Friday, 16 September 2011

Vestal Virgins

The trials and burdens of Rome's holy women.

The Vestal Virgins were an order of Priestesses that were at the centre of Rome’s religious community for over a thousand years. They worshipped the Goddess Vesta and, amongst other things, were tasked to keeping the holy fire burning in The Temple of Vesta in Rome. Their story includes betrayal, lust, intrigue and being buried alive.

Their story extends back before the beginnings of Rome, and there are views that when the adults and young boys of Alba Longa, an area near where Rome now stands, went  out to hunt they usually left the young girls to look after the fires of the village, a task essential in the day to day life of such people. Over time, it evolved into a ritual and as by their very nature, the young girls were virgins, eventually this trait became part of the role in keeping the fires alive. 

The kings of Alba Longa introduced the ritual to Rome and as the city developed, the links were reinforced and the Role of the Vestal Virgin became inherent in the spiritual and political life of the city.

To become a vestal virgin, a child would be offered by a prominent family, or drawn by lots from a pre-determined list. Each potential recruit had to be between six and ten years old and be in possession of all their limbs and faculties. In addition, the family would have to be freeborn Roman and of good character.

The successful candidate would sign up for a term of thirty years, during which they swore to remain chaste, and were seen as being married to Rome. The first ten years were as a trainee, the next ten years as an actual priestess and the last ten years as a teacher. After this time, they were allowed to leave the order and marry, if they so wished but due to the riches and independence afforded to them by the post, few actually did.

Their roles were many but the main ones included, keeping the sacred fire alight at all times, storing the wills of dead emperors and officials, various religious ceremonies and often liaison with Rome’s enemies in times of conflict. In addition, they were the keepers of Rome’s sacred relics and though information is scarce, these included the Palladium, otherwise known as the statue of Pallas Athena, around which Troy was built centuries earlier.

Vestal Virgins became powerful and very rich. They could intercede on behalf of a condemned man and if convict caught the eye of a Vestal Virgin on the way to execution, he could be pardoned.

However, with the role came a serious commitment and if one was found to have lost her virginity, or on occasion, even be accused of being intimate with a man, they would be condemned to death. Originally this would be as simple as whipping, but as their role increased in importance it was felt that no man had the power to kill a priestess of Vesta. Therefore they devised a cruel and shocking punishment.

First of all, the accused would be whipped and tied to a cart to be led through the streets of Rome before the populace of the city. They would remain silent throughout the whole procedure. At a certain point, the priestess would be untied and would descend a ladder to a chamber containing a bed, a candle, some food and something to drink. The tomb would then be sealed, the soil replaced and life go on as normal in the city above, leaving the priestess entombed forever. The thinking seems to have been that the last time anyone seen her, she was alive and had the necessities for life. The rest was up to Vesta.

One of the most famous Vestal Virgins was Rubria who was apparently raped by Nero. History fails to tell us what happened to her after this as her name falls out of the history books.Though the Vestal Virgins were disbanded in 394 AD a similar order soon emerged albeit this time in the service of the Catholic church, Nuns.

A fascinating story covering one possible fate of Rubria, the famous Vestal Virgin raped by Emperor Nero in 64 AD can be found in the book Mortuus Virgo.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The island of Twenty Thousand Saints.

Off the coast of North Wales in the UK, lies a tiny island with an extraordinary story to tell. A story of pilgrimage throughout the ages on an enormous scale, of a believable claim to be the true location of Avalon, the last burial place of Arthur,  and the current location of a solitary windswept tree, the bearer of probably the rarest fruit in the world.

Ynys Enlli, or Bardsey Island, as it is now called, can boast a history dating back before the Romans and was a place where Iron age Celts went to worship their gods. As time progressed it was visited by the Vikings, who gave it it’s current name, bard-sey, the island of bards, and eventually claimed by early Christians as a place of worship and pilgrimage. St Cadfan formed the first monastery on the island in the sixth century and it became such an important destination in the Christian faith that the pope himself declared that three visits to Bardsey was the equivalent to one visit to Rome.

Okay, I hear you ask, so what? Nothing special there, but now it gets interesting. So many holy men went there, that it is said that the remains of twenty thousand saints lie in the abbey’s graveyard. Twenty thousand on a tiny island no more than two kilometres square.

So why is it so special?
First of all, by some extraordinary gift of nature, the environment is fantastically beneficial to good health and old age and it was recognised that on this island, the old died first. In an 1188 document called ‘Itinery through Wales,’ Giraldus Cambrensis states

This island, either from the healthiness of its climate, or rather from some miracle and the merits of the Saints, has this wonderful peculiarity that the oldest people die first, because diseases are uncommon, and scarcely any die except from extreme old age.

This is quite a claim, considering the harsh environment, and disease ridden culture of the last two thousand years.

Throughout Celtic mythology, there are references to a fabled glass house where devotees grew apples for the gods. It is now believed that the early monastery boasted exactly that, a glass house attached to the building providing a haven against the harsh Atlantic weather.

So where is this leading?
In Celtic Mythology, Avalon meant the ‘place of apples’ or was sometimes referred to as ‘the glass fortress,’  In a 14th century manuscript, Arthur requested that when he died, he should be taken west to be buried on the isle of Avalon. It is also recorded that he was mortally wounded by Mordred in the battle of Camlann, commonly thought to have taken place in North Wales. Bearing in mind the popularity of the island as not only a holy place to be buried but also for its healing and health properties, it would be a very likely place indeed to take a mortally wounded king..

To add to the intrigue, I want to bring you right up to date. In 1998, a man visited Bardsey Island to study the birdlife. While there, he noticed a solitary apple tree tucked into a protected corner of an ‘L’ shaped farmhouse. This tree was bearing fruit and the gentleman noticed it was disease free and tasted lovely. He was intrigued as no other apple trees exist on the island due to the harsh Atlantic weather, so he sent the apple off to a friend for analysis and it was formally declared to be unique. That is, that no other specimen was known on the entire planet.

Cuttings have subsequently been taken in an effort to propagate this unique tree and they are currently being grown around the world.

So, to summarise:

  • A wounded Arthur was supposed to have been taken from the battlefield to a local holy place with a glass building.

 Bardsey was one of the most holy places of the time and apparently had a conservatory of sorts.

  • He is said to be buried with a holy army, waiting to be resurrected.

Twenty thousand saints seem to fit the bill nicely.

  • Avalon was known as the place of apples.
In welsh, Apple is called Afal,  and Apples, Afalau

Finally, there is one more quirk to consider. In many versions of the legend the body ends up in a cave on a mountain. On Bardsey there is a solitary hill, and on this hill there is a tiny entrance to a cave, as yet, (I believe) not excavated. It may not be the last resting place of the legendary king, but bearing in mind the extraordinary history of this island, you can’t help but wonder what other secrets of the past it may hold?

Food for thought?