Vestal Virgins

Vestal Virgins

An Indo-European Religious Order

If you've spent any time hanging around with pagans, you've heard this one at least once: “virgin in ancient times didn't mean an actual virgin, it meant a woman who was not under the control of any man.” That's one of those little pseudo-factoids that get repeated in the neopagan community for political reasons, and just like most of them, there's no truth to it. Vestal virgins were not just required to be completely chaste, they were actually buried alive if they broke the rules, so I think it's safe to say they were “actual virgins.”

This was probably a very ancient Indo-European religious custom, because ancient Ireland had an order of chaste priestesses devoted to Brigid (a hearth goddess like Vesta) and they also tended an “eternal flame” just like the Vestal virgins. The existence of two such highly similar religious orders among European cultures separated by great distances and differences in language and social structure implies that the tradition goes back to a much earlier time in Indo-European history.

 

So, what's the reason for it? There's more than one way to look at it. It could have something to do with attempts to control female sexuality, so that women could only hold such a powerful position if they were not sexually active. It could just as easily have to do with the idea that abstaining from sex builds up numinous or magical power, making the person “more holy”- not in a moral sense but just as a conduit for spiritual energy.