Instead of using fancy philosophers to peg my two forces, described in my fav Flaubert quote which I keep above the computer (“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”), since I’ve never made a serious study of philosophers (don’t have the head for it) and since I’m moving around in the work of Hillman and Moore, I’ll say I’m working on Vesta “versus” Pan (the Cinematheque boys) and Dionysis/Hermes which I’ll assign to Barrus. This is using James Hillman’s idea of associating concepts with elements of mythology without parsing their scholarly sources and relationships in, shall we say, Procrustean fashion. (For those who don’t know that myth, Procrustes was the fellow who ran a motel along a well-traveled road. He only had one bed and he would accept any size of guest, but he insisted on chopping the tall ones off and stretching the short ones out, because he insisted that the rule was that the sleeper had to fit the bed.)
Vesta was the goddess of the hearth, the goddess of the domesticated fire, the cooking and warming fire, but also the devotional flame of the temple -- the spiritual home of the community. Every wife also tended a little chapel to the lares and penates of the family, ancestors and special “saints” if you like. Vestal virgins were clergy in their time, but community versions of the wives and mothers who ministered to their families with clean beds, warm meals, the well-timed cup of tea. The vestal fire-tenders would hardly sleep with everyone and could not sleep with some and not others, so they slept with none. They were not to be vain and if they broke their vows they were burned alive in the “Field of Wickedness.” They were patrician and emancipated and able to travel so long as they stayed in their carriage. If they wore stockings, we might call them blue stockings.
The year I was a senior in high school, my mother nearly fainted when they called to tell her I was Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Year. She laughed and laughed when she called me down from my room, the Home for Wayward Dust Bunnies. I won it because of the essay part of the little test they gave, not because of my cooking and cleaning. I’m still friendly to wandering fuzzies and unconcerned by some sorts of disorder, but in my defense I maintain a cheerful and convenient little abode considering age, bad eyesight and budget shortfalls. At least I give it thought in terms of planning for harmony -- but I’m probably a little overcontrolling at this point. I want things my way. I suppose that’s the virgin part of Vesta.
You know you’ve got hold of a true archetype when it can be found in several cultures and Vesta is easily found in the Blackfeet tradition, though she might not be that virginal and she might be living more in community than solitarily. One piece of advice older Indians gave to the young men was that if they took more than one wife, it would be good to take in women who came from the same family so there would not be quarrels over how a lodge should be run. I found a fascinating article about the art of keeping a good fire, one in the lodge and one outside. Different kinds of wood with different qualities were desirable for different purposes, depending on whether one were smoking out mosquitoes or heating a liquid with a metal pot. Even without kitchen tables, most women had arrangements and protocols that kept everything orderly.
In some ways the natural enemies of these camp women were boys -- I’ll call them Pan in the Greek archetypal system. Full of energy, always hungry, making mischief, underfoot when women wanted to be alone together, gone when they needed a boy to run an errand, boys were a problem. And yet they were THEIR boys and they would go the limit out of love for them. Gyasi Ross was eloquent in his last Indian Country Today essay about the relationship between mothers and sons, esp. in circumstances that remove the fathers. (War, poverty, drugs.)
Vesta is one of the origins of nuns, the quiet, docile (so the Pope hopes), productive, dependable, clever women who devote themselves to God and (so the male priests hope) God’s image. Domesticated woman. Just like a cow. It would be a mistake to think so. Nuns are subversive. Under those cowls they are thinking. While they keep order, they are thinking.
In Blackfeet terms the woman owns the lodge and most of what’s in it. A man cannot take a ceremonial Bundle without a wife to tend it. If a husband is so offensive that he cannot be tolerated, he’s the one who has to leave. If he won’t, if he’s truly lazy or abusive, the woman’s menfolks will come, thrash him, and throw him out. If the woman is just as bad as the man, the dog soldiers may come and destroy their lodge to make them leave.
People make different arrangements and some men have Vesta in them. I remember an argument with Bob in a department store over which tablecloth to buy. We were raising our voices and a woman with a friend nearby overheard. Sighing, she said, “Isn’t that wonderful? I could serve dinner on a newspaper and my husband would never even notice! This man actually CARES!” That taught me something. I was far from being a virgin at the time, a virgin being defined as someone who belongs to herself and sets her boundaries where she wants them.
Now the part of me that lives simply and alone is a virgin again. But the part of me that is not, the life of my mind, roves far and wide, respecting no boundary except the objections of others -- maybe not then. And in fact I meet walls now in that respect. There are people who fear me and wall me out. I ask too many questions and confront authorities. They are afraid of what I know, where I’ve been, the people who might defend me because I defend them. That part of me might not even be female, at least not the way our current culture assigns personal qualities.