In the religion and mythology of ancient Rome, Vesta was the goddess of the hearth. The hearth is the stone floor surrounding a furnace or fireplace. This was important to the Romans, because sources of fire for cooking, lighting, and heating homes were not easy to acquire. Therefore, once a fire was started, it had to be fueled and maintained so that it could keep burning and other fires could be lit from it. This was done at both public hearths and in those of private homes. The hearth also represented family life, and therefore the community life of the Roman State.
Vesta is often seen accompanied by a donkey. This was her animal of choice in her role as patroness to the bakers. Her fire was needed to bake the bread, as was the the donkey’s strength to turn the mill stone, making flour. They braying of the donkey was also said to ward off the lustful advances of other gods.
Vesta in Myths and Stories
Few myths of Vesta exist today. Roman poet Ovid relates a story in which the fertility god Priapus attempted to seduce Vesta. He was foiled by the loud braying of her donkey. It is thought that her worship was introduced by Numa Pompilius, second king of Rome, between 715 and 673 B.C.
Worship of Vesta
Each sanctuary or temple of Vesta was usually a circular building that mirrored the round huts formerly used as dwellings in Italy. The shape was also symbolic of the hearth. One such Temple of Vesta was located in the Roman Forum, on the Pallatine Hill, built in the third century B.C. A fire was kept burning there continually by a group of six priestesses called the Vestal Virgins. These priestesses were selected for service by the pontifex maximus, or chief priest, between the ages of six and ten, and served in the temple for at least 30 years. During that time, they tended the fire, prepared ritual food offerings, drew water from a spring outside Rome, lived in the House of the Vestals near the temple, and had to maintain their virginity. If one of the Virgins broke her vow of chastity, the punishment was to be buried alive. After the 30 years had passed, they were free to marry. The Vestals enjoyed a high social status in Rome.
Each year on the Roman New Year, March 1, the perpetual fire in the temple was ritually extinguished and re-lit. If the fire went out at any other time, it was seen as a bad omen for Rome. The festival to Vesta, called the Vestalia, was held on June 7 to 15. Rituals included sweeping out the temple and ritually disposing of the sweepings. The festival was considered a time of bad luck until the sweeping was completed. Normally, the inner sanctuary of the temple, called the penus Vestae, was not open to the public, but on the first day of the festival, women bearing gifts could visit if they entered barefoot. The sacred fire of Vesta was maintained until 394 A.D., when most Roman religious cults were banned.
Because of the need for fire in everyday life, Vesta was worshiped in nearly every Roman home as well. Many homes had a household shrine that included an image of Vesta. She was often worshiped alongside the Penates, spirits of the penus, or cupboard where food was stored.
Vesta in Art
Statues and other artwork depicting Vesta typically show her draped in long, full robes, wearing a stern expression and with her head covered. She often holds a scepter in one hand. Interestingly, a statue of the goddess was not included at any of her temples. However, the penus Vestae housed the Palladium, a statue of the Trojan Athena. This object was considered too sacred for a man too look upon. When it was rescued from a fire that destroyed the temple in 241 B.C., the rescuer – Roman Consul L. Caecilius Metellus, was then blinded for having seen the sacred statue. However, he was also afforded great honor for the daring rescue.
As with many ancient deities, Vesta’s legacy continues in the naming of interstellar objects. In 1807, the asteroid now called Vesta was discovered by Wilhelm Olbers. It is the brightest and second largest asteroid in our solar system’s asteroid belt.
Vesta Fast Facts
Role in Mythology: Goddess of the hearth
Alternative Names: None
Family Relationships: Daughter of Saturn
Greek Equivalent: Hestia