At a time when we’re all staying at home and trying to find ways to make it interesting (provided we’re not ill), it might be worth taking a look at the hearth-goddess Hestia. She tends to be overlooked, and doesn’t have a lot of myths, but now is a good time for a reappraisal of this quiet but essential goddess.
Really, you could argue that Hestia’s time began with the hygge fad, if ever her time ended. But Hestia is as much as Marie Kondo decluttering the house and maintaining the hearth as a frazzled urbanite relaxing with a book, hot chocolate and a duvet.
To get back to Greek mythology, Hestia was the oldest daughter of Rhea and Kronos, who ruled after Kronos overthrew his father Ouranos. However, Kronos knew that his reign wouldn’t last, and his own son would overthrow him. So he swallowed each of his children as Rhea bore them, beginning with Hestia. (Cocooning wasn’t a lifestyle choice for her, at least in the beginning.)
Soon her brothers and sisters began to join her, but Rhea lost patience with her husband’s paranoia and decided to save her youngest son, Zeus, from this fate. Zeus duly fulfilled the prophecy, and forced his father to vomit up his siblings after he deposed him. Hestia was the last out, so she was considered both oldest and youngest of the Olympians.
It’s a little ironic that we learn what happened after Hestia emerged from the Homeric Hymn to the love-goddess Aphrodite:
The third one not to take pleasure in the things done by Aphrodite is that young Maiden full of aidôs,
Hestia, who was the first-born child of Kronos, the one with the crooked mêtis,
as well as the last and youngest, through the Will [boulê] of Zeus, holder of the aegis.
She was the Lady who was wooed by Poseidon and Apollo.
But she was quite unwilling, and she firmly refused.
She had sworn a great oath, and what she said became what really happened.
She swore, as she touched the head of her father Zeus, the aegis-bearer,
that she would be a virgin for all days to come, that illustrious goddess.
And to her Father Zeus gave a beautiful honor, as a compensating substitute for marriage.
She is seated in the middle of the house, getting the richest portion.
And in all the temples of the gods she has a share in the tîmê.
Among all the mortals, she is the senior goddess.
(Gregory Nagy’s translation)
(The other two goddesses unswayed by Aphrodite are Athena and Artemis.)
As the poem implies, Hestia was mainly remembered when people were making offerings: she received the first offering, usually sweet wine and a rich portion of the food. These were given to the hearth fire that she personified, since her name means “hearth”.
All domestic celebrations involved the hearth: new babies were carried around it, new arrivals like brides and slaves were showered with nuts and figs before it, and it was extinguished and relit after a death. Cooking meat from a sacrifice was an important ritual for Hestia. Solemn oaths were sworn to the hearth-goddess, and the hearth itself could be a santuary, where a person could seek the aid of the household.
She was present in the hearth of family homes, but also in the civic hearth of the Prytaneion, where the local government met. These buildings always featured a civic hearth, a symbolic centre to the polis, as well as a communal feasting hall for entertaining strangers. The hearth-fire had to be kept alight, and colonists would take some of the local fire with them to their new settlement. The public hearth could also be a sanctuary, like medieval churches.
The Prytaneion at Olympus was one of the most important buildings at the sanctuary, and it is from there that we inherited the custom of taking the Olympic flame to the city hosting the games.
Temples or altars dedicated to Hestia are rare, since all hearths were her temples, but Hermione in Argolis had one separate from its temples to Dionysus, Artemis and Poseidon. As you might expect, it had no image of the goddess, only an altar for sacrifices. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.35) Others include Lacedaemonia in Sparta, Olympia, Larissa in Thessaly, and the island of Tenedos and Naxos. (Theoi.com)
Hestia is one of many goddesses of the hearth, including the Roman Vesta, Scythian Tabiti, Irish Brigit, Gabija in Lithuania, and also Matergabia, the Slavic “Fire Mother”.
Hestia, Hermes and Dionysus
The Prytaneion linked two fundamental values, respect for the family hearth, and hospitality to strangers. This may explain something that has puzzled scholars – the linking of Hestia and Hermes in what is supposed to be the Homeric Hymn to Hestia:
Hestia, in the high dwellings of all, both deathless gods and men who walk on earth, you have gained an everlasting abode and highest honor: glorious is your portion and your right. For without you mortals hold no banquet, —where one does not duly pour sweet wine in offering to Hestia both first and last.
And you, Slayer of Argus, Son of Zeus and Maia, messenger of the blessed gods, bearer of the golden rod, giver of good, be favorable and help us, you and Hestia, the worshipful and dear. Come and dwell in this glorious house in friendship together; for you two, well knowing the noble actions of men, aid on their wisdom and their strength.
Hail, Daughter of Cronos, and you also, Hermes, bearer of the golden rod! Now I will remember you and another song also.
(The Homeric Hymn to Hestia, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White)
This linkage intrigued one Classical scholar, Jean-Pierre Vernant, enough to write a paper the subject. Hestia and Hermes were often paired, perhaps because of the Athenian ideal that women should stay at home and be domestic, while men went out into the polis and, like Odysseus, travelled. (Conversely, Hermes was also a god of the inner household because he was a patron of humans and their works, linking him to Hestia from another direction.)
Another travelling deity, Dionysus, usurped Hestia’s role as one of the Twelve Olympians, although it seems these lists were always in flux. Dionysus was a more glamourous and exciting deity, but Hestia made for a balanced list of six goddesses and six gods, as well as honouring the oldest of the Olympians.
Public and Private Worship
It’s hard to say to what extent Hestia was honoured in Greek society, since hers was a fundamentally domestic cult. The civic element of her cult, however, suggests a larger role for the household goddess, even if it wasn’t as institutionalized as the Roman Vesta’s.
References and Links
The Wikipedia Article
Women in Antiquity
Ancient History Encyclopedia
I had planned to ask how much resemblance Vesta had to Hestia. But I don’t have to. 🙂 This was great. I don’t know as much as I ought about Greek religious structures, the Germanic and Roman systems are what interest me most. But I’ve been boning up on my Greek for a project. Currently rereading the Theogeny before I move into general anthologies of Greek myth.
This really helps me contextualise. Given that I have a fondness for Vesta as a Goddess of hearth, whom I presume to preside over things like Oikos and Ethel/Othala, which are important to me.
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I’m so glad people like you are taking an interest in Hestia. She’s a wonderful goddess and deserves more attention.
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If I may wax autistic, leisure begets culture. Culture is important, I believe the disintegration of culture explains a lot of excess violence and hatred. So it follows I should understand how the ancients generated culture. Anyway. When I was a boy it baffled me that the Romans considered the hearth their religious centre. Not the grand temples or wilderness shrines, but the hearth. But I also loved the story of the Virgins and how Rome would remain victorious so long as the Eternal Flame burned. It’s a note of fascination that Rome in the West gave up the flame with Jesus, but the Byzantines kept it under a new name. Thoughts, anyway.
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