The pilgrimage

pil·grim·age: n. 1. A journey to a sacred place or shrine. 2. A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance. (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition)

This is the third year I’ve observed Vestalia. I feel drawn to the holiday and to the goddess it honors, but I’m having trouble translating that attraction into practice. Most of the rituals I know of (for Vesta or any other deity) assume that you are a theist, that you believe in the deity you’re worshiping. Semi-atheist that I am, I see Vesta as an archetype, as a astrological asteroid, and I want to deliberately acknowledge that archetype in some way. But a ritual designed to please a deity I don’t believe exists feels pointless. So I try a little of this and a little of that, searching for something that will resonate with the “feel” of Vesta. Meditate on a candle, per Francis Bernstein’s suggestion in Classical Living. Clean the apartment. Those sorts of things.

This year, I went to IKEA.

One of my goals is to make my office/craft room usable. I tend to treat it like a room-sized junk drawer, shoving random stuff into the closet, under the table, or just piling it on top in the hopes that it will put itself away somewhere. But as my rent goes up each year and I’m paying more for each square foot of this room, I want to make better use of it. Thus, off to IKEA to find  “storage solutions.” Between the travel time there and back, and the time spent navigating the store itself, it’s a day trip, and since I was taking Vestalia off from work anyway, it seemed like an excellent time both practically and symbolically to make the trip. Certainly recommitting myself to making my apartment a home was appropriate for Vestalia.

When I was first trying to think of a title for this post, I used the term “pilgrimage” facetiously. After all, a trip to a humongous home furnishings store is hardly a journey to a sacred site, and while it’s nifty that I went there on Vestalia of all days, it’s not, you know, meaningful. Unless I make it so—and I can. In this case, with what I just called “nifty:” timing my trip to IKEA for the day in my calendar most focused on home.

This is the kind of sacred activity that speaks to me the most: doing things that correspond symbolically  to a holiday or to a goddess or something, while at the same time having practical results. Maybe it’s all the earth in my chart, but I need that practical aspect as much as I need the spiritual. We Pagans often look for the sacred in the mundane world rather than draw a line between the two. IKEA is huge and generic, but it is about home, in the most physical, earthy sense. (Okay, it’s probably overstating matters to think of it as a giant temple of Vesta, even if the delineated path through the store does remind me of a labyrinth!) I’m not going to make an annual rite of this trip, of course, since my apartment would burst at the seams from all the new furniture I’d be hauling home. But linking action to a symbolically corresponding day is an act of magic—or of ritual.

Storage bins.
Much more useful than a reliquary.

Reschedule?

I have ended up doing laundry on New Year’s Day for at least ten years now. I usually cook as well—delis this far north are a little hit-or-miss when it comes to hoppin’ John. Maybe I should just observe Vestalia on January 1 and find some other goddess or god to honor in June.

Vestalia recap

The nine days are over, and it is the end of Vestalia. I’ve enjoyed the holiday, although I’m convinced that the full run of days is too much for one person to handle without a sisterhood of Vestal Virgins to call on for support.  Next year, I’m likely to just observe the festival day on June 9, or at most that and the first and last days. It has meant something to light a candle to Vesta every day, but that was all I could think of to do most of the time, and it would be too easy for that to become routine.

I started things off with a much cleaner apartment this year (!). A bit of housekeeping wouldn’t be bad preparation for most events, but it’s particularly relevant to Vestalia, which originally involved a ritual cleaning of the Temple of Vesta. I’d love to say it was my great spiritual devotion to Vesta that motivated me to do this cleaning, but it was actually an iPad app for housecleaning. Whatever works.

My apartment is hearth-less, but Vestalia is a holiday for bakers. I was busy with the breadmaker, baking one loaf of barley bread for the festival day, and another yesterday to finish things off tonight. It’s been unusually hot this month; being able to confine the heat of an oven to a relatively small area was wonderful. Between the LED tea light candle, the iPad app, and the breadmaker, this Vestalia was something of a celebration of domestic technology—definitely not part of the traditional festival, but fitting for the modern household. It’s a sobering thought to remember that if I had to clean the entire apartment without any technology—and not just the specialty items like the breadmaker, but the vacuum cleaner, the washer and dryer, and if you want to get really picky, indoor plumbing—I’d have been too worn out and short on time to celebrate anything, and not likely to be in any mood to try. Vesta may be a quiet goddess, but I’m guessing she’s also a hardworking one.

Creating a modern Vestalia

I have decided to observe Vestalia this year. As it lasts for nine days, this will give me a good opportunity to figure out how to convert an ancient Roman festival into something one modern American can manage on her own.

I started simply today, lighting a candle to honor Vesta. Holiday though this is, I was planning to go to work and I didn’t want to just cram in a bit of celebration after I got home. A real candle—anything involving open flame—was out of the question, so I used another one of those battery-powered tea lights. I wasn’t sure how well this was going to work. How would it feel to try to honor a goddess of hearth and home in a cubicle at work? Would an ersatz candle just be too fake to take seriously?

To my delight, this arrangement worked out really well. Whenever I caught a glimpse of my little hearth fire, it reminded me of home in a warm, cozy way. On the practical side, I could walk away from my desk indefinitely and leave the candle “burning” unattended. It was a bit of a perk to come back to my desk and find the little fire waiting for me, plus, leaving a fire burning continually is reminiscent of the original Roman practices. It was also small enough to be discreet; if anyone noticed it when they stopped by my desk, they didn’t say anything (something to remember in case I ever work somewhere that is less Pagan-tolerant than my current situation).

Happy Vestalia!

Vesta, Vestalia

In the early 19th century, astronomers discovered the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter. Many of these asteroids were named after Roman goddesses. The fourth of these asteroids was Vesta, which may have been named for the goddess of the hearth fire because it is the brightest of all the asteroids, visible to the naked eye under the right conditions. Well, what astronomy discovers, astrology adopts. Astrologers who chose to work with the asteroids concluded that Vesta represented one’s capacity for commitment, focus, and personal integration.

The keyword “focus” links Vesta to its divine namesake. The Latin word focus means “hearth.” As the Greek goddess Hestia, Vesta’s name had also meant “hearth.” Over the centuries, though, as the needs of her people changed, Hestia/Vesta’s  own focus changed. Hestia had been the goddess of the hearth fire that was the center of individual Greek homes. Eldest of the Olympian deities, she received the first share of any sacrifice conducted at home. Barely appearing in myth, rarely depicted in art, she was nevertheless the heart of Greek domestic life. By Roman times, Vesta’s responsibilities had expanded to include the welfare of the empire as well as that of its citizens. The Temple of Vesta was the hearth of Rome, and the sacred flame, tended by the Vestal Virgins, was the vitality of Rome itself and could never be allowed to go out.

Vesta’s annual festival was the Vestalia. Beginning on June 7, the Temple of Vesta was opened to women. The high point of the festival was June 9 and it concluded on June 15, when the women would clean the temple before it was closed to the public for another year. There seem to have been a variety of activities associated with the Vestalia, including making offerings to Vesta which involved sprinkling bits of a special salt-cake over the sacrifices. As hearths were where bread was baked before ovens took over, the Vestalia was also a holiday for bakers and millers, and millstones and the donkeys that powered them were garlanded with flowers.

With my growing interest in Vesta/Hestia and hearth witchery in general, I didn’t want to let the Vestalia slip by unnoticed, but I wasn’t sure how to observe it. Since I don’t know what the salt-cake meant to the Roman women celebrating the Vestalia and it means nothing to me, making one of my own would be pointless. I have neither a millstone nor a donkey to garland, and anyway, honoring baking really does seem to be a better fit with the Fornacalia. And while cleaning my apartment might echo the temple cleaning of centuries ago, I’m not enlightened enough to see it as anything more than housework.

It was Frances Bernstein, author of Classical Living: Reconnecting with the Rituals of Ancient Rome, who pointed out another option: as Vesta is the goddess of the hearth fire, invoke her by meditating—focusing—on fire. Specifically, Bernstein recommends meditating on a candle flame, which delights me as an idea. My apartment is just as devoid of hearths as it is millstones, and substituting a candle would be entirely in the spirit of apartment-style Paganism. Plus, meditation is often seen as an effective means of developing the personal integration that the asteroid Vesta is associated with. A quiet time with a small flame may be a perfect-sized Vestalia for the modern home.