Excerpt from Festae: Vesta’s Feasts

This is being posted in response to a conversation in a private forum on a known social media platform. You’ve probably heard of the platform, though not the specific group.

A long, long number of years ago, I stood with about twenty people near a fire under the stars on June 7th or 8th or 9th, somewhere in there, and each of us brought out an object that we regarded as sacred or magical. We told a story about it — why we had made it or bought it, what we had done with it, and why we felt it was time to part ways with it. One by one, the objects got put on the picnic table with the white tablecloth. As the mosquitos swarmed and we swatted at them futilely, those of us who wanted some piece of the magic claimed an item from the table, an item that spoke to them. When each person had claimed something that they felt they wanted, we went around again, and agreed to take the other items to pass on when the right person appeared for them.

A week later, we gathered again and lit a new fire, in the freshly cleaned fire pit, and this time we let go of and burned in ceremonial fashion any and all of the petition papers and ephemera that seems to get created in the course of a magical life. As we did so, I read the poems composed for the occasion. And each of us created a little talisman of protection for someone else to take for the protection of their own home. In this way, we unburdened ourselves of magical friends and gave them new homes and a new life, and offered promises of protection to one another.

That community is … not gone, but different than it was. And I no longer live there. But the poems abide, and maybe they’ll be useful to someone. If you’d like more of this whole sequence of poetry based on the Roman pagan calendar, they’re available here as Festae: https://www.etsy.com/listing/1150512686/festae-hymns-for-the-old-roman-pagan You can take this book to your local print shop, and print a spiral-bound copy, and not pay shipping.

June 7 – Feast of Vesta’s Cleaning

At the festival of Vesta’s Cleansing, the Vestal Virgins would parade from the temple and their precinct with jars of ashes from the previous year’s fires, all neatly swept up, and pour them into the Tiber River. I usually do a cleaning of the house in thorough manner this time of year.

Farewell, flame, and ashes of what once was —
with sweat and prayer, the sacred make new.
Divinity begins with what one does,
and you, holy Vesta, are good and true:
watching over and blessing house and hearth,
keeping the sparks of our families alive,
and seeking always the peaceable home.
In your governance are kitchen and garth;
you cause both garden and children to thrive,
and watch our shrines as you watched over Rome.

In our minds, the white-robed priestesses go
altar to altar with brush, rag and broom,
sweeping year-old coals into Tiber's flow,
and washing marble in each sacred room
where xoanons of divinity stood.
Dust billowed out from each citizen's door
as mortals renewed their compacts with flame:
"Bring us another year of fire's good,
a year of feasts, and bounty set in store
against both famine and creditor's claim!"

With each ancestral image repainted,
with wall re-plastered and courtyards scrubbed clean,
bed linens laundered and gardens weeded,
the house — the whole city — starts to gleam.
At sunset, cool darkness pervades each street
except from one gate, where glowing embers
struck in secret, embark to seek each height,
as carried by Vestals with clean, bare feet.
Even Jove, in Olympian slumbers,
wakes to give thanks for fire in the night.

June 9 – Feast of Vesta

At the Feast of Vesta, the city would (in very early days) either bank or put out cooking fires all over the city. A new fire would be kindled at sunset, and then runners would carry torches through the streets of Rome to bring new fire from the city’s central hearth to every household. The rituals also somehow marked the story of Prometheus bringing fire to mortals, although how this was done is not (to my knowledge) known.

Hail to thee, Vesta, tender of the flame
that warms my family and welcomes my guests,
who guards my hearth fire and holds it tame,
who shields from famine and keeps away pests.
Once thy sanctuary stood in glory
right alongside the Roman Sacred Way,
whose hearth-fire lit a thousand years.
Only a few now recall your story;"
fewer still dance on your festival day
or think to kindle your sacred fires.

You gave up your throne on Olympus height
to take a plain stool by the divine hearth.
You gave the highest gods both heat and light.
When they raged loudly, you smiled in mirth,
for to Prometheus you gave the wink,
turned a blind eye to his gift of fire
to suffering Man huddled in the cold.
You gave such grace to mortals by that blink,
taught us to tend and nurture that pyre,
for cooking our food and smelting our gold.

To sing thy praises, we raise our voices,
and ask thy blessings on our hearth and home.
Fill our houses with thy special graces,
and tend us as you tended ancient Rome.
Though thy rotunda now in ruin stands,
and thy eternal flame is ash and dust,"
we give thee such honor as flame commands
and eat of these cooked foods that we love best,
giving to thee a portion of our love
to guard our homes here, as you do above!

June 15 – Feast of Vesta’s Opening

The Vestal Virgins (in addition to their famous ‘virginity’) were also the keepers of private and public records of births, deaths, marriages, last wills and testaments, and trusts — it was their central civic function, in addition to the ritual work of keeping the city’s home fires literally burning. And, after the previous ten days of cleaning, ritual preparation, and actual ritual, they would ceremonially reopen to the public to carry out these functions.

Open all doors and windows; sweep all rooms;
gather up ashes from black fireplace.
Clear webs from corners where for twelve long moons
Arachne’s children have set sacred space,
And make this house clean for divinity:
Vesta, sister of Olympian Zeus,
Gave up a throne among gods for a hearth,
banked her nimbus with sweet humility
To take work for small glory — yet much use.
Now bright heaven is her garden and garth.

Surely, Vesta, you gave foresight a wink,
When Prometheus smuggled a few coals
And Zeus did not punish you... we must think
Some are greater than their apparent roles,
And some can wring vast change in Cosmos-course.
 So great mysteries meet in small spaces,
And tea-cups hold vast oceans of love.
Truly each household is a cosmic force,
When whole lives are knit from tiny graces,
And hearth is home: as below, so above.

Vesta, keep this house yet another year.
Sanctify every room and keep them warm.
Let this family live in freedom from fear,
Knowing this dwelling to be safe from harm,
And a shelter from Earth’s bitter troubles.
Fill kitchen and pantry with healthy food,
And garnish with delight each family meal.
Then bring many guests, for Vesta doubles
Such happiness guests add to household mood—
Let us under this roof be friends, and heal!

••••

I will admit that some of this may be complete imagination on my part. I worked off of Nigel Pennick’s book, A Pagan Book of Days, when I composed these poems, and some not-very-good reference material online in the days when the Internet was a lot smaller, a lot more open, and a lot less reliable about academic information. Wikipedia was a late-night talk-show joke, and certainly not a reliable source of information on anything; comments pages hadn’t descended into messy troll-fights (much, yet), and it was a different time. It’s hard to envision it now, almost. But if you do use these poems, or the format of the ritual you used (pagan/magical Swap-Meet or something else), I’d love to hear about it.

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