Imagining the keeping of the fire in Vesta’s temple as perennial is misleading: in reality it was extinguished and rekindled once a year in a secret ritual. This on/off operation, which had many analogies with an alchemical operation, ensured the continuity of the sacred fire—sacred because it guaranteed the perpetuity of the ancient ancestors. From Marco Baistrocchi, Arcana Urbis.
Before moving on to the description of the scholar of archaic rites of ancient Rome, Marco Baistrocchi, we must understand what the Vesta/Hestia deity represented. Martianus Capella, in Marriage of Philology and Mercury, tells us that she was a very ancient goddess and repeater of Hera’s celestial fire on earth. Indeed he says that there were numerous Vesta on earth. The weak fire of Hera, in her turn a repeater of the even weaker celestial fire of Zeus, was closer to the wind than to ordinary fire. Indeed, Vesta, known as the divinity of the primary hearth, was represented with waving veils. This flame was said to be the origin of the winds and vapors rising from the earth.
As far as alchemical fire is concerned, we already know what it is: it is the secret fire, Spiritus, Mercurius, extracted from raw matter through processes of state changes. This article does not analyze alchemical operations but rather what is left of its annual ritual of switching off and switching on and, above all, trying to understand what this was hiding.
The temple of Vesta in Rome was the scene of complex rituals that went far beyond the simple custody of a symbolic hearth. The fire kept by the priestesses was perpetual just for a single calendar year. It is no coincidence that an extremely sacred object was also hidden in the most hidden place of the building, a small sacred monster, the Palladium, which was an infinitesimal fixed proportion of Athena/Minerva, the goddess of Wisdom still untouched by man. Even better, it was the goddess’ most sacred and hidden part, and by Romans, it was kept in the temple of Vesta.
When we say that something is preserved in a given place, it means that it and that place have a similar or analogous composition. Therefore, we can deduce that the real Palladium was not a small monster but a composition similar or analogous to the sacred fire.
Even if everything was, apart from fire, in common sense, Vesta is such an ancient divinity that her sacred animal was the donkey, a typically Mediterranean quadruped when horses were still in the Eurasian steppes. Martianus Capella describes her as very old, perhaps the same age as her mother Earth. Generated by Saturn and, as the firstborn, immediately devoured-absorbed by her father, Vesta\Hestia is the nurse of all the Olympians. Primordial, immovable, fundamental. Unlike Hermes/Mercury’s wild, arboreal fire, Vesta is the mistress of domestic fire. But there is a privileged relationship between Hermes and Hestia, so much so that the goddess has been identified with the turtle/house/musical lyre, even Apollo’s companion.
The goddess of domestic fire was the only one who could kiss the king’s head. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Vesta/Hestia alone does not follow Zeus into the sky. She dwells motionless at home, never leaving her place (1). But let’s not forget that there are two Vestas, the center of earthly fire and the other of celestial fire. The sages call Hestia mother-earth because she resides motionless, even in the center of the ether. Even in the celestial areas, she is considered hard, dry, and rigid like stone, which may seem like a drying out of the living (2). Remi d’Auxerre says that the earthly fire nourishes the celestial fire of Zeus. Without it, it would be only a pale reminiscence, as celestial fire never descends beyond the ethereal zones. In fact, with this procedure, the King could be escorted up to the earth’s crust.
The ancient assigned the hearth to women, whether or not there was a burning log on it (3). No wonder Hestia/Vesta (4) was the name of the hearthstone itself. The fire, instead, which was never to be extinguished, was the divinus penis (5), a divine penis. Often painted over the Etruscan hearths, it was symbolically intended as a bridge between heaven and earth. This aspect had little to do with fertility. The hearth of the ancient Romans was essentially the place of the Dii Penates or Penates. It would be interesting to study the etymology of the term, considering that Penates seems to share a common origin with penatus, or ‘what is very deep inside’ – in fact, Penates has to do with the Numina and means ‘those who are inside’ – and finally also with penus, the secret closet-chest of the Roman house. Inside it are supplies, jewels, and statuettes of ancestors. Exclusively the women, the custodians par excellence, guarded those precious family goods. The incontrovertible fact is that the Vestals must be virgins – in ancient times, a virgin was the one who had no ties to people of male gender – and that the real custody of both the Palladium and the Penates of the entire empire was entrusted solely to the oldest of them all that should dispel any doubt of fertility rituals.
Cicero knew something of the inaccessibility of the temple. He never convinced his wife, the sister of the most important Vestal priestess, to let him make her acquaintance. Nothing spiritual, of course: the great Cicero was an outstanding social climber.
But let’s go back to the Penates. Unexpectedly, Virgil confuses them with Lares. In the Aeneid (6), the Vestals seem to guard the Trojan Lares. But we know the Lares as immovable from a particular place. The Penates were instead related to people and traveled with them. Therefore, only the latter could have left Troy. However, Vergilio places the Trojan Lares in the new hearth in the crackling logs since he poetically unites them to the ancestors’ ashes. Some recurring celebrations of ancient Rome, in which there was no secret of the desire to move ashes and coals, will not seem so absurd to us then. At the origin of the translation rite, there could be the officiants planning to move the first fire of the ancestors or father fire (7). But how to reconcile the perenniality of the sacred fire with the ritual of extinguishing it and relighting it during the calends of March or the week of the spring equinox (8)? Concerning it, Heraclitus states: “This ordering of the world, the same for all \ none of the gods and men has done it, but it is / but it has always been, is, and always will be / a fire that is always alive, which is kindled and / the measurement goes off (9).”
The extinguishing and reigniting of the fire were secret rituals in which water was used. No wonder: in ancient times, it was a common belief that the only way to reinvigorate a weak fire was to extinguish it with water and relight it. The symbolism paradoxes could insert this common popular wisdom in that little hole, left free by entire generations of alchemists: “fire and water are enough for you”. On the other hand, the flexibilities offered by the ‘rule of three’ could also include this possibility.
So, Vesta’s fire had to be rekindled once it was extinguished. There were two systems: for Plutarch, it was necessary never to take the flame of another fire but to produce a new one with the rays of the sun by using mirrors (10); The other was the Phaistos system, which required the use of a fire bow made up of two auspicious pieces of woods. The fire was thus symbolically “got from above, from outside, from afar”, then carried into the temple with a bronze sieve (11).
The Vestals were subject to the Pontifex Maximus as if he were their father. He was the magic intermediary. The figure of the Pontifex of the pagan era was fascinating: he was the highest authority in charge of architectural work on or along the water. Not only that, but he was also his magical ritual tutor. And he was also strangely connected with the extinguishing-lighting rite of the sacred fire (12). Perhaps not too strange if the ritual inside the temple of Vesta involved water use, of which the Pontifex Maximus was the sacred tutor. He alone may break the limits of the Primordial Ocean and, therefore, of the magical borders of the city. Among his insignia were the dolabra, a special type of ax with a sharp blade on one side and a pointed tip on the other (13). Again, fire and water (14).
Iulianus, the emperor, compares the Vestals to the Horai, incorruptible guardians on the divine fire of which the earth, under the moon, was surrounded (15). Fire moves nature more than any other substance. Generation is also a movement or is accompanied by some movement. If there is no heat, all the other elements of nature remain inert (16). Ultimately, time also arises from motion.
In conclusion, we see it was sacred, not the hearth, not the fire itself, but the burning log that should never run out. The dry log crackled in the fire. Like the cicada, the fire became a pure voice. And, like the cicada, it lived on wood. Of course, this was purely symbolic. In any case, don’t underestimate the crackle of the logs. The goddess Demeter intended to make children immortal by symbolically exposing them to fire: it spoke this myth of the “baptism of fire” (17), the only one who gave immortality. We could conjecture that the chthonic deity wanted to expose them to the “crackle” of the ancestors. Without fires, without burns. In the Aeneid, Virgil tells us that Hector steals the sacred fire of Troy in a dream and delivers it to Aeneas (18)… in an oneiric transmission, they cannot deliver the material fire. In a dream, the fire cannot burn.»
1 Plato, Phaedrus, 247a.
2 Euripides, fr. 938n.
3 Artemidorus, II, 10; Herodotus, V, 92, 2
4 Marco Baistrocchi, Arcana Urbis, nota 61, pp 163
5 Cicero, Ep., IX, 22, 2
6 Aeneid, V, 743-744; IX, 257-258; Marco Baistrocchi, Arcana Urbis, pp 196.
7 Marco Baistrocchi, Arcana Urbis, pp 200-201
8 Macrobius, Saturnalia, I, 12, 6.
9 Heraclitus, fragment B 30
10 Plutarch, Numa, 9: “The mirrors must be hollowed according to the position of the sides of an isosceles right triangle so that from the circumference to the center all the points converge in a single point. When these mirrors are opposite the sun so that the rays, wherever they fall, are collected and united in the center, the air dissolves, becoming rarefied. If the rays encounter very light and dry substances, they set them on fire because, with reflection, the light has taken on the properties and strength of fire ”. Compare Vergilio, G., IV, 426-429; Pliny, N.H., II, 239; Macrobius, Saturnalia, III, 20.2.
11 Marco Baistrocchi, Arcana Urbis, p. 205; note 165
12 Ibidem, p. 151
13 L. Quilici, Roma Primitiva, p. 183; Aeneid, II, 627; V, 307
14 Varro, De Lingua Latina, V, 83: cit et uls. Ritual of confarreatio in Roman weddings: offering of water and fire in the union of the feminine and masculine.
15 Julian emperor, Helios, 150, A
16 Plutarch, Convivial Issues, VII, 4, 3; Cam., XX
17 Marco Baistrocchi, Arcana Urbis, p. 202
18 Aeneid, II, 270