Consecrated Women in the Ancient Greco-Roman World
In December 2018, BBC News reported on the atypical wedding of an American Catholic named Jessie Hayes. Her ceremony had many traditional trappings such as a wedding dress, a ring, and a veil. The unusual part about this celebration was its purpose: to become a literal bride of Christ. Yet, swearing off marriage and sexuality isn’t a new trend. Some consecrated roles and religious orders in older pre-Christian cultures predate both Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins by several centuries.
Ancient Rome’s Vestal Virgins
Sworn to decades of faithful service, vestal virgins provided divine service to the goddess Vesta. The Ancient History Encyclopedia reveals that some ancient writers traced the founding of their order to the Roman king Numa Pompilius, who reigned between 717 and 673 B.C.E. Apparently, he intended them as a state-supported group of priestesses who earned salaries from Rome’s public treasury. Since Vesta was a goddess of the hearth and home, these priestesses were given reverence and held a special place in Roman society.
Chosen when they were between 6 and 10 years old, consecrated virgins each took a vow of chastity and served for 30 years. They would tend the sacred fire located within Vesta’s shrine in the Roman Forum. They also cared for religious objects, prepared food for ritual use, and officiated during the Vestalia feasts lasting between the 7th and 15th of June. These women were free to marry when their terms expired, yet few did so because most men believed it would bring bad luck. Consequently, most continued serving in the temple until they died or were too ill to perform their duties.
The Oracle of Delphi
While the vestal virgins were selected at young ages, some older women served in vital religious roles in ancient Greece. History Answers contributor Alice Barnes-Brown discusses the Pythia, also known as the Oracle of Delphi. The local shrine was built on a spot thought to house the carcass of a gigantic slain serpent called Python. Fumes would emit from below, causing powerful trances during which the god Apollo possessed an individual. Considering the critical nature of his knowledge, his ancient devotees believed that one trustworthy individual should communicate it to others.
Residing at the Oracle during the nine warmest months of the year, the Pythia washed in the revered Castalian Spring. Another Ancient History Encyclopedia piece discloses that she would descend to the adyton chamber below the temple, filled with smoke from burning laurel leaves and barley meal. Seated on a cauldron suspended over a deep crack within the earth, she’d inhale rising vapors and prophesize. Scientists aren’t sure what caused her religious visions, but a Live Science piece proposes possibilities such as a lack of oxygen or the presence of ethylene, methane, or benzene gases. The ethylene theory is popular because of its sweet aroma, which matches ancient descriptions of visits to the Oracle.
Like the vestal virgins, the Pythia was honored by those who sought her guidance. Barnes-Brown explains that young chaste women were originally selected to serve in this role. However, sexual assaults by male visitors led religious authorities to later choose older women for the position. These candidates were over the age of 50 and were former Delphi temple priestesses. Even so, any upstanding female Delphi resident could be selected. Donning traditional virginal garments, every Pythia renounced her ties to her former family, marriage, and home.
Sacred and Set Apart
Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins are familiar to modern Western societies. Nevertheless, these groups have precedents in the ancient Mediterranean world. Vestal virgins served the goddess Vesta and the Roman state while older women gave up their former lives to serve as Delphi’s Oracle. Both prove that some spiritual concepts in the human consciousness never go away.