Devotional: Hestia

Hestia (meaning hearth or fireside) is a Greek  virgin goddess of the hearth, architecture, and the right ordering of domesticity, the family, and the state. She is the daughter of Cronus and Rhea. Her Roman equivalent is Vesta.

Hestia had few temples as her temples were best represented by individual home hearths, but she did receive the first and last sacrifices during festivals. When a new settlement was established coals from the mother city would be brought to start the new fires. Hestia’s sacred fires could be extinguished for occasional ritual purposes, but a failure to maintain the her public fires was a breach in duty to the whole community.

Hestia’s sacred duties were usually the responsibility of the household’s head woman, and very occasionally the leading man. Very few references exist for a specialist practice of Hestia among priests and priestesses except in Sparta where there are a few records of women bearing the priestly title of “Hestia”.

Hestia is a first Olympian generation goddess along with the harvest goddess Demeter and goddess of women and marriage, Hera. Her brothers include Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus. Shortly after they were born, Cronus gobbled them up and ate them all starting with Hestia, only leaving out the youngest Zeus. Zeus forced Cronus to upgorge his siblings and led them against their father and the other titans in war. As the first eaten and the last released, Hestia is both the youngest and oldest of the Olympian gods.

Hestia’s Olympian status is equivocal. At Athens “in Plato’s time,” notes Kenneth Dorter “there was a discrepancy in the list of the twelve chief gods, as to whether Hestia or Dionysus was included with the other eleven. The altar to them at the agora, for example, included Hestia, but the east frieze of the Parthenon had Dionysus instead.” Hestia’s omission from some lists of the Twelve Olympians is sometimes taken as illustration of her passive, non-confrontational nature – by allegedly giving her Olympian seat to Dionysus she prevents heavenly conflict. Hestia was known for her kindness, but no ancient source or myth describes such a surrender or removal. “Since the hearth is immovable, Hestia is unable to take part even in the procession of the gods, let alone the other antics of the Olympians,” Burkert remarks. Her mythographic status as first-born of Rhea and Cronus seems to justify the tradition in which a small offering is made to Hestia before any sacrifice (“Hestia comes first”).

The ambiguities in Hestia’s mythology are matched by her indeterminate attributes, character, and iconography. She is identified with the hearth as a physical object, and the abstractions of community and domesticity, but portrayals of her are rare and seldom secure. In classical Greek art, she is occasionally depicted as a woman, simply and modestly cloaked in a head veil. She is sometimes shown with a staff in hand or by a large fire. Some ascertain there are no depictions of Hestia at all, and the women shown are instead Vesta due to Hestia never taking a human form. This is uncertain however. A good neutral depiction of Hestia would be a hearth fire or candle flame.

And how do you welcome Hestia into your home? Most of us don’t have hearths, or even fireplaces anymore, but you can try a candle near the center of your household activity (kitchen, living room, family room, etc) invoke her, and ask for her blessing. Or if you are lucky enough to have a fireplace (I am! My husband is picking up wood on his way home tonight actually), get a good fire burning, and invoke her then. Maybe throw in a handful of homey incense. Some invoke Hestia around their stoves using it as a literal representation of the outdated hearth, but I would find this cumbersome, and I think she was more about the center of the household activity. Hearths were the *necessary* center as it was a source of heat, light, and cooking. So to honor her, I would invoke her in my living room as this is where my household spends the most amount of time together. It’s up to you though. Where is the center of your home?

– Alfrún

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