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.