The 8 day ancient Roman festival celebrating Vesta (or, in the Greek tradition, Hestia) starts TODAY!
For Romans, the Vestalia marked a pause in the year where everyone honoured Vesta and tended her shrine. Vesta was a central deity in Roman life: rather than the big showy active gods like Jupiter, Mars and Venus, Vesta was the heart of harmony in the home.
Vesta and Hestia are more or less the same goddess, so I’ll be using their names interchangably. I have a softer spot for the Greeks though, so I’m pretty much Hestia all the way.
Who was Hestia/Vesta?
Hestia was one of the 6 original Olympian deities. She the big sister of Zeus, Hera, Hades, Posidon, and Demeter. She was one of the Virgin Goddesses; never needing a man to complete her, and in her case, chaste and virgin all the way.
There isn’t a lot of information about Her: unlike the other Gods, she didn’t partake in drama or competition and preferred to stay out of all the fuss on Olympus, and she wasn’t represented in statue, or paintings. Her deal was Sanctuary, Introspection and Peace.
If we think of the Olympians like a modern family, Hestia would be the one who liked to keep herself to herself: she’d probably spend half the day in meditation, the rest mindfully tending her home and garden. She probably wouldn’t leave the house much, and she’d feel wonderfully centred and happy about that.
So she doesn’t really fit in with the other guys, who had big, obvious personalities and were always arguing and making messes and talking to humans and going on adventures and stuff. Some people get the impression that next to her larger-than-life brothers and sisters, Hestia is kind of bland and unassuming, but the truth is, she’s just a different kind of God. She wasn’t a personality driven Deity.
In Italy as Vesta, she had an additional patriotic role: She was the protector of the Roman State, the embodiment of the “flame” of Rome: kind of like how Britannia is the protector and representative of Britain, or how Stephen Fry and David Attenborough are the modern-day symbols of British-ness. Vesta was also seen as a goddess of virginity and chastity, and her priestesses took a 30 year vow of chastity.
In modern worship, she is thought of as a goddess of the Home: as a sanctuary maker, a goddess who makes sacred everyday tasks such as hoovering and washing up. She is the Temple Keeper, the Temple Tender, and is sometimes thought of as the Good Wife because she is a home-maker, the one who is present, the one who brings the energy of Home and Sanctuary to a building.
How was she worshipped?
Hestia was present in the hearth flame in every home. The fire was her presence. She was the sacred heart of every home in Greece. Unlike the other gods, there were no specific cults to her name, but her simple serenity and presence was a part of the life of everyday ancient grecians and Romans. Most actions of family life happened around her flame, and offerings were left to her on her sacred hearth. I don’t think she had a specific temple in Greece: her temple was every grecian’s home.
Her shrine was always circular, whether she was Hestia or Vesta, in Greece or throughout the Roman Empire.
In Italy, Vesta had a very important shrine in the centre of Rome attended to by the Vestal Virgins; women who represented the purity and sacred state symbolism of Rome. These Priestesses (though, they possessed no personal autonomy of any kind so were they really priestesses?) were symbolically married to the state, and wore bride-like clothes to symbolise their position for the 30 years they remained a Vestal. It was more of a status thing than a spiritual thing – daughters of politically important families would get the job. They would look after the sacred flame of Rome, the symbolic home of the state, as wives of the Roman Empire, and they would do occasional ritual stuff for the state too: but the Vestal Virgins were not allowed to speak for the Goddess, make blessings, or represent Vesta in any way.
The Vestal Virgins were the last surviving ancient Priestesshood, lasting until 394 AD.
It all sounds kind of crappy to me: in other times and cultures, rather than being married to to a deity, like a nun or an ancient Priestess, these women were married to the state, and if they didn’t do exactly what they were told, usually they got dead. The Goddess was taken out of the position to be replaced by Politics.
But who cares! Let’s make Vestalia magical again.
What Was Vestalia?
Vestalia was an 8 day festival observed between the 7th and the 15th June. During this time everyday women were allowed into the temple to bring their offerings to Her. It was a HUGE deal in ancient Rome.
On the 9th June, everyone celebrated, gave thanks, and the Vestal Virgins made special cakes as offerings to Vesta. In Rome, the 9th was a public holiday, with parades in the streets and donkeys and flowers everywhere (the donkey was sacred to Vesta). Millers and bakers got the day off too, since everyone was at home baking their offering bread on their hearths.
On the last day of Vestalia, Vesta’s shrine was ritually cleaned and cleansed, and the debris swept into the river to be carried out into the sea. This was symbolic of a spiritual cleansing.
How can we celebrate Vestalia today?
We can totally translate the ancient festival of Vestalia for modern-day practitioners of Goddess Spirituality to enjoy.
Here are my suggestions. You can celebrate the whole of Vestalia by doing one a day, or you can just spend one day tuning in to celebrate the festival of the sanctuary. Just do as much or as little as you feel like.
- Give thanks to Hestia by cleaning your hob. Yup – we don’t tend to have fires in our homes to cook our food and heat our water with nowadays, so Hestia’s sacred domain is now the Kitchen, her sacred flame the Cooking Hob, whether powered by gas or electricity. As you wipe down your cooker, tune in to the sanctuary-like, safe energy of Hestia.
- Cook something special, perhaps for yourself, for your family, or just for the Goddess. Give thanks to the Goddess for providing you with all this yummy food, and don’t forget to leave an offering on the hearth/cooker for Hestia.
- Spend a day tending to your home as Temple. What can you do to make it more sacred? Perhaps perform an energy cleansing, or simply get the duster out and remove those cobwebs.
- Spend a day tending to your Altar: perhaps giving it a really good clean, cleansing your tools, refreshing the decor, giving it a proper dusting.
- If you have more than one shrine or altar in your house, or more than one Deity you work with and keep a shrine to, you can take the opportunity to spend a day tending to each of shrine individually. In my house, I have my main altar, which usually is partly devoted to Morgan le Fey, a second shrine for the Lover Goddess in her forms as Oshun and Aphroditie, and a third for the local nature spirits. (That third one is literally my fireplace – I keep a candle in the hearth lit as often as I remember). So that’s three days of temple-keeping for me to get up to.
- Day 6 could be a day to tend to an altar, or continue making your home a sanctuary. Or it could be taking time to tend to your inner temple: taking care of your own spiritual needs and indulging in some meditation, yoga or a nurturing spiritual practice of your choosing.
- Give your house a final cleanse and sweep all the stale energy away: hoover every room, and open all the windows and doors and, with a broom (or whatever you can improvise with: a magazine or a fan is A OK) push out all the stale energy of the house.
- Spend the last day giving yourself a purifying spiritual cleansing. Create a purification ceremony for yourself – perhaps by having a salt bath, perhaps by lighting candles and smudging yourself with sage, perhaps through a meditation.
Next year I am totally turning this into a mini-e-course-temple-tending-retreat thingy, because I am so in love with this festival 😀
P.S. – If you love the idea of the Festival of Vestalia, pop on over and join the Mermaid Sisterhood on Facebook. I’ll be running Vestalia prompts and activities for the rest of the festival.