Ritual 2.0: Vesta’s Cleansing

Last night was the eve of Vesta’s Cleansing. What’s that, you say? No idea what I’m talking about? Curious? Of course I’ll tell you.

There were three days in the ancient Roman Calendar dedicated to the goddess Vesta. She was the goddess of the hearth, cooking, warmth, and the household. Tomorrow is the first day, on which the Vestal Virgins began cleaning her temple, and removing the soot, grime and ash from her altar and from the national hearth of Rome. A second day marked the rekindling of her fire; that’s June 15. The third day is much later in the month, and marks the re-opening of her temple and her priesthood to perform other functions.

Anyway, last night was the start of the feast that commemorates the cleaning and clearing of her temple. So, in Sacred Space, we cleansed our altars. What this means, for those who played along last year, is that everyone was supposed to bring some object (or more than one) that came from their family’s altar, a personal altar, a place of honor in their home, or a garden spot that they considered sacred.

Here’s what we did. We sang a song, and chanted through its rhythms a couple of times. Then we called in our circle (air, fire, water, earth), and then I introduced the concepts of the festival of Vesta: that the people of Rome put their fires out, and the Vestal Virgins cleaned the temple of Vesta, removed the ashes of the old year, and re-lit the fire.

So in that context, we went around the circle twice clockwise. Everyone could put one or more objects from their own altars that they had put on them a while ago, but that they felt no longer served their own sacred space, but were too precious simply to throw away. A colleague of mine did a meditation at the end of the second round, and then we examined how the objects fit together on the altar as a group.

We then went counter-clockwise around the circle, with people choosing objects off the altar that they felt spoke to them, and explained how we would re-purpose them for our own sacred space. I brought a cupful of rocks that I had gathered from a beach up nere lovelips‘s mom’s house, and a friend gathered them up for use in the labyrinth at his house. One woman laid down a Motherpeace tarot deck, because it no longer seemed to work for her, and lovelips got to take it up. There were a few small crystals and some feathers and some other tools, and one by one they all went away, which was kind of cool. Mark called it a psychic swap meet, and there was laughter and some serious amusement at it; part of me worried that the flow of the ritual was broken by the humor, but actually it made it stronger. We all got to look into one another’s psyches around what was sacred, and we all got to help our friends clear old baggage and renew it.

One of lovelips‘s items for the altar was an athame or sword. It’s this huge black dagger with a fake wootz blade, slipped into a red-jeweled scabbard, and it was sort of this beautiful, monstrous, heavy and dangerous thing. I think everyone picked it up to look at it, and almost everyone put it back down. But L. picked it up, and said that she was drawn to it, but a little afraid of it, because it was a weapon, and a powerful symbol of leadership in a coven. She said she’d owned all the other tools and elements that make up a witch’s tools, but never this one. We wound up giving her advice and point of view on it; all of us contributed ideas to what it meant, and what it could mean for her, and she wound up deciding to take it. Later that night, L. agreed that she would lead the next Sacred Space for us all along with Mark. So having decided that the blade represented a chance to lead, she decided to lead. It was the most tangible proof that I’ve yet seen that an annual psychic swap meet in a ritual context can really change the way people see themselves, and change their attitudes toward the sacred.

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