Vesta: The Roman Goddess of the Home and the Hearth

Being able to conduct discipline just through eye contact and emanating the virtue of a leader are priceless qualities in a person.

After all, such traits are found within people who lead an entire league of individuals in dire need of constant recalibration and protection. Like a shepherd protecting his sheep with his staff, people who harbor these qualities are the same ones who support their underlings until their final day.

In Roman mythology, this was the one and only Vesta, the goddess of the home and hearth. For the Roman people, she was the representation of purity and for the other Olympians, reason. 

Vesta is a goddess who is not only limited by what she looks over. Instead, her office extends far into the works of other deities. As a result, this makes her a fascinating goddess.

But how did she come to be what she is?

What is her actual story?

And was she actually a virgin?

What Was Vesta the Goddess Of?

In Greek mythology, the importance of a deity looking over the day-to-day matters of attending to affairs of the house is extremely high. 

A home is where people ultimately retreat to at the end of the day, no matter where they’ve been throughout the entire day. Like the 12 other Olympians, Vesta looked over things she was most qualified in. That included domestic affairs, families, the state and, of course, the hearth.

The home’s hearth was a place Vesta was said to have the most control over, as it was usually at the very center of the structure. She resided within the hearth and provided warmth and comfort to all those within the house that came to reap its vitalizing benefits.

Besides this, Vesta also tended to the eternally burning sacrificial sacred fire atop Mount Olympus. It was here where she regulated the sacrifices from various temples to the gods themselves. This regarded Vesta as one of the main bosses of the deities as the sacrificial flame was at the core of any family, which included the Olympians themselves.

Meet the Family

Vesta’s story originated from the bloody birth of the Olympians: Jupiter overthrowing his father, Saturn, the king of the Titans

Saturn had swallowed his children whole, fearing they would one day overthrow him and Vesta happened to be his firstborn child. As a result, Vesta was the first to be swallowed by him. Vesta’s siblings Ceres, Juno, Pluto and Neptune soon went down the tummy of their father except for one child: Jupiter.

As Ops (the Roman equivalent of Rhea) gave birth to Jupiter away from the lunatic leer of Saturn, he was saved from being swallowed. Jupiter’s rebellion against his father and the subsequent rescue of all his siblings (now fully grown) followed. 

Once Jupiter had slain Saturn, the brothers and sisters came one by one. However, they came out in reverse order; Neptune was the first to pop out, and Vesta was the last. This led to her being ‘reborn’ as the youngest of the siblings. 

But hey, it really didn’t matter as long as they were out because spending eternity in Saturn’s bowels must’ve not been a pleasant experience. 

As the war between the Titans and the Olympians was won by the latter (known as the Titanomachy), Vesta sat in her office for the first time as the guardian of all homes.

READ MORE: Roman Gods and Goddesses 

Vesta and Hestia

Vesta’s Greek equivalent was none other than Hestia, who was in charge of the same things as her. 

Though, you will find Hestia to be more involved in tales than Vesta. This is primarily due to the Greeks prioritizing writing tales about her over enforcing her laws with an iron fist upon the people. This changed when the Romans carried out their conquest and merged the two faiths together, after which Hestia changed into Vesta. And so did the intensity of what she ruled over.  

Regardless, there are a few differences between the two. Both of these goddesses symbolized domestic order and familial faith. In terms of mythology, stories tend to get blurred due to the Roman conquest. As a result, stories that Hestia might’ve been the subject of aren’t the same for Vesta and vice versa.

One interesting thing to note; during the Titanomachy when divine blood was spilled like water, Hestia was nowhere to be found. This was most probably due to the fact that she took the concept of peace really seriously which, in turn, defined her personality. 

Compared to her sisters, Hestia advocated peace more often. The same can be said for Vesta as peace is the central driver of her faith when it comes to homeliness and comfort. 

One thing is for sure, though, Vesta and Hestia both took their jobs seriously as virgin goddesses of the home. Hence, support for both the Greek and the Roman goddess remained unwavering. 

READ MORE: Greek Gods and Goddesses

Origins of Vesta

Even the name “Vesta” has its roots in divine power. The word “Vesta” springs from her Greek counterpart, “Hestia”; this reflects in their name as both sound quite similar. 

If one navigates further, they might see that the name “Hestia” has been actually taken from the phrase “Hestanai Dia Pantos” (which literally translates to “standing forever”) Also note, “Hestia” is written as “εστία” in Greek, which translates to “fireplace” in English. 

Interestingly, the Roman name “Vesta” can be attributed to the phrase “Vi Stando,” which stands for “standing by power.” This divine connection of the names to their respective phrases represented the source of societal power for both the people of Italy and Greece. After all, everything else might fall, but a home stands forever as long as the person in charge stands in power.

The need for a figure that protected homes and watched over the sanctuary it provided was dire. As a result, the Romans also came up with the Penates, a league of household gods identified as the images of Vesta’s unending willpower. 

Vesta’s Appearance

Vesta was depicted in many forms due to her affiliation with the home. As the feeling of homeliness came in many forms, so did she. However, it is rare to see her being represented in her physical form. She was most famously depicted as a middle-aged woman in a bakery in Pompeii, which remains as one of the few pieces of art showing her in her human form. 

In fact, her appearance shifted alongside all the services she was associated with. Some of them included the hearth, agriculture and, of course, the sacrificial flame. We will be taking a look at each of them and figure out how exactly Vesta might have potentially looked in connection to each. 

Vesta As The Sacrificial Flame

As Vesta acted as the leading light of justice in the heavens above, she was often depicted as a stern, middle-aged woman holding a torch with both hands. This fire also could’ve represented the fireplace’s warmth and the sacrificial fire in Olympia. 

Vesta As The Hearth

Vesta was also identified as the hearth of every home, which meant that she had close ties to liminal spaces that provided warmth. For the Romans, this obviously meant fireplaces, as they lacked electric heaters. Vesta’s affiliation with the fireplaces gave her yet another stern and matron-esque appearance.

She often appeared fully clothed in art as an ode to her virginity. She also carried a torch in this representation to depict her keeping watch over the fireplaces; the central part of any Roman home of that period.

Vesta In Agriculture

Vesta’s appearance in agriculture is perhaps one of the most well-known due to her affiliation with an ass or a donkey. She is often depicted as being accompanied by an ass, which brings her closer to being the state goddess of agriculture.

Her appearance surfaced here, once again, as a matron-esque figure for the bakers of Rome. As the ass was closely connected to wheat mills, it didn’t take very long for Vesta to be associated as another goddess keeping watch over the city’s bakers. 

Vesta’s Symbols

As we discussed before, Vesta is one of the most symbolic deities of Greek mythology. The fact that she is, quite literally, a fireplace solidifies it even more. 

So yes, definitely, one of Vesta’s symbols was the fireplace. It signified the liminal and central spaces that she occupied within the home. On the note of fireplaces, a torch might have also symbolized Vesta due to her association with comfort and warmth within the home. Wheat and the ass were closely connected with her because of their core importance in Roman agriculture.

Besides the usual, Vesta was also associated with a wooden phallus to signify her position as a virgin and her unbroken chastity. As a virgin goddess, she took her vows seriously, which indeed reflected in all of her symbols. 

Another symbol was not an everybody object, but a piece of pork.

That’s right, deep-fried pig fat was also a symbol of Vesta, as the pig was considered sacrificial meat. As a result, this tied her back to the sacrificial flame in Olympia, which was an ode to her great position among the gods.

Worship of Vesta

As you might have guessed already, Vesta was really popular among the people of ancient Rome. Her watching over the public hearth meant that she watched over food, comfort, homes and the purity of the people of Italy. 

Her worship might have begun as just a tiny cult following rooted in people staring into their fireplaces, but it goes way beyond just that. Vesta was symbolized by the raging fire in her temple Forum Romanum, where her fire was tended to and worshipped by followers. The fire in the temple had to burn at all times. It quickly became an important place of worship for Vesta’s followers, though accessibility was limited.

Vesta’s followers were Vestal Virgins, women who vowed abstinence to dedicate a considerable chunk of their lives to care for Vesta at her temple. 

Vesta even had her own festival, a flex so prominent that it would’ve humbled all the modern celebrities down to earth. It was called “Vestalia” and took place from June 7th to June 15th every year. Each day had a unique significance, but the most important of these was on June 7th, when mothers could enter the shrine of Vesta and exchange offerings for blessings from the virgin goddess. 

June 9th was reserved for honouring asses and donkeys because of their contributions to Roman agriculture. The Roman people thanked these animals for their services. They expressed their gratitude towards them for helping the people produce food in the long run. 

The festival’s final day was reserved for temple maintenance, and it was on this day that the shrine of Vesta would be cleansed and fixed so it could bless them for yet another year to come. 

Matrimony, Hearth and Food

In ancient Rome, marriage was way ahead of its time. It was modern and structured and usually brought a sense of well-being to every household. However, it came with a cost. You see, marriage wasn’t considered romantic. Instead, it was a contract that adjoined two families for mutual benefit. 

Since it can be argued that a massive part of romance is engaging in sexual intercourse, Vesta’s involvement in this loveless form of matrimony being a duty makes sense due to her being a virgin. 

As discussed before, the hearth of every home was a central structure around which daily activities took place. From cooking and chatting to food and warmth, the accessibility of the hearth was crucial to any household simply due to its location. As a result, it made more sense for the goddess of the home to be associated with such a vital structure. After all, the hearth was the source of the family’s lifeline, and its familial accessibility was a job placed on the shoulders of Vesta herself. 

Food also remains another essential aspect of Vesta’s services to the people of the Olympian faith. As mentioned before, Vesta was heavily involved in agriculture due to her association with the donkey. Due to this, Vesta and Ceres were equally identified as they were closely related in food preparation. More specifically, the cooking of bread and the preparation of family meals such as dinner was a duty that was attributed to Vesta really seriously.

These duties were dispatched upon her by none other than Jupiter himself in an effort to regulate the Roman households so that their stomachs remained filled and their smiles were evergreen. One of the very few things that made Jupiter wholesome, really.  

The Vestal Virgins

Perhaps the most defining carriers of Vesta’s willpower were none other than her most dedicated followers known as the Vestals or, more specifically, the Vestal Virgins. As mentioned earlier, they were specialized priestesses dedicated to taking care of Vesta’s shrines and ensuring Rome’s prosperity.

Believe it or not, the Vestals were actually trained in an actual college to make sure that no expenses were spared when it came to winning the favour of Vesta. And guess what? They had to go through the absolute ringer to ensure no vows were broken. The Vestals swore to absolute celibacy for 30 years, which had to be reflected in everything they did throughout the day. In fact, if they were caught lacking, the Vestals could be tried for “incestum” and be buried alive if found guilty. 

They had to be fully dressed, distinguishing them from the general public. The dresses had to be supplied to them by the “rex sacrorum,” the highest rank of Roman priests. The Vestals had to live inside the “Atrium Vestae” situated near the temple of Vesta near the Forum Romanum and keep the flame in the temple well-lit at all times. In doing so, they developed strict discipline and invoked the much-needed serotonin reservoir of Vesta herself. This atrium was supervised by none other than the Pontifex Maximus, the chief boss of all Roman College of Pontiffs priests. 

Though there were ranks higher than them, the Vestals were revered by the state. Their presence meant the unconditional happiness of Vesta and, subsequently, her blessings over the good people of Rome. The Vestals typically lived a relatively happy life due to their service. 

In fact, once their service had ended after 30 years, they were married off in an honourable ceremony to a Roman nobleman. It was thought that marriage to a retired Vestal would bring luck to their household, as Vesta would be the matron of this reward. 

Vesta, Romulus and Remus

Vesta, in mythology, remained undercover primarily due to her symbolic nature. However, she is mentioned only by name in various tales where she appears as an apparition to save the day. Obviously, this was a homage to her matron-esque personality.

One such tale can be traced back to the mythic source of the Roman empire itself: Romulus and Remus. Plutarch, the famous Greek philosopher, provided a variation of their birth story. In his version, a ghostly phallus once appeared in the hearth of King Tarchetius of Alba Longa. 

Tarchetius consulted with an oracle of Tethys, and he was advised that one of his daughters must have intercourse with the phallus. Tarchetius didn’t want to take any chances, so he ordered his daughter to shove the phallus inside her and be done with it.

Appalled by the fact that she was supposed to have intercourse with a dangling sausage that rose from the fireplace, Tarchetius’ daughter sent her handmaiden to do the deed instead. However, Tarchetius was displeased by this and ordered the handmaiden’s immediate execution. Later that night, Vesta apparently appeared in Tarchetius’ visions and commanded him to not execute the handmaiden, as doing so would alter the entire course of history.

Soon after, the handmaiden gave birth to two healthy twins. Tarchetius decided to meddle for the last time and ordered his right-hand man to murder the babies. 

However, the right-hand man carried the babies out to the river Tiber and left them in the hands of Tyche, the goddess of Chance. You guessed it right, these twins were none other than Romulus and Remus, the first of whom would go on to found the city of Rome and become its first legendary king.

So it is all thanks to mommy Vesta that we can eat pizza today.

Priapus’ Advance

Vesta was mentioned in yet another myth to showcase the raging libido of a foolish man. In Ovid’s “Fasti,” he writes about a star-studded party thrown by Cybele that eventually goes wrong due to the actions of Priapus, the Roman god of permanent erections. You will see why this title makes sense in a few. 

One thing to note, Ovid mentions before mentioning Vesta in “Fasti”: 

“Goddess, as men are not allowed to see or know you, it is thus necessary that I speak of you.”

A really humble gesture by Ovid, given how he wanted to include Vesta in his work so bad, knowing how important she actually is.  

You see, Vesta had fallen asleep that night at the party and decided to retreat to the chambers. However, Priapus wanted to take advantage of her being drunk and violate her chastity. What Priapus didn’t consider was that Silenus’ (a friend of the Roman god of wine, Bacchus) pet donkey was docked right beside the room.

Upon entering her room, the donkey let out a bray that shook the heavens. Immediately waking up from her delirium, Vesta didn’t take long to figure out what was happening. As all the other gods gathered, Priapus escaped in the nick of time, and Vesta’s virginity remained unscathed.

That was close.

The Birth of Servius Tullius

Are you getting tired of phalluses and fireplaces?

Good, buckle up because there’s one more. 

Another myth that Vesta is connected to is the birth of King Servius Tullius. It goes like this: a phallus appeared randomly in one of Vesta’s hearths in King Tarquinius’ palace. When Ocresia, the handmaiden who first saw this miracle, was notified of this strange matter to the queen.

The queen was a woman who took cases like these really seriously, and she believed that phallus was a sign from one of the Olympians themselves. She consulted with Tarquinius and advised him that someone must have intercourse with the floating wiener. It had to be Ocresia, as she was the first to come across it. Poor Ocresia couldn’t disobey her king, so she took the fiery phallus into her room and carried on with the deed. 

It is said that when she did, either Vesta or Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, appeared to Ocresia and gifted her with a son. Once the apparition disappeared, Ocresia was pregnant. She went on to give birth to none other than the legendary sixth king of Rome, Servius Tullius. 

Vesta sure did have her ways of shaping history to her will.

Vesta’s Legacy

Though Vesta hasn’t appeared physically in mythology, she has dramatically impacted Greco-Roman society. Vesta is held with high esteem among the gods because she is literally the divine hearth of the entire pantheon. 

She might not have shown up in her physical form, but her legacy has been cemented through coins, art, temples and the simple fact that she exists within every home. Vesta hasn’t been depicted in art much, but she lives on in many ways in modernity.

For example, the asteroid “4 Vesta” is named after her. It is one of the giant asteroids in the asteroid belt. It is part of the asteroid family called the “Vesta family,” also named after her.

Vesta appears as Hestia in Marvel’s popular comics as part of “The Olympians,” which contains almost all of its members fighting off extraterrestrial threats. 

Vesta has also been immortalized through the Vestal Virgins, all of whom remain a significant talking point of ancient Roman society. The Vestals and their way of life continue to be fascinating topics even today.

Conclusion

Sombre in stature but mindful in her ways, Vesta is a goddess much respected by the other gods and the people of the Roman state. 

Vesta is the glue that keeps the gods together and puts food on the plates of Roman families. She invokes order within every household and eliminates chaos as long as the people stoke the flames of her sacrificial fire. 

Vesta is the perfect definition of equivalent exchange. The home can only grow as long as the people contribute to making it grow. Homes are where we all retreat to at the end of the day, so it only makes sense that the location is cherished. There is nothing like a crackling fire warming you up after a cold day coming from a building you proudly call home. 

After all, home is where the hearth is. 

And that’s precisely where Vesta resides.

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