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.
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.
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.
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