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vestal

vestal (vĕs´təl), in Roman religion, priestess of Vesta. The vestals were first two, then four, then six in number. While still little girls, they were chosen from prominent Roman families to serve for 30 (originally 5) years, during which time they could not marry. Their duties included the preparation of sacrifices and the tending of the sacred fire. If any vestal broke her vow of chastity, she was entombed alive. The vestals had great influence in the Roman state.

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vestal virgins

vestal virgins In ancient Rome, priestess of the cult of Vesta, who tended the sacred fire in the Temple of Vesta and officiated at ceremonies in the goddess' honour. The vestals remained in the service of the temple for up to 30 years under vows of absolute chastity, violation of which was punishable by being buried alive.

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vestal

ves·tal / ˈvestl/ • adj. of or relating to the Roman goddess Vesta: a vestal temple. ∎ poetic/lit. chaste; pure. • n. a vestal virgin. ∎ poetic/lit. a chaste woman, esp. a nun.

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Vestal Virgin

Ves·tal Vir·gin (also ves·tal vir·gin) • n. (in ancient Rome) a virgin consecrated to Vesta and vowed to chastity, sharing the charge of maintaining the sacred fire burning on the goddess's altar.

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vestal

vestalbattle, cattle, chattel, embattle, prattle, rattle, Seattle, tattle •fractal •cantle, covenantal, mantel, mantle, Prandtl •pastel • Fremantle • tittle-tattle •startle, stratal •Nahuatl •fettle, kettle, metal, mettle, nettle, petal, Popocatépetl, settle •dialectal, rectal •dental, gentle, mental, Oriental, parental, rental •transeptal •festal, vestal •gunmetal •antenatal, fatal, hiatal, natal, neonatal, ratel •beetle, betel, chital, decretal, fetal •blackbeetle •acquittal, belittle, brittle, committal, embrittle, it'll, kittle, little, remittal, skittle, spittle, tittle, victual, whittle •edictal, rictal •lintel, pintle, quintal •Bristol, Chrystal, crystal, pistol •varietal • coital • phenobarbital •orbital • pedestal • sagittal • vegetal •digital • skeletal • Doolittle •congenital, genital, primogenital, urogenital •capital • lickspittle • hospital • marital •entitle, mistitle, recital, requital, title, vital •subtitle • surtitle •axolotl, bottle, dottle, glottal, mottle, pottle, throttle, wattle •fontal, horizontal •hostel, intercostal, Pentecostal •greenbottle • bluebottle • Aristotle •chortle, immortal, mortal, portal •Borstal •anecdotal, sacerdotal, teetotal, total •coastal, postal •subtotal •brutal, footle, pootle, refutal, rootle, tootle •buttle, cuttle, rebuttal, scuttle, shuttle, subtle, surrebuttal •buntal, contrapuntal, frontal •crustal • societal • pivotal •hurtle, kirtle, myrtle, turtle

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Vestal Virgin

Vestal Virgin

The Vestal virgins were members of the most important female priesthood and the only public female priesthood in ancient Rome. That group of six virginal priestesses who were dedicated to the worship of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, was thought by the Romans to have its origins in the city's mythical past and was maintained by them until the Christian emperor Theodosius I disbanded all pagan cults in 394 ce. The priestesses were selected by lot from among a group of girls between ages of six and ten who belonged to the most prominent families in Roman society. Candidates were required to have no physical defects and no speech impediments or hearing loss and to have both parents still alive. They were selected by the pontifex maximus, the chief public priest in Rome, under whose guardianship they remained for the thirty years of their service to the goddess and the state. At the end of their tenure Vestals were free to marry, though according to the sources, many chose to retain their office until death.

The chief responsibilities of the Vestals were to maintain the sacred fire in Vesta's temple in the Roman Forum, next to which was the Atrium Vestae where the priestesses lived at public expense, and to prepare and maintain supplies of certain items necessary for the performance of rituals throughout the Roman religious calendar, especially the mola salsa, a salt and grain mixture used in public sacrifices. Vestals also took leading roles in celebrations in honor of deities other than Vesta, including rites for the Bona Dea at which they offered blood sacrifice. Failure to perform their duties entailed severe punishment. Allowing Vesta's fire to go out resulted in a beating by the pontifex maximus. Violation of the strict virginal chastity that was the hallmark of the office resulted in burial alive, the last known instance of which occurred in 89 ce during the reign of the emperor Domitian.

A Vestal enjoyed a degree of independence and prestige not available to other women. Perhaps most significant, she was able to administer her own affairs without the oversight of a male relative. A Vestal also was permitted to write a will and dispose of her property, including a vast sum given to her by the state, as she chose. However, because she was technically removed from the legal control of her father upon entering the priesthood, a Vestal could not inherit from him if he died intestate, and her property would not pass to her family if she died before making a will. She could give testimony in court and was not required to swear an oath before testifying. A Vestal received special seating at public entertainments and traveled through the city proceeded by a lictor, an attendant otherwise assigned only to high-ranking public magistrates. If her entourage met with a condemned criminal on his way to execution, the criminal was set free.

So strongly have those priestesses been associated with virginity that in modern parlance the phrase Vestal virgin has come to mean someone who lives a chaste and abstemious life. In that capacity Vestals have continued to appear in popular culture, perhaps most famously in Mel Brooks's 1981 film History of the World Part I and Procol Harum's 1967 hit song "Whiter Shade of Pale," in which they are incorrectly numbered at sixteen.

see also Chastity; Virginity.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beard, Mary. 1980. "The Sexual Status of the Vestal Virgins." Journal of Roman Studies 70: 12-27.

Schultz, Celia E. 2006. Women's Religious Activity in the Roman Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Wildfang, Robin Lorsch. 1999. "The Vestal Virgins' Ritual Function in Roman Religion." Classica et Mediaevalia 50: 227-234.

Wildfang, Robin Lorsch. 2001. "The Vestals and Annual Public Rites." Classica et Mediaevalia 52: 223-255.

                                              Celia E. Schultz

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