Saturday, 28 June 2014

Prayer to Vesta

"The Vestal" by Frederic Leighton (1883)
Lately I have had a heightened sense of awareness of Vesta – so much so that I have bought a statue of her (though of the Hellenic Hestia in point of fact) for my household shrine. As I cannot keep her fire burning continually in my home, it is my hope that her statue facilitates her continual presence in some way. For Vesta is the great protecting deity; this is why ancient Romans were so concerned to keep her sacred flame alive and attended by the most important of all Roman priestesses – the Vestal Virgins.
“The Vestals were clearly set apart from the other priestly groups. Six priestesses, chosen in childhood, they lived in a special house next to the temple of Vesta. They had all kinds of privileges … they were responsible for tending the sacred fire, on the sacred hearth of their temple; they guarded their storehouse (penus) and they ritually cleaned it out and expelled the dirt … There is an obvious parallel between Vesta, the hearth of the city, and the hearths of individual families – the priestesses of the state apparently representing the women of the household …     
It may be that the key to the Vestals’ sacred status lies precisely in its ambiguity: they are paraded as sharing the characteristics of both matrons and virgins, with even some characteristics … of men too. It is a pattern observed in many societies that people and animals deemed ‘interstitial’, those who fall between the categories into which the world is usually divided, are often also regarded as sacred, powerful or holy.
… The Roman Vestals were not only responsible for guarding the hearth, the undying flame, but also for keeping a phallus in their temple. The significance of the flame on their hearth must therefore, in at least one of its aspects, lie in its link with the foundation, generation and continuation of the race. The goddess Vesta herself encapsulated all the elements; she was the flame itself, she was the virgin, she was Vesta the Mother [Beard et al, Religions of Rome 1 at 51-53].”
Thus Vesta is a great Mother Goddess.* More still, she is an aspect, or manifestation, of Mother Earth herself. Ovid explains:
“Vesta equals Earth. Sleepless fire underlies both; Earth and hearth denote their own fixity. Earth is like a ball resting on no support, a great weight hanging in the air beneath. Its very rotation keeps the globe balanced ... [Ovid, Fasti, Bk 6, 9 June]
Another translation of the same passage is as follows:
“Vesta is the same as Earth. Perpetual fire constitutes them both. Earth and the hearth both stand for her dwelling place. The Earth is like a ball, resting on no support; its enormous weight hangs on the air that stretches beneath. Its own rotation keeps the sphere in balance … [Ovid’s Fasti as translated in Beard et al, Religions of Rome 2 at 39]”
Scholars tell us Ovid was drawing from Stoic doctrine when he wrote this, but this makes his assertions no less astonishing – for these ancient words accord with modern science. It is commonly hypothesised that the core of Earth is as hot as the surface of the Sun, at between 5000-7000 degrees Celsius (9000-13,000 degrees Fahrenheit). This fiery core is believed to contain many metals – including iron, nickel, gold, platinum and uranium – which is the cause of the Earth’s magnetic field. It is this magnetic field which protects the Earth from space radiation and without it solar winds would blow away the lightest parts of our atmosphere and make our surface more like the planet Mars. Thus this inner hearth-fire is what protects life on Earth – and as Ovid tells us, this inner hearth-fire is the Goddess Vesta herself.**

To inaugurate the presence of Vesta’s statue on my household shrine I composed two prayers. The first is largely inspired by Ovid’s Fasti, the second by Rig Vedic hymns in honour of Agni – Vesta’s ancient Indian counterpart.

Prayer I
Domina of sacred rites, be watchful for our good.
Primordial mother, whose hearth lies at the centre of all,
And who protects those who gather ‘round your warmth.
Yours is the incorruptible fire;
As it is clean, it cleanses; as it is pure, it purifies.
Dispeller of cold and darkness,
We wish you joy, we do you reverence,
We pray that you protect this household.
And that this offering find favour with you.

Prayer II
Shine radiantly upon us.
Bright Goddess, who illuminates the dark,
Let none plot against us,
Nor any foe prevail over us.
Favour us, Vesta,
Shining one, whose hair is flame,
Vesta, the wise, the truthful,
We pray that you protect this household.
And that this offering find favour with you.

Hybrid Prayer (III)
Domina of sacred rites, shine radiantly upon us.
Bright Goddess, who illuminates the dark,
And protects those who gather ‘round your warmth.
Yours is the incorruptible fire;
As it is clean, it cleanses; as it is pure, it purifies.
Vesta, whose hair is flame,
Dispeller of cold and darkness,
We pray that you favour this household.
And that this offering pleases you.

Head of a Vestal priestess, Rome (circa 100-120 CE) (British Museum)

Statue of a Vestal priestess, Rome (circa mid 3rd century CE)
(image from Brooklyn Museum Archives)
Denarius depicting Vesta and her temple (55 BCE)

"The Poor Woman's Lamp" sourced from

"Fireplace" by

"Flames 102: Naked Lady Dancing" by

*Interestingly, the Goddess known as Magna Mater (literally, "great mother"), also had interstitial priests/priestesses - being castrated men who dressed as women.

**Meanwhile that part of the Earth which lies below the Earth's surface and surrounds the core is known as the mantle. The Earth's mantle includes pockets of magma, which can rise to the Earth's surface as lava via volcanoes, which are associated with (and named after) that other great fire deity - Vulcan. Vulcan is the creative (via smithing), aggressive (via destructive fires) and masculine aspect of fire. 

Sources: Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History, Cambridge University Press; Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook, Cambridge University Press; Ovid, Fasti, Penguin Books.

Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook.

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