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Vesta was the goddess of the hearth; her etymology equivalent was the Greek goddess Hestia. Each goddess had similar cults, though Vesta seemed to have been more honored with the Roman pantheon than her counterpart within the Greek one. During the earliest days of the Romans the necessity for keeping a fire alight became a sacred obligation for which the king was originally responsible. This duty devolved onto the daughters of the king, since it was too important, and later too sacred, to be entrusted to slaves.
Eventually fires were not only kept perpetually lit in homes as an act of devotion, but a public cult existed in which a royal hearth was tended by young, well-born girls known as the Vestal Virgins. They were chosen, in the days of the republic, by the pontifex maximus, who to this extent took on the task of the former kings.
The Vestal Virgins entered the service of the goddess between the ages of six to ten. Initially there were two of them, later six, and the term of service varied from five years in the early days to thirty in the later years. These priestesses dressed in white gowns edged with purple and were highly respected members of Roman society, enjoying many privileges. In addition to tending the sacred fire their other duties included fetching water from the sacred spring, the preparation of sacred foods, guardianship of sacred objects, and the daily ritual at the shrine of Vesta.
The pontifex maximus had absolute control over the daily lives of the Virgins; it could issue punishment on them for any offense including ordering any of them to be buried alive for breaking their vow of chastity.
Vesta's shrine stood near the Regia, or Palace of King. Existing images of her are rare, but those still existing show her fully draped and accompanied by an ass, her favorite animal. During the Vestalia festivals donkeys were decked with wreaths. In 380 AD, Emperor Theodosius abolished the worship of Vesta. A.G.H.
Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology,
New York, G. P. Putman's Sons, 1980, p. 161
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, p. 179
Jordan, Michael, Encyclopedia of Gods, New York, Facts On File, Inc. 1993, p. 281
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