Friday, 24 May 2013

Vesta – Fire Goddess

Vesta by
Of all the Goddesses, Vesta is most frequently invoked during prayers at my household shrine; she is inevitably a highly important Goddess in the context of (Roman oriented) domestic worship. Likewise she was a vitally important Goddess in the State religion of ancient Rome. Despite her importance, scholars have relatively little to say of her, though they have a great deal to say of her priestesses. I will not look too much at the intriguing Vestal Virgins as there is already a wealth of information on them scattered across the internet and in books.* I want to look directly to Vesta herself – she seems to me a most comforting and benevolent Goddess. Scholars tend to describe her as a Goddess of the sacred hearth fire, guardian of the home, and as a virgin Goddess who is inviolable and pure.** Perhaps the best contemporary description I have come across comes from Shelton, who writes:
“Vesta was the deity of the hearth fire. Fire for cooking and heating was a necessity of life, and the Romans were therefore conscientious in their worship of Vesta. In private homes of early Rome, where the hearth was a central element, all family members [which included slaves] gathered … for a sacrifice to Vesta [the sacrificial items were usually salt and flour]. In a sense, then, every private home was a temple of Vesta [J Shelton, As the Romans Did at 385].”
In another edifying description of Vesta, Beard et al write:
“The significance of the flame … in at least one of its aspects, lie in its link with the foundation, generation and continuation of the race. The goddess Vesta herself encapsulated all the elements; she was the flame itself, she was the virgin, she was Vesta the Mother [M Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History at 53].”

Friday, 3 May 2013

Roman Gods, Indian Gods

The God Indra (Jupiter) armed with a vajra (thunderbolt),
as depicted on a popular Indian comic. From
I recently spent time trying to discover how the interpretatio Romana could be applied to the Indian pantheon. I discovered that it is not easily applied and that Indian polytheism is almost unbelievably complex. The first thing to know is that Hinduism is the sum total of numerous polytheistic belief systems emanating from the huge geographic region that is south Asia and linked by “various common elements such as Vedic tradition, the caste system, religious and moral law, epics and myths, and reverence for spiritual teachers” (Dallapiccola, Hindu: Visions of the Sacred). The second thing to know is that polytheism as experienced and understood by Hindus today is not the same as south Asian polytheism in ancient times. These days it appears that the majority of Hindus believe that most, if not all, Gods and Goddesses are manifestations of other more major Gods and many Hindus believe all deities are aspects of Brahman (or Shiva or Vishnu) – the ultimate reality and deity, which is a concept not dissimilar to Neoplatonic ideas about “the One”. The major Gods of Hinduism today are Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver and Shiva/Siva, the destroyer, as well as Devi/Shakti, the great Goddess – these Gods do not really have direct parallels in the Roman (or Greek) pantheon, which is not to say that the Indian equivalent to Roman Gods cannot be discovered but it makes the process difficult and uncertain. The Vedic pantheon of ancient India certainly seems more recognisable to one who is familiar with Roman Gods (and Vedic Brahmin priests appear to have been even more obsessed with the correct practice of ritual than the patrician priests of ancient Rome) but many Vedic Gods are no longer widely revered or they have been subsumed into other, more accessible, deities such as Vishnu or Shiva (Vedic Gods may be considered less accessible because traditionally only Brahmin priests can perform sacrifices to Vedic Gods).