Vesta and the Circle of Fire

April 2, 2010 at 9:49 am Leave a comment

No, the title has nothing in common with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but is the first part of some musings about the  goddess Vesta.

In ancient Rome, she was not only the fire on the hearth, but also the Circle and the Center and the heart of Rome. The Romans knew that the end of their city, the empire, their world would come when her servants, the Vestals, left the house and the hearth was left without Her, without the Fire.

It is easy to recognize the small circular building in the Roman Forum. We call it the “temple” of Vesta, but that is an error. All ancient authors point out that it never was a temple – and they ought to have known. The reason was not that it was round; Heracles, Venus Cloacina, Diana and Minerva had round temples. Ovid, and the later Festus say that this was due to Vesta being the round Earth and Georges Dumézil points out that the Earth could not be consecrated to the Sky.

However, we must not forget that it was the holiest place in ancient Rome, in fact in the whole Roman Empire. As such it may have been considered so holy that it was deemed impossible to consecrate it.

The building– aedes Vestae, Vesta’s house – was a circle, its center being the hearth with the holy fire, Vesta. The goddess was the center of the circle.

The importance of the circle and the center can be seen in one of the traditions during Vesta’s greatest festivity, Vestalia.  It was celebrated the second week of June, during the days that lead up to Midsummer, the longest day of the year. The symbol lies hidden in a tradition that does not seem to have anything at all to do with religion: During the whole week of celebrations the Romans decorated the millstones and the donkeys that pulled them with flower wreaths. The circular upper part of the mill turned round the immovable meta, the lower part with a hole in the center. The wreaths placed on the millstones created a double circle with the center in the tap inside the hole of the meta.

In order to understand how this tradition explains Vesta, let us begin by looking around us. The circle is such a common and natural shape in our bodies and in our surroundings that we forget its ancient sacredness. Our pupils are circular. Our surroundings are full of circles and spheres. The sun and the full moon, flowers, fruit and even stones impress their roundness on us. We live on a spherical planet.

The cupola of Pantheon in Rome

Becoming conscious of this simple fact I suddenly understood why, as a small girl walking to school in the mornings, I had felt very strongly that I lived inside a glass cupola in the outer space. Above my head the sky was like a vault of glass. Later when I looked at illustrations of space stations below their cupolas I recognized my daydream and understood why more often than not Hindu and Buddhist temples, Jewish synagogues, Christian churches, and Muslim mosques are built with a cupola as their center. Once everybody seems to have been conscious about the vault of the sky, now fewer people are.

Being conscious about the fact that I live on the top of the spherical Earth inside the veil of the atmosphere, I discover that I am always in the center wherever I am. I cannot step away from the center, however much I try to reach the horizon; the top of the sky is always above my head. This is connatural to everything on the planet from the smallest grain of sand and the tiniest amoeba to us. Our ancestors belonging to the species we call Homo erectus made small circular beads out of ostrich eggs with a hole bored in the absolute center at least two hundred thousand years ago and as Robert G. Bednarik points out, this precise form can only be made intentionally.

To be centered means to be in the center of the circle. This feeling is still innate even among people who never see the horizon. Colin Turnbull’s description of an episode in his life with the Mbuti people is a good example. The Mbuti were pygmies in the deep jungle and lived in a material sense as our ancestors once did. They never saw the sky but everybody had the same internal image, that of living inside a translucent sphere. Contrarily to us, they were conscious about how important it was for them to remain in the center of the sphere. When something happened that threw  them off balance, they told Turnbull how they were  sliding dangerously close to the periphery.

Bone comb from N. Italy

To be centered means to be balanced, to stay in the center of the circle. That is everybody’s goal in life and if we look at some of the small combs,  we notice that they are decorated with circles that have their centers clearly marked.

A good example is the dream that C.G. Jung reveals  in his autobiography, a dream that he had during the dark and confused time when he had just broken with Freud:

In the middle of the night, he wanders in a dirty and sooty city with a group of Swiss friends. It rains. They arrive in a dark silent square. In the middle lies a round pool with an island and on the island a magnolia tree is in full flowers illuminated both by an inner light and a ray of the sun. His friends do not notice anything and go on talking about an acquaintance living here and how they absolutely do not understand his reasons. Jung says to himself that he understands that friend very well.

This dream gave Jung the confidence to continue on the dark road. He remembered it all his life.

We may also dream that we cannot find our way and then suddenly we have arrived. An open square. A peaceful place. Perhaps something stands in the center, perhaps not.  During those periods, when I don’t know what to do, they arrive. They soothe and show that the center is there, somewhere.

The circle and its center are so deeply anchored in our unconscious that in moments of depression and confusion it helps to draw a mandala, make one out of clay, embroider it or dance it. Psychologists know how they help many people in difficult situations, from those afflicted by different neuroses to those suffering from schizophrenia. In our industrial and materialistic culture we have forgotten how to center ourselves that the Mbuti practiced. Fortunately the psyche has its own ways to find help.

It is also difficult for us to imagine how it was to live in a world lit only by the moon, stars and small fires. Very few among us have the time to experience starlight and in our well-lighted cities we seldom catch a glimpse of how Orion or the Big Bear slowly move over the sky at night. Once people did. Once upon a time they saw the constellations of the Taurus, the Swan, the Twins, the Pisces, and the Virgo one after the other raising over the horizon. The stars move in a slow dance over the vaulted sky and along the dark horizon and our far away ancestors may have symbolized their world imitating the stars dancing in a ring.

Abraham Seidenberg, professor of mathematics at Berkeley, proposes that it was this circular dance that gave birth to the first geometrical drawing, the circle, that in its turn gave birth to the triangle and square. We still dance in a circle round a center. In Scandinavia we dance round the  Tree at Christmas and the May-pole. at Midsummer.  During the longest and shortest nights of the year we imitate the stars dancing round the horizon.  We are at that moment unconsciously part of the universe. Thus Hindus and Buddhists walk round their holy places and the Muslims round the Ka’bah. Every Sunday the Orthodox priests carry the Bible in procession round the church.  However, we don’t participate in the ways of  the universe only in dancing or in rituals, but in a merry-go-round. Who has never been in one?

Seidenberg also discusses the problem how you find the center of the circle. We don’t think this is difficult, but to transpose a feeling into an abstract, two-dimensional drawing is not an easy thing to do. However, somebody found out how to do it and became conscious of  the astonishing result that the two diameters not only give the exact center, but create a cross and four triangles in which the number three is innate. They, that is, the cross, the triangle, and the numbers three, four, and their sum, seven, are among the most common symbols and numbers all over the world.

Vesta is all this and more. The second part is for next week.


Vesta’s House: photo: K. B.

Pantheon: photo Alers, August 2004. Source: Swedish Wikipedia, 04.06.2005

Bone comb from N. Italy: Frattesina di Fatta Polesine. Late Bronze Age. After Bellato e Bellintani 1984. Drawing. K.B.

Mandala: One of the many that decorate the streets in the Old Town of Freiburg, S. Germany. Drawing K.B.

Comb in bronze from Denmark. Late Bronze Age. After Sprockhoff 1954. Drawing K.B.

From the Botanical Garden in Lund. Photo K.B.


Entry filed under: center, Combs, Earth, Fire, quaternal circle, Symbols.

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