God of the Month: Vesta

Vesta, the Roman Goddess of the Hearth Fire, is usually represented by the flame, which is the eternal fire. Originally her cultus was based in the home, with the family making daily sacrifices at their lararium (altar). Later, King Numa Pompilius (715-673 BCE) set up a place for state worship for this Goddess.

King Numa placed Her House (Aedes, which is not a temple) on Palatine Hill. Resembling the circular thatched homes of the early Romans, this sacred place housed the holy relics of Rome. The six Vestal Virgins, who attended the sacred flame, guarded these items. (One was the Palladium, a statue made by Minerva, Herself, which protected Rome.)

The Goddess Vesta is more than the hearth fire. Her flame at the lararium acts as the axis mundi between the worlds. As the central axis, her flame receives the bodies of the dead, thereby connecting this world with the Di Inferi, the Gods of the Underworld. The fire becomes a bond between the living and the dead. Her flame also reaches up to the heavens, enabling Di Consentes, the Celestial Gods to traverse it to the world of the humans. The keeping of Vesta’s flame maintains the sacred contract between the people and the Gods.

Starting June 7, the inner sanctum (penus) is open to women. For the Vestalia, the Vestal Virgins and the women cleaned and purified both the relics and the area. Later the Vestal Virgins carried the debris to the Tiber River. (Legend has it that the accumulation of debris formed a new island. The temple of Aesculapius, the God of Healing, was located on this island.)

Modern Roman Polytheists celebrate the Vestalia (June 7-15) in various ways. Some will clean their houses, others their stoves. One theory is that the stove and oven is the modern hearth. (I would add the microwave.) I do daily prayers to Vesta at my lararium, and clean my oven on the Vestalia.

“Vesta, watch over him who tends the Holy Fire. Live well, fires, o undying flames, live long, I pray.” Ovid, Fasti 3.426-28

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