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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Vestal Virgins

In pagan times, through to the era we call Ancient Rome, women were important in politics, and worshipped as powerful deities, goddesses for whom elaborate temples were built. Later, this cultural phenomenon carried over to the Vestal Virgins, women assigned to keep the Fires of Vesta burning, fires from which any household in Rome could ignite a flame and carry it back to their hearth.
To be chosen as a Vestal Virgin was a great honor, and they were given that position while still in puberty. The girls must be without physical or mental deformities, have two living parents, and be the daughter of a freeborn, although later, with the birth of Christianity, when less girls opted for such a life, the restriction were eased a bit. (This is statue of one of the chief Vestals.)
The thirty years of their service were divided into three decades; the first ten years were dedicated to learning, the middle decade to performing their duties, and the third, to teaching.
These priestesses were so revered that a man on his way to his execution, if passed by a Vestal Virgin in her litter, was immediately freed. On the other hand, anyone caught walking beneath a litter carrying one of the Vestal Virgins was killed on the spot.
Vestal Virgins had honored seats at the games, and as priestesses, they had rights no other women had; they could make wills, own property, and vote. However, they were vowed to celibacy for the thirty years of their service, after which they were free to marry, and it was considered a great honor to be married to a Vestal Virgin. These marriages, though, were rare. Why leave a life of luxury to be subjected to the whims of a man, especially in ancient Rome, a world ruled by men? And love affairs were out of the question; a Vestal Virgin caught breaking their vow of celibacy was buried alive.
As paganism faded and Christianity pervaded, a religion over which only men had control, the fire of the Vestal Virgins was ordered extinguished and the women priestesses faded into history.


Ashley Ludwig said...

Such a cool topic. I love that when visiting the Roman forum, you can see the virgin's whose names were struck from historic record through Damnatio Memorae ... makes you wonder what went down... and what a story that must have been!


Joyce Moore said...

Hi Ashley: Ooh, I was in Rome just last year and went to the Forum, but I didn't see that. I had those earphones that tell what everything is but it was all staticky, so maybe they told me and I missed it. But the Palatine Hill amazed me, especially seeing the excavated homes. Awesome.

Margaret Tanner said...

Wow, Sounds like these virgins had a pretty good. What an interesting topic.

Joyce Moore said...

Margaret: Thanks for stopping by. Yes, they led privileged lives, but would you want to be buried alive for letting a man kiss you?
Just kidding. But all kinds of neat stuff went on with the pagans!