Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art
Page: 91[Pg 202] pardon of criminals whom they met by accident on their way to the place of execution. Loved and greatly honored by all, the Vestals have become types of all things pure and lovely in woman.
Like Vesta’s, ever burning; and, like hers,
Sacred to thoughts immaculate and pure.”
The Vestal Virgins were further distinguished by a vesture of pure white linen, with a purple border and a wide purple mantle. In time of war or danger they were answerable for the preservation of the sacred fire, which they were allowed to remove to any place of safety; and on several occasions they therefore carried it out of Rome and down the Tiber, lest it should fall into the enemy’s hands.
The Vestals continued their office until the reign of Theodosius the Great, who, being converted to Christianity A.D. 380, abolished the worship of Vesta, dispersed the Vestals, and extinguished the sacred fire.
Vesta’s services were held with great pomp; and her festivals, the Vestalia, were among the most beautiful and popular in Rome. Statues of this goddess—generally representing a woman of majestic beauty, clad in long robes, holding a lighted torch or lamp in one hand and a votive bowl in the other—were carried through the main streets of the city on all solemn occasions.
In public processions the Vestals had the privilege of carrying their sacred fire; while the Roman matrons, glad to swell their ranks, followed them, barefooted, chanting the praises of the good goddess Vesta.
Dread Vesta, with her holy things,
Her awful fillets, and the fire
Whose sacred embers ne’er expire.”
Virgil (Conington’s tr.).
[Pg 203] On these occasions great banquets were prepared before each house, all daily toil was suspended, the millstones were decked with flowers, and the very asses wont to turn them were covered with garlands and led in the processions.
Among the Romans, Vesta was not the only goddess invoked on the family hearth, for she shared that place of honor with the Lares, Manes, and Penates, who all enjoyed special veneration and sacrifices.
The Lares, quite unknown to the Greeks, were two in number, the children of Mercury and Lara, a naiad famous for her beauty as well as for her extreme loquacity, which no one could check. Tradition relates that this fair maiden talked from morning till night, and told all she knew. Upon one occasion she incurred Jupiter’s wrath by relating to Juno a conversation she had overheard between him and one of his numerous ladyloves.
To punish her, and at the same time prevent further tale-bearing, the king of the gods cut off Lara’s tongue, and, summoning Mercury, bade him lead her down to Hades to linger there forever. But on the way to the dismal abode of the dead, the messenger god fell in love with his fair charge, who, being now effectually cured of her sole fault, was irresistibly charming; and, instead of obeying Jupiter, he made love to her, and by pantomime obtained her consent to their union. She bore him two children, who from her were called Lares, and to whom the Romans always paid divine honors, reserving special places for them on the family hearth, for they were supposed to preside over houses and families. Their statues resembled monkeys covered with the skins of dogs; while at their feet a barking dog, the symbol of their care and vigilance, was always represented.
The Manes—a name generally applied to souls when separated from the body—were also reckoned among the Roman divinities, and the illustrious ancestors of different families were often worshiped under this name.
[Pg 204] As for the Penates, they presided over the houses and domestic affairs. Each head of a household was wont to choose his own Penates, whom he then invoked as his special patrons. The statues of the Penates were of clay, wax, ivory, silver, or gold, according to the wealth of the family whose hearth they graced, and the offerings generally made to them were a small part of each meal.
Upon removing from one house to another or from one place to another, it was customary for the head of the family to remove his household gods also, and establish them suitably before he thought of his own or his family’s comfort, and in return for this kindly care the Penates blessed him with peace and prosperity.
Janus, god of the past, present, and future, of gates, entrances, war, and peace, and patron of all beginnings, although one of the most important of all the Roman divinities, was entirely unknown to the Greeks.