Temple of Vesta
I’d say that the Forum was my favorite spot in our visit to Rome this past spring. Although it’s a small piece of the ruins, I had really looked forward to seeing the remnants of the Temple of Vesta. As a boy, my parents would occasionally play the song A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum on the record player and later tape deck. I’ve always rather liked the song myself and this snippet always stuck in my mind:
But I wandered through my playing cards
and would not let her be
one of sixteen Vestal Virgins
who were leaving for the coast
While I vaguely knew the history behind the “vestal virgins” reference, I never gave it a great deal of thought. It was just one of those nebulous images that floats in the back of your mind. However I finally spent some time researching the Temple of Vesta before this trip. In fact there were many temples to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, in the ancient Roman empire and she was venerated in private homes as well. There is a connection to the Greek
Only a small part of the temple remains in the Forum today, a portion of the wall having been reconstructed in the 1930s. However it once was a round building (as you can probably guess from the photo!) which was the traditional style for Temples of Vesta. The temple in Rome contained the Sacred Fire which was believed to have ensure the continued existence and good fortune of Rome. This eternal flame was tended to by the Vestal Virgins, who were virgin priestesses.
Initially there were just two Vestals, but over time the number seems to have increased up to six. The selection of Vestal Virgins was made from Roman girls between the ages of 6 and 10, who then were under a 30 year commitment. After completion of her term, a priestess retired, was provided a pension, and allowed to marry. A retired Vestal Virgin was considered quite a catch as a wife.
Due to their high honor, Vestals had many privileges that were rare for Roman women or even men. A Vestal could free a prisoner or condemned person at will. They were also permitted to own property, a right generally forbidden Roman women. On the flip side, breaking the vow of chastity was a capital offense. Allowing the fire to go out would earn the offending Vestal a beating.
Besides tending the Sacred Fire, the Vestals had other ceremonial duties as Vesta was considered to preside over other rituals and rites. The Vestals also safeguarded the wills and testaments of Roman leaders and other important ritual objects.
So now whenever I hear that song on the radio, I can just picture a complete Temple of Vesta with a glowing fire inside, tended by her priestesses while the bustling life of ancient Rome passes by.
Even today I think we’re all familiar with the concept of an “eternal flame”. Throughout human history, in many cultures, ceremonial fires have had both a practical and religious or ceremonial importance. This isn’t surprising given the obvious importance that light and fire have for humans. Still, I like to try to find connections like this that span time and place. Here are just a few eternal flames that I thought of or found:
Persia: Perhaps the oldest recorded use of an indefinitely-burning fire purposely tended by humans comes from this region. During the time of the Achaemenid empire, which dates from around 600 BC, sacred fires were kept in a fire temple at Takht-e Soleyman in modern-day Iran.
Cherokee Nation: Each village kept a Sacred Fire burning in its council house, a symbol of the nation’s unity and strength. Red Clay State Park in Tennessee is where the final council of the Cherokee took place before their forced removal to Oklahoma began – the Trail Of Tears. Today, a monument with an eternal flame stands on the park grounds. http://tnstateparks.com/parks/about/red-clay
Christian Vigil Lamps: These are placed in front of icons of Christ and the Saints, sometimes using oil lamps and also candles.
Japan: An eternal flame burns at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. I actually shouldn’t refer to this as an “eternal” flame as it’s intended to be extinguished when the world is free of nuclear weapons – so I hope that one day the flame will be gone! The Daisyō-in Buddhist temple on Mt Misen has been blazing for over 1,200 years.
Hebrew Temple: The Outer Altar was, as described in Leviticus, to have an eternal flame burning which was used in temple rites.
I recently found an article that described the vast disparity in what archaeologists think are the earliest dates that humans, or our recent hominid ancestors, first were able to start and control fire. But whenever it occurred, do you ever think about the first person to figure out how to start a fire? What a life changing event that would have been for him or her – and their family/clan. Not to mention for the rest of human history! And in relatively short order we took the simple act of starting a fire and gave it more complex social and religious meaning. It’s all quite amazing when you really stop and think about it.