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Home fires burning.

The Roman goddess Vesta was once revered as a divine nurturer but now may be better remembered for her minor-planet namesake.

Each June when the ancient Romans celebrated the rites of Vesta, the warmhearted goddess who energized and protected the spirit of the hearth, they did not count Virgo, the Virgin, among the six maidens who tended Vesta's fire in her shrine in the Forum of Rome. Nonetheless, Virgo now makes herself at home just west of the meridian, the blue vertical line that splits our June gatefold star map. Although Virgo's unmarried status may qualify her for membership in the Vestal Virgins, her celestial nature keeps her out of the club. Both Virgo and Vesta are virginal, but Vesta is earthy.

Rome recognized a public meaning in Vesta's blaze and allied the abiding fire in her official hearth with the endurance of the Eternal City. Her dwelling in the Forum was regarded as the most ancient talisman of Roman identity. It was attributed by some - including the poet Ovid and the historian Plutarch - to Numa, the semilegendary second king of Rome. Others claimed Rome's founder, Romulus, had established Vesta's state cult. In any case, it was usually said that the circular shape of her shrine echoed the rustic round huts in which people lived when Rome was a shepherd's countryside and not an empire. In Archaic Roman Religion, however, Georges Dumezil, a leading expert on Indo-European mythology and religion, argued the temple's round plan asserts its complete independence from the cardinal directions. This means its power originates in the Earth, not in the sky, whose daily rotation inserts those directions into the landscape. In that sense, Vesta's hearth nourished Rome with heat from Earth's bosom.

Reignited on March 1st in a ceremony of renewal, Vesta's fire was continuously fed by her virgins, the unwed women who resided in her cloister and kept the glow in her hearth. These Vestal Virgins were recruited as young children from among the daughters of Rome's elite. During their 30-year tour of duty, they had to remain unmarried and chaste. The penalty for dalliance was to be burned alive, and they were scourged if they let the hearthfire burn out.

Vesta's unextinguished fire is an archaic concept that originated with the embers that perpetually burned in every home. Certainly, the tradition was home cooked in Greece, where the goddess of the domestic hearth was known as Hestia. She was a daughter of Kronos and the spinster sister of Zeus. Courted by Apollo and Poseidon, she rejected both in favor of a life of virginal independence. Although she nurtured homes like a mother, she was never transformed by pregnancy. Unchanged, she embodied enduring family continuity. Sustaining family values with warmth and light, her flames turned houses into homes.

While the virgins watched over Vesta's fire, Vesta kept a watchful eye on Roman households, and each year Rome expressed its gratitude for her gifts on June 9th. The Vestalia was observed at this time, and the ritual included an annual housecleaning of Vesta's temple. Like responsible homemakers, the Vestal Virgins emptied and swept the sanctuary with dust-busting fury. They also prepared "holy cake" for Vesta with sacred brine, sacred flour, and water from a sacred spring outside the city.

Despite Vesta's down-to-earth nature, her name is assigned to a celestial object, the asteroid 4 Vesta. This minor planet, the fourth to be found, was discovered telescopically on March 29, 1807, by the German physician and amateur astronomer Heinrich Olbers. Some kind of hearth must have once heated this mini-world to a warm glow, for we now know Vesta is coated in basalt as confirmed by pieces of Vesta retrieved on Earth as meteorites and Hubble Space Telescope observations. Basalt is hardened lava, and lava is melted rock.

In 1998 the asteroid Vesta offers those inclined to observe Roman holidays another reason to celebrate. It is felicitously in conjunction with the Sun, the fire that burns in the hearth of the solar system, on June 9th, when Vesta's virgins would begin to make the Vestalia cake.

Now, as in antiquity, Vesta's festival falls just a week and a half or so ahead of the solstice when the Sun migrates as far north as it ever travels during the year. June's solstice coincided with another Roman red-letter day, an occasion dedicated to Fors Fortuna, the spirit of chance and fortune, but there is no evidence to indicate the Romans timed this celebration according to the Sun's farthest reach. Other traditional peoples, however, observed its solstitial excursions ceremonially and equated the solstice limits with seasonal homes of the Sun. The Hopi of northern Arizona, for example, call the place of summer-solstice sunrise "Sun's summer home." In southern Africa, both the Zulu and the Basotho peoples referred to the solstice limits as homes of the Sun. Sun's house also seems to have been part of the solstice symbolism of shell-foraging Indians who left their petroglyphs along a remote section of the Pacific shore of northern Baja California.

During the last dozen years, rock-art researchers Eve Ewing and Marc Robin have investigated the solstitial potential of a concentration of petroglyphs overlooking the Bahia San Carlos on Baja's Vizcaino Coast. Unserved by roads and extremely hard to reach, this petroglyph site falls within the historic territory of the Cochimi, a Yuman-speaking people who made most of the middle of the peninsula their home. Although the age of the carvings is unknown, the art appears to be associated with huge accumulations of abalone shells discarded on the steep talus below the mesa and with other signs of prehistoric occupation.

Today, most experts associate much of the world's rock art with shamans, supernatural power, and sacred places in the landscape. If so, this site is punctuated with petroglyphs that delineate sacred space and a sanctuary of power as clearly as the foundations of Vesta's temple in Rome.

A little northwest of most of the petroglyphs on the upper cliff, a section of the rock face has fractured from the mesa top and now leans seaward to form a "doorway" that opens to the northwest horizon. As Ewing and Robin watched the June-solstice Sun set behind the mesa, they witnessed its brief reappearance in this narrow slit. The Sun apparently enters its solstice house and then stands in the doorway. Diffraction rays from the edges of the rock window generate more than the usual majesty of a sunset, but it can be seen only from a few points along the sunset line. The ideal observation point is a natural seat sculpted in the rock, and it occupies the last spot on the sight line with an unobstructed view. The Sun travels far enough north to appear like this on only a few days flanking the solstice.

Explicit female imagery in some of the petroglyphs argues that this place was no home for Vestal Virgins. It may, however, have been a shrine where California Indian shamans monitored the solstice and engaged in rituals that linked the cyclical renewal of the world with Sun's fertilization of Mother Earth. Additionally, the summer solstice seems to have been commemorated here with domestic imagery.

Before Ewing and Robin discovered their summer-solstice alignment and its narrow viewing corridor, they saw summer-solstice fire kindled on a petroglyph that closely resembles the brush houses built by other Yuman tribes - the adjacent Kiliwa and the Tipai of Southern California. In fact, this light-and-shadow effect is one of the most fetching solstitial events yet collected. On the abrupt rock face overlooking the marine terrace and distant beach, this stylized image of a traditional house is approached from the side by an upright triangle of sunlight about an hour before noon. As the light reaches the side of the house it shrinks to nearly the height of the house's door. By the time the light reaches this door it can "enter" the house. Framed in the doorway, the triangular spot of light remains there until it completely disappears a few minutes later at 12:15 p.m., Pacific Daylight Time. On the rocky wall at midday and in the palisade window at day's end, Sun enters his summer house and, like Vesta, keeps the home fires burning.

Head of household E. C. KRUPP calls Griffith Observatory "Home Sweet Home."
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Title Annotation:asteroid 4 Vesta
Author:Krupp, E.C.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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