The perpetually-burning fire in ancient Rome’s Temple of Vesta was considered to be essential to the safeguarding and continuation of the Roman state. As the public hearth situated in the center of Rome, the Vestal fire was the focus and symbolised the nucleus of the collective home that was Rome. The primary activity performed on this hearth was the transmutation through the use of fire of animal, vegetable and mineral substances into two types of purifying powder. Both these substances are floury and food-like, in addition to having purificatory qualities. One of them, mola salsa, made by the Vestal Virgins three times a year out of salted ground spelt, was used in every public animal sacrifice. The other, suffimen, made once a year from the ash of burned animal components, was used on a single occasion.
It will be argued here that the main characteristic of both mola salsa and suffimen is unification. In order to explore this idea this article will first investigate the procedure involved in the manufacture of mola salsa. This will be followed by an analysis of the times during the year that it was made. Subsequent to this will be an examination of how it is used, succeeded by a consideration of what mola salsa can tell us about the Vestal Virgins who prepared it. The article primarily focuses on the production and application of mola salsa, but will also investigate suffimen. The comparison of mola salsa with suffimen will lead to the conclusion that through contact with the Vestal hearth and treatment by the Vestal Virgins both substances assimilated the qualities of this sacred urban hearth and subsequently acted as extensions of it, causing the rituals in which these materials were used – and hence the people participating in them – to be linked to and revolve around the Vestal fire, the consequence being the unification of separate Roman rituals and their application toward the good of the collective.
Mola salsa consists of two ingredients, flour and salt. The flour is made from prematurely-harvested spelt (far), gathered by the three senior Vestal Virgins on alternate days from the 7th to the 14th of May. The unripe nature of this spelt - in that it was not yet at the point of its reproductive stage in its growth cycle, halted between its ‘virginal’ and ‘maternal’ phases so to speak - echoes the Vestal’s own interstitial physical condition: their unused fertility stored and dedicated to the city of Rome. It also evokes the captio method of Vestal recruitment: the grain being ‘taken as a child from its family’ for a special purpose, as the Vestals were. After the spelt is harvested, it is parched over the Vestal fire, ground and then stored. On a domestic level, parching - a semi-cooking - makes grain more digestible. It can also be seen as a premature result of the cooking process: the spelt is neither raw nor cooked, again suggestive of the Vestals.
The salt part of the mola salsa was also specially prepared and consisted of ‘boiled salt’ and ‘hard salt’. Salt, while an everyday food, was also sacred. Like the spelt, the boiled salt was transformed by the Vestal fire making it both ‘cooked’ on a domestic level, and purified on a religious one. Both the spelt and the salt underwent the normal process connected with the function of a hearth – the transformation by fire of nature (raw materials) into culture (food) - but because it was Vesta’s hearth in particular this transformation compounded literal cooking with sacredness: multiplying the interstitiality of the ingredients and imbuing the resultant product with the Vestal fire’s own traits of purity and, more importantly, mediation. While a domestic hearth made grain into bread suitable for human consumption, in the Vestals’ sacred ‘bakery’ a hybrid substance – flour - was made as ‘food’ for the gods.
The spelt and salt were combined to make batches of mola salsa three times a year: during the festivals of the Vestalia (9 June), the Ides of September (13 September) and the Lupercalia (15 February). The Vestalia was a festival concerned with matronae (adult women), bakers and grain, and purification, again a type of compounding of the qualities of Vesta, the Vestals and the public hearth. The Ides of September was a festival of Jupiter which involved a banquet attended by magistrates and senators so was a high-profile event. The Lupercalia, held in the vicinity of the Palatine Hill, was evocative of Rome’s rustic origins and had Vestal connections (Ovid. Fasti. 2. 270-300, 383) which would have enhanced the antiquity and importance of the Vestal Virgins as mythical and symbolic matronae of Rome. The highlighting of these three festivals as the times of mola salsa production can be understood to emphasise the unity of Roman elites: women (Vestalia), men (Ides of September), and youths (Lupercalia). The making of the mola salsa at these particular times in the year situates the Vestals amongst these categories, linking them and emphasising their importance as core components of Rome.
Ovid tells us that a simple libation of grain and salt was regarded by the Romans as the earliest form of offering to the gods (Fasti 1. 337-53). According to Horace, mola salsa can be used alone as a sacrificial offering in itself (Odes. 3. 23. 20), and a type of mola was also used in domestic contexts as an offering during meals. Mola salsa is evidently seen as both venerably antique and suitable as a medium with which to communicate with the gods. On a state level in the sacra publica (public ritual) the mola salsa made by the Vestals Virgins was utilised in combination with animal sacrifice, a central component of Roman public ritual. Animal sacrifice consisted of six main stages, the third of which, immolatio, involved the pouring of mola salsa over the animal’s head and on the sacrificial knife. Immolatio was the point of actual sacrifice, the critical moment of the ritual when the animal was transferred to the ownership of the gods and it was at this moment that the sacrifice became, or failed to become, litatio (accepted or rejected by the god). It was the application of mola salsa that performed the transformatory action, the sacralising of the ritual offerings, making the bridge between mortals and the gods.
While Cancik and Schneider suggest that immolatio ‘denotes the act of purification before the actual killing’, and Wildfang also sees mola’s function in sacrifice as purificatory, mola salsa really does more than that: it is a mediating substance, creating a channel of communication between the ritual participants and the gods receiving the offering. The purity is just an aspect, not the whole, of its transformatory, unifying power. Mola unifies both vertically, during animal sacrifice from mortals to the gods, and horizontally by linking rituals throughout the year and in various places that different people participated in. Being an indispensible component of every sacrifice, mola salsa is part of the orthopraxy of Roman religion, designating separate rituals performed by different people throughout the year as recognisable elements of the larger category of Roman religion. Mola, like the Vestals who made it, represented the state as a collectivity in harmonious reciprocal relationship to the gods.
Mola salsa performs the same function as the Vestals themselves. As the role of individual aristocratic women was to cement groups and the domus (home) was a microcosm of the state, so the Vestals – the matronae of the greater domus that was the city of Rome – unified all Romans, linking them to each other, to the state and the gods. Through the manufacture and distribution of mola salsa the Vestals influenced, sanctioned and attended (symbolically when not literally) every sacrifice on behalf of the goddess Vesta. Thus the Vestals infused Roman religion spatially and calendrically. The mola, derived from the hearth of Vesta, permeated each individual sacrificial fire with Vestal – collective Roman - qualities, linking them to the public hearth that was the center of Rome. On a conceptual level the use of mola salsa defined sacrificial fires as Roman and on a functional level empowered individual rituals to function for the good of the collective. Vesta’s hearth fire could not be everywhere at once, nor could her priestesses, but the mola salsa could. Mola functions as the limbs of the central hearth, indicating state surveillance, as well as acting as a stand-in for the Vestals/Vestal fire/Rome at each individual ritual where it performs their transformative, unifying activity.
Besides mola salsa, the Vestals also made suffimen, an ashy, flour-like substance, the ingredients of which were collected at two points in the year, the Ides of October (13 October) and the Fordicidia (15 April), and then combined at another, the Parilia (21 April). Unlike mola salsa however, the resultant substance was distributed during a single festival for use in purificatory, rather than sacrificial, bonfires. The ingredients of suffimen consisted of a mixture of the ashes of unborn calves from cows sacrificed to Tellus (Earth) at the Fordicidia and the blood of the October Horse, both of which were subjected to the Vestal fire where they were subsequently reduced to powder. While the Ides of October, the Fordicidia and the Parilia were essentially agriculturally-oriented festivals also celebrated in the city, the Parilia was in addition the anniversary of Rome’s foundation. As the dates on which mola salsa was made highlighted links between people, and its application in animal sacrifice united individual rituals, so the making and distribution of suffimen connected agriculture and pastoralism with the city. The October Horse’s blood linked periphery and center, tracing a path from outside the pomerium (sacred city walls), to the temple of Vesta at the center of Rome, the sacrifices of the Fordicidia linked thirty curiae (districts) with the Capitoline Hill and the bonfires of the Parilia burned in both the city and country (Ovid. Fasti. 4.721-862). Like mola salsa, the suffimen linking these festivals is a mixture of interstitial components transformed by the Vestal fire into a substance with purifying and unifying qualities.
From an investigation of mola salsa’s composition, the method of its production and its comparison with suffimen it is evident that these substances, like the Vestal Virgins themselves, comprise interstitial components that in practice work actively as mediating powers, bridging Roman conceptual and physical space. The uses to which mola salsa and suffimen were put make it apparent that they function on behalf of the Vestal hearth, exerting its unifying function in a vertical religious direction, a horizontal human and topographical direction, and a cyclic calendrical one. Consequently, multiple levels of being within the overall Roman territorial sphere ranging from the mineral, through to the human and to the larger agricultural landscape, are comprehensively linked, via specific Vestal activity, to the heart of Rome.
Bibliography and Notes Here