20 May 2011

Vestals

Have you ever been in an area with an energy that is palpable if inexplicable? While touring the Palatine Hill on a recent visit to Rome I came across ruins of the Vestals or Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome and had that experience.  I knew nothing of these women but felt their presence, like echos calling me. I spent time among their remnants and then decided to learn more about them.







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?

15 comments:

  1. Wow. I didn't visit there when I was in Rome. Going on the list for the next time. I felt that way in Assisi.....

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is very interesting! I was in Rome but never even heard of this place. I do know when I was in Paris and walking across the Tuilleries, I could feel the presence of history.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is a beautiful post for many reasons. A thought that comes to my mind concerns the silencing of the feminine voice by women themselves. I don't understand this phenomena completely, but I believe that we as women do as much harm to each other in regard to having the freedom to use our voices as men do.

    ReplyDelete
  4. An awesome post with wonderful photos!
    Absolutely fantastic!!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I wasn't aware of this place either....very interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I probably would not have married either after enjoying the respect of my fellow Romans. Besides, who wants to be subject to their husband?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Lauren, Me too for Assisi but this was different, clear, eerie.
    DJan, It's part of the Forum tour and The Palatine Hill. I didn't see it first time but this time it was recommended and I'm glad I went.
    Sally, It's a complicated issue and I'm sure we take in the abiding mores and treat each other accordingly. Consciousness comes first to change this.
    F.G., Thanks and thanks for stopping by.
    Nanny, It was awe inspiring, very uncrowded and impactful.
    C.G., Really, they lived in luxurious surroundings and enjoyed a unique and exalted status in their own right. What's not to love?

    ReplyDelete
  8. i have read a bit about vestals but being reminded of them now in the context of these beautiful images of their home is really just wonderful - and it's always always refreshing to read of womanhood with status in a culture - very nice post!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I just love going to the Forum and climbing up the Palatine Hill overlooking it -- Rome is my favorite city and that whole area is where I like to go most. The Vestal Virgins were amazing women and that part of the Forum is very moving for me also. Beautiful pictures that bring back some lovely memories of the hours I spent there.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Very interesting concept. Yet, something about it disturbs me, the idea that to be valued women had to be celibate. This idolizing can be quite detrimental. De-sexing as a saintly act makes immolation acceptable. Ugh, a lot to think about this topic.

    You felt positive in this space, and I trust your gut feelings here.

    ReplyDelete
  11. GW., They were a name that I heard but I hadn't read about them until now. I'm hoping for that status again in our own culture.
    TB., You're one step ahead of me but I hope to catch up now that I know about it. Agree about Rome.
    Rosaria, It was tricky in Roman law. If they were married they were subject to their husband instead of the State. In their role as Vestals they were dedicated to the State alone. Celibacy is tricky as well since, even in other contexts, it can lead to both amazing self-sacriface and selfless service and also to aberrant behavior and de-sexing. I prize the full expression of our humanity, including sex, and think celibacy should only be by choice not by mandate. But, truly my cells were zinging in this space. Yes, lots to think about.

    ReplyDelete
  12. This was so interesting! I love learning more about the hostory of ancient Italy. Women had so little rights in those days that they must have felt almost as privilaged as Queens. There are such lovely views from those hills in Rome!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Pat, It's a fascinating history that affected lots of our ancestors. Yes, the Vestals had a unique position of privilege.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I know exactly what you mean. There are places (all of them very old) where I have felt that, if I could only be still enough, I could hear the past. Some of the places where this washed over me: Glastonbury England (said to be the legendary Avalon and oozing with power); the Cathedral at Chartres, France; and sadly, La Bastille, where I was sure I could hear the moans and feel the desperation.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Patti, The places you mentioned just went on my "to do" list.

    ReplyDelete

Let's chat.