The Vestal Virgins
Although most people worshiped Hestia in their homes, one of the most famous temples of the ancient world was erected in her honor: the Temple of Vesta. Located in Rome (Vesta was Hestia's Latin name), this temple was attended by priestesses known as the Vestal Virgins.
In the Temple of Vesta, six priestesses served the goddess. Chosen from the best families of Rome, the priestesses were required to be good looking, with no physical deformities. They were also required to have two living parents at the time of their appointment. Priestesses of Vesta began their training between the ages of six and ten. The Vestal Virgins were a very important part of Roman culture, and for a child to be chosen was a great honor for the girl and for her family.
Becoming a Vestal Virgin
A young girl who was in training to become a priestess of Vesta was required to take a vow of chastity and to promise to serve the temple for thirty years. Her initiation included a ceremony in which she was escorted to the temple and met by other Vestal Virgins. They dressed her in white clothing and cut her hair. The training took ten years. After that, the new priestess went into active service for another ten years. During this time, her responsibilities included maintaining the Vestal Fire and sprinkling it with holy water each day. After her active service ended, the priestess spent another ten years training new initiates.
The ancient Romans believed that if the Vestal Fire was extinguished, bad luck would come to Rome. Because tending the fire was such an important task, failure was punished severely — a priestess who let the fire go out was beaten with rods.
After thirty years of service to the temple, the priestess could become a private citizen, able to marry and bear children if she desired. However, most Vestal Virgins chose to continue serving the goddess for the rest of their lives. Service to Vesta was, after all, the only life they had ever known.
The Vestal Virgins were treated differently from the common women of Rome. Because they were not under the power of any man, they had some of the same rights men enjoyed. For example, priestesses of Vesta could participate in court trials and create wills to bequeath their belongings to whomever they chose.
Breaking the Vow of Chastity
The greatest crime a Vestal Virgin could commit was to break her vow of chastity. Doing so was a betrayal of the goddess, but it was also a betrayal of the city of Rome, because Romans believed that the city's well-being depended on the Vestal Virgins' faithfulness. Any priestess caught breaking her vow of chastity was buried alive.
This burial was part of an elaborate ceremony. The disgraced priestess was wrapped in a burial shroud: thin strips of cloth covered with thick linens. This shroud immobilized her and stifled any cries or pleas. Then, she was placed on a stretcher used to carry the dead and conveyed through town in a procession. A priest intoned prayers at the burial site, and the heavy linens were stripped from the woman.
The woman was lowered into the vault, which had been prepared earlier, and placed on a bed. The vault held a single day's worth of water, food, and light. The vault was shut and the grave was filled in. Those participating in the execution were careful to smooth the earth so that no one could tell it was a gravesite.
Because she was buried without the customary burial rituals, it was thought that a disgraced priestess of Vesta would never reach the Land of the Dead. Her sacrifice was meant to appease the deities and prevent any harm from befalling Rome.