Celestial Classics: Vesta

Vesta, the space-rock not the Goddess, although given how little she is represented as a woman she could easily be a space-rock. This large asteroid (sometimes designated a ‘minor planet’) is the second largest in the Asteroid Belt. This photo was taken by NASA’s Dawn probe.(Credit: NASA)

Vesta.

No, not what every self-respecting beige-suit wearer from the 70s passed for exotic food, and not a box of matches.

Vesta is an asteroid in the asteroid belt (that bit of rocky stuff mainly between Jupiter and Mars’ orbits), the second largest after Ceres, who we will almost certainly talk about later. It is usually, categorically, caught somewhere between ‘big space rock’ and ‘dwarf planet’. It is the brightest visible asteroid as seen from Earth and NASA’s Dawn probe spent a year orbiting Vesta in 2011-2012.

You might think sending expensive space equipment to die in the cold grip of the void so you can get a few glamour shots of a space rock is not important, but it is. For pure science’s sake it can tell us a lot about planetary formation and evolution. How matter goes about matting in the universe is something about which we know surprisingly little.

From a selfish point of view, learning about massive hunks of rock that hurtle about space is actually quite important for understanding what more you can do if one looks on a collision course with Earth, besides soiling yourself and asking if Bruce Willis actually knows how to drill in microgravity. I’m almost certain he doesn’t.

The Dawn missions were some of the most integral to our understanding the make-up of objects in the asteroid belt and proto-planet formation. Many new, exciting and amazing things were discovered. One of those things is than an impact caused a crater (named Rheasilvia – after the mythical mother of Romulus and Remus and Vestal Virgin) that ejected material into space that has landed on Earth as meteorites. The first time we have been able to connect an ‘event’ in space with material held here on Earth. For more mission details and finding go here. (Credit: NASA, JPL-CalTech)

Now, if you happen to be in the United Kingdom, and we happen to have some decent weather, there is a chance Vesta will be visible in the night sky. It’s in Leo at the moment, somewhere by the Lion’s arse to the south of the star Delta Leonis, otherwise known as Zosma. I tried to spot it yesterday evening (27th February 2021) but it was very near the full-moon which turned everything around it into a light polluted mess.

It’s sometimes naked-eye visible and with some binoculars or a telescope you should definitely be able to find it, although it is relatively tiny, of little magnitude (brightness) as a result and so won’t look like much more than a speck unless you have a really good ‘scope.

Classically speaking, though, who and why Vesta?

Well, it could have something to do with my puerility and the fact that most of the stories we have involve fire-cocks and divine impregnation. But, it isn’t…

…Just that. I mean, obviously that has a huge amount to do with it. Flaming dicks and miracle babies, what’s not to love?

It’s also the fact that she’s King of the Gods, Jupiter’s, sister. In fact, outside of the ‘Capitoline Triad’ of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, Vesta’s was one of the most important religious cults in the Roman world.

The remains of the Temple of Vesta in the Forvm Romanvm, Rome. (Credit:
Yellow.Cat CC-BY-2.0)

If you have ever heard of the ‘Vestal Virgins’ you have heard of Vesta herself. The Vestal Virgins were her priestesses, dedicated to her and only her in a 30 year vow. These vows were taken very seriously.

According to Livy, one Vestal Priestess who broke her vow of chastity, Minucia, was punished by being buried alive. That must be, historically, one of the most serious and dire consequences for a shag.

So who was this Goddess who was taken so seriously by the homely Romans? Well she is a goddess of hearth and home. Like a sort of Roman Nigella Lawson, only with a reduced propensity for suggestive finger sucking and being outrageously milfy.

A rare image of Vesta as a woman, though not of Roman era. From the “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum” by Guillaume Rouille, approximately 1553. (Credit: Public Domain)

She is also associated with fire (hence the name of the matches), and tending to the Sacred Fire of Vesta was one of the sworn duties of her virgins.

Surely not the only fire they kept burning. These were, after all, lovely comely virgins in Roman times.

But, as mentioned, the punishments for the crime of interfering with a Vestal virgin, or being a Vestal virgin who allows herself to be interfered with, were severe.

Vesta, then, was a big deal. Outside of the aforementioned big three, and the Cybil (who is a whole different kettle of cult) she was probably the most important.

Why? Because Romans believed in family.

A statue believed to be of a Vestal Priestess. This is from the Upper Via Sacra. There are actually many statues of Vestals in Rome – demonstrating their importance.

Specifically they believed in a nuclear family controlled by one bloke who probably had bad teeth and a superiority complex caused by his being the Pater Familias – translating almost literally to ‘the father of the family’. This was not just a title. It was a role that came with established and legally binding responsibilities like, for example, the power of life and death over members of the family.

You can see why Vesta was fairly key! Imagine if your dad could murder you and your mum because, you know, reasons, and the legal system would just say “Well, you’re the boss!” and move on. That was a system that existed.

Having some ‘greater power’ to default to, whether it be your lares, your household gods, or the Vestals go to for advice or guidance, is probably better than acting out of a hot-headed temper.

I couldn’t not! Known as the ‘strike anywhere’ match, and the kind of match you see tough-guys light on their stubble, Swan Vestas are named after the Goddess of fire, hearth and home and are distinguishable by their reddy-pink tips. (Credit: Public Domain)

Now, I mentioned earlier on something about fire-cocks. You see, despite having her flame tended exclusively by virgins, and despite being almost exclusively depicted or at least perceived as female, Vesta has an association with the facinus – the Roman religious (often winged) cock. You might think this a bit strange but there is some twisted, cock-and-ball logic to it.

For one thing, the feeding of the flame of Vesta, the ignes aeternum – Is this burning an eternal flame? Yes, yes it is. Well that fire would be lit in a womb-like crucible in the temple by a large rod of wood – extrapolate a little and you’ve got some penetrative, impregnating, procreative energy going on there.

The facinus, the magical flying cock, has very little evidence of adorning adults. It is believed to have warded off evil spirits, either with its masculine prowess and erect potency or by them laughing at it. My experience in life leads me to believe the latter is probably true.

Many of the decorations would have adorned doorways, as tintinnabulum, windchimes or bells.

But there has been found evidence of, for example, facinus rings too small to have been worn by adults. They would have been used to protect children, particularly masculine children. So you see, Vesta, as the Goddess of hearth and home, was protecting the kiddies with her magical flying penises! It all makes total sense, trust me.

Just a perfectly normal winged cock, with cocks for feet and a cock-tail, with if you notice between it’s cock legs, it has a cock. This bronze facinus was found in Pompeii and would have been part of a tintinnabulum – A sort of wind-chime arrangement, or collection of bells. Given How many cocks there are on this thing I think it’s got a big enough collection of bells. (Credit: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5)

There’s also the story of Ocresia (by some versions a Vestal Virgin) the mother of the Roman King Servius Tullius, getting pregnant with him by fucking herself with a magic cock that either appeared in, or flew out of, the hearth. So, yeah, there’s that.

I think if there’s a take-away message I want you to get from this it is that pagan religion, the pantheistic (multiple gods), animist (the belief that all objects have a spiritual essence) traditions of the Greco-Roman world and the various places they stole from was – well – it’s a whole different universe from the monotheistic, hands-off God, dominance of today.

Vesta herself outdates so many other Greco-Roman gods, she’s likely inherited from a pre-Roman Latin tradition such that most Roman sources attribute her to Trojan lineage, as per the founding of Alba Longa by Aeneas as set out in Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’.

To this end Vesta herself is a myth of a myth.

Vesta, the sacred flame, the holy hearth, the magic virgin cock mother – It might all seem ludicrous but for a blossoming hill-tribe culture around the Tiber their fire was their life, fertility was central to their success, their flames literally were divine, their genitals the magical keys to open the gateways of creation.

We can have a giggle now, but the Cult of Vesta was one of the last surviving pagan cults in Roman culture, even as Christianity swept across the empire. I believe it took an official order from Theodosius I to shut it down.

Rome was built of families. Their homes were their temples, their ancestors as Gods and Vesta – she represented something of ‘the origin’ itself. She was a spirit, a force, older than Rome. She was as the Earth, she was the volcanic fire bubbling away beneath the surface, the very soil on which Rome planted her Imperial Eagles and conquered.

A closer image of the Temple of Vesta with the sacred hearth in the foreground. It is said that if this fire went out then the Goddess had withdrawn her protection from the city. Tending the fire, then, was a serious duty. It going out a serious dereliction of that duty. Being a Vestal was, for Patrician Roman woman, one of the few ways they could serve their nation on the front lines, in that respect. (Credit: FrankCJones CC-BY-3.0)

The Vestals did not just care to one flame. They cared also to the Palladium of Pallas Athena – the holy image on which the entire fate of the Roman Empire was said to rest. They cared, too, for the Penates, the household deities, guardians of all Romans.

Much like Aeneas was gifted his shield by the smithing God Vulcan, to aid in his protection so that Rome may be; Rome was gifted these images by Athena, via Aeneas, so that she may achieve her great destiny.

Given that the Roman legacy lives on, her language refuses to die, her institutions, some limping and some galloping, take us striding into the 21st century, is it any wonder, then, that Vesta clings in our sky as an ever-present watcher?

If you get a chance, look up and you may find her.

Or you may see a flying cock.

Either way it’ll be pretty nifty.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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