In ancient Rome, Vesta was the goddess of the hearth and home and the Vestals were the priestesses of Vesta. They tended the sacred fire inside the Temple of Vesta that was never allowed to go out and from which all Romans could draw fire for their hearths. They existed from about 700 BC to 394 AD "to devote themselves to the study and correct observance of state rituals that were off- limits to the male college of priests." (Wikipedia) Besides conducting sacred ceremonies, they were included in state decision making and became an influential force in Rome even serving on College of Pontiffs, made up of the highest ranking priests, as their only female members.
The girls were chosen for this role between the ages of 6 - 10 and served for 30 years; ten years to learn, ten years to serve, and ten years to teach. Unlike Roman women of their time, they had extraordinary freedom, safety and respect and lived independently in luxury. They enjoyed a place of honor at public ceremonies and were free to own property, make a will and vote. Vestals could give evidence without taking an oath because their word was trusted absolutely. Although they were allowed to marry after their 30 years, few did as they would lose their status and independence and be subject to their husbands.
Artist rendering of the house of the Vestals (from Wikipedia):
As Christianity gained prominence and promoted the idea of one, as opposed to many gods, the Vestals were disbanded. There role in protecting Rome for 1000 years and being seen as fundamental to the continuance of Rome was over.
There's something about reading of women in history who had unique and essential roles and respect that breaks my heart when they lose it. Reading The Mists of Avalon was like that for me, too. Maybe that's what I experienced in this place of the Vestals history. This trace of their energy now gone. I felt it. I grieve this lack of recognition of the feminine contribution in our current culture. How long will it take? How many girls and women silenced or ignored when their voices are so important?