Vesta is the Roman cognate of the revered Greek goddess, Hestia, “first of all divinities to be invoked” in classical rituals. In Greece, they had public hearths called prytaneums that came under the domain of the most revered Hestia, protector of “all innermost things,” according to the great philosopher Pythagoras, who also claimed that her altar fire was the center of the earth. The altar of Vesta in classical Rome was tended by the Vestal Virgins and was also believed to be the very center of the earth. The insignia for the goddess Vesta was an altar table with flames at both ends, forming the Greek letter “pi,” which is the numerological symbol for the Pythagorean sect.

 The Vestal Virgins were the keepers of Rome’s eternal flame. It was believed that if the fire of Vesta’s altar went out, the Roman Empire would fall. In the fourth century, C.E., Christians extinguished the vestal fire and began the process of erasing pagan religions and symbols.

 The oldest lore of Hestia and Vesta comes down to us from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum and stems from ancient forms of worship performed by people for whom the hearth and clan fires were under the province of the clan mother. During the ages when people were hunters and gatherers, one dominant woman took care of the clan by keeping the fire burning at all times. She fed her clan and became the presence at the very heart and center of the tribe. She held the tribal wisdom and stories, healed wounded hunters, acted as midwife, and took on the role of key caretaker of the people. These most basic needs of life—food and warmth provided by fire—created the solid center of life for clans and tribes and soon became holy. This sacred center of fire has continued to evolve through the millennia to our modern altars, shrines, and churches with their candles.

 

Fireplace altars today hearken back to this earliest custom. Home and hearth have primal appeal to the comfort of both body and soul. If you have a fireplace, it can become the very heart of your home. The fireplace is also one of the safest places of the ritual work of fire keeping. Sanctify your fireplace with a sprinkling of salt, and then set it up as an altar to the four seasons. Like the Vestal Virgins of old, you can keep a fire burning in a votive glass holder in the back of your fireplace and have an eternal flame. The fireplace can be your simplest altar and a reflection of the work of nature. If you don’t have a real fire in your fireplace, you can place in it beautiful sacred objects—pretty rocks, feathers, seashells, glistening crystals, beautiful leaves, and anything representing the holiest aspects of the world around you. Let nature be your guide.

 

In ancient times, altars were blessed by blood. In fact, the word “blessing” is derived from the Old English bletsain, derived from the older form bleodswean, which means “to purify thought the application of blood.” Indeed, altars were blessed in earliest times by the blood of animals or even captives from tribal wars. Now, we bless altars by sprinkling them with salt, a magical substitute for blood.