Keepers of the Eternal Flame

Woman Holding Lighted Oil Lamp

The ability to maintain and control fire was a dramatic and powerful development in the habits of early humans. Fire generate heat and made it possible for people to cook food. Its heat also helps people stay warm in cold weather as well as keep nocturnal predators away. Over time, the use of fire became progressively more sophisticated with the use of fire to create charcoal and control wildlife. Apart from playing a central role in basic human survival, fire also served as a central spiritual or religious symbol in ancient civilizations. This led to the existence of the sacred fire. The earliest evidence for Indo-Iranian fire worship is found from around 1500 BC, together with first evidence of cremation. Earlier evidences of Vedic fire altars have also been found at the Indus Valley sites of Kalibangan and Lothal. In the Temple of Apollo in Ancient Greece in 7th century BC, no women except the Pythia, the oracle of Delphi, were allowed into the innermost part of the temple. However, there were still women who kept the sacred fire of laurel wood going on the inner sacred hearth.

As fire is considered to be an agent of purity and as a symbol of righteousness and truth, a sacred fire is often a place for the offering of sacrifices and prayers. Therefore, those entrusted with tending this flame often held a sacred, important and very demanding role in the culture.

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Portrait of a Woman as a Vestal Virgin, 1800’s

The Roman poet Horace ( 65 – 8 BC) said that Rome would stand “as long as the pontifex climbs the Capitoline beside the silent Virgin.” The “silent Virgin” that Horace was referring to was a Vestal Virgin from the College of the Vestals. Historians Livy, Plutarch and Aulus Gellius attribute the creation of the Vestals as a state-supported priestesshood to king Numa Pompilius, who reigned circa 717–673 BC. Numa was evidently very involved in the founding of the Temple of Vesta. He appointed the first two priestesses and assigned them salaries from the public treasury, appointed the pontifex maximus to watch over the Vestals, and was even said to have taken the first Vestal away from her parents himself.

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Hestia Giustiniani, Roman, second century CE. Original c.460 BCE

Vesta is the Roman goddess of the hearth and home. Therefore, her role in symbolizing the Roman state was as the hearth and heart of Rome. Standing literally at the center of the city and served to bind the city together, the goddess’ official title was Vesta publica populi Romani Quiritium (“Vesta of the Roman People”). Therefore, the primary role of the Vestal Virgin was a public cult as well as an embodiment of the city and citizenry of Rome. The College of the Vestals and its well-being were regarded as fundamental to the continuance and security of Rome as the Vestal Virgins cultivated the sacred fire that was never allowed to go out. The virgin priestesses of Vesta were committed to the priestesshood before puberty and sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years. Their tasks included the maintenance of the sacred fire of Vesta, the collection of water from a sacred spring, preparation of food used in rituals and the care for sacred objects in the temple’s sanctuary. They were also put in charge of keeping safe the wills and testaments of powerful people such as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

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Statue of a Vestal Virgin

The temple of the Vestals was explicitly open to all by day, though closed to men at night. The extinction of the sacred fire of Vesta was not just considered unlucky, but a grave prodigy, specifically said to presage the destruction of the city. When the vestals entered the collegium, they became daughters of the state. Any sexual relationship with a citizen was therefore considered to be incestuous and treasonous. The punishment for the violaton of their oath of celibacy was to be buried alive in the Campus Sceleratus (“Evil Field”), an underground chamber near the Colline Gate.

Just as a vestal embodied the city of Rome, her unpenetrated body was a metaphor for the unpenetrated walls of Rome. Pliny the Elder says, “we still believe that our Vestals root to the spot fugitive slaves, if they have not yet left the city”. Their lives and deaths were bound by the limits of the city. The Vestals did not just hold the repositories of the state; they were the repositories of the state.

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Jean Raoux, Vierges antiques , 1727

The deities of the Celtic pantheon have always been inseparable from the people’s daily life. As the fires of inspiration and the fires of the home and the forge are seen as exactly the same thing, there is no separation between the inner and the outer worlds. Brigid, perhaps one of the most complex and contradictory goddesses of the Celtic pantheon, is a unique figure as her story allows her to move effortlessly down through the centuries. In fact, Brigid is perhaps the only ancient deity who succeeded in travelling intact through generations, fulfilling different roles in different times. The tenacity with which the traditions surrounding Brigid have survived clearly indicates her importance.

Brigid is the daughter of the Dagda, one of the more universal deities of the pagan Gaelic world. True to her lineage, Bridgid’s role also encompassed many things. She is the goddess of healers, poets, smiths, childbirth and inspiration. She is also the goddess of fire and the goddess of the hearth. In her earliest incarnation, as Breo-Saighit, Brigit was known as the “Flame of Ireland”. Legend says that when she was born, a tower of flame reached to the heavens from the top of her head.

Stained Glass portrait. St Brigid of Kildare

Brigid and her nineteen priestesses took turns in guarding a sacred fire which burned perpetually and was surrounded by a hedge within which no male might enter. According to the Irish Text “The Book of Dunn Cow,” Brigid’s sacred number was nineteen as it represents the nineteen year cycle of the Celtic Great Year – the time it took from one new moon to the next to coincide with the Winter Solstice. For centuries, nineteen priestesses (later nuns) tended Brigid’s eternal flame at Kildare. The site for the monastery at Kildare was chosen for its elevation and also for the ancient Oak found there, considered so sacred that no weapon was permitted to be placed near it, with fines collected for the gathering of deadfalls within its area. These women were Inghean au dagha (the virgin daughters of the fire) but, as fire-keepers, they were known as Breochwidh. The sacred fire of Brigid were only extinguished once in the thirteenth century and was relit until Henry VIII of England set about supressing the monastaries. Brigid’s shrine at Kildare was active into the 18th century until it was closed down by the monarchy. 

Much like Rome’s Vestal Virgins, Brigid’s priestesses were originally committed to thirty years in service. After this period the women were free to marry and leave the group. The first ten years were spent in training, ten in the practice of their duties and the final ten in teaching others. The priestesses duties involved more than merely tending the fire. Their duties included preserving old traditions, studying sciences and healing remedies and even the laws of state.

Woman in Black and White Floral Dress Holding Fire

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