the other a javelin. It has been suggested by scholars that the lamp and he javelin are her original symbols.
Vesta is an important figure in the Roman pantheon and her influence can be seen throughout the history of the Roman culture.
Beard, Mary (1980) The Sexual Status of the Vestal Virgins, The Journal of Roman Studies, The Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.
Bennett, Florence (1913) A Theory Concerning the Origins and Affiliations of the Cult of Vesta, The Classical Weekly, Classical Association of the Atlantic States.