The Vestalia: An Ancient Festival With Modern Meaning

Ah, June. There’s just so much to celebrate about this particular month.  In my part of the world – Canada – we celebrate warmth.  The snow is gone, the skies are blue and we’re all positively giddy at the thought of wearing sandals for the next few months.  For a northerner, there’s nothing like the feeling of slipping your bare foot into a sandal – it’s like you’re Cinderella, every single time. Plus, you need your sunglasses – not to dull the glare of white snow, but to shade your eyes from the golden sun.  Happy sigh.

And as if that isn’t enough, our windows are open, even at night, so that we awake to a symphony of birds instead of just the sound of the neighbour’s car warming up.  And the view outside the window – wow.  Colour! Green trees and red, yellow, pink and purple flowers, all blowing in the breeze. Life is a moving canvas of colour and sound.  After the long, frozen months of grey trees and white landscapes, it really is a time to celebrate life.

Yet no matter where you live – where the snows fly or the sun shines – there’s another reason to celebrate in June.  And it’s also a celebration of life.  This is the Vestalia, a festival traditionally held between June 7 and 15, to honour Vesta, goddess of the home and hearth, whose eternal flame protected ancient Rome and her people.

Fire and light have always been symbols of life.  The entrance to Vesta’s temple faced the east to honour the sun, which sustained life on Earth.  And of course Vesta’s sacred flame burned in the heart (hearth) of her temple, which in turn burned in the heart of Rome, both the city itself and the Empire.  The Romans believed that if Vesta’s fire died, so too would their way of life (which, incidentally, they were right about – but that’s another article).

And so the Vestal priestesses were tasked with keeping the flame alive, day and night.  The Vestals protected the light that sustained Roman life.  Vesta was officially honoured in a number of ways throughout the year and was honoured daily in the homes of her faithful as they made offerings into her flame. For Vesta didn’t just live in the temple, but in the homes of the people, too. Her presence made each home a domestic temple, a spiritual space in which a family could live and love under her protection.

But the Vestalia was something special. During these eight days in June, business was forbidden as citizens took time to reflect upon the goddess and give thanks.  The temple was open to all women, who entered barefoot with offerings.

On June 9th, the Vestals prepared mola salsa (sacred salted flour) to nourish the goddess and use in state rituals. And on June 15th, the last day of the Vestalia, they cleansed and purified the temple.  This cleansing and purifying ritual was as much a spiritual process as a physical one.

For those who follow the old ways today, the Vestalia represents similar ideas and involves similar activities.  Slowing down and taking the time to notice and appreciate life in all forms.  Creating mola salsa, whether in mixture or in wafer form, to symbolically nourish the goddess and give thanks into the flame.  Cleaning the home and one’s shrine to Vesta, or lararium, so that – in the words of Ovid – “fiery Vesta shines.”

So do those things.  Slow down and remind yourself that life moves fast, so sorrowfully and shockingly fast at times that we must make a conscious effort to spend it wisely – doing the things we love, with the people we love.  As a goddess of the home and family, it’s the way Vesta would want it.

Create your own mola salsa.  This doesn’t have to be a complicated process.  Keep it sweet and simple by making a loose mixture of salt and coarse ground corn or emmer flour.  Burn a candle on your kitchen table or lararium (or both) and place a small bowl of the offering beside the flame.

Open your windows and cleanse your home to honour the spirit that lives within.  Clean your lararium and refresh it with green branches from your backyard or potted flowers.  Burn a beeswax candle, as beeswax is known to have purifying properties.  You will be able to sense that once its sweet fragrance fills your home.

That’s how you can celebrate the Vestalia in June – it’s nothing fancy, but Vesta was never a fanciful spirit.  She always was, always will be, about celebrating life in an authentic and humble way.  That’s why her temple was modest – lovely, but modest – and why she dwelt in every home, from the Emperor’s palace to the poorest of dwellings.  If you wish, her spirit can dwell in your home as well.  And that’s worth celebrating too, not just in June, but every month.

And while we’re at it, let’s celebrate something else this Vestalia.  Let’s celebrate the fact that here we are, millennia away from Vesta’s earliest days, and her tradition continues.  It has survived and adapted through the ages to illuminate lives and homes and find its place in the modern world.  Then again, would you expect anything less from an eternal flame?