Vesta and the Phallus of Fire

April 11, 2010 at 10:22 am Leave a comment

Vesta: the Center of the Circle

bread oven

Vesta was the center of the quaternal Rome, Roma quadrata, the circle divided by a cross. As a reminder,  the bread was usually made into round buns with a cross on top. Every time anybody held such a bread in her hand, it reminded her that it had been baked in the womb of the oven that was heated by the fire, and from flour crushed in the mill that moves in a circle round the center.

Also, every time the  Romans went to the circus to watch the chariot-races, the turning points – also called meta (the center) – reminded them that they lived in the center of the empire, the hub of the world. Life in Rome circled around the goddess Vesta. Her fire must always burn. It must not die, because then Rome would also die.

Ovid points out that Vesta was a living flame – viva flamma – and as such could not have any association with death.  This was the reason why the girls that were chosen to become vestals, that is, Vesta’s priestesses, must have both parents alive. Even more significant is the fact that when a criminal condemned to death met a vestal on the way to execution, he was automatically freed.

This also meant that a vestal could not be killed. If she was condemned to death, which happened if she broke her celibacy, only Vesta could kill her. The priestess was walled alive in a cell with a lamp, some water  and some bread to wait for the goddess she had offended.

The Phallus of Fire

The name Vesta is feminine and the vestals were women that were treated as men. This has intrigued many researchers, but the answer is not far away. It is enough to read what Plutarch has to say in the following old story:

King Tarchetius was the cruel king of Alba Longa. One day a phallus appeared on the hearth in his palace and remained there several days. Frightened he asked an oracle and was told to let a girl unite herself with the flaming phallus. Out of the union a hero would be born, who would surpass everybody in courage and wisdom. Thus the king commanded one of his daughters to go to the phallus, but she out of fright made one of her slave women perform the act. The king furious about his daughter’s disobedience threw them both in prison where the slave gave birth to the twins Romulus and Remus. They were taken out to die in the forest, but a wolf heard their hungry cries and fed them her milk and when a shepherd saw this miracle he adopted them. Grown up they assembled an army, conquered Tarchetius, and built Rome.

This legend not only explains why the vestals, symbols of the goddess who also is a god, were treated as men with all the male privileges, but also why they always dressed like brides. They were always wed to the god, the phallus of fire.

Androgynous deityThe Androgynous Deities

Nowadays we cannot imagine an androgynous divinity, the god that contemporary is the goddess, but it is not  like that  everywhere.

On the island Jeju between South Korea and Japan, there are hundreds of statues representing Harabochi, “Grand-Father,” the Eldest, the Great Father. In creation tales and prayers, the same divinity is called Halmang, “Grand-Mother,” the Eldest, the Great Mother. It is the same divinity: She has created the island and listens to her children while, he watches. They are not one god and one goddess, but the god is the goddess, the goddess is the god.

Behind the symbol lies the logic that when we anthropomorphize a divinity,that is, give a deity a human shape, we ought to represent the human species, not a man or a woman, not just the female half or the male half, but the whole.

Our European ancestors took the same view. At least fifty percent of all the prehistoric figurines are female-male. Their bodies are female, their necks are phallic. The tradition continues in the pottery containers. The water jars that contain the cremated bones have a wide body sometimes  with breasts, and phallic necks. (We still use vases with this shape in pottery, glass or metal.) The symbolic image represents the species and not  its division in femininity and masculinity.

Vesta is one of these androgynous divinities.

Let me give you another example from our present time.

In India, one finds at least one statue of the god Shiva and the goddess Devi-Shakti in every village. The statue is in the form of lingam and yoni, that is, phallus and vulva. According to one legend, Shiva once cut off his lingam and it began to roam the earth, spreading death all around. Only when Devi-Shakti opened her vulva to it,  the destruction ended. Shiva’s lingam is imagined as a pillar of fire, but is unthinkable without Shakti’s yoni.  She is the life without which he is merely a corpse. The goddess and the god are so deeply united that they are One.

Prehistoric figureIt is as gross an error to understand lingam and yoni as only an image of the sexual intercourse as to understand the small Paleolithic figures of naked women as obscene or– as somebody has proposed– as pornography.

We  must use images taken from our own bodies or from our surroundings to explain the unexplainable. The difference between the male and female genitals is the most unmistakable way to represent Male and Female, Masculinity and Femininity. This is how we are created; it is the most important visual difference between female and male.

Androgyny is the Two in One, the alchemical King united with the Queen into one person, the Unity that we long for and cannot reach but for a short while. It is a symbol of divinity.

King and Queen united

The vestals had to remain virgins until they had served for thirty years. The Roman law and society treated them as men because they represented the goddess who was the god.  Contrary to all other Roman women, they had no male guardians; they took care of their own fortunes and testaments; they testified in the law courts. A lictor even accompanied them in the city, a honor granted to the most important officials and Jupiter’s high priest. They were treated as women who were men, as the goddess-god they served.

This was also the reason why a vestal who had intercourse with a man must die, not because the intercourse in itself, but because of its symbolism. The Romans believed that everybody at birth was both masculine and feminine. Only the intercourse separated the genders and therefore, the vestal that was both, lost her masculinity in the intercourse, and as a consequence did not represent the goddess/god any longer. She must die. This even when her lover was a god:

The god Mars once fell in love with the vestal Rhea Silvia, who became mother of the twins Romulus and Remus, Rome’s mythical founders. Rhea Silvia was walled in to die, but Mars being a conscientious father found good fostering parents to his sons.

The stories of the life-giving fire – Vesta who was both the heart of Rome and the fire in every kitchen – have been long forgotten. A hotter, more dramatic fire replaced the old symbols. The change started between six and seven thousand years ago and as that revolutionary happening directly involves the combs, it will be the subject of the next chapter.

Bronze CombHowever, let me first mention the interesting link between Vesta and the comb belonging to flaminica dialis, the important wife of the highest priest in Rome. Every year on May 14, the Romans celebrated a ritual, Sacra Argeorum, the Argei being images kept in twenty-seven shrines throughout Rome. Once the ceremony may have entailed human sacrifices, but during historical times puppets made of straw were thrown into the river Tiber. The vestals – although the ritual coincided with their yearly cleaning of Vesta’s house – were present together with the flaminica. She was dressed in mourning  and was forbidden to touch her comb on this day. Once it may have been a fearful day, a day like the Christian Good Friday, a day when everybody waited for the transformation, that would come, but had not yet arrived. Not a day for combing one’s hair remembering the Goddess who combs Her Flaxen Hair of Nettles.


Bread oven.  Los Angeles. Photo A. Carpenter

Marble statue from the Cycladic Islands, Greece. 3rd millennium. Drawing K. Berggren

Prehistoric androgynous figure from Savignano, Italy. Museo delle Origini dellÚomo, Torino. Perhaps as early as 50,000 BC. Drawing K. Berggren

The King and Queen united. Alchemical symbolic image. Public image from

Comb of bronze from a tomb in Alto Adige, Italy. ca. 600 BC.  Drawing, K. Berggren


Entry filed under: Androgynous symbol, center, Combs, Fire, Myth, quaternal circle, Rome, Romulus and Remus.

Vesta and the Circle of Fire Combs of Bronze or the Fascination with Metal

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