Goddess of the Hearth: Hestia/Vesta

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. [5] For without you mortals hold no banquet, –where one does not duly pour sweet wine in offering to Hestia both first and last. ~ Homeric Hymns (29.1)

Hestia is a truly forgotten goddess. If you search for her on the Internet, for example, you will find many hotels named after her, but very little information about her specific role in the Greek religion. She is rarely shown in art, and has virtually no mythology and iconography. Because there is little known about her tales and myths and only a few images of her have been found, one might assume that Hestia was an unimportant deity. But what little we know about her indicates just the opposite.

Hestia was the first-born of the Olympian goddesses, the goddess of the hearth and temple flame. Significantly, her power extends over altars, hearths, and the city-states; and therefore all prayers and sacrifices began or ended with praying and sacrificing to Hestia. She is the guardian of the innermost things, placing her importance higher than any other deity being honored at each celebration. Her sacrifices were sweet wine and food burned in the flames of the fireplace. From every cooked meal the household they laid a portion of that meal on the hearth or burned it in the flames as a sacrifice. Her sacrifices also were first fruits, water, oil, and year-old cows.

There were few Greek temples devoted specifically to Hestia, but every household worshipped her on the house altar and at the fireplace of the house. Upon marrying, a new bride would carry fire from her mother’s home to the new, symbolizing Hestia’s presence blessing her new family. As well, her consecrated hearth could be found in the center of every temple honoring the other gods and goddesses.

There is some evidence that it was common to swear in her name:

Blepsidemus: Are you telling the truth?
Chremylus: I am.
Blepsidemus: Swear it by Hestia.
~ Aristophanes Plutus (395)

Hestia reigned over personal security and happiness and the sacred duty of hospitality, similar to Celtic hearth-laws, none may be turned away from the hearth lest it offend. When children were born, before they could be accepted as part of the family, they were walked in a circle the hearth while prayers of protection were said. Each meal began and ended with an offering to her. There was a public hearth in every city dedicated to her, and if a person’s hearth fire went out, they relit it with ceremony from the public one. Even as new cities were built, the new public hearth would be lit from another city’s hearth. If a son left the family lands to make his own way in the world, he would take coals from the family hearth to ignite the first flame in the area/land where he finally settled.

Hestia is a true earth goddess, choosing not to live on Olympus, home of the Gods, but to dwell with mankind on earth. She is the symbol of the sanctity of home, of home as temple and refuge, and of the fire of life contained within each place that honors her. She had no throne, but tended the sacred fire in the hall on the Olympus. When Dionysus joined the Olympians, Hestia left her seat to him, taking up residence permanently in every mortal dwelling, and every hearth on Earth became her altar.

She is the gentlest of all the Olympians, avoiding completely the conspiracy to overthrow Zeus. Nor did she take part in disputes or wars such as the battle against the giants or the Trojan War.

She was a virgin-goddess. When wooed by Poseidon and Apollo she swore by the head of Zeus to remain a virgin, and there is no record of her having sexual relations with any person, immortal or otherwise. Being a virgin goddess she was therefore also one of only three who are immune to the spells of Aphrodite (along with Athena and Artemis). Her presence was found in the center of fire and served to make sacred wherever her flame burned. As such, her energies are centered around her sense of spirituality and the home (and the many practical tasks regarding running the home); her life did not revolve around the pleasing of a male (whether god or mortal).

In her role as the goddess of home life she oversaw domestic happiness and blessings, and was the inventor of domestic architecture. The idea of a perpetual flame to represent the center of one’s ordinary life in home and village took on more universal significance to embrace the notion of centricity in the earth and even the universe. Consequently, Hestia shares some attributes of other goddesses of the earth and underworld, such as Cybele, Gaea, Demeter, Persephone, and Artemis.

Her name, according to Plato, means ‘the essence of things’, and since she is the essence of everything that moves and flows and has life and personality, she is herself the most anonymous, the least personal of all the goddesses. She was worshipped as the centre: the centre of the city, the centre of the house, even the centre of the centre of the world, the omphalos, the navel, at Delphi.

It seems to me that Hestia was a vital part of ancient Greek life, and that she was an ancient goddess even for the Greeks. (There is evidence she was worshiped by the Scythians, who called her Tabiti.) In her role as the protectress of the fireplace, the most important place in a house (bringing warmth in winter, warm food all day, light in the house) she is a direct link to Magna Mater, or Great Mother. It is clear that her pervasive role in everyday rites of the ancient Greeks is so taken for granted that few writers felt the need to describe them.

Rome’s Transformation

The Roman version of Hestia, the goddess Vesta, began by only being worshipped in the homes of Roman families as a household deity. She evolved, however, into a state goddess. Vesta’s worship goes back to the 7th century BCE, and it is believed that her worship was begun by Numa Pompilius, an early Roman king, after being brought to Latinum by Aeneas. In Rome, her priestesses embodied the very heart of the city and were honored above all others. Throughout the centuries, the flame of the Olympic torch has been carried in honor of Hestia.

The people of Rome built the Temple of Vesta in the Forum Romanum (Roman Forum), her only temple. Inside the round temple burnt the eternal fire, the symbolic hearth of Rome and all the Roman people. They believed that if the fire was extinguished it would have grave consequences for the Romans, and so six vestal virgins (the only ones allowed access to the temple) tended the fire at all times. Also inside the temple were kept the objects that Aeneas was said to have brought with him on his flight from Troy. There was no cult statue in the temple, although Augustus had a statue placed on an altar in his house on the Palatine Hill in 12 BCE.

The hearth of the Prytaneum, the headquarters of the standing committee of the senate, was regarded as the common hearth of the state; a statue of Hestia was in this hall, and in the senate-house was an altar of that goddess.
~ Aeschines On the Embassy 45: 2,45,n1

Vesta’s priestesses were called “Vestal Virgins” and were the only female priests within the Roman religious system. The vestal virgins were selected from distinguished patrician families at an age from three to ten and served for thirty years. The first ten years as novices, then ten years as vestal virgins proper, and at last ten years as supervisors. After the thirty years of duty they were free to leave the Temple, and to marry. Marrying a former vestal virgin was highly prestigious.

The vestal virgins were led by the senior member, the Virgo Vestalis Maxima and were under the protection of the pontifex maximus. The vestals vowed to live in chastity for the thirty years their tenure lasted. As compensation they had many privileges not given to ordinary Roman women. The vestals were not subject to the pater potestas of their father, they could handle their own property and write a legally binding testament, they had special seats in the front row at the games where women normally were relegated to the back seats and they were allowed to move around in the city in a carriage. Their persons were inviolable and sacred and their blood could not be spilt. If a person sentenced to death met a vestal virgin on his way to the execution, he was automatically pardoned.

The punishment for breaking the vow of chastity was death by burial alive—the only way to kill a vestal without shedding her blood—in a place known as the “Evil Fields”, or Campus Sceleratus, just outside the Servian Wall. Their lover would be flogged to death on the Comitum, the political center of Rome. Vestal virgins were executed, but very infrequently. The vestal virgins lived in the House of the Vestal Virgins on the Forum Romanum, near the Temple of Vesta. The order of the vestals was disbanded in 394 CE, when non-Christian cults were banned.

Bringing Hestia/Vesta Home

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.
~Homeric Hymn to Hestia~

Hestia was the goddess of the hearth fire, of family life, household activities (“housework” to some), harmonious interpersonal relationships, and hospitality. The work of the home is not done merely for the purpose of maintaining things but for maintaining relationships. She was the center on which the city’s solid foundation was built, and she manifested the become what one is, rather than what others shape us to be. It’s not surprising that when life and outside activities take over and dominate our existence, Hestia becomes the forgotten goddess. She is not about striving and straining, competing and succeeding; she is about being.

Stephanie Demetrakopoulos believes we should “resacralize Hestia” because to make her as culturally central and apparent as she was in ancient Greece would give public recognition to the worth of private household work done mostly by women. In doing so, we might recover the connections between mind and body, private and public, currently so separate.

Hestia’s fire warms, kindles, illuminates. ‘She sees all things by her light that never fails.’ She is the gathering point, the source and the center that sustains our place of return, ‘the builder of the house so that the soul may dream in peace….‘ When we are “off base,” “off balance,” or “out of sorts” we have fallen away from this goddess, who reminds us of her power to bring the soul into a state of dwelling, in accord with our truest nature.

The house that Hestia inhabits provides the boundaries for our soul, protecting it from the invasion of the outside world and from the chaos of everyday life. Hestia, the guardian of our homecoming, nourishes the depths of our being, leavens our lives and provides a center in which to contain our disconnected experiences. The essence of the forgotten goddess has a profound relevance for modern women caught in ‘doing’ and activity. In ‘doing,’ all of the time, we have forgotten how to ‘be.’

A Visualization To Invoke Hestia: Begin each day with this visualization: Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and relax. See yourself on a hearth, see the tiles and stone around you. From within your heart, visualize a flame that burns any anxieties, preoccupations or negative feelings into ash. Let the flame’s warmth expand until you become completely immersed in it, until you are the fire in the center of that hearth. Enjoy the warmth, protection and sense of security until you are ready to face the day. Say “I am the eternal flame, daughter to you, Hestia” and open your eyes.

Her festival is the Vestalia, which was observed from June 7 to 15, perhaps take that week off from your everyday activities and spend it honoring Hestia/Vesta. You might clean house, clearing clutter and rearranging furniture. Make a formal space clearing ritual by smudging everywhere (even the closets and under furniture) or opening all the windows and doors on a breezy day. Create a ritual to welcome Hestia into your home by laying a fire on the hearth (or cooking a special meal if you don’t have a fireplace). Begin to burn a votive candle daily, each time you are home.

Whether you are living alone, with your family, or with friends, Hestia reminds us to make our home a priority. Whether we live with other, or in a space we do not like, or have no space of our own, or live in such a busy whirlwind that your dwelling is not your home, merely a place to change clothes and sleep. Now is the time to come home.

Print References:
Hesiod, Theogony 453; Apollodorus 1.1.5
Homeric Hymn to Aprodite 22, 24, 30
Pausanias 2.35.2, 5.14.5, 5.26.2, 10.5.3, 10.11.3
Callimachus, Hymn to Delos 325, Hymn to Demeter 129
Diodorus Siculus 5.68
Homer, Odyssey 14.159
Eustathiuson Homer’s Iliad 735, Odyssey 1579
Pindar, Nemean Odes 11.1, 11.5, 11.6
Plato, Cratylus 401
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.65
Plutarch, Numa 11
Parthenius, Love Storis 18.

Web references:
http://inanna.virtualave.net/hestia.html
http://www.lunaea.com/goddess/love/hestia.html
http://sights.seindal.dk/sight/318_Vestal_Virgins.html
http://apk.net/~fjk/hestia.html
http://www.noteaccess.com/APPROACHES/AGW/Hestia.htm
http://ca80.lehman.cuny.edu/gallery/web/AG/close_to_home/hestia_essay.htm

There is a lovely shrine to Her on the web at: http://inanna.virtualave.net/hestia2.html

(this article appeared as “Goddess of the Hearth: Hestia/Vesta” in The Beltane Papers, Issue 30, Summer 2003)

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