Friday, 16 May 2014

Vestal Virgins: The Mythology Series

The Vestal Virgins are part mythology and part historical fact. They did exist, but the reason behind their existence and their purpose is entirely mythological. Well, religious, at the time, but apparently religion turns into mythology when those gods are discarded. Tough gig.

The Vestal Virgins were the six priestesses of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth fire. They were chosen from noble families, were aged between six and ten when selected, and served for 30 years. During the term of their service they were required to preserve their virginity. As becoming a Vestal Virgin was considered a ‘marriage’ to the city of Rome, sex with any of its citizens was ‘incest’. Interesting argument… This incest was also treason, and punishable by death.

The Vestal Virgins were unusual because in Ancient Rome a woman’s place was considered to be the home, while the Vestal Virgins held positions as some of Rome’s senior religious leaders. Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing…

It was the responsibility of the Vestal Virgins to keep the sacred fires burning and to preserve the ‘soul’ of Rome. As long as the fires burned, it was believed that Rome would endure. Of course, the corollary to this was that if something bad happened, it must be the Vestal Virgins’ fault! Military defeats meant these women were accused of incest or failing to properly tend the fire, and it seems some of the Vestal Virgins were convicted on the strength of an accusation and little evidence. If the fire went out, this itself was considered to be evidence of the responsible woman’s impurity.

Early 18th-century depiction of the dedication of a Vestal, by Alessandro Marchesini
Harming a Vestal Virgin was believed to attract bad luck, and so Vestal Virgins condemned to death were sealed in a tomb with a little bread and water and left to starve to death. By some convoluted logic I can’t follow, apparently burying someone alive and leaving them to starve to death isn’t ‘harming’ them. I’m also not sure why they left them any food or water to be honest – surely that just prolonged the whole matter? If you’re going to engage in that kind of barbarity, you might as well get it over and done as fast as possible…

The Vestal Virgin Marcia was killed in this way after being accused of taking a lover. Minucia was convicted of incest on the basis of ‘improper dress’ (because what you’re wearing naturally means you have a lover….) while others were convicted on the testimony of temple slaves.

This seems a significant risk, but life as a Vestal was much easier outside of times of military conflict. They enjoyed the best seats in the Coliseum, received a significant pension upon retirement, were entitled to be buried within the city of Rome (a privilege reserved for a chosen few) and were not considered the property of their fathers or husbands. Upon retirement they were permitted to marry, although it appears most chose not to do so. Those that did apparently still retained personal freedoms and independence, including the right to make their own will (which ordinary women could not as property of their husbands). 

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