Vesta Rises from the Rubble…

I thought those who follow this site would appreciate this post and this remarkable black and white photograph.

The photo for this blog is of the original press photograph of the Temple of Vesta shortly after it was restored in 1930.

This was the first time this lovely temple, or what remains of it, saw the sun in centuries after first being excavated from the rubble by – would you believe it – Napoleon, leaving Mussolini to finish the job.  I am so happy to have this important piece of Vestal history in my collection.

If you’re wondering what the area looked like shortly before this, take a closer look at the photo. To the left, you’ll see some tall columns – that’s what’s left of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, located just steps away from  the Temple of Vesta (in my book Brides of Rome: A Novel of the Vestal Virgins, Pomponia mentions this temple and  its proximity to Vesta’s temple).  In the foreground, you can see the stumps of the columns of the round Temple of Vesta.

The Vestals Get a Modern Makeover

The most authentic images we have of the Vestal Virgins are of course from antiquity – these are statues, relief carvings and images minted on coins.

As beautiful and informative as these are, it is wonderful to see more modern treatments.

Leighton’s lovely 19th century engraving of a Vestal is a favorite of many: the grace and dignity of the Vestal truly comes to life.

Monti’s 19th century “Veiled Vestal” is another: the kneeling priestess holding the sacred flame is a particularly sweet and affectionate depiction that communicates the beautiful simplicity of this ancient faith.

LeRoux’s School of the Vestals is another popular image, this one offering a glimpse into the inner sanctuary and structure of the Vestal’s sacred duty – to keep the Eternal Fire of Vesta burning, night and day.

Yet my personal favorite modern 20th century depiction of the Vestals was created by Angus McBride, a popular history and fantasy illustrator.

There are seven Vestals shown in McBride’s watercolor.  Since there were six Vestal priestesses at any given time, this suggests a mixture of full and notice Vestals, the latter of which would seem to be learning the rites and rituals involved in tending to the Eternal Flame.

I like this depiction because to me it’s a strong, even chic update to the kind of depictions that we see in earlier years, including LeRoux’s 19th century School of the Vestals which shows a similar scene.

Perhaps that is not surprising, since McBride’s painting was created not long after feminism had gained real ground in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In fact, I’ve always felt that McBride’s depiction most closely aligns with the kind of strength and confidence that we see in the earliest statuary of the Vestal Virgins, the ones from antiquity.

Vestals have been a popular artistic subject for centuries, and the way they have been depicted over the years seems to change with the times.  Their depiction can sometimes be seen to fit an agenda as well (i.e. showing Vestals with their breasts exposed, for example, to strip them of power or dignity).

The concept of the Vestal Virgin and what she represents – dignity, power, strength, purity – has in the past been a useful one for artists and their subjects.  For example, this 16th century painting of Queen Elizabeth I (who was known as the Virgin Queen) shows her holding a sieve. In so doing, she is aligning herself with the purity of the Vestal Tuccia, who famously performed a miracle with a sieve.  My book Brides of Rome: A Novel of the Vestal Virgins brings this story to life.

Regardless, you don’t need an art history degree to explore and enjoy how the Vestals have been depicted in art throughout the ages.  I encourage you to do a Google search and see what other representations are out there. But in the end, art is a subjective thing, isn’t it? It isn’t about what is in the background in a political sense.  Rather, it’s about what pleases the eye, tells a story and impacts you on an emotional level.

Tomb of the Vestal Cossinia

Here’s an amazing item (from my collection) that I’d like to share with you. It’s the press photo taken shortly after the excavation of the tomb of the Vestal Cossinia in Tivoli, Italy, around 1930. This esteemed and beloved priestess served the goddess for sixty-six years.

The marble plaque on her tomb reads, “Here lies and rests the Virgin / Borne by the people/ Because she was faithful to Vesta for sixty-six years.”

Surely those of us who marvel at the old ways feel a sense of solidarity with this amazing woman and her legacy. You’ll read about her in my book Fire & Fortune: A Novel of the Vestal Virgins.

Original press photo of the Tomb of the Vestal Cossinia.

Today, there is a lovely park in Tivoli that is dedicated to Cossinia. If you’re ever in this beautiful city, be sure to visit both the Temple of Vesta and the tomb of its priestess, the Vestal Cossinia.

Photo of the author at the Tomb of Cossinia as it looks today.

Vesta: An Ancient Prayer & A Lararium (on Film)

Here is a prayer to Vesta, adapted from an ancient Homeric hymn:

“Vesta, you have gained everlasting honor: glorious is your portion and right. Come dwell in this house in friendship together.”

It’s amazing to think that this idea of Vesta “dwelling” in the home, particularly in the form of the household hearth, has been around for millennia.  It really demonstrates just how far back into antiquity the Vesta tradition reaches.

If you’ve ever wondered what an ancient lararium would have looked like, take a moment to watch this video clip from the movie Gladiator: it’s a very emotional scene of Maximus praying in front of a lararium.  You will see beeswax candles, into the flames of which he may make an offering.  You will also see wooden figurines of his wife and child, as well as bronze statuettes of various gods, including Vesta.

In fact, the image on this blog is of an authentic bronze statuette of Vesta (from  my collection, circa 100 AD) which would have sat on such a lararium.  It’s something I feel privileged to own not just because of its rarity and cultural significance, but because I can almost imagine an ancient person, not so different from Maximus or ourselves, kneeling before it in prayer.  A lovely thought indeed.

Vestal Virgins: Feminism & Burial Alive in the “Evil Field”

Despite the resurgence and richness of the Vesta tradition, many people who think “Vestal Virgin” still think of one thing: the fact that ancient Vestals who broke their vow of chaste service to the goddess were buried alive. Let’s be honest. Who can blame people for going there? It’s a pretty dramatic image: a young woman being thrown into a shallow grave and trying to claw her way out while dirt is being piled on top of her.

Of course, that isn’t how it happened. It was considered a sacrilege to kill a Vestal, so those who were found guilty of incestum (breaking their vow of chastity) were taken to the Campus Sceleratus or “evil field” just inside the city walls of Rome where they descended a ladder into a subterranean pit. They were given enough food, water and light to last a few days. (If you’ve read my book Brides of Rome: A Novel of the Vestal Virgins, you’ll remember the plight of the Vestal Licinia.)

This way of punishing a Vestal – bringing about her death without actually killing her – absolved the Roman people of guilt for the priestess’s death. Yes, it was a technicality; however, the ancient Romans were known for that kind of thing.

Another misconception is that being buried alive was a common occurrence. Not so. In the thousand-plus years that the Temple of Vesta was active in the Roman Forum, only a handful of Vestals were ever killed in this way.

Finally, some people automatically assume this punishment — along with the vow of chastity itself — was a misogynistic way to control female sexuality. Such an assumption is a lazy way to look at history: it looks through a 21st century lens, which often includes a hypersensitivity toward gender issues, and fails to truly put these things into historical or social context.

Vesta, goddess of the home and hearth, is symbolized by and resides in her sacred fire. In antiquity, her fire burned in Roman homes as well as in the inner sanctum of her temple in the Roman Forum. The ancient Romans believed that Vesta’s fire guarded their world, families and lives, and that if the fire went out, Rome would fall to invading barbarian armies. Their men would be slaughtered, their women and children violated and enslaved, and their entire way of life destroyed.

To prevent this from happening, an order of Vestal priestesses was created to keep the eternal flame alight in Vesta’s temple. The Vestal order was Rome’s only full-time, state-funded priesthood. By guarding the flame, the Vestals ensured the pax deorum –the peaceful contract between the gods and humankind – would remain unbroken.

Choosing suitable priestesses for this duty was essential. After all, the more Vesta approved of them, the more likely it was that she would continue to guard Rome and her people. Because Vesta is a virgin goddess, virgin girls were selected as priestesses. This put them in a state of purity that was deemed patently suitable to approach a virgin goddess.

These Vestals took a thirty-year vow of chaste service to the goddess. Again, it was believed this gave them special ability to perform Vesta’s rites. It also granted them special favor to petition Vesta to protect Rome, particularly during times of crisis. Their virginity was therefore not an attempt to control their lives, but rather a consequence of the condition required to do their job and attract the goddess’s good graces.

Nor did the “sacrifice” these women were making go unnoticed or unrewarded. (Although considering the limited rights and choices most women had at this time, being a Vestal may have been more of a blessing than a sacrifice.) Vestals lived a life of luxury, privilege and relative independence. They were influential in the political sphere and were venerated by society at large.

After their thirty years of service, they were free to leave the order as wealthy women. Some chose to marry – as rich, well-connected women they were certainly desirable wives – but many chose to stay with the order.

But back to the punishment of being buried alive. Was it motivated by misogyny? I don’t think so. Rather, I think it was a punishment that the ancients believed fit the crime, even though the crime is one that to our 21st century sensibilities isn’t a crime at all. It’s also worth noting that the Vestal’s male lover didn’t fare any better than she did. He would be flogged and publicly executed.

Of course, an assigned life of chastity – even one that came with some big perks – isn’t something we’d support today. Indeed, there is evidence that the Vestal order itself was challenging this as early as the 1st century CE. In the writings of Suetonius and Pliny, we can see that the vow of chastity was becoming irrelevant to the order, society and those in power, particularly during the reigns of Vespasian and Titus.

Moreover, the emperors of the early empire granted “Vestal privileges” to female family members, thus freeing them from the patria potestas. In this way, Vestal privileges were an early form of women’s rights that could be expanded beyond the Vestal order. Was this fledgling feminism? I think so.

But like any social change, this one was destined to move forward in stops and starts – and its biggest “stop” was the violence and oppression committed against the Vestal order not by the polytheistic establishment, but by the first Christian emperors whose androcentric and monotheistic religion demanded the total destruction of a socio-religious order that elevated the status of women.

This article is by no means an exhaustive look at the Vestal order. I’ve been studying the Vestals for decades, and it takes volumes to cover this order in a comprehensive way. My goal here is merely to make us re-think the knee-jerk assumptions we make when we look at Vestal practices and punishments.

I’ve always believed that the Vestal order was an early vehicle for feminism and were it not for the intolerance and agenda of early Christians who found themselves in positions of power, I suspect it would have expanded its influence and relevance to advance the status of women in the ancient world. This would have happened slowly and imperfectly, but I suspect not as slowly and imperfectly as it did (or has yet to do) in a world dominated by aggressive androcentric monotheism.

After all, the Vestal order has always been a proud one that is able to both initiate and adapt to change. I suppose that is why Vesta’s fire continues to illuminate homes in the New World as it did in the Old World.

Vesta as a Symbol of the Soul

Fire has long been a holy symbol, a representation of the spirit and even the divine. Fire worship is one of the earliest forms of religion known to humankind – one can almost imagine our ancient ancestors marveling at the sight of a red ember crackling out of a fire and flying up and away into the black night sky. It just sparks a sense of reverence, doesn’t it?

The ancient Romans sure thought so.  Building on Etruscan spirituality and borrowing at times from the Greeks, they built an empire – literally and metaphorically – around the sacred fire of the goddess Vesta. Rome’s founding people lit Vesta’s fire in the space that would become the Roman Forum and soon built a temple around it.  The City of Rome, the Republic and later the Empire, spread out like a flame from that spot.

The Vestal order, a powerful order of priestesses, was charged with keeping the fire going at all times and with overseeing a number of public festivals and rituals.  They were rewarded handsomely for their efforts with a life of veneration, riches and luxury.

Yet despite the pomp and ceremony that attended Vesta worship and the care of her eternal flame, Vesta was also a modest goddess.  Just as she dwelt in the temple’s fire, she also dwelt in the hearth of every home.  In this way, she made every home a domestic temple – a holy place.

It’s easy to see the body-soul parallel in this.  Just as the temple housed the sacred flame, just as each home housed the sacred flame, so too does the body house the sacred flame – in the form of life.

Fire is a dazzling element and there’s nothing quite like it on Earth or in our experience as human beings.  We’ve piled poetry, symbolism and spirituality on top of it with the result that it only burns brighter and stronger.

Fire creates, transforms and destroys.  And then from the ashes it creates again.  When a fire is extinguished, its embers burn on and its smoke flies away in black billows or grey wisps.  The flames of a fire are always adapting, always changing.  Fire warms our bodies and inspires our minds.  It was perhaps inevitable that we would come to associate this remarkable creature not just with life but with eternal life, and not just with the spirit but with the truly sacred.

What does this mean to us on a personal, day to day level?  Well, to me, it means that we can harness the profound power and spirituality of the “sacred flame” in the most simple, accessible way possible – by lighting a candle.

When you light a candle, when you take a deep breath and lose yourself in the sight of the flame – at once so stable and so fluid – you can access the most powerful symbol of sacredness and eternal life that we as a species have discovered.

We’ve put a name on that symbol – Vesta – although in truth it is only one of many names given to fire over the millennia of our existence and against the background of different world cultures.  Fire worship has layers of belief and expression that a short article like this could not hope to represent.

My purpose here is to remind those who honor the old ways, who honor Vesta, to slow down!  To light a candle during times of trouble or anxiety or loss.  To draw strength from the spiritual power of the flame and to draw comfort from the fiery face of Vesta.  To remember that you have a soul and to connect with it on this most fundamental level.  It’s a sacred connection that’s best seen by candlelight.

Cleopatra and the Vestals: A 2000 Year Old Smear Campaign

From books to movies, television shows to video games, it seems that Cleopatra just can’t catch a break.  Popular culture still insists on depicting her as the so-called “Whore of the Nile,” thus perpetuating the smear campaign started by Octavian after he defeated her (and Marc Antony) some two millennia ago.   

In my book Brides of Rome: A Novel of the Vestal Virgins, Cleopatra is a key character and one that I tried to depict in an engaging yet respectful way.  That’s because, like the Vestals themselves, Cleopatra was a powerful woman, and history has a way of reducing powerful women to their sexuality.  After all, it was, and unfortunately still is, an effective way to strip women of their power and importance.   

Few thinking people would disagree that it’s long past time to more accurately depict women like the Vestals and Cleopatra in popular culture.  Yet as always, change happens in fits and starts.  We have progress in the form of a wonderful book like Stacy Shiff’s biographical Cleopatra: A Life.  And then we have a setback like the depiction of Cleopatra in video games like Assassin’s Creed Origins.   

Happily, though, these stereotypical and historically inaccurate sexualized depictions of Cleopatra are no longer going unchallenged.  I am very thankful that Colin Campell, a prominent games journalist, wrote an article called Assassins’ Creed Origins’ Promiscuous Cleopatra is Just Plain Wrong.  I was very happy to contribute to it (although I apologize for my colourful language – hey, I get worked up about these things!).  It’s a good read, so please click over if you have a few moments. 

Here is the link: https://www.polygon.com/features/2017/11/2/16593124/assassins-creed-origins-cleopatra 

I suppose the theory behind sexualized depictions of powerful women is that it makes them, or the story, more interesting.  I could not disagree more.  Re-telling the same (inaccurate) story isn’t just unimaginative and unfair, it’s boring.  And to me (and maybe I’m wrong here), it’s also insulting to the intelligence of the audience – or the gamer – as it insinuates they don’t have the ability to see women like Cleopatra or the Vestals in a different light.  They do. We all do. So let’s hope media companies and moviemakers catch up to us soon

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 wafers) 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 and give thanks into the flame.  Cleaning the home and 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 huts.  She can dwell in your home as well, just by lighting a candle.  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?

Should the Catholic Church Acknowledge the Destruction of Classical Pagan Culture?

I recently read an article that offered a Christian apology to Jewish people for the wrongs committed against them. The author also acknowledged the way that Christianity was “built” on Judaism. That’s great; however, there’s a glaring omission here. Christianity was also largely “built” on the destruction and desecration of Greco-Roman polytheistic culture.

To be sure, Christians suffered under the early Empire. This was partly due to their beliefs and partly due to their behaviour. The Christian cult took root in a Roman world that was remarkably tolerant of most religions and in which co-existence was the norm; however, Christians were unique in their assertiveness to position their god as the “one true god,” their willingness to renounce their family for their god and their frequent apocalyptic predictions.

It was all too strange and disruptive for the Romans who never hesitated to take harsh action against agitators or troublemakers of any kind (this included pagan ones: in my book Brides of Rome: A Novel of the Vestal Virgins, followers of Bacchus are punished for their public disruptions).

Nonetheless, by the late 4th century and early 5th century CE, Christianity had gained considerable political power; however, the majority of Romans of all classes were still pagan. They continued to honor the gods and goddesses that they had honored since the dawn of their civilization.

To solidify Christianity as the sole religion of the Empire, early Christian leaders legalized brutal policies that persecuted pagans. This gave Christians the legal green light to commit atrocious acts of vandalism that destroyed centuries of Classical art, history and culture.

Christian vandals smashed the heads and limbs off statues of beloved gods and goddesses that had been venerated for generations. They knocked the noses off the faces, and carved crosses into the foreheads, of deities, heroes and emperors. They burned ancient texts, obliterating centuries of knowledge, literature and heritage.

These acts of vandalism robbed our Western civilization of a beautiful and important part of our own art history and culture. We’ll never know what monuments or statuary were smashed to dust, or what masterpieces of literature or learning were turned to smoke.

Pagan temples were closed and demolished, stripped of their marble to build churches. This included the oldest temple in the Forum, the Temple of Vesta, whose order of Vestal priestesses was forcibly disbanded after having kept the sacred fire burning in the temple for 1,000 years.

To usurp the importance of the Vestals, the Catholic church eventually created its own version of priestesses — nuns. Like the Vestals who were married to Rome, the nuns would be married to their god. Like the Vestals were celibate, the nuns would be celibate. Yet where the Vestals had power and privilege, the nuns would live in poverty and subservience.

To further Christianize resisters, the church usurped indigenous pagan festivals with Christian ones, the most obvious being the Saturnalia in late December which became Christmas. They created an arsenal of saints to replace the rich diversity of pagan gods and goddesses.

Symbolism and ritual from pagan traditions were also claimed to have Christian origins. The flame of Vesta became the flame in Mary’s immaculate heart. The wafers the Vestals made for offerings became the wafers of the Eucharist. The pagan temples that were still standing had crosses placed atop them. The list goes on.

Forced conversions to Christianity were common, as was the seizure of property or assets belonging to pagans. And in an unprecedented move of religious tyranny, it became illegal – upon pain of torture or death to honor Vesta or other gods and goddesses even within the sacred privacy of one’s own home.

It isn’t pleasant to hear — especially for those who hold their religion dear — but forced conversions and cultural destruction, done on a massive scale, played a significant role in the way Christianity established itself as the dominant religion. This approach set the tone for the fear and oppression of the “Dark Ages” when anything that wasn’t Christian — including science, medicine and free thought — was deemed heretical and violently suppressed.

With the advancement of humanism and secular law, Christianity has lost much of its ability to impose its beliefs on others. And now, owing to the spiritual and intellectual freedom that exists in our society, more and more people have rediscovered Vesta and other ancient traditions, most of which have evolved to reflect 21st-century humanist values and are therefore well-suited to those who identify as spiritual but not religious.

It goes without saying that I’ve had to gloss over 2,000 years of history here (and haven’t even touched on the fact that the Romans committed their share of atrocities). The impact of this period had far-reaching effects on many faiths and cultures.

My goal has been to illustrate how one world view gained dominance through the destruction of another and how, in the process, priceless works of Classical art, knowledge and culture — so relevant to the human experience for all of us in the Western world – -were lost forever.

We’ll never know how our society might have developed, especially in terms of scientific and social advancement, had one androcentric religion not held exclusive control of so many and for so long. The ancient world was brutal, but it had its forward thinkers and rays of light.

But back to the beginning: Should the Catholic church acknowledge the harms it did so long ago to Greco-Roman pagan culture? Of course, I don’t believe it will. Anti-pagan propaganda and a denial/whitewashing of history is still too prevalent for that to happen. Others have asked for this apology — pagans and Christians alike — to no meaningful avail.

Yet to me, there’s something to be said for acknowledging past harms. From the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII to the mistreatment of First Nations children forced to endure the residential school system, an acknowledgement is as much about spreading knowledge and preventing future injustice as it is about mending fences.

For as the ancient Roman statesman Seneca the Younger tells us, errare humanum est, sed in errare perseverare diabolicum. To err is human, but to persist in error is diabolical.

Vesta Makes the Headlines

I’m very happy to report that Vesta is in the news.

Check out our feature in Watkin’s MIND BODY SPIRIT Magazine’s “Most Spiritually Influential” of 2017.  This lovely, important ancient tradition received a gorgeous two-page spread called, “The Flamma Vesta: Spreading the Ancient Flame in the Modern World.”  I was delighted and privileged to pen this piece, and I thank Watkins for their interest.