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What Was the Vestalia?

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What Was the Vestalia?

Vesta was a guardian of virginity and the hearth fire.

Image © Hamish Blair/Getty Images

The Roman celebration of Vestalia was held each year in June, near the time of Litha, the summer solstice. This festival honored Vesta, the Roman goddess who guarded virginity. She was sacred to women, and alongside Juno was considered a protector of marriage.

The Vestalia was celebrated from June 7 to June 15, and was a time in which the inner sanctum of the Vestal Temple was opened for all women to visit and make offerings to the goddess. The Vestales, or Vestal Virgins, guarded a sacred flame at the temple, and swore thirty-year vows of chastity. One of the best known Vestales was Rhea Silvia, who broke her vows and conceived twins Romulus and Remus with the god Mars. It was considered a great honor to be chosen as one of the Vestales, and was a privilege reserved for young girls of patrician birth.

The worship of Vesta in celebration was a complex one. Unlike many Roman deities, she was not typically portrayed in statuary - instead, the flame of the hearth represented her at the family altar. Likewise, in a town or village, the perpetual flame stood in the stead of the goddess herself.

For the celebration of Vestalia, the Vestales made a sacred cake, using water carried in consecrated jugs from a holy spring. The water was never permitted to come into contact with the earth between the spring and the cake, which also included sacred salt and ritually prepared brine as ingredients. The hard-baked cakes were then cut into slices and offered to Vesta. During the eight days of the Vestalia, only women were permitted to enter Vesta's temple for worship. When they arrived, they removed their shoes and made offerings to the goddess. At the end of Vestalia, the Vestales cleaned the temple from top to bottom, sweeping the floors of dust and debris, and carrying it away for disposal in the Tiber river. Ovid tells us that the last day of Vestalia -- the Ides of June -- became a holiday for people who worked with grain, such as millers and bakers. They took the day off and hung flower garlands and small loaves of bread from their millstones and shop stalls.

Today, if you'd like to honor Vesta during the time of the Vestalia, bake a cake as an offering, decorate your home with flowers, and do a ritual cleansing the week before Litha. You can do a ritual cleansing with a Litha blessing besom.

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