A Vestal Virgin was a priestess of the ancient Roman cult of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. Vestal Virgins served thirty year terms of service, during which they were dedicated to tending to the sacred fire that represented the goddess; each priestess was expected to spend ten years learning to perform her duties, ten years in service to the goddess, and ten years teaching her successors.

The cult of Vesta was created circa 700 B.C. by the emperor Numa Pompilius, who established the group of four priestesses (whose number would later increase to 6), each of whom was required to undertake a vow of celibacy for the duration of her term of service. Girls were offered to the cult between the ages of 6 and 10, and selection as a priestess was a distinction of great honor: the high priest would propose to the potential candidate "Tu, amata, capio", or, "You, my loved one, I take".

The penalty for ‘seduction’ while acting as a priestess was severe. A virgin convicted of violating the vow would be carried in a litter to her place of execution, where she would be deposited into a room filled with only a bed and some food, where she would be buried alive. The chamber contained food because it was considered impious for a body that had been consecrated in the holy rites to die of starvation. On the way to the place of execution, anyone who passed under the litter would be put to death; any criminal who crossed the litter’s path would be pardoned and immediately set free.

While the priestesses were permitted to marry and to break the vow of chastity upon completion of their service, few chose to do so. To renounce the vow of celibacy was said to fill one with regret and depression for the rest of one’s life, while an extended life of piety inspired awe and respect from peers.

(The term Vestal Virgin -- oddly enough -- has absolutely nothing to do with the Town of Vestal in the state of New York.)


  • http://www.uky.edu/ArtsSciences/Classics/wlgr/wlgr-religion408.html
  • http://library.thinkquest.org/11402/vestal_virgins.html

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