No, the subject line of this post should not be “V for Vestalia,” although it very well could be…
Vestalia actually starts on June 9th, and runs through the 15th, so today is the fifth day of it. Since there have been various other things going on meanwhile, though, I neglected to mention it, despite having done a bit for it. (I did discuss it along with Finn mac Cumhaill’s day last year, though.)
Vesta, favour me! I’ll open my lips now in your service,
If I’m indeed allowed to attend your sacred rites.
I was rapt in prayer: I felt the heavenly deity,
And the happy earth shone with radiant light.
Not that I saw you, goddess (away with poets’ lies!)
Nor were you to be looked on by any man:
But I knew what I’d not known, and the errors
I’d held to were corrected without instruction.
They say Rome had celebrated the Parilia forty times,
When the goddess, the Guardian of the Flame, was received
In her shrine, the work of Numa, that peace-loving king,
(None more god-fearing was ever born in Sabine lands.)
The roofs you see of bronze were roofs of straw then,
And its walls were made of wickerwork.
This meagre spot that supports the Hall of Vesta
Was then the mighty palace of unshorn Numa.
Yet the form of the temple, that remains, they say,
Is as before, and is shaped so for good reason.
Vesta’s identified with Earth: in them both’s unsleeping fire:
Earth and the hearth are both symbols of home.
The Earth’s a ball not resting on any support,
It’s great weight hangs in the ether around it.
Its own revolutions keep its orb balanced,
It has no sharp angles to press on anything,
And it’s placed in the midst of the heavens,
And isn’t nearer or further from any side,
For if it weren’t convex, it would be nearer somewhere,
And the universe wouldn’t have Earth’s weight at its centre.
There’s a globe suspended, enclosed by Syracusan art,
That’s a small replica of the vast heavens,
And the Earth’s equidistant from top and bottom.
Which is achieved by its spherical shape.
The form of this temple’s the same: there’s no angle
Projecting from it: a rotunda saves it from the rain.
You ask why the goddess is served by virgins?
I’ll reveal the true reason for that as well.
They say that Juno and Ceres were born of Ops
By Saturn’s seed, Vesta was the third daughter:
The others married, both bore children they say,
The third was always unable to tolerate men.
What wonder if a virgin delights in virgin servants,
And only allows chaste hands to touch her sacred relics?
Realize that Vesta is nothing but living flame,
And you’ll see that no bodies are born from her.
She’s truly a virgin, who neither accepts seed
Nor yields it, and she loves virgin companions.
I foolishly thought for ages that there were statues
Of Vesta, later I learnt there were none beneath her dome:
An undying fire is concealed with the shrine,
But there’s no image of Vesta or of fire.
The earth’s supported by its energy: Vesta’s so called from ‘depending
On energy’ (vi stando), and that could
be the reason for her Greek name. But the hearth (focus)
is named from its fire that warms (fovet) all things:
Formerly it stood in the most important room.
I think the vestibule was so called from Vesta too:
In praying we address Vesta first, who holds first place.
It was once the custom to sit on long benches by the fire,
And believe the gods were present at the meal:
Even now in sacrificing to ancient Vacuna,
They sit and stand in front of her altar hearths.
Something of ancient custom has passed to us:
A clean dish contains the food offered to Vesta.
See, loaves are hung from garlanded mules,
And flowery wreaths veil the rough millstones.
Once farmers only used to parch wheat in their ovens,
(And the goddess of ovens has her sacred rites):
The hearth baked the bread, set under the embers,
On a broken tile placed there on the heated floor.
So the baker honours the hearth, and the lady of hearths,
And the she-ass that turns the pumice millstones.
Red-faced Priapus shall I tell of your shame or pass by?
It’s a brief tale but it’s a merry one.
Cybele, whose head is crowned with towers,
Called the eternal gods to her feast.
She invited the satyrs too, and those rural divinities,
The nymphs, and Silenus came, though no one asked him.
It’s forbidden, and would take too long, to describe the banquet
Of the gods: the whole night was spent drinking deep.
Some wandered aimlessly in Ida’s shadowy vales,
Some lay, and stretched their limbs, on the soft grass.
Some played, some slept, others linked arms
And beat swift feet threefold on the grassy earth.
Vesta lay carelessly, enjoying a peaceful rest,
Her head reclining, resting on the turf.
But the red-faced keeper of gardens chased the nymphs
And goddesses, and his roving feet turned to and fro.
He saw Vesta too: it’s doubtful whether he thought her
A nymph, or knew her as Vesta: he himself denied he knew.
He had wanton hopes, and tried to approach her in secret,
And walked on tiptoe, with a pounding heart.
Old Silenus had chanced to leave the mule
He rode by the banks of a flowing stream.
The god of the long Hellespont was about to start,
When the mule let out an untimely bray.
Frightened by the raucous noise, the goddess leapt up:
The whole troop gathered, and Priapus fled through their hands.
The people of Lampsacus sacrifice this animal to him, singing:
‘Rightly we give the innards of the witness to the flames.’
Goddess, you deck the creature with necklaces of loaves,
In remembrance: work ceases: the empty mills fall silent.
I’ll explain the meaning of an altar of Jove the Baker
That stands on the Thunderer’s citadel, more famous
For name than worth. The Capitol was surrounded
By fierce Gauls: the siege had already caused a famine.
Summoning the gods to his royal throne,
Jupiter said to Mars: ‘Begin!’ and he quickly replied:
‘My people’s plight is surely unknown,
A grief that needs a voice of heartfelt complaint.
But if I’m to tell a sad and shameful tale in brief,
Rome lies under the feet of an Alpine enemy.
Jupiter, is this the Rome that was promised power
Over the world! Rome, the mistress of the earth?
She’d crushed the neighbouring cities, and the Etruscans:
Hope was rampant: now she’s driven from her home.
We’ve seen old men, dressed in embroidered robes
Of triumph, murdered in their bronze-clad halls:
We’ve seen Ilian Vesta’s sacred pledges hurried
From their place: some clearly think of the gods.
But if they look back at the citadel you hold,
And see so many of your homes under siege,
They’ll think worship of the gods is vain,
And incense from a fearful hand thrown away.
If only they’d an open field of battle! Let them arm,
And if they can’t be victorious, let them die.
Now without food, and dreading a cowardly death,
They’re penned on their hill, pressed by a barbarous mob.’
Then Venus, and Vesta, and glorious Quirinus with auger’s staff
And striped gown, pleaded on behalf of their Latium.
Jupiter replied: ‘There’s a common concern for those walls.
And the Gauls will be defeated and receive punishment.
But you, Vesta, mustn’t leave your place, and see to it
That the bread that’s lacking be considered plentiful.
Let whatever grain is left be ground in a hollow mill,
Kneaded by hand, and then baked in a hot oven.’
He gave his orders, and Saturn’s virgin daughter
Obeyed his command, as the hour reached midnight.
Now sleep had overcome the weary leaders: Jupiter
Rebuked them, and spoke his wishes from holy lips:
‘Rise, and from the heights of the citadel, throw down
Among the enemy, the last thing you’d wish to yield!’
They shook off sleep, and troubled by the strange command,
Asked themselves what they must yield, unwillingly.
It seemed it must be bread: They threw down the gifts
Of Ceres, clattering on the enemy helms and shields.
The expectation that they could be starved out vanished.
The foe was repulsed, and a bright altar raised to Jove the Baker.
On the festival of Vesta, I happened to be returning
By the recent path that joins the New Way to the Forum.
There I saw a lady descending barefoot:
Astonished, I was silent and stopped short.
An old woman from the neighbourhood saw me: and telling
Me to sit, spoke to me in a quavering voice, shaking her head:
‘Here, where the forums are now, was marshy swamp:
A ditch was wet with the overflow from the river.
That lake of Curtius, that supports the altars un-wet,
Is solid enough now, but was a pool of water once.
Where processions file through the Velabrum to the Circus,
There was nothing but willow and hollow reeds:
Often some guest returning over suburban waters,
Sang out, and hurled drunken words at the boatmen.
That god, Vertumnus, whose name fits many forms,
Wasn’t yet so-called from damning back the river (averso amne).
Here too was a thicket of bulrushes and reeds,
And a marsh un-trodden by booted feet.
The pools are gone, and the river keeps its banks,
And the ground’s dry now: but the custom remains.’
So she explained it. I said: ‘Farewell, good dame!
May whatever of life remains to you be sweet.’
I’d already heard the rest of the tale in boyhood,
But I won’t pass over it in silence on that account.
Ilus, scion of Dardanus, had founded a new city
(Ilus was still rich, holding the wealth of Asia)
A sky-born image of armed Minerva was said
To have fallen on the hillside near to Troy.
(I was anxious to see it: I saw the temple and the site,
That’s all that’s left there: Rome has the Palladium.)
Apollo Smintheus was consulted, and gave this answer
From truthful lips, in the darkness of his shadowy grove:
‘Preserve the heavenly goddess, and preserve
The City: with her goes the capital of empire.’
Ilus preserved her, closed in the heights of the citadel.
The care of it descended to his heir Laomedon.
Priam failed to take like care: so Pallas wished it,
Judgement having gone against her beauty.
They say it was stolen, whether by Diomede,
Or cunning Ulysses, or taken by Aeneas:
The agent’s unknown, but the thing’s in Rome:
Vesta guards it: who sees all things by her unfailing light.
How worried the Senate was, when Vesta’s temple
Caught fire: and she was nearly buried by her own roof!
Holy fires blazed, fed by sinful fires,
Sacred and profane flames were merged.
The priestesses with streaming hair, wept in amazement:
Fear had robbed them of their bodily powers.
Metellus rushed into their midst, crying in a loud voice:
‘Run and help, there’s no use in weeping.
Seize fate’s pledges in your virgin hands:
They won’t survive by prayers, but by action.
Ah me! Do you hesitate?’ he said. He saw them,
Hesitating, sinking in terror to their knees.
He took up water, and holding his hands aloft, cried:
‘Forgive me, holy relics! A man enters where no man should.
If it’s wrong, let the punishment fall on me:
Let my life be the penalty, so Rome is free of harm.’
He spoke and entered. The goddess he carried away
Was saved by her priest’s devotion, and she approved.
Now sacred flames you shine brightly under Caesar’s rule:
The fire on the Ilian hearths is there, and will remain,
It won’t be said that under him any priestess disgraced
Her office, nor that she was buried alive in the earth.
So the unchaste die, being entombed in what they
Have violated: since divine Earth and Vesta are one.
This day Brutus won his title from the Galician foe,
And stained the soil of Spain with blood.
Surely sadness is sometimes mixed with joy,
Lest festivals delight the crowd’s hearts completely:
Crassus, near the Euphrates, lost the eagles, his army,
And his son, and at the end himself as well.
The goddess said: ‘Parthians, why exult? You’ll send
The standards back, a Caesar will avenge Crassus’ death.’