Vesta's History

The spark of the ancient Flamma Vesta was lit well over a million years ago, when our ancestor hominids first marvelled at the mystery of fire and learned to rely upon it for life itself. They built their homes around it.  It ignited knowledge, spirituality and intuition.

Fire worship is the earliest form of “religion” known to humankind, and it gave birth to the beloved goddess the Romans named Vesta.  Represented by a sacred flame, Vesta dwelt within every household in the form of a beeswax candle, oil lamp or hearth fire.  Her presence was the spiritual focus of the home and symbolized life itself.

A bloodless religion, Vesta never required a living sacrifice. Instead, an offering of salted flour or wafers, or a libation of olive oil, wine or milk, was sprinkled into her flame at meal-time. Families also honored Vesta by placing a candle or oil lamp on their family altar or lararium. The lararium was at the entrance to each home, so that Vesta could bless the comings and goings of family members.

An Ancient Lararium

Temple in Forum

Although the Vesta tradition began as a private household spirituality, it soon expanded into the public sphere.  In the 7th century BCE, the Temple of Vesta was built in the heart of the Roman Forum.  Inside this temple, the eternal Flame of Vesta burned, tended to by dedicated Vestals who were tasked with keeping it alight through the generations. Vesta’s flame represented the Roman family unit as well as the State of Rome itself.  It was believed that if Vesta’s fire died, so too would the Roman way of life.


LEFT: Illustration of the round Temple of Vesta in the heart of the Roman Forum. Note the smoke from the sacred fire escaping through an opening in the roof.

The Temple of Vesta was the only circular structure in the Forum.  It was built in the fashion of the first round huts – wood with thatched roofs – that the Romans called home. Its shape was also meant to represent the circle of life and the orb of the Sun, a source of great light and eternal life.

The Vesta tradition was a powerful and popular one.  Even the Emperors of Rome prayed to and worshipped the great goddess Vesta, and many had her temple or image depicted on their coins.  Public festivals were held in her honor.  Her priestesses, the Vestals, were held in the highest of esteem and were granted privileges and freedoms that few women in the ancient world enjoyed. In addition to keeping the eternal flame alight and performing public rituals, the Vestals gave flames from Vesta’s fire to women who then used it to light their own family hearth. This made every home a sacred space.

Please note:

Today, the Flamma Vesta illuminates the lives and homes of people of many faiths and worldviews. It respects and co-exists among all manner of belief and non-belief systems. The history that follows has been compiled through academic / historical sources and Vestal teaching. It is not a critique of any religion: rather, it is meant to educate those who wish to learn more about the Vesta tradition, past and present.

The Vesta tradition was practiced in private households and upheld as the state religion for many hundreds of years. It was a peaceful and beloved spirituality that co-existed alongside the other belief systems in the multicultural society that was ancient Rome. It did not threaten other faiths and was not threatened by them.  

That all changed as Rome’s first Christian emperors came to power in the 4th century CE. Their religious intolerance and aggressive monotheistic belief in a “single male god” prompted them to suppress all other belief systems, including Vesta, to whom women, men and children had honored for centuries. Despite widespread protest, the Vesta faith was criminalized, ultimately upon pain of death, and those caught honoring her – even in the privacy of their own home – were persecuted. Forced conversions to Christianity and destruction of Classical culture were done on a massive scale.

The Temple of Vesta was vandalized and desecrated, its marble stripped to adorn Christian churches. The heads were knocked off the statues of venerated Vestal priestesses, and crosses were carved into their foreheads.  The sacred fire was ordered extinguished. And just as the people had feared, the once great Roman Empire fell within a generation.  

The world moved into the Dark Ages…

 

But Vesta’s light continued to burn. As the favored household spirit who had protected their homes and their children for countless generations, she had a place in the hearts of the people. They continued to remember and revere her around their candle-lit supper tables.

As Vesta’s temple crumbled under the weight of religious intolerance, the remaining Vestals took the embers of the sacred flame from the temple’s hearth and kept them alight in secret. They burned Vesta’s flame in candles, in oil lamps and in their own household hearths, privately continuing the tradition.

The Chief Vestal or Vestalis Maxima

Note the flame in Mary’s heart

Libations of wine and the Vestal offering of round salted-flour wafers – called mola salsa wafers – were then incorporated as the wine and wafers used in Catholic Communion (in fact, today’s communion wafers are made with a similar recipe). Communion wafers often use holy water, just as the Vestals used holy water collected from the Tiber River. And just as the Vestals were responsible for the creation of mola salsa wafers, Catholic nuns became responsible for creating communion wafers.

Realizing that the Flame of Vesta was all but impossible to stamp out, the Christian church took a new approach.  It began to incorporate Vesta traditions into its own religious doctrine and ritual, including candle-lighting ceremonies. After disbanding the order of chaste and powerful Vestal priestesses, the church created an order of celibate but less powerful Christian priestesses called nuns.

Having banished the virgin Vesta and extinguishing her flame, the church built up the cult of the Virgin Mary, even going so far as to depict Mary’s “immaculate heart” with the burning Flame of Vesta. After destroying Vesta’s round temple, they built circular, domed Christian churches to take its place.   

 

Its temple smashed, its practice criminalized and its faithful persecuted, the Vesta tradition receded into the shadows.

Yet some continued to cling to the old ways, albeit in private.  They honored Vesta in candlelight, passing the tradition down through the generations, from the Dark Ages to this very day.  The Vesta tradition has always been a powerful and passionate one.  Such things have an inherent ability to persist and to find their way out of the shadows, back into the light.

For centuries, Vesta’s Temple lay broken and forgotten below the rubble and ruins of the neglected Roman Forum. It wasn’t until the late 19th century CE that it was excavated and identified as the actual Temple of Vesta. It was rebuilt to its present condition during the early 20th century, as were many other structures and statues throughout the Forum. Excavations are always ongoing. The Temple of Vesta as it stands today is the same as it was when Debra May Macleod met the last Vestal there in March of 1989 and received the Flamma Vesta.

Then & Now

The history of the Flamma Vesta in pictures

The Flamma Vesta in Your Life and Home

Do you feel drawn to the “old ways” and ancient traditions?
Do you wish to incorporate spiritual rituals into your life without compromising your reason or values?
Do you want to bring more meaning, clarity and happiness to your life and home?
You’re not alone. For many people, everything old is new again. That’s why the Flamma Vesta – along with its customs and rituals – is once again illuminating the lives and homes of people everywhere.

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