Vesta was the goddess of the hearth in the Roman religion (idenitified with the Greek goddess Hestia). The hearth fire in the home of the ancient Romans was not only essential for cooking food and heating water, but also served as the gathering place for the family and, in time, became associated with the spirit of that particular family gathered around that particular hearth. When one left home on a business trip, or even on vacation, one carried some of the hearth fire along in order to keep one’s home close even when away. Further, the difficulty of making or transporting fire made the constantly-burning hearth a vital element in the home as well as state buildings. Vesta, therefore, along with the house spirits of the Penates, Panes and Lares, was a goddess revered in every strata of Roman society.
In the shrine of Vesta in the Roman Forum a fire perpetually burned and was tended to by the Vestal Virgins. The fire was renewed annually on March 1 (which was originally the Roman new year) and the sanctuary was not open to the public save during Vesta’s feast days (June 7-15, known as the Vestalia) when matrons were allowed to visit barefoot and in humility. When the Vestalia ended there was a ceremonial sweeping of the sanctuary and it was considered a time of bad luck and unfriendly omens until the sweepings were disposed of in the Tiber River or in a certain spot agreed upon in the city. Vestal Virgins were expected to remain chaste throughout their tenure as servants of Vesta and the punishment for failing to do so was to be buried alive (or, in one notable case, to have molten lead poured down the throat).
Vesta is always depicted as a fully-clothed woman accompanied by her favorite animal, the ass. Since Vesta was goddess of the hearth she was also the patron goddess of the bakers of the city and, as the ass turned the millstone to grind the wheat for the bread, the animal became closely associated with the goddess.
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