The first-born child of Saturn and Rhea was Hestia or Vesta, the virgin deity presiding over the sacred fire of the temple and over the household altar, the family hearth. She alone of the gods and goddesses possesses virtually no personal history; the only incident told of her is that, when Apollo and Poseidon both sought her hand in marriage, she placed it, instead, upon the head of Zeus, and vowed perpetual virginity; she, the supreme representative of celestial good,—superior even to celestial truth, was to be conjoined to no inferior degrees of finite truth, for her virgin heart was an altar devoted exclusively to the sacred fire of celestial love,—the love of the Lord, the love of Truth, infinite and Divine.
Her name, in Latin Vesta, and in Greek Hestia, or, in its archaic form "Festia," was formerly explained as coming from the root Sta, as referring to the fixed and established position of the domestic hearth, upon which flamed the fire which represented this divinity; but we much prefer the later etymology of the learned Max Muller, who has shown that the name was derived from the Sanscrit root Vas, (with the feminine ending ta), meaning "to glow" or "burn." (Chips from a German Workshop, II, p 137) It was from this root that the Greek name for the hearth, (hestia) was derived, and it is interesting to note that our English word "feast" comes directly from the same origin, the feast of Hestia being anciently celebrated annually in each family by a special meal, in a reunion around the hearth.
The statues of Hestia are extremely rare and of comparatively recent dates, her worship being conducted without any images at all, longer than that of any other divinity, the altar alone with its sacred flame being considered sufficient to evoke the idea of her presence. Her chief temple, the one in Rome, never contained her image. The few Greek statues and bas-reliefs represent her as a chaste and stately virgin, with a veil covering her head and shoulders; she is sometimes holding a lighted torch or lamp in one hand, and a sacrificial bowl in the other; more often she has no symbols whatever, but simply points upward with her hand and finger. The chief characteristics of her images are those of simplicity, tranquillity, and repose; as Plato says, ''Hestia alone stays at rest in the house of the gods.'' (Phaedro, 247). This is as it should be; simplicity and tranquillity are the marks of celestial love.
The worship of Hestia is found in hoariest antiquity, and was well established among the Pelasgians, the common ancestors of Etruscans, Greeks, and Latins. An ancient Homeric hymn says that "to her was given to sit in the centre of the mansion, receiving the first and choicest portions of all offerings; she is honored in all the temples of the Gods, and she is to mortals the most venerable of the goddesses." In Olympia the altars of Hestia and Zeus were in the inmost sanctuary, and the invocations were addressed, and the sacrifices offered, first to Hestia and then to Zeus. And no deity received such universal homage as she, every domestic hearth being regarded as an altar of Hestia, where the father of the family offered his daily sacrifices and prayers when conducting the family worship. Thus we may see that the love of the Lord, the celestial love, was recognized as the supreme and at the same time the most universal of loves in the Ancient Church.
As the hearth was the center and altar of every household, so the Prytaneum, (pyr-taneum), or altar to Vesta, was the central shrine of every city and village in Greece and Italy, and the safety of the city was regarded as depending upon the conservation of the sacred fire which must be perpetually burning there. This custom has been explained by the interpreters of the Evolutionist school as originating in the preciousness of fire and the difficulty of producing it (by rubbing two sticks together), and the consequent ''political economy'' of having a central fire perpetually burning for the accommodation of all the households. But this does not explain the reason for the still more difficult custom of carrying fire over land and sea from the sacred fire in the mother city, when a new colony was founded. Is it not evident that something more than mere economy was involved, and that there was a sentiment, a religious feeling in regard to fire, which can be explained only by the correspondence of fire, as meaning love, and in this connection the supreme of all loves, the love of the Lord, upon which depend all other loves, the love of the Church, the love of the country, of the community, and of the domestic bonds?
The Worship of Vesta was especially honored in Rome, where, she had a famous temple and was served by the College of vestal virgins,—the most sacred institution in the city. This, also, is consistent with the Roman character, which was of a celestial rather than spiritual nature. There is the same difference between the Greeks and the Romans, as, in Greece itself, between Athens and Sparta; the Athenians were intellectual, philosophical, of the spiritual genius; the Spartans, and in primitive times the Romans, were more devoted to the cultivation of moral virtue, sublime patriotism, the good of life,—in other words, they were more of the celestial genus. In Athens, and in Greece as a whole, the love of the world reigned in the later days; in Sparta, and afterwards in Italy, the love of dominion, which is the perversion of the celestial love of the Lord. We may thus see the internal reason for the special worship of Vesta by the Romans. There was also an historical reason: the founders of the city, Romulus and Remus, were the sons of Rhea Sylvia, a vestal virgin, beloved of Mars. The meaning of this myth will be explained in connection with the account of the god of war.
The vestal virgins, six in number, were chosen from the loveliest and noblest of the Roman maidens, and the service was an honor eagerly sought for. They entered the service when between six and ten years of age, and were bound to it for thirty years, after which time they were at liberty to marry if they so chose. If in the meantime any vestal violated her vow of chastity, she was buried alive in the execrated field called "campus sceleratus," while her paramour was scourged to death in the Forum, but during one thousand years of Roman history only eighteen cases of this fearful punishment were recorded. The daily duties of these priestesses consisted in watching and feeding the sacred fire by day and night, and keeping guard over the '' Palladium,'' a most ancient statue of Pallas, which was said to have been brought by AEneas from the burning Troy; this was considered the holy of holies by the Romans, and was never shown to the eyes of the "ignobile vulgus." The extinction of the sacred fire was regarded as the sure precursor of some dreadful public calamity, and a heavy punishment fell upon any vestal who by carelessness allowed it to go out; in this case it had to be kindled anew directly from the sun, by means of mirrors and burning-glasses.
The sacred fire and the vestal virgins are frequently mentioned in the Writings of the New Church, as in the following passages referring to the perpetual fire of the Israelites:
The number of the vestal virgins being restricted to six, is also of interest, in view of the fact that this number signifies not only labor and combat, (as it does in many places in the Word), but also the marriage of good and truth, (A. R. 610), that is, "the holy of faith, because it relates to twelve and three, whence is the genuine derivation of the number six." (A. C. 737.) For "the number six comes forth from three and two multiplied together; and three signifies all things as to truth, and two all things as to good." (A. R. 245.) The six vestal virgins, therefore, represent all the affections of good and all the affections of truth, serving and guarding that seventh, supreme and most holy celestial affection, the love of the Lord, which is represented alike by Vesta and by her sacred fire.
Compare with this the wedding ceremony in Heaven, described in Conjugial Love, n. 21, in which "six virgins stood at the side of the bride, because the number six signifies all and what is complete."
Hestia or Vesta, the virgin goddess, is also known as the guardian of chastity, and this is because
And true virginity, genuine innocence, pure chastity, are to be found only in celestial love, love to the Lord, the supreme love of Divine Truth.