Greek mythology preceded Roman mythology; however, both ideologies have correlating gods and goddesses. In Greek mythology, Hestia is the goddess of the hearth, while Vesta is the goddess of the hearth in Roman mythology.
Identical to her Greek counterpart Hestia, Vesta was born to mother, Rhea, and father, Kronos, and was swallowed by her father. She was the first-born but last to be freed, making her both the oldest and youngest sibling.
Vesta was a beautiful goddess who caught the attention of gods Neptune and Apollo. As Vesta did not want to marry and was a peacekeeper by nature, she asked Jupiter if he would grant her permission to remain an eternal virgin. Jupiter granted this request, so Vesta focused herself on tending the fire and keeping the home.
Another version of Vesta’s innocence to be preserved was at the command of Jupiter. Vesta was beautiful, and a war between Neptune and Apollo to win the hand of Vesta would have inflicted great damage. To prevent a war among the gods, Jupiter commanded Vesta to remain innocent and unmarried in order to keep the peace among Olympus.
The Importance of the Hearth and the Fire within the Home
In Roman mythology, the fireplace is the centralized area in the home where the spirits of the family gather. Keeping the fire burning within the fireplace was essential in the upkeep of a home. Sacrifices, offerings, and meals would be prepared within and over the fire, which made it a sacred place within the home.
Modest and Miniscule
As Vesta had chosen to remain a virgin and tend the home fire, there are not many stories about the goddess. Her sisters, Juno and Ceres, had many stories told about their quests and experiences in the world, while Vesta did not.
Vesta would be depicted wearing a modest, full-coverage dress, with the accompaniment of a donkey. The donkey is significantly important to Vesta for two reasons.
First, donkeys were used in mills to help turn the millstones, and Vesta was honored by bakers because of her dedication to the fire. This made donkeys highly favored among the Romans.
Second, her innocence was attempted to be taken from her as she slept. A nearby donkey witnessed the advances and awoke the sleeping Vesta by braying loudly. She was rescued by the braying of the donkey, as well as the help of her brother, Jupiter, who came to her aid.
Vesta was dedicated to her role within the home and by the fire. Vesta was hospitable and generous, yet made sure she never allowed herself to fall in love.
Vesta is represented by the archetypical virgin. The virgin can symbolize more than its literal definition of purity. The virgin can represent the desire to focus on the home, hearth, and family.
Paying Tribute to Vesta: Vestalia & Vestal Virgins
Vesta took her job in the home seriously to make sure the fire was always burning; thus, tributes were paid to Vesta in Roman villages. The Temple of Vesta in Rome was required to burn and must be tended to. The Temple of Vesta was a scared space for the community to visit and worship.
Vestalia was a festival from June 7 – 15 that specifically focused on honoring Vesta. The first day of Vestalia would be recognized by offerings sacrificed by women at the Temple of Vesta. If the curtain was open, mothers who were barefoot and unkempt could come and bring offerings in exchange for blessings upon their family.
On June 9, the donkey would be decorated with crowns and flowers and bits of bread. Donkeys provided much help to bakers through their work in the mill, so it was believed that donkeys should be honored in this time.
The final day of Vestalia, June 15, would be dedicated to cleaning and purifying the Temple of Vesta.
Vestal Virgins were priestesses who vowed abstinence for 30 years to focus on tending to the sacred fire at the Temple of Vesta. There were four to six Vestal Virgins who tended the fire, as well as sought over rituals and protected sacred objects.
The virgins would be chosen at an early age by the chief priest and would vow chastity for 30 years. Once their 30 years had completed, they were free to marry. Few Vestal Virgins would ever marry, as their servitude had been to Vesta for so long.
If a Vestal Virgin had broken her vow, she would be severely punished. Vestal Virgins were highly regarded, which made their punishment so severe. Vestal Virgins, typically, took their designation very serious and few ever broke the vow.
Modern Day References to Vesta
- The brightest asteroid in the sky is named Vesta after the Roman goddess of the hearth.
- Vestalia is still observed in Rome today.
- Weddings during Vestalia were considered unlucky and forbidden.
- Vesta has evolved into becoming the goddess of the home, as she focuses on keeping the fire burning at home and making sure offerings are prepared.
- Vesta is honored in the home by cleaning the hearth and kitchen; areas where a fire is kindled and food is prepared.
The last day of Vestalia was spent purifying the temple in which people had come to make offerings and pray. In homes today, the last day of Vestalia can be spent purifying the rooms that pay tribute to Vesta.