Vesta, or Hestia, daughter of Cronus and Rhea, goddess of fire and of
the family hearth, and guardian angel of mankind, was worshiped
principally throughout Italy, although she also had shrines in Greece
and Asia Minor.
The family hearth in ancient times possessed a far different
signification from what it does now, and was considered the family
altar, for there the father of the family was wont to offer up his
daily prayers and sacrifices. "As, according to the old heathen
custom, all men were regarded as enemies unless by a special compact
they had been made friends, so Vesta presided especially over true and
faithful dealing;" and she was therefore generally represented as pure
A beautiful circular temple in Rome was dedicated to Vesta's service;
and here the Palladium of Troy was supposed to be preserved, together
with the goddess's sacred fire, originally kindled by the rays of the
This fire--an emblem of the flame of life, which the ancients fancied
was kept burning within each human breast by Vesta, the
life-giver--was kept constantly burning, and never allowed to go out
for want of fuel or timely care. Its flames were also intended to
represent the purity of the goddess, who, although wooed by many
lovers,--among whom Apollo and Neptune can justly claim the
precedence,--remained always a virgin.
The Romans fancied that her worship had been introduced in Italy by
Æneas, their famous ancestor, who brought thither his home gods, and
who, according to tradition, selected the first Vestal Virgins.
[Sidenote: Vestal Virgins.]
The second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, built a beautiful temple, and
instituted various religious ceremonies, in honor of Vesta. The
loveliest and noblest among the Roman maidens were chosen to serve
this goddess, and were known as Vestals, or Vestal Virgins. Admitted
into the temple at the early age of six, they were compelled to serve
ten years in fitting themselves to fulfill the duties they would be
called upon to perform during the next decade as priestesses and
guardians of the sacred fire. The last ten years were spent in
instructing the novices; and, when their thirty-years' service was
ended, they were at liberty either to continue in the temple, where
they were treated with the greatest respect, or to leave it, and even
marry, if such were their pleasure.
During their time of servitude, they were expected to keep their vows
of chastity and fidelity to their patroness, and to maintain her
sacred fire, under penalty of being buried alive in a vaulted chamber,
fashioned for this express purpose by Numa Pompilius's order. In turn,
each of the priestesses watched the fire, renewed the fuel, and fanned
the flame, nor lost sight of it night or day; for the Romans
considered the extinction of this sacred flame the precursor of some
great public calamity.
The Vestals were, however, so pure and vigilant, that during one
thousand years only eighteen failed to keep their vows satisfactorily,
and suffered punishment. The Vestal Tuccia was accused of breach of
faith, but, as proof of her purity, was given power to carry water in
a sieve from the Tiber to the temple.
[Illustration: THE VESTAL TUCCIA.--Le Roux.]
In return for the signal services the Vestals rendered to the state by
maintaining this sacred fire, they enjoyed many privileges: among
others, that of being preceded by a lictor with fasces when they
walked abroad; of occupying the seats of honor in public ceremonies
and festivities; of being buried within the city limits (a privilege
granted to but very few); and of obtaining the pardon of criminals
whom they met by accident on their way to the place of execution.
Loved and greatly honored by all, the Vestals have become types of all
things pure and lovely in woman.
"By these her trembling fires,
Like Vesta's, ever burning; and, like hers,
Sacred to thoughts immaculate and pure."
The Vestal Virgins were further distinguished by a vesture of pure
white linen, with a purple border and a wide purple mantle. In time of
war or danger they were answerable for the preservation of the sacred
fire, which they were allowed to remove to any place of safety; and on
several occasions they therefore carried it out of Rome and down the
Tiber, lest it should fall into the enemy's hands.
The Vestals continued their office until the reign of Theodosius the
Great, who, being converted to Christianity A.D. 380, abolished the
worship of Vesta, dispersed the Vestals, and extinguished the sacred
Vesta's services were held with great pomp; and her festivals, the
Vestalia, were among the most beautiful and popular in Rome. Statues
of this goddess--generally representing a woman of majestic beauty,
clad in long robes, holding a lighted torch or lamp in one hand and a
votive bowl in the other--were carried through the main streets of the
city on all solemn occasions.
In public processions the Vestals had the privilege of carrying their
sacred fire; while the Roman matrons, glad to swell their ranks,
followed them, barefooted, chanting the praises of the good goddess
"And from the temple brings
Dread Vesta, with her holy things,
Her awful fillets, and the fire
Whose sacred embers ne'er expire."
Virgil (Conington's tr.).
On these occasions great banquets were prepared before each house,
all daily toil was suspended, the millstones were decked with flowers,
and the very asses wont to turn them were covered with garlands and
led in the processions.
Among the Romans, Vesta was not the only goddess invoked on the family
hearth, for she shared that place of honor with the Lares, Manes, and
Penates, who all enjoyed special veneration and sacrifices.
[Sidenote: Lares, Manes, and Penates.]
The Lares, quite unknown to the Greeks, were two in number, the
children of Mercury and Lara, a naiad famous for her beauty as well as
for her extreme loquacity, which no one could check. Tradition relates
that this fair maiden talked from morning till night, and told all she
knew. Upon one occasion she incurred Jupiter's wrath by relating to
Juno a conversation she had overheard between him and one of his
To punish her, and at the same time prevent further tale-bearing, the
king of the gods cut off Lara's tongue, and, summoning Mercury, bade
him lead her down to Hades to linger there forever. But on the way to
the dismal abode of the dead, the messenger god fell in love with his
fair charge, who, being now effectually cured of her sole fault, was
irresistibly charming; and, instead of obeying Jupiter, he made love
to her, and by pantomime obtained her consent to their union. She bore
him two children, who from her were called Lares, and to whom the
Romans always paid divine honors, reserving special places for them on
the family hearth, for they were supposed to preside over houses and
families. Their statues resembled monkeys covered with the skins of
dogs; while at their feet a barking dog, the symbol of their care and
vigilance, was always represented.
The Manes--a name generally applied to souls when separated from the
body--were also reckoned among the Roman divinities, and the
illustrious ancestors of different families were often worshiped under
As for the Penates, they presided over the houses and domestic
affairs. Each head of a household was wont to choose his own Penates,
whom he then invoked as his special patrons. The statues of the
Penates were of clay, wax, ivory, silver, or gold, according to the
wealth of the family whose hearth they graced, and the offerings
generally made to them were a small part of each meal.
Upon removing from one house to another or from one place to another,
it was customary for the head of the family to remove his household
gods also, and establish them suitably before he thought of his own or
his family's comfort, and in return for this kindly care the Penates
blessed him with peace and prosperity.